Wednesday 13 December 2017

Mind the gap...between Dublin and rest of Leinster

It's getting dangerously wide between Dublin and the rest of Leinster, with rivals showing no sign of shaking things up

Dublin’s players celebrate winning the Sam Maguire last September. Photo: Sportsfile.
Dublin’s players celebrate winning the Sam Maguire last September. Photo: Sportsfile.
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

If proof were needed of the extent of the dominance exerted by Dublin in Leinster football over the past nine years, it is provided by the accompanying table, which shows in graphic terms just how imbalanced the province has become.

"Not our problem," say Dublin in a totally understandable analysis of an era where their control of the neighbours is even tighter than in the 1970s, when 'Heffo's Heroes' stalked the eastern domain.

"It's our problem but we don't quite know how to sort it out," appears to be the attitude of Dublin's Leinster rivals. More worrying still, the gap between Dublin and the rest is widening rather than narrowing.

Dublin won six successive Leinster titles in 1974-'79 but missed out on the next three, whereas the current generation have already won eight of nine.

And at odds of 1/5 to make it nine out of 10 in July, it's pretty clear what the markets think of the 2014 campaign.

DISLODGED

In an 11-horse race, it's an incredibly tight price, but with second favourites Meath as far out as 7/1, there are clearly few takers for the view that Dublin will be dislodged.

Carlow and Wicklow (Kilkenny don't compete at senior level) are the only two counties not to have felt Dublin's chastising hand on their shoulders over the past nine seasons. That's down to the luck of the draw since there's no reason whatsoever why they should have done any better than the other eight.

If it weren't for Meath, Dublin would be seeking their 10th successive Leinster crown this year. The Royals broke the sequence when their five-goal blitz shattered the Dublin defence in the 2010 semi-final.

Three years earlier, Meath drew with Dublin in the quarter-final but apart from those two outbreaks of defiance, Dublin have reigned supreme winning 26 of 28 games.

And, for good measure, they inflicted further pain on Westmeath, Louth and Laois in All-Ireland qualifier and quarter-final clashes.

Dublin's rise to the summit as All-Ireland champions in 2011 brought some consolation to the rest of Leinster on the basis that they were competing against the best in the business, a view reinforced last year when Sam Maguire returned to the capital for the second time in three seasons.

However, there was no such excuse pre-2011 when, despite controlling Leinster for five of six seasons, Dublin failed to reach even one All-Ireland final.

The only logical conclusion was that Dublin were the dominant force in a province where the best were some way behind their rivals around the rest of the country.

That was deeply frustrating for Dublin supporters, but the big break eventually came in 2011 and it now looks as if the trophy haul will be further expanded over the coming seasons.

Dublin's advance to a stage where they are favourites to win the All-Ireland two-in-a-row for the first time since 1976-77 comes at a time when, with the possible exception of Meath, the rest of Leinster appears to be on a downward graph.

Kildare and Westmeath tumbled out of Division 1 last month, Louth dropped from Division 2, while Offaly and Longford were shown the exit gate from Division 3. Leinster had no county in the promotion zone.

It's all so very different to the start of 2005 (the year that launched the current wave of blue dominance) when Dublin had come off two seasons in which they had lost to Laois (2003) and Westmeath (2004).

Meath were slipping but would still have fancied themselves against Dublin, while Offaly were going quite well.

Kildare were struggling but, having enjoyed such a fruitful period in 1998-2000 when they won two Leinster titles, they would have felt it was a temporary lull. As it happened, it lasted quite some time before they made a revival under Kieran McGeeney.

UNCERTAINTY

However, it too failed to yield a provincial title – Kildare reached only one Leinster final during his six-year term – and there's now great uncertainty in Lilywhite-land after a league campaign which ended in relegation.

Dublin's dominance of Leinster is bad for the province for the simple reason that it makes their championship so predictable.

Okay, so Meath interrupted the flow in 2010, but has Leinster in the new millennium been reduced to a scenario where the only way Dublin will be beaten is if they have a very bad day and their rivals play above themselves?

Obviously, there's no easy solution to the variation in standards between Dublin and the rest of Leinster. Equally, there's no doubt that if it continues, the province's coffers will suffer as the public stay away from games where the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

That may appear overly simplistic but history has always shown that public interest grows in direct proportion to the competitiveness of competitions.

Leinster turnouts have held quite well in recent years, although the attendance of 54,485 at last year's Dublin-Meath final was well down on what would have been expected if there had been more uncertainty about the outcome.

Inevitably, Dublin's dominance raises the question of whether some of their earlier-round games should be played outside Croke Park.

It's an interesting debate, capable of generating fierce heat on either side, but it cannot address the central issue of Dublin's superiority over their rivals.

Meath have always been happy to play Dublin in Croke Park, where they have a good record. Offaly had no problems taking on Dublin in Croke Park in the early 1980s; nor did Laois in 2003 and Westmeath in 2004.

Playing in Croke Park is an advantage for Dublin but has nothing to do with standards in the other Leinster counties.

In this year's league, Leinster counties (other than Dublin) won only 12 of 50 games against rivals from Connacht, Ulster and Munster. Wicklow (four wins from six) were the only county in positive equity from their clashes with other provinces.

That's a sobering statistic and certainly not one which suggests that Dublin's rivals are making much headway in their bid to close what has become a very wide gap.

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