Monday 23 April 2018

Tomás Ó Sé: Dublin look determined to blow records out of the water as they prepare to complete three-in-a-row


Dublin and Tyrone players in the parade. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Dublin and Tyrone players in the parade. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Tomás Ó Sé

In the movie, 'Creed', Rocky Balboa sings the praises of his late father to the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed.

"Yeah, he was great," he tells Adonis Johnson. "Perfect fighter. Ain't nobody ever better!"

"So how did you beat him?" the son asks. "Time beat him," answers Rocky. "Time, you know, takes everybody out. It's undefeated."

That's pretty much how it feels with Dublin's footballers now, as if the only truly formidable enemy on their radar can be Father Time. Eventually, they will run out of road as every great team does.

But it strikes me that nobody's really talking about the three-in-a-row. Dublin under Jim Gavin have always been firmly in control of the message. I'd say for journalists their press conferences must be like listening to piped music in a health spa. The message is almost 'relax, chill out, close your eyes...'

That's a talent in itself and it seems to me it's managed to turn the possibility of three-in-a-row into something almost unremarkable.

When I think back on our failed bid to reach that mark with Kerry in '08, our mindset was very much to stay in our own cocoon.

To keep the potential for hype at arms' length. In the end, Tyrone were just too strong for us, but I can't say our defeat had anything to do with the pressure of history.

Anyway, the Kerry boys who'd been striving for five-in-a-row in '82 were still around, so we weren't exactly looking to put ourselves up on any unique pedestal.

We'd won in '04, '06 and '07, but our place in the game was still some distance off Micko's crew, a team that had taken eight titles in 12 summers.

I suspect this Dublin regime has little interest in talking about three-in-a-row; if anything, their ambitions fly much higher than that. They probably believe they can follow the arithmetic of Kerry '75-'86 or, just as validly, Kilkenny hurlers in '00-'15.


By that I mean there's a confidence in them that this team, or some variation of it, is going to be around for the foreseeable future. That, no matter what happens next weekend, Dublin aren't going away.

I'd love to have played against them because I believe they have a mark of greatness. The improvement in them seems constant, the relentless tweaking of defensive systems, the murderous transitioning game, the almost machine-like comfort with which they face any opposition's style.

What they did to Tyrone was awesome. It told us they can change almost anything within the team at any time. That they have become unflappable. I read Sean Cavanagh's quotes about them, how it felt to him as if the Dubs were "10pc stronger, faster and fitter" than a Tyrone team many of us believed were coming to Croke Park on a mission. That's saying something.

The way they can deploy Jonny Cooper and Cian O'Sullivan as sweepers, the way they can adjust kick-outs in an instant, the way they attack from every angle, it looks like they've got every scenario covered.

I remember one moment in that Tyrone game, Dublin had the ball over in the Canal-end corner of the Cusack Stand. And I was watching Kevin McManamon, standing on the '45', a virtual statue. Not a budge from him. And for about 30 seconds, Dublin were just recycling the ball, keeping possession. I was trying to figure out what McManamon was doing when next thing, without even looking, Paul Mannion flicked the ball across to him.

He knew exactly where McManamon would be and, more importantly, McManamon knew the ball was coming. Next thing, Tyrone's defence was a screeching, over-stretched fire-house. It looked spontaneous, but I'm sure it wasn't.

Everything about them now seems to express a re-setting of standards. They're taking everything to another level.

Look at the number of sponsors' names in the backdrop when they do interviews. They've become a corporate brand that almost has commercial manager Mossy Quinn fighting off potential backers. Companies want to be associated with this Dublin team.

We always indulged a conceit in Kerry that we were the Manchester United of Gaelic football. Our tradition still puts us on the highest pedestal but, now, Dublin are the commercial draw.

There's a uniformity through the age-grades about how they play football, hence the Con O'Callaghans come through to senior in a process that feels seamless. They blend in immediately.

And that's something that worries me about Kerry. Think of the spotlight on our outstanding minor David Clifford and the inevitable fuss that will follow him into a senior jersey.

O'Callaghan stepped into an environment in which he knew he could afford to make mistakes, in which the players around him were so street-wise they'd take the heat no matter how he played.

So much is being made of Kerry pushing for a fourth All-Ireland minor title in a row, as if this is a written guarantee of success at senior. But we didn't win a minor All-Ireland between '94 and 2014 and yet, in that stretch, won seven senior titles, contesting 11 finals.

The main point of the minor grade is that, each year, it gives you two or three potential senior players. Winning cups becomes a bonus. O'Callaghan was allowed slip into Dublin's senior set-up this year without any hullabaloo, but imagine the pressure on Clifford once he becomes a Kerry senior?

One of the great strengths this Dublin side has is that the life experience of men like Stephen Cluxton, Bernard Brogan and Paul Flynn means the hunger of the group doesn't taper. These fellas won't have forgotten what it was like being hammered by Kerry in '09. I don't doubt that they're the guys who set the temperature in that dressing-room.

In that respect, Gavin lets much of what they do be player-driven. But the one non-negotiable is Dublin's mastery of the basics. They don't fumble, they don't get out-numbered where it counts and, mostly, they don't kick stupidly.

In my view, Cluxton is probably the most important GAA player of the last 40 years. He's essentially changed the way teams set up now.

But there's so much more to Dublin than how their goalkeeper plays that quarter-back role. Their physicality has gone to a new level. They bullied Tyrone, they made them look like a team whose tactics had been scribbled on the back of an envelope just as their bus eased in under the Cusack Stand.

Think about that. This was Mickey Harte's Tyrone, a team building towards this day for the last three years or more. One of the most carefully assembled and micro-managed groups the GAA has ever seen. And they were completely and utterly devoured.

One of Tyrone's greatest strengths across the years was an ability to get under the opposition's skin. This ability to match high physicality with less savoury, in-your-face stuff. Dublin seemed to look at that and say, "Bring it on!" They hammered the hammer.

What's clear now is that they don't fear anybody. There isn't a system that will spook them.

We were the most successful team through the noughties but Tyrone proved our nemesis. Dublin don't have one. Maybe those Kerry and Tyrone teams might have rattled them, but my suspicion is that skill-sets are higher these days, tactics more detailed, fitness levels greater.

When I first came through under Páidí, tactical analysis was a three-minute video clip of the opposition. Compare that to what teams do today. The day of the Kerry-Mayo semi-final, Eamonn Fitzmaurice had two men above in the press area, providing stats and video feedback on request.

The top GAA teams today are run more professionally in my eyes than some Premier League soccer clubs. And the players reflect that. They're fully conditioned athletes by the time they see a senior jersey. I'm not long out of county football, but the game has kicked on again since I stepped away.

That's why I hate making comparisons between teams of different generations. If the Kerry team of '75-'86 played under today's conditions, if they engaged in the same preparatory detail, it's impossible not to suspect that their natural talent would have made them better than these Dubs. But that's hypothetical, we can't know.

My young fella plays 'FIFA' on his Xbox and he can play Ronaldo against Maradona. You can't do that in real life. How could you say, if they played under the same conditions, James McCarthy or my uncle PO was a better No 5?

The important point, I suppose, is that people are inclined to make those comparisons because this Dublin team looks like one of the best there's ever been. Gavin has such strength in depth, he can even leave the likes of Macauley and Brogan on the bench.

What they did to Tyrone was astonishing. I remember thinking just five minutes into that game, "Is this really happening?" Dublin play with what looks like abandonment, but it's all so controlled. Look at the defensive discipline of the likes of Cooper, O'Sullivan and Mick Fitzsimons when Dublin's wing-backs are bombing forward.

This is a team that doesn't do euphoria. They're not talking about three-in-a-row because, if anything, I suspect they'd see that kind of talk as limiting. They just want more and more. Deep down, I suspect they want to blow every record out of the water.

This Dublin team is completely different to the one that made the breakthrough in 2011. It's on another level. It's not chained down by individual positions or single game-plans. I remember Mannion making a block on his own '45' the last day and it didn't raise an eyebrow.

The defining game for this group was losing to Donegal in 2014. They got caught by counter-punches that day because, in a sense, they were defensively complacent. That hasn't happened since.

Dublin are ahead of everybody in every facet of the game - tactically, physically, structurally. On maybe the most basic level, they have access to the best players. And they've managed to make Gaelic football as attractive to a Dublin kid today as Brian O'Driscoll ever made rugby or Robbie Keane ever made soccer.

It feels like a perfect storm. We all know that storms, in time, blow themselves out and this one will eventually. But that begs a question. How many more times will Dublin get Sam before the rest of us see a break in the clouds?

Irish Independent

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