Monday 27 January 2020

Frank Roche: 'New ball game for Dessie Farrell, but the same old issues for Dublin'

Con O'Callaghan. Photo: Sportsfile
Con O'Callaghan. Photo: Sportsfile

Frank Roche

The last time Dublin lost an O'Byrne Cup match in Longford, in 2016, they proceeded to blaze an unbeaten trail through the rest of the year.

That may offer some consolation to Dessie Farrell as he contemplates last Saturday's defeat at the death in Glennon Brothers Pearse Park. But one doubts he was even aware of the stat.

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While the new Dublin boss will analyse the tape to inform his thinking about possible squad additions from his group of weekend wannabes, it's likely this year's O'Byrne Cup was parked as soon as Longford's Darren Gallagher nailed his 74th-minute winner. And the real business will start tonight when Dublin's five-in-a-row crew reconvene.

Ultimately, there is but one ambition: Farrell's maiden campaign will be judged on the success or otherwise of their search for six. But that isn't to detract from all the other collective goals, in the short and medium term, that the new regime will set.

Starting with Kerry in Croke Park on Saturday week.

Challenging

This promises to be a challenging Allianz League for Dublin, primarily because they are already playing catch-up on their rivals.

It was much the same in 2019, albeit without the added complication of adjusting to a new manager - even a voice so relatively familiar as Farrell's.

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It was certainly different four years ago, the last time Dublin lost to Longford in January. Curiously, that was the very last O'Byrne Cup game directly overseen by Jim Gavin. For the next three Januarys, he passed the bainisteoir's baton to Paul Clarke.

The big difference between that Longford defeat in 2016 and last weekend was the composition of the losing line-up.

It included Stephen Cluxton, Jonny Cooper, Philly McMahon, James McCarthy, John Small, Denis Bastick, Dean Rock, Paddy Andrews, Cormac Costello and a young Con O'Callaghan. This was no callow development team - and still they lost by six points.

Yet by league launch day two weeks later, Dublin were ready: in a repeat of the previous year's All-Ireland, they overcame Kerry by two goals.

That set the trend for another dominant spring campaign. Dublin won nine matches on the spin, including the semi-final and final by double-digit margins, to claim Division 1 honours for the fourth year running.

This was followed by the county's first successful defence of Sam Maguire in 39 years, the original All-Ireland deadlock with Mayo their only minor blemish.

Thus, once you (quite rightly) airbrush pre-season fare from the records, they played 16 games in 2016, winning 15 and drawing just once.

For myriad reasons, even though Dublin are emphatic 4/6 favourites to retain Sam, it's hard to conceive them replicating that unvanquished run. That came in the midst of Gavin's record-breaking, 36-game unbeaten streak. This, many will argue, was peak Dublin.

However, as this team of history-makers has evolved, priorities have also shifted. It's not that Dublin ever went bald-headed for league baubles under Gavin; but it was obvious last season that the focus was even less than usual on February, and far more on August.

It was the first time they had lost three league games on Gavin's watch - against Monaghan, Kerry and Tyrone - and the first time they had failed to reach the final.

They resembled a team not overly consumed by the new offensive mark, presumably because it would not be in place for the championship.

Ultimately, despite a couple of late-summer wobbles (the first half against Mayo, the drawn All-Ireland final against Kerry), Dublin produced their best when it really mattered.

Now Farrell faces a similar challenge to Gavin 12 months ago. Once again Dublin are relatively late back from their team holiday, with barely a fortnight to prepare for the start of the League.

Last year, Gavin was without Cluxton for the first four rounds.

Now Farrell might be minus his veteran 'keeper for the entire league as he rehabs his shoulder injury.

Another shoulder injury shipped by O'Callaghan, warming up for UCD's Sigerson Cup win over Jordanstown, is a reminder that the life of an inter-county boss is never straightforward. Even when your team is Dublin.

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