Monday 19 March 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: We should all stop worrying and learn to love the Dubs

Midfielder James McCarthy is congratulated by Dublin backroom team member Bernard Dunne (left) after the match. Photo: Sportsfile
Midfielder James McCarthy is congratulated by Dublin backroom team member Bernard Dunne (left) after the match. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Dublin are the greatest football team since Mick O'Dwyer's Kerry side. But it's a different kind of great. Before the Dubs played Kerry in the 2011 All-Ireland decider, there had been only six single-point finals in the previous 70 years.

Now we've had four smallest possible margin victories in the last seven. Dublin have won all of those games.

When Dublin beat Mayo in 2013, they became the first side in history to win two finals by a point. A quartet of close shaves can't be dismissed as a coincidence, any more than can Mayo's status as the first team to amass a hat-trick of one-point defeats.


O'Dwyer's Kerry were a juggernaut, their eight All-Irelands won by an average of almost eight points a game.

Dublin's final victories are entirely different, yet no less impressive.

When Kerry did find themselves embroiled in a close final, against Offaly, they blinked and were edged out. It was proof that even the greatest of sides can have 'one of those days'. Dublin never blink and they get it done no matter what the day is like. They are the competitive spirit made flesh.

Four of the closest All-Ireland final matches possible have made it clear that there is very little difference between Dublin and Mayo in terms of ability.

Yet, there is an ocean between them in terms of achievement, something never more clearly or cruelly demonstrated than in the denouement of this marvellous final.

Cillian O'Connor had a fairly difficult free to put Mayo ahead and hit a post with it. Dean Rock had a similar one and won the game with it.

That O'Connor, superb as so often before for Mayo, should miss a vital late free for the second year in a row might strike you as proof that sport isn't fair. But that's confusing justice with sentiment.

The last couple of minutes, after Rock's point, were like some cruel pageant designed to mock Mayo's horrible final history.

As Dublin kept ball, Mayo players closed them down unavailingly. They could see the object of their desires, sometimes it seemed within their reach, but every time they drew close it was whisked away before they could pounce. Tantalus would have sympathised.

It's amazing how controlled that final burst of possession football was. Often we've seen teams in that position make a mistake, concede a free or lose the ball. Yet Dublin never seemed in danger of turning it over.

Their sang-froid in those closing moments mirrored the calmness already exhibited in the final ten minutes. Time and again they methodically sought out the most profitable option.

In a game so close and tense even neutral spectators were consumed by nervousness, Dublin's coolness was remarkable.

They are a remarkable team. When games are this close late on, we normally say that the winners will be the team that wants it more. You might wonder how anyone could want an All-Ireland final victory more than this Mayo team, whose passion, always extraordinary, reached new heights yesterday.

Yet there is a sense in which Dublin did. Their players desire victory so badly they force themselves to keep their nerve and do the right things no matter how heated the atmosphere or desperate the situation.

This is a rare and precious quality. Alex Ferguson's Manchester United had it and so traditionally do the Kilkenny hurlers. But I don't think any team has ever epitomised grace under pressure the way these Dublin footballers do.

They deserve praise for it, praise undiluted by petty cavils about population numbers and financial might which imply there's something inevitable about these Dublin victories.

The truth is that a team which trailed by two points with eight minutes left to go in this year's final and has now won four deciders by a single point can't be described as unbeatable.

They refuse to be beaten, which is a different thing. Watching them prevail in the closing stages, I recalled all those National League matches this year when they rescued a result right at the death. Apparently unimportant at the time, those rallies helped hone Dublin's Houdini act for the day when it mattered most.

Luck has nothing to do with Dublin's litany of narrow escapes. But there is one sense in which the players are lucky, and that's in possessing Jim Gavin as manager.

Gavin is sometimes derided for his technocratic style in the same way that his players are occasionally criticised for their lack of interest in fist-waving, crest-thumping and publicly proclaiming their passion.

But Gavin's low-key approach is perfect for engendering the sense of calm which gives Dublin the edge over their rivals.

That style may have something to do with its exponent having spent much of his working life looking down at the earth from a great height.

An Olympian ability to distance himself from the hurly burly and see the bigger picture has made Gavin the ideal pilot for a county once noted for wilting rather than thriving under pressure.

What more could Mayo have done?

They mastered Ciaran Kilkenny, roasted Michael Fitzsimons, quietened Brian Fenton, wore down Con O'Callaghan, saw Jack McCaffrey go off injured and ended up scoring the joint highest total by a losing team in All-Ireland final history.

The problem is that Dublin are the Japanese Knotweed of Gaelic football. Curb them in one area and they'll spring up in another.


Tradition matters too: 34 years ago Barney Rock kept his nerve to execute a spectacular lob which turned out to be the difference between victory and defeat for Dublin against another troublesome team from the West.

His son's pressure free was cut from the same cloth and capped a performance which confirms Dean's place among the elite forwards of the game.

Forty-one years ago it was John McCarthy finding the net on final day as Dublin beat Kerry.

Yesterday John's son James' driving runs from deep in the second half put Mayo on the back foot, while his two exquisite points proved crucial.

In combining the workrate of a navvy with the touch of an artist, McCarthy perfectly embodies the new-model Dublin footballer.

But he and Rock and Gavin, a winner on the field 22 years ago, are also reminders that this new era is rooted in a rich and proud history.

Dublin's hearts are full, their eyes are clear and they can't lose. Gaelic football has never seen anything quite like these lads.

It's time to stop worrying and learn to love the Dubs.

Irish Independent

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