Friday 15 December 2017

Tomás Ó Sé: Are the chasing pack getting any closer to Dublin?

Con O’Callaghan, seen here in action against Carlow, is one of the few new faces in the Dublin set-up this season. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Con O’Callaghan, seen here in action against Carlow, is one of the few new faces in the Dublin set-up this season. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Tomás Ó Sé

Golfer Johnny Miller once defined serenity as knowing that your worst shot is still going to be pretty good.

Dublin's footballers have been operating in that kind of mindset for the last couple of years, realising that, against most teams, they can under-perform and still win.

Now? I think things are getting more interesting for Jim Gavin and his men.

Dublin's situation reminds me of Kerry's three-in-a-row bid of '08. The goodwill towards us had evaporated. When I think back on playing Tyrone that year, it's only now I realise it was our fifth All-Ireland final in succession.

Outside Kerry, I'd say people were tired of looking at us. Nothing personal, just a natural desire among neutrals to see a change. To celebrate something new.

I believed we were in a fantastic place going into that final and we actually weren't far off beating Tyrone. We were definitely good enough to win that All-Ireland, but just came up against a team that out-fought us in the end.

Dublin manager Jim Gavin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Dublin manager Jim Gavin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

I'd say most people were genuinely happy for the Dubs when they won Sam in 2011, but now there's a certain goodwill fatigue setting in. And with that fatigue comes a desire to look for chinks in their armour.

That said, you have to ask yourself is the chasing pack getting any closer?

Surprised

Kerry? Despite the League final, it's still too hard to say. Mayo? Doesn't look like it. Tyrone? They certainly surprised me last Sunday in how they went for the Donegal jugular. I was really impressed with how they just blew them out of the water

Galway? Kildare? Come back into the real world now. Those two are rising, it's true, but neither is at that level yet. Not even close I'd say.

I'm hearing all kinds of rumour coming out of Dublin, but that's par for the course too. Trouble in the backroom, that kind of thing. Lads walking out because Gavin is too controlling, too robotic in personality. I take it all with a pinch of salt.

It takes me back to when Kerry won the All-Ireland in '09 and how the Ó Sé's supposedly weren't talking to Jack O'Connor. We were actually getting on fine with Jack, but I never bothered to deny the stories. I just ignored them. Because some of the stuff was so ridiculous, I just felt it didn't deserve the dignity of a comment.

Looking back, that was my favourite All-Ireland with Kerry, given it just demonstrated such mental strength. We had to come through the back door and head down a treacherous qualifier route, only finding our form at the quarter-final stage. It felt like we'd defied the odds.

Maybe it's a back-handed compliment to a team when you become subject to that kind of rumour. Maybe it's evidence that somebody somewhere feels the need to try and undermine what it is you're doing.

Gavin is a few games away from becoming the most successful Dublin manager of all time, so people probably feel compelled to go looking for cracks.

The issue I'd be more interested in exploring with Dublin is that, Con O'Callaghan apart, it looks as if they're going with roughly the same crew again. And factor in that they're now without Diarmuid Connolly until an All-Ireland semi-final.

I think the mental challenge of going back to the well again is going to test these men. Bear in mind, they haven't exactly been coasting to the recent All-Irelands - it's their self-belief and know-how coming down the home stretch that's been getting them there.

Gavin has had a lot to do with that.

But, face it, there's no way he can have kept an entirely happy camp over that stretch of time when so many players aren't getting game time. And O'Callaghan's elevation now has clearly bounced other forwards down in the pegging. They can't be happy. It would be un-natural if they were.

The Connolly circus won't have helped Dublin in my opinion.

I'm glad they didn't go down all the routes of appeal because, after a time, it just becomes embarrassing. This GAA culture of appealing, regardless. He was wrong to do what he did even if, in my opinion, the punishment doesn't fit the crime.

Actually, it's ridiculous. Twelve weeks for putting a hand on the linesman's chest when, in rugby, you'll get the same for eye gouging an opponent.

I accept you're not allowed touch an official, but is this fair?

That said, going through all the layers of appeal would have been pointless. The rule is black and white, my only argument being that it probably shouldn't be. There should be some little aspect of discretion available. Because I didn't regard Connolly's act as threatening in any way.

Still, one thing that strikes me about this is maybe it'll get Connolly to self-assess here. He needs to understand that he isn't unique in having opposition defenders yanking his tail. Are you honestly telling me the Gooch didn't have it during his career with Kerry? He spent 15 years taking cheap shots, but just did his business and walked away.

Michael Murphy with Donegal? Same story. Just gets on with it.

Those two men have been no less vital to their teams across the years than Connolly is to Dublin, but it seems to me they handled the pressure better.

Gavin now has the perfect opportunity to address that weakness with the St Vincent's man. No question, he can do things nobody else in the Dublin panel can do, but he can also, just as quickly, let them all down with a bang.

I do sympathise with Connolly. I mean I never intentionally started a fight, but I had a desperate reputation for a temper. If someone started on me, I couldn't help myself. Paul Galvin was the same. I see that in Connolly too.

Trouble is, it's a weakness. And when you're one of the game's marquee forwards, it's a weakness that needs to be addressed. Because people will just keep on pressing that button.

So, maybe this is Gavin's opportunity. Dublin will avoid the likes of Kerry or Tyrone until an All-Ireland semi-final but, when they do meet them, I very much doubt Connolly will walk straight back into the team.

Barbed wire

Dublin took little of any value from the Carlow game, that's for sure. Gavin gave O'Callaghan his Championship debut but, against a team virtually going to battle with sandbags and barbed wire, the young Cuala man just spent the day suffocated in heavy traffic.

If the game had been in Croke Park, he might have had a better chance of making some kind of impact, but in Portlaoisehe was swamped by simple force of numbers.

It might be different against Westmeath on the bigger field now, but I wouldn't hold my breath now.

The evidence of last year's Leinster final suggests to me that Westmeath's tactics tomorrow won't be hugely different from Carlow's. Because I can't remember a provincial final that was so predictable in its outcome.

The way Westmeath set up against the Dubs last year was a tacit admission that they believed they could not win. Depressing. So you park the bus and try to keep the score down? Limit the damage? I don't get that at all.

It seems to me that Dublin have tailored their season differently this year, at least that's the impression I took from their performances in the League. I think I'm right in saying that, for the first time under Gavin, they took a team holiday after Christmas.

I just get the idea they're taking a view that they've no real need to peak this side of August. Why wouldn't they, especially if no-one is really willing to lay a glove on them?

I don't doubt that they'll ramp the season up when they need to, so people looking for cracks are wasting their time at the minute. If the cracks are there, they won't show until an All-Ireland semi-final.

Only then will we be able to read the true appetite of the Philly McMahon's and Cian O'Sullivan's and James McCarthy's and Brian Fenton's and Ciaran Kilkenny's. They'll need to want it every bit as much this time as they wanted it last year because, if those lads are any way off, Dublin will suffer. Worse if they lose one of them to injury…

Appetite doesn't last forever, you see. Dublin are in the second half of their cycle in my opinion and, soon enough, they'll slip back into the pack. The gap is narrowing.

In fact, I'd go as far as to say that if Dublin win the All-Ireland this year, it will be Gavin's greatest achievement.

Right now, I'd say he's having to work harder to get inside his players' minds than he's ever had to work before.

The biggest threat to them, he knows, is complacency.

They'll recognise how the goodwill towards them is largely spent. If I'm honest, I wouldn't feel as strongly about them winning this All-Ireland as I did last year.

Remember they're trying to do something (three in a row) that nobody has done since the Kerry team of '86.

In other words, they're trying to get themselves onto the same pedestal as the greatest team of all.

Have no doubt, the heat will be turned up on them at some point and, when that happens, they're going to have to meet it head on.

Somebody will pull them out of their comfort zone. I'm not sure they'll be 100pc ready for that this time because what they have ahead of them is very, very difficult.

But looking for chinks in their armour in the meantime? The middle of June? Forget it.

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