Friday 23 August 2019

Tomás Ó Sé: 'Ask me to pick who might bring the pressure of history down on Dublin and Tyrone would be my choice'

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Closing in: Dublin’s Paul Mannion is surrounded by Tyrone’s Pádraig Hampsey, left, and Tiernan McCann during last year’s All-Ireland final. Tyrone look a better balanced team this year. Photo: Sportsfile
Closing in: Dublin’s Paul Mannion is surrounded by Tyrone’s Pádraig Hampsey, left, and Tiernan McCann during last year’s All-Ireland final. Tyrone look a better balanced team this year. Photo: Sportsfile

Tomás Ó Sé

An old Con Houlihan line comes to mind when I think of Jim Gavin today and the proximity of his Dublin team to history.

At the height of Kerry's power under Mick O'Dwyer, Con wrote of the Waterville man that he'd "sit in the dug-out like a woman who has a big family scattered around Britain and America and gets money in every post."

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3 May 2019; Dublin manager Jim Gavin poses for a portrait during the launch of the Leinster GAA Senior Championships at the Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel, Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
3 May 2019; Dublin manager Jim Gavin poses for a portrait during the launch of the Leinster GAA Senior Championships at the Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel, Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile

The Dubs are odds-on to win five-in-a-row and it's hard to make a convincing case for anybody stopping them along the way. But, face it, we're making our judgements in a vacuum of information. And will be for the next two months at least.

Because the real football championship doesn't start until July.

So even though Dublin could be on the cusp of GAA history, the here and now is all about hurling. The TV schedule tells us where the early-season interest resides and it doesn't lie.

When you think about it, two counties out of Limerick, Cork, Tipperary, Waterford and Clare will be gone from the hurling championship by June 16. Similarly, one from Galway, Kilkenny, Wexford and Dublin.

The new league style of provincial championship gave us something exhilarating last year and, like it or not, left football in the shadows.

It was a clear reaction to football's 'Super 8s', but inadvertently managed to shine a really unflattering light on how we get to the business end of the race for Sam Maguire.

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Think about this. In the Munster football championship now, you have Kerry (Division 1), Clare (Division 2), Cork and Tipperary (Division 3) and Waterford (Division 4) as the 'contenders'. Representatives from four different league divisions. That's just not tenable as a championship.

Broadly speaking, the National League is now the most authentic competition we have in football.

Connacht does offer interest in terms of a potential Galway-Mayo final on June 16, or Roscommon carrying a puncher's chance of taking out the latter in the semi-final. I suspect James Horan is determined to reset the balance of power in the West after Galway's recent dominance, but - at least - there are three teams in that relationship.

I'd be genuinely interested in a potential Tyrone-Donegal semi-final in Ulster too.

But after that? I'll have an interest in seeing how the likes of Meath and Armagh are shaping up in their respective championships, but more so to monitor their long-term development than with any expectation of either of them winning silverware.

Question

Bottom line, everything about this football season brings us back to, essentially, the same question. How will Dublin deal with the breath of history on their necks? There's a lot of talk about whether or not Rory O'Carroll will now slot in at full-back and the rumours about a Diarmuid Connolly return just aren't going away.

But I'm beginning to think these are, essentially, minor issues now.

If Jim Gavin (pictured) wants O'Carroll back on the edge of the Dublin 'square' he has plenty of time to bed him in. Likewise Connolly as an impact sub. Personally, I believe O'Carroll will play in this championship and, given the unflappable temperament of the Kilmacud Crokes man, I don't see it as a gamble.

But it'll be mid-July before Dublin really start to deal with history.

Then and only then will we begin to understand where their heads are at. Their loss of three games in the league has, undoubtedly, set some people thinking that they could be beginning to crack. I'm sure those defeats weren't in Gavin's grand plan, but neither will they have given him sleepless nights.

That said, he faces a very different challenge now to, say, what O'Dwyer was facing with Kerry in 1982.

Back then, I suspect it was easier to shut out the talk of history. There was obviously no such thing as social media, so it was a relatively simple thing to avoid newspapers or turn a deaf ear to GAA chat on radio or television. Now, that chat is all but bubbling up from the ground. It's everywhere around you.

And, if you set about trying to avoid it, chances are you're going to end up feeling hunted.

Maybe Dublin's biggest strength under Gavin has been an ability to have a clear, singular focus on every game they play. They never look side-tracked or distracted. There's a sense of tunnel-vision to what they do and, if they can protect that over the coming months, they'll be a long way down the road to immortality.

But at some point they will have to embrace all that talk of history too rather than run from it. Not now. Not in May. But it's going to be there through July and August and, realistically, nothing they do will have the effect of silencing it.

Dublin will have to find a way of embracing that, of actually taking energy from it.

Out on the field, in the heat of battle, five-in-a-row won't really to come to bear. Not this side of an All-Ireland final anyway. When I was chasing three-in-a-row with Kerry in '08, the biggest psychological challenge we faced was trying to overcome the building dynamic of our relationship with Tyrone.

That was the beginning and the end of it for us.

So I can't honestly say I understand the challenge coming Dublin's way. But I do know they will reach some point of crisis in this championship, a point that the noise of the crowd will communicate, one where their main men are struggling for traction and simply trying to survive will become the only thing in their heads.

When that happens, when the momentum of a game turns against them, that's when we'll see how well set Dublin really are.

Breaking momentum is the biggest challenge for any team. And that's why Dublin's only interest will be in the here and now. In dealing with what's in front of them. I don't doubt that'll make for some fairly bland and boring quotes coming from the camp. Maybe for repetitive, almost robotic use of language.

But they have to be that way.

Because Gavin is probably thinking right now that the biggest danger to Dublin is themselves. On paper, yes, the likes of Kerry, Mayo, Galway and Tyrone will all have people making cases for them.

Kerry are definitely improving and I find it interesting that last year's goalkeeper, Shane Murphy, has now left the panel.

Shane Ryan looks the new man in possession and I suspect that that's chiefly down to his kick-outs. Goalkeepers are no longer judged on their shot-stopping ability, but on how well they deliver a ball.

For Kerry to be seriously competitive, they've got to retain possession better. Peter Keane knows that.

But I'm not really convinced they're ready to win an All-Ireland. The loss of Peter Crowley for the season is a huge blow defensively, but my bigger worry for Kerry is their readiness to deal with blanket defence.

They'd love a crack at Dublin because it would be a proper football game. They'd really fancy their chances.

But against Galway? Against Tyrone? Against Monaghan? I'm not entirely convinced.

That's my worry for Kerry. They mightn't get that shot at Dublin because someone else will take them out along the way. The Munster Championship won't prepare them for the Super 8s just as Leinster won't challenge Dublin.

But the Dubs are so much further down the development path than Keane's men, it doesn't matter to them. Kerry need to accumulate experience more than any of Dublin's other so-called 'challengers', so a nothing provincial championship is the very last thing they need.

Look at what happened them against Galway last year. A car crash.

That Galway group has serious potential, but they've a decision to make. Or, more specifically, Kevin Walsh has a decision to make. Are they going to commit more men forward in the big games and really have a go this time?

Against the Dubs last year, they never really backed up a great start. They looked like a team unconvinced that they could win.

Mayo haven't gone away and while a lot of people are talking about the younger lads who've come through in the league, equally impressive has been the form of older ones like Aidan O'Shea. There's a core of battle-hardened players still there, men who know and relish the thrust of championship football.

They, basically, bullied Kerry out of the league final and, yet, our lads could have drawn that game in the 70th minute. Given their physical advantages that day, Mayo should really have blown Kerry away. But they didn't. If that's not a worry for Horan, it should be.

Tyrone actually excite me, because they look to have changed philosophy on a fundamental level. Suddenly the likes of Peter Harte and Mattie Donnelly are committing further forward.

There looks a better balance to the team. Mickey Harte believes they have better maturity around the middle of the field to facilitate that. I agree with him.

Tyrone are playing more direct football this year and it's making them more dangerous. But, with the way they work a ball out of defence, I can still see them getting turned over by a good team with a high press. A team like Dublin.

Look, right now it's impossible to know how anybody will be going in August, but ask me to pick a team that might just bring the pressure of history to bear on Dublin and Tyrone would probably be my choice.

But it's only May. The real championship won't be starting for some time.

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