Series puts spring in Dublin's step
Dubs gaining huge advantage playing so many games at HQ as they turn Croke Park into a fortress, says Colm Keys
The concept of Dublin's Spring Series has been a powerful promotional tool and a commercial success for the GAA, given the crowds that have had the turnstiles clicking in Croke Park on those nights and afternoons over the last three seasons.
From the highs of the initial days of the series, the attendance graphs may be veering slowly downwards now.
On one of the coldest days in Croke Park for many years on Sunday last a crowd of just over 18,000, the lowest yet, was in the region of 10,000 down on what the more optimistic expectations were for a contest between two of the best supported teams occupying the top two positions in NFL Division 1.
But it was still by far the biggest crowd at any domestic venue on Sunday, three times what could have been accommodated at St Conleth's Park in Newbridge, the original venue which has been seriously compromised by much more stringent safety regulations.
And even if Dublin had home venue themselves and played it in Parnell Park, new safety standards that have affected all GAA grounds over the last two seasons would have limited the capacity in Donnycarney to just over 8,000.
So for those promotional and commercial reasons alone – factors in the birth of such a concept in the first place – the Spring Series continues to be a success.
For the Dublin football team, the spin-offs are even greater, however.
Last Sunday was their 10th group league game in Croke Park over the last three seasons, yielding a ninth victory.
There were even mitigating circumstances to their only defeat, last year's opening game against Kerry when they were just a matter of weeks back into collective training after their All-Ireland success the previous September.
It's a phenomenal record, made all the more impressive by the scoring returns they have delivered in those 10 games: 23 goals and 144 points, giving an average of 21.3 points per game, way above the norm for the time of year.
In all bar that Kerry defeat 13 months ago, they have scored at least one goal, and the style of some of their performances is even more telling than the results those performances have realised.
Croke Park's home comforts are nothing new to Dublin but with such a volume of games at Headquarters, where they can road test so many of their bright young prospects on a regular basis, a distinct advantage is being generated.
It's a dilemma that faces every other manager and county as they weigh up the prospects of their own exposure at the venue that matters most against Dublin's growing infallibility in the place.
To win big games you must be able to master Croke Park and its chief tenants.
Kildare manager Kieran McGeeney wasn't going to get caught up in such a discussion in the immediate aftermath of Sunday's 13-point defeat.
He clearly identified more problems than his opponents' growing familiarity with a venue.
And Kildare themselves are more fortunate than other teams in that they themselves have played three of their own home group league games there over the last two seasons, excluding last year's Division 2 final against Tyrone.
"You want to play in Croke Park. Croke Park wants us to play here, you play here. It's fairly simple," said McGeeney.
"Whoever pays the piper... that's the way the GAA works. I know they don't like to think of themselves as a professional organisation but it's whoever brings in the money and that's what inter-county football is all about."
The way Dublin are playing under Jim Gavin right now, it's hard to imagine how they wouldn't win on any surface anyway.
Rarely can a new manager have got off to such a perfect start as Gavin has, considering the players he has had to do without.
Dublin's four wins from four have been achieved by a cumulative margin of 33 points, with Gavin giving game time to 30 players.
Already the team that crafted their first All-Ireland title in 16 years a mere 18 months ago looks like it's being dismantled and moved on.
Gavin's philosophy of wanting his players to "express themselves" has so far paid rich dividends.
"There are still a few things that we need to close off on from that game, quite a lot of areas," he said.
"But the guys will look at that themselves, they know those areas – we have spoken about that already. There's still a lot of work to do.
"It's a work in progress, every session is a work in progress. Whether we get three wins or three losses, it takes a while for us to impart our ideas to them. It's all built around the first weekend in June."
The Spring Series and particularly its environs is accelerating that progress.