Six years hard labour . . . and still no release
Doubts will dog Dubs until they translate Leinster dominance onto All-Ireland stage
WHOEVER defined frustration as a condition where a person suffers from ulcers, but still isn't successful might well have had Dublin footballers in mind.
Nominated every year as most likely to break the dominance of Kerry, Tyrone and Cork, the top trio since 2003, Dublin have always found somebody too good for them.
For five of the last six seasons, a team that beat Dublin went on to win the All-Ireland title, the exception being Mayo in 2006 (they lost the final to Kerry). That's no consolation to Dublin -- on the contrary, it merely adds to the frustration -- but it has also provided a huge incentive to drive on in search of the missing link.
Tomorrow, Dublin are seeking their sixth Leinster title in seven seasons -- since losing to Westmeath in the quarter-final in June 2004, Dublin's only other provincial defeat came against Meath last year.
It's a level of consistency which no other county in the country can match. Even Kerry, who have won four All-Ireland titles since 2004, lost to Cork three times in Munster in that period, while Cork lost five Munster championship games to Kerry in those years.
There's no disputing Dublin's consistency in Leinster -- indeed, it comes close to emulating the great squad of the 1970s which lost no provincial game between May 1974, when they began their historic run and July 1980, when they lost the final to Offaly.
However, that's where the similarity ends, as the Heffo-Hanahoe teams won three All-Ireland titles and were runners-up on three other occasions, whereas the current crop have failed to reach even one final.
The contrast between Dublin's dominance in Leinster and their brittleness outside has inevitably led to suggestions that they might be better off losing early on in the provincial championship and taking their chances in the qualifiers.
It's not an option any county will willingly embrace, but, having been forced to confront the big bad outside world earlier than usual last year after the collapse against Meath, Dublin warmed to the challenge -- so much so that, if it hadn't been for a discipline breakdown late in the All-Ireland semi-final against Cork, they might well have won the title.
The last six seasons really have been desperately confusing for Dublin. They had failed to win the Leinster title in either 2003 or '04 but with Meath, Laois, Kildare and Westmeath having lost altitude around '05, the territory was ripe for a Dublin takeover.
They seized the opportunity, taking control to such a degree that it seemed only a matter of time before they extended their empire to the All-Ireland landscape. However, they blew some great opportunities in the second half of the decade, with the '06 All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo probably the biggest miss of all.
Losing a commanding lead in the second half against a team that later showed major flaws in the final against Kerry left Dublin seriously traumatised.
They had surrendered a five-point lead against Tyrone a year earlier, but this was different. Mayo aren't especially noted for inspiring revivals, yet they out-scored Dublin by 1-6 to 0-1 over the final 25 minutes. It wouldn't be the last time that Dublin squandered a big lead.
Dublin reasserted their authority in Leinster in '07 and did well enough against Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final. However, it was back to trauma-land in '08 when Tyrone blitzed them in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
Manager Paul Caffrey was left in an awkward position throughout that period as he tried to figure out whether minor adjustments or a complete overhaul was required. Many in Dublin favoured the latter, but maintaining the No 1 position in Leinster made management less inclined to go for major surgery.
Pat Gilroy made some changes when he took over for the '09 season, but it wasn't until after Dublin were humiliated by Kerry in that year's All-Ireland quarter-final that he altered their basic philosophy, opting for a more labour-intensive strategy and increasing the emphasis on specialist defensive techniques.
It came unstuck against Meath in last year's Leinster semi-final, not because there was anything faulty with the drawings, but simply because the workers didn't adhere to the instructions, allowing great swathes of space to open up in front of the Dublin full-back line. The Meath attack flooded the area and helped themselves to 5-9.
It has been very different since then as Dublin's greater security arrangements have made life a whole lot easier for goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton.
With the exception of the league clash with Mayo in March, when Dublin conceded three goals, they have been a model of defensive economy. Even when Dublin lost to Cork in last year's All-Ireland semi-final and again in the league final in April, it was individual, rather than system, failures which undermined them as Conor Counihan's men built up a winning momentum on the home stretch.
And yet, for all the apparent improvement, doubts persist around Dublin which, given their record over the last six years, is understandable. What's more, they will remain until such time as they, at the very least, reach an All-Ireland final.
Dublin were in a largely similar situation in the early years of the '90s, usually in the top three for the All-Ireland betting, but always finding some opposition too good. However, there was a significant difference in that they reached All-Ireland finals in '92 and '94 and while they lost both, it provided a valuable bank of experience for the big push in '95.
After five seasons reaching All-Ireland quarter-finals, via Leinster, and one when the qualifiers took them there, Dublin look all set to return through the provincial route this year.
That's not in any way being disrespectful towards Wexford, but in terms of development, their squad seems some distance behind Dublin at this stage.
They are stepping up in class against a Division 1 side and while they managed it last year when they took Dublin to extra-time in the Leinster quarter-finals, history shows that top sides are always likely to be more vulnerable early on in the championship campaign.
The indications are that Dublin will win tomorrow and head straight for the front door. Not that reaching the quarter-final through the direct route bestows any great advantage. It means that Dublin can't meet Kerry, or the winners from Ulster (Donegal/Derry) or Connacht (Mayo/Roscommon), but there are some very big beasts trying to snarl their way through the qualifiers, including All-Ireland champions Cork and Tyrone.
Dublin made a breakthrough of sorts when they beat Tyrone in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final, but the big question is whether they can build the same level of consistency on the national scene that they have perfected in Leinster.
One defeat in 21 Leinster championship games since the start of the 2005 season is a remarkable record. Indeed, if Dublin fans were told back then that such provincial wealth lay ahead they would automatically assume it would be accompanied by All-Ireland riches.
Not so, and therein rests the great enigma that is present generation Dublin football. Whether the puzzle can be turned into a prize over the next two months remains to be seen.
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