Saturday 21 September 2019

Frank Roche: 'Dublin veterans are creaking but they're not over the hill yet'

Dublin's Michael Darragh Macauley. Photo: Sportsfile
Dublin's Michael Darragh Macauley. Photo: Sportsfile

Frank Roche

All it takes is one game - albeit, the most high-profile one in decades - to spark a wild outbreak of negative forecasts and even historical revisionism about this Dublin football team.

It's not that long ago since Jim Gavin was being lauded for his ability to regenerate his starting 15 even in the midst of recurring success.

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Then they 'only' drew with Kerry ... and now everyone wants to know how could that possibly happen?

We'll leave aside the few most critical factors (Dublin's numerical disadvantage for over 40 minutes; the surprisingly below-par contribution of several players who usually excel; Kerry's tactical boldness and individual talent) and raise another topic that has floated to the surface since last Sunday week ... Dublin's age profile, and is it a problem against a potential born-again superpower?

Our suspicion is this could become an issue in the coming years - but not necessarily this Saturday. Why? Because Dublin aren't an old team - more like a very seasoned one.

The combined age of the 15 Dubs who started nine days ago was 412 years - or an average of just under 27.5. A far cry from OAP standard.

The Kerry starters had a cumulative age of 365 - an average of 24.33, over three years per man younger.

That difference becomes closer to two years a man when you exclude the goalkeepers: Stephen Cluxton will turn 38 in December whereas Shane Ryan is still only 23.

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But these are basic measurements of questionable value. After all, in the drawn decider, Cluxton's reflexes were as sharp and his all-round performance as influential as anything we have seen from the Dublin skipper in recent seasons - proof that, when it comes to 'keepers, at any rate, age is but a number.

To further develop that point, two of the driving inspirations for Kerry during the second half were David Moran and, off the bench, Tommy Walsh. They were their only thirtysomethings to see game-time - Walsh is 31 and so too is Moran who, contrary to various All-Ireland pen pictures, is not a year older.

This venerable duo won Celtic Crosses back in 2009 - Walsh as a starter before his career switch to Aussie Rules, Moran as a late sub. The key point is that both are still hugely relevant, perhaps even pivotal, to Kerry's 2019 ambitions.

Applying the same logic, how can you suggest that Dublin are on their last legs when 31-year-old Mick Fitzsimons performed so capably, in difficult circumstances, having switched onto David Clifford?

However, a more forensic look at those Sky Blue birth certs hints at future trouble unless Gavin can blood suitably gifted replacements over the next couple of years. Midfield is one area - Michael Darragh Macauley (below) is 33 - but defence arguably more so.

Three of the starting defenders against Kerry now qualify as seasoned veterans: Jonny Cooper and James McCarthy are both 29, but we don't buy the theory that this explains their surprising travails in the company of Kerry's two marquee ex-minors, David Clifford (20) and Seán O'Shea (21).

Maybe it was one of those rare off-days; maybe their injury issues earlier this season have impacted ... maybe it's the fact that Clifford and O'Shea happen to be special players.

Delving deeper, the age profile of the Dublin bench - especially Gavin's defensive options - is a sign that further regeneration will be needed sooner rather than later.

Exposed Six of the 11 match-day subs are over 30: Kevin McManamon, Diarmuid Connolly, Philly McMahon and Darren Daly (all 32), Cian O'Sullivan and Paddy Andrews (both 31). Two more who didn't make the squad of 26 - Bernard Brogan (35) and Eoghan O'Gara (33) - are older still.

The fact that McMahon and O'Sullivan didn't see any action appeared telling, given the defensive issues exposed by Kerry - but yet another hamstring injury has been cited in the latter's absence.

Presuming O'Sullivan is fit for Saturday's replay, you'd assume there has to be a role for a player who, despite his recurring fitness issues, seems the Dublin defender best equipped to provide 'sweeping' cover in front of Clifford & Co.

In summary, what we have witnessed during this incredible unbeaten run of 36 championship matches is one of constant evolution overseen by Gavin, who promoted Brian Fenton in 2015, John Small in 2015/'16, Con O'Callaghan in 2017, Niall Scully in 2017/'18, Brian Howard and Eoin Murchan in 2018. But this year is different: no newcomer has established himself on the first 15.

Although many of the team leaders are now in their mid-20s, or even younger, further regeneration is likely to be a 2020 requirement.

But, for now, only Saturday counts.

Irish Independent

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