Saturday 24 March 2018

Peter Canavan: Dining at top table leaves you soft - Dubs beware

There's no doubt that winning softens any team -and the gap to the chasing pack is certainly closing

Dublin players look on after their Allianz League final defeat Kerry. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Dublin players look on after their Allianz League final defeat Kerry. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Peter Canavan

It's not that Dublin can't do it again, it's just that every time they go back to try and scale the mountain, it gets that little bit steeper.

When you win an All-Ireland title, everything is more difficult. The chasing pack focus in on you more. No team will have their videos more scrutinised than Dublin this year. They'll look at different ways to pick your game apart and, usually, they find a thread to pull on.

Just look at the record of defending champions of the last 30 years. Four teams - Meath, Cork, Kerry and now Dublin - have managed to defend Sam Maguire successfully in that time, meaning winning back-to-back secures you a place in a very elite group. And that puts Dublin's mission this year - securing a three-in-a-row - in context.

The case against Dublin is hardening because the rest have shown they are getting closer. Mayo almost managed to beat them in the drawn final last year and, in the process, managed to shut down a usually rampant Dublin attack.

There were more signs of the gap narrowing in the spring. You can argue that Dublin hadn't as much work done as the rest but Tyrone, Donegal and Kerry all held them to a draw. And then Kerry beat them in the league final.

Now, on paper, there's no doubt Dublin have the panel to win another one and they certainly have the manager. But it's the little intangibles that make the year after success that little bit more difficult. And after two winning seasons in a row, Jim Gavin will need to pull another rabbit from the hat, like he did with Brian Fenton a couple of seasons ago, because medals and long seasons can leave legs heavy.

I liked the look of Ciaran Reddin in the league final. He's been around for a couple of years but I'd say there's no better place to be hothoused than Dublin training. He's robust and mobile and is a good kicker. From what I've seen, Con O'Callaghan looks the real deal too. He's a defender's nightmare, strong and direct and I'm certain he'd have at least a year's championship football under his belt in any other county.

Another example of their strength in depth is that Aaron Byrne, the player of the year from the U-21 championship, isn't part of the set-up. How many other counties could have the U-21 player of the year outside their panel?

So they'll need their panel players lighting fires under the lads in possession of the jerseys because Dublin's biggest enemy is a kind of unconscious complacency that comes with winning.

I retired after Tyrone won Sam in 2005 but I remember the opening game of the following year's Ulster Championship when we didn't manage a score until three minutes into the second half against Derry. Now we had injures that day but we had gone soft too. Ambition was dulled by success.

We went into 2004 as All-Ireland champions too but that can be written off in terms of it being an example of a team trying to defend Sam as the passing of Cormac McAnallen meant our minds were on everything except football that year.

But when we went back in 2005, we had a collective focus and that was Cormac. And I have no hesitation in saying it brought us back to the top. We trained harder as a unit, went further for each other. Players were doing five minutes extra in the gym rather than five minutes less.

Still, there's no doubt dining at the top table leaves you soft. It can lead to more nights out and endorsement deals. And no one gets more of those sort of offers than the Dublin footballers.

Admittedly, they have handled that kind of thing well to this point but the more you win, the more offers there'll be. And if it's not managed carefully that sort of stuff can cause internal strife.

That's the kind of thing Jim will have to guard against. Sometimes managers will try and manufacture some sort of cause to focus minds. It might be a harmless remark in the media that can be made into something more.

But I do think they'll need something to hold on to because I expect them to get to August with little or no trouble.

They certainly won't be tested when they open their Leinster Championship against Carlow tomorrow night. The sternest examination they'll get will likely be a Leinster final against maybe Kildare or Meath. But they'll still come into the knockout stages relatively untested.

And that's not an ideal way for a team who have won so much to reach the business end because everyone else has been making improvements. Kerry looked better equipped to deal with Dublin in the league final than they have been for a number of years.

Mayo have taken a bashing in the last few weeks and while they still have something to prove on the biggest occasion, they will be easy to motivate. Then you have Donegal and Tyrone.

Tyrone were too good for Derry last weekend. The game was almost a carbon copy of last year with Tyrone playing in the same way and getting the exact same result - an 11-point win - and I still expect them to be in the shake-up.

The same can be said of Donegal but their biggest improvement this year has come from the added depth in their panel. Look at last year's Ulster final. Anthony Thompson was taken off and brought back on that day, meaning Rory Gallagher wasn't happy with what he could introduce. That has changed.

And with the footballers and age profile both those sides have, they could take out one of Kerry, Dublin or Mayo on a given day.

So questions abound for Dublin and the challenges are stacking up. They've overcome so many of them in recent seasons that they might be caught somewhere along the line.

But if they can jump all the hurdles between now and the end of September, they'll be worthy of the place in history that winning three titles in a row will give them.


Subscribe to The Throw-In,'s weekly Championship podcast, for the best in GAA discussion and analysis every Monday, with some of the biggest names in football and hurling from Joe Brolly, Tomás Ó'Sé, Brendan Cummins and John Mullane.

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