Monday 23 October 2017

Martin Breheny: Are Dubs just the best of a bad lot in Leinster?

Sky Blues' utter dominance of their province is bad news for the GAA – and it's not helping the All-Ireland aspirations of Jim Gavin's squad either

1 June 2013; Paul Flynn, Dublin, speaks to his team-mates as they huddle togeter before the game. Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship, Quarter-Final, Dublin v Westmeath, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
1 June 2013; Paul Flynn, Dublin, speaks to his team-mates as they huddle togeter before the game. Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship, Quarter-Final, Dublin v Westmeath, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

IF Dublin supporters got a glimpse of the future at the start of the 2005 All-Ireland championships and saw the Bill Delaney Cup spending seven of the next eight winters in the capital, they would have thought that Sam Maguire would be similarly entertained on at least a few occasions.

After all, six successive Leinster titles in the 1970s yielded three All-Ireland wins, a haul which would have been considerably higher if Kerry hadn't chosen the second half of that decade to unleash the most lethal force Gaelic football has produced. Dublin matched Kerry 3-3 in All-Ireland titles (Heffo's men also lost three finals) in 1974-79 before Mick O'Dwyer's record-breakers went on to win five of the next seven titles (1980-86).

When Cork interrupted Kerry's dominance by winning the 1983 Munster final, it was Dublin who availed of the break to nip in and collect another All-Ireland. It concluded 10 seasons in which Dublin won four All-Ireland titles and played in nine finals.

Fast-forward to 2005-2012, a period in which Dublin's only defeat in Leinster came against Meath in 2010. The only other minor blemish was a draw against Meath in 2007, which Dublin put right with a four-point win in the replay.

REMARKABLE

It leaves Dublin with a remarkable record of 24 wins, one defeat and one draw from 26 Leinster games since the start of 2005.

It's by far the best strikerate from all four provincial championships. And since Dublin are 1/3 favourites to complete another provincial treble next month, it's clear how convinced the markets are that their Leinster rivals aren't up to the task of breaking the monopoly.

Even the single defeat (v Meath 2010 semi-final) Dublin have suffered over the past eight years was a freak result (5-9 to 0-13) on a day when they suffered a second-half systems failure in defence, conceding three goals in 18 minutes after playing solidly for 40 minutes.

Subsequent events underlined the unreliability of that result as Meath were extremely lucky to beat Louth in the Leinster final. Louth later lost to Dublin by seven points in the qualifiers, while Meath were easily beaten by Kildare in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

And, as if to make a convincing argument that they really were the best in Leinster that year, Dublin came within a point of Cork, the eventual All-Ireland winners, in the semi-final.

While Dublin's dominance of Leinster has never been more pronounced than over the last eight years, the All-Ireland yield has been miserably low. One title and one appearance in the final is way below what would have been expected from Leinster champions.

Even then, there was a high degree of good fortune about Dublin's 2011 success which was made possible to a large degree by Kerry's inexplicable mood swing in the final seven minutes of the final. For reasons unknown, they abandoned the progressive policies that had taken them four points clear in favour of a defensive closedown which produced a calamitous collapse.

Dublin, to their credit, accepted the invitation to attack Kerry and Kevin McManamon's memorable goal made the crucial difference, which produced a winning initiative.

The victory ended 16 years of All-Ireland misery for Dublin, but it didn't answer the obvious question – why has their dominance in Leinster not yielded more All-Ireland glory? At the very least, why hasn't it resulted in more appearances in the All-Ireland final?

The obvious conclusion is that, Dublin apart, the standard in Leinster has been moderate for a long time. That view is supported by overall championships results, which show that no Leinster county reached the All-Ireland final in the 2002-2010 period.

It was the longest period in championship history without a Leinster representation in the final.

Nor did Leinster enjoy any National League (Division 1) success between 1998 (Offaly) and this year (Dublin).

Leinster's becalming, apart from Dublin's gritty determination to create waves, has created an unusual situation in the province. Dublin's dominance inevitably raised expectations in city and county, but, quite often, they were based on shaky foundations since the quality of opposition in Leinster was, at best, average.

Being top of that lot guaranteed nothing in the wider world while, at the same time, leaving Dublin not knowing quite what to do in terms of bridging the divide.

Should they dismantle squads that won Leinster titles, often quite comfortably, because they hadn't delivered at All-Ireland level or persist with them and hope they grew into the bigger challenges? It was a dilemma that prevailed for quite a long time.

Dublin's 2011 success was meant to change everything. Having beaten Tyrone, Donegal and Kerry once they progressed beyond Leinster, it was generally assumed that they had broken through a huge barrier.

That did not prove to be the case, for while they retained the Leinster title last year, before further tightening their grip on the province's power levels by beating Laois in the All-Ireland quarter-final, they were sucked back into the insecure ways of old against Mayo in the semi-final.

Defeat marked the end of Pat Gilroy's managerial reign, followed by the arrival of Jim Gavin, complete with a successful pedigree as U-21 boss.

He immediately made it clear that winning the league was the first target, correctly concluding that after slipping back into old ways (they won only two of seven league and championship games against non-Leinster opposition last year), it was important to put down an early marker.

He achieved that when Dublin won the league for the first time in 20 years last April. Of course, Gavin knows that his term will be judged on All-Ireland rather than Leinster success. To make that happen, he needs to inject greater consistency into the squad, once they venture outside Leinster, assuming of course they get there as champions.

His predecessors regularly discovered that the Leinster championship didn't harden Dublin to the degree required once they come up against powerhouses from other provinces. Yes, they managed it in 2011, but if Dublin are to be a real success story, they need to do it on a consistent basis.

All of this may seem disrespectful to other Leinster counties, but they will only be a position to complain when they loosen Dublin's grip on the provincial titles. With the exception of 2010 – complete with its freakish tendencies– they have been unable to do that since Westmeath plotted their way to a first provincial title in 2004.

In a sense, the Leinster championship has lumbered Dublin with more questions than answers. It has been the equivalent of an athlete running against opposition whose times are consistently inferior. It's fine at the time, but does little to help preparations for the bigger challenges ahead.

DOMINANCE

With the exception of Kildare, there's little sign that Dublin will have much to worry about in Leinster over the next few years. As for the state of Kildare's readiness to break Dublin's dominance, that will emerge tomorrow.

For Kildare's sake, it's crucial that their resistance remains solid all the way, giving them a realistic chance of upsetting the odds. And even if Kildare are to lose, it's vital that they show they are right on Dublin's heels. It's equally important that Meath and Wexford suggest likewise in the first semi-final.

The last thing Leinster football needs is a further extension of Dublin dominance, achieved with relative ease. It's actually not in Dublin's best interests either.

Irish Independent

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