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Wednesday 23 April 2014

Dubs have winning mentality

Dublin's Ger Brennan. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE
Dublin's Ger Brennan. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

IT'S a full two years ago now since Pat Gilroy momentarily and memorably let his guard slip – and, as it transpired, somewhat prophetically.

His team had just contrived to tarnish a particularly fine spring campaign with a late collapse in the league final against Cork, an eight-point capitulation which left a stale, lingering taste in the mouth. The then Dublin boss was irked by a fairly straightforward question as to whether, in light of all available evidence, his team had developed a mental block when it came to actually winning such big games.

"Do you think I'm going to say yes to that now, in fairness?" Gilroy retorted, in a rousing defence of his team and, by extension, his work.

"If I really believed that, I should walk out the door here and never be in front of that team again.

"People will say what you just said and we'll deal with that ... and when we have the All-Ireland, some day, that's when we'll stop hearing that."

And they did.

And when the evidence was compiled and all the numbers were added up and the players and Gilroy were asked as to where the All-Ireland had come from, a couple of consistent league campaigns featured high on the list of answers.

The logic being winning is a habit and winning big games against big teams, those who had regularly beaten Dublin in the back end of the championship, is better than losing.

On Sunday, Dublin actually won the league by beating Tyrone by a point, the last remaining scalp worth scalping, this time with Jim Gavin at the helm.

For what it's worth, that's a 20-year drought ended so, understandably, there was no need for a statement of intent, just a typically measured reaction to what has been a perhaps surprisingly productive start to his term in top office.

Seven wins and one draw from nine games. A healthy exposure to inter-county football for a raft of players who have experienced little or none in recent seasons. A trophy in the cupboard.

Yet if many might have predicted a Dublin league win before the campaign's commencement, like any team with a new manager, there were uncertainties early on.

"Like the players, we would have been nervous at the beginning and unsure of where we were ourselves and we were keen to get a good start," admitted one of Gavin's selectors, Declan Darcy.

So where exactly are the Dubs now? And what nutritional benefits have been consumed this spring?

First up, they're favourites for Sam. Which, of course, has no real relevance and given the successful management of that unquantifiable force hype, in recent years, such a billing is unlikely to perturb them.

Options? Gavin has plenty. Surely the most of any Dublin manager of recent vintage and, in this regard, the league was almost unquantifiably productive.

How's this for a championship XV?

Stephen Cluxton; Jonny Cooper, Rory O'Carroll, Kevin O'Brien/Darren Daly; James McCarthy, Ger Brennan, Jack McCaffrey; Michael Darragh Macauley, Cian O'Sullivan; Paul Flynn, Paddy Andrews, Bryan Cullen; Bernard Brogan, Diarmuid Connolly, Paul Mannion.

We'd hazard a guess that Gavin's first championship selection on June 1 will be somewhere along those lines, judging by selection patterns as the league panned out.

Philly McMahon, for example, hasn't played enough football yet to be deemed a better option than any of the four full-back options listed above, yet you wouldn't be remotely surprised if he ended up in the defence this summer.

Similarly, Kevin Nolan – an All-Star and All-Star nominee in the past two seasons – has almost zero exposure to inter-county football this year, which isn't to say he's not going to make the cut, it's just that you couldn't be certain that he will.

Up front, Mannion's late flourish in the league has made the scrap for forward spots even scrappier.

Bernard Brogan was just the right mix of great and not-so-great to keep him focused.

And clearly, Ciarán Kilkenny, Kevin McManamon and now Dean Rock will make claims for themselves, but on the basis of how Dublin finished the league, that appears to be the most likely attacking sextet. And that's not even taking into account Alan Brogan or Eoghan O'Gara, both of whom's fitness will dictate how big, if any, a part they play this year.

So in black-and-white terms of talent, Dublin won't be trailing any team this year, or, for that matter, in the near future. But whether they can cope and thrive against the hardening and sharpening of the most sophisticated systems in football is still open to debate.

Yes, Dublin will concede more than they have in recent years and if the league was a microcosm of their mindset and make-up for the summer, there is a fair chance they will give up a higher proportion of goal chances than they have been accustomed to under Gilroy.

Against that, Mayo kicked no goals in the All-Ireland semi-final last year but crucified Dublin with an exhibition of long-range point scoring, proving that even the most adhesive and claustrophobic defensive structures have their chinks.

Sunday's victory over Tyrone could prove to be the most revealing exhibition of Dublin's make-up.

The Dubs didn't have things their own way, found it harder to flow against a team who, with just four weeks to go until a championship opener against the All-Ireland holders, were surely close to fighting weight.

Yet without craftsmen like Stephen O'Neill and Peter Harte, Mickey Harte's men were still well below optimum.

The most encouraging thing for Gavin, however, is that with his team trailing six times in a second half where oxygen was gaspingly in short supply, his team displayed a healthy dose of character while he himself was unafraid to replace the unreplaceable (Bernard Brogan) and use the full scale of his depth (Rock and McManamon) when things were going south, to ensure the league was closed off with an ending befitting of their previous exploits.

Not even Gilroy could say that.

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