Sunday 25 February 2018

REVEALED - The only team to beat All-Ireland champions Dublin this summer

Paul Mannion, left, and Diarmuid Connolly were on opposing teams last week
Paul Mannion, left, and Diarmuid Connolly were on opposing teams last week
Frank Roche

Frank Roche

IT was the only match Dublin would lose all summer ... or, at least, the only one we know of.

On the weekend before Sunday’s tumultuous date with three-in-a-row destiny, Jim Gavin’s ‘As’ took on the ‘Bs’ in a final practice game at their St Clare’s training base.

And the ‘probables’ lost.

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Some established starters are said to have found themselves on the back foot to decorated ‘possibles’ intent on winning their place back. Rumour had it there was skin and hair flying too.

“They gave us a good rattle,” James McCarthy confirmed. “They got well stuck into us.

“I suppose you tip the hat to the guys, they’re trying to prepare us for what is coming. There was plenty of needle.”

Spiky?

“A spiky enough game, if you like. Yeah, they clipped us by a point.”

It sounds, in retrospect, like ideal preparation for the controlled ferocity that Mayo brought to the All-Ireland table.

Even if McCarthy didn’t immediately spy the positives.

“You’re in a foul humour for a few days after. You’re kind of thick about it. But it helps you to prepare ... preparation is massive at this level,” he said, citing a surge in the intensity of recent training matches, with all contenders back from injury and chasing a match-day spot.

He was marked in the most recent match by Michael Darragh Macauley, 2013 Footballer of the Year, a decorated veteran who didn’t see a minute of action in either the semi-final or final. “A wrecking ball. Not enjoyable!” he assured.

Four years on, McCarthy now appears to be Dublin’s premier contender for player of the year glory, and likely to vie with Mayo’s Andy Moran for that mantle.

The Monday morning after an All-Ireland triumph is not the right time to launch inquiries about the identity of Dublin’s most recent A versus B line-ups.

Yet it’s fair to surmise that the 15 who took the field against Mayo were in the former camp, with one likely exception - we understand that Eoghan O’Gara would have started in the ‘B’ attack alongside such luminaries as Paul Flynn, Diarmuid Connolly, Kevin McManamon, Bernard Brogan and Cormac Costello.

How most other Sam Maguire pretenders would die for a forward line like that - from the start.

And yet Dublin were pushed to the very brink on Sunday by a team that has shown a consistent capacity to disrupt their forward fluency and leave them grasping for a foothold.

Speaking at the Gibson Hotel, the morning after the glorious mayhem before, McCarthy was reflecting on the most physically intense game he can possibly ever remember.

“I’m wrecked. My calf, my hip, my shoulder, my eye,” he revealed, as if reading from a patient’s A&E chart.

“They hit us there with everything in the first half and we were on the back foot. We were hanging in there, to be honest with you.

“They’re just hugely physical games, not just hitting-wise, but running-wise. Everything’s notched up.

“They seem to raise their game to a different level when they’re playing us each year, I don’t know what it is exactly.

“We probably had it easy all summer but you don’t be long about finding out what the level is you have to get up to.”

McCarthy could empathise with Mayo’s plight as they chase the All-Ireland prize that continues to tease and torment them. But there is no room for sympathy when a title is on the line.

“We’re at that stage where we want to be the best team. We have that hunger as well, I think people maybe underestimate our bit of bite,” he suggested.

“We all came together seven or eight years ago. I suppose our biggest strength, without sounding clichéd about it, is that we’re a very tight group who came through those tough losses earlier on.

“Obviously we had a very tough loss (against Kerry) in the league final this year, that was very hard to take. It helps when you’re together through those tougher times.

“I suppose our biggest strength is that different guys can step up at different times.

“I don’t think it’s by chance we win these games by a point. We’ve won too many of them at this stage to call it luck.”

Trailing by one at the start of the second half, Dublin were early back onto the pitch, awaiting Mayo’s arrival, realising they would have to deliver more to retain their crown.

McCarthy’s first mission? To stop Aidan O’Shea doing what O’Shea invariably does, win the throw-in.

“It was in our head in the first half to make sure he didn’t win it – and he won it!” the Ballymun man reminded.

“All our plans all week didn’t go the way they were meant to be. At half-time … I wasn’t happy out there in the first half, and we just said we’d really have a cut at this.”

McCarthy duly won the throw-in - and a free. The ball was worked to Paul Mannion and he pointed sweetly on the turn. Just 15 seconds had elapsed.

It didn’t prove the winning and losing of the final, by any stretch, but it laid down a marker.

By close of play, McCarthy would have his fifth All-Ireland medal in the bag. By night’s end, he would be the Sunday Game choice for Man of the Match.

Just how much more can he - and Dublin - achieve?

“Let me enjoy this one for a few weeks,” he pleaded. “We’ll see.”

But one person who definitely will enjoy it is his famous father.

A three-time All-Ireland winner in the ‘70s, John McCarthy is now proudly looking up to his son’s handful of Celtic Crosses.

“He lives football now. He’s retired and plays golf twice a week and annoys me about football!

“That’s his life at the moment,” James explained.

“Ah no, he’s delighted. He gets very nervous the week of games and stuff. He’s happy out now, it’s been a roller-coaster.”

Where it will eventually stop, who knows..

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