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Sunday 24 September 2017

Jim's a master of the tight margin

Hatred of losing key to Dubs' record run

Dublin’s Conor McHugh is swallowed up by Kerry’s (l-r) Anthony Maher, Mark Griffin, Peter Crowley and Ronan Shanahan (unseen). Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Dublin’s Conor McHugh is swallowed up by Kerry’s (l-r) Anthony Maher, Mark Griffin, Peter Crowley and Ronan Shanahan (unseen). Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Dublin manager Jim Gavin looks at his watch deep into injurytime during the Allianz Football League Division 1, Round 5 match at Austin Stack Park in Tralee last Saturday night. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Jim Gavin doesn't do small talk about grandiose achievements. You probably knew that long before his indefatigable Dublin footballers went to Tralee last Saturday night and emerged from a wonderfully chaotic contest, their now record-equalling unbeaten run still intact.

This two-and-a-bit year streak now encompasses 34 league and championship games, emulating those distant Kerry greats of the 1930s.

Fittingly, given this historic backdrop, it came courtesy of Paul Mannion's late, late leveller in Austin Stack Park. And afterwards, Gavin delivered his now-standard declaration that the run is never referenced in the dressing-room.

"Our focus", he added, now shifts to Roscommon next Saturday night in Croke Park.

However, those of us who prefer peering into our crystal balls are slowly realising that this could, if you'll pardon the pun, run and run.

Nailed-on

Of their last two Allianz League ties, Roscommon looks a nailed-on victory whereas an away date with fellow high-flyers Monaghan, on April 2, carries obvious peril.

The counter-argument is that the last time Dublin visited Clones - in game number four of this run - they stormed to an 11-point victory.

If Dublin avoid defeat in their next two games and qualify for another Division 1 final, no one would be surprised if they go on to complete a famous five-in-a-row.

That would bring the run to 37 games. And then, in theory, it should get easier for a while. Can anyone see Dublin losing in Leinster this summer? Didn't think so. In which case, the seven-in-a-row Leinster champions will have hit the magical 40-game milestone.

More immediately, no one - not even Kevin McStay, we suspect - believes Dublin will fail to set a new 35-game benchmark against a pointless Roscommon at the weekend. The holders are 1/25 with the bookies: harsh but realistic.

Moreover, leaving aside Dublin ambitions of retaining their league crown, there's another more basic motivation ... this team simply hates losing.

It's a moot point whether this mindset has anything to do with the pursuit of historic benchmarks. What this campaign has underlined is one of Dublin's greatest strengths, even at a time when they're short of key bodies and supposedly vulnerable.

Their 34-match adventure includes six draws. Half of those have come in their last four games. Another, less stubborn, team would surely have lost at least one of them.

Instead, Dublin dug deep late on to overturn a five-point deficit against Tyrone. Then they went from four down to two up before Donegal pegged them back at the death.

On Saturday, their response to falling four down against Kerry was to rattle off an unanswered 0-6 in 11 minutes. Even when their hosts roared back into a two-point lead, Dublin found a way to score twice in stoppage time.

That's ballsy.

All these close shaves should not, necessarily, be construed as a sign that the pack is closing fast.

For starters, as results beyond Leinster indicate, their closest rivals weren't too far behind in the first place. For seconds, Dublin have done remarkably well to avoid defeat in the absence of so many front-line troops during February and March.

Even on Saturday night, Gavin began with just eight of the 15 players who started last year's All-Ireland final replay: Stephen Cluxton, Philly McMahon, Michael Fitzsimons, John Small, Brian Fenton, Ciarán Kilkenny, Dean Rock and Paddy Andrews.

Mainstay

Another four starters last October - Cian O'Sullivan, Paul Flynn, Kevin McManamon and Paul Mannion - entered the second half fray. Jonny Cooper and James McCarthy (both currently injured) and Diarmuid Connolly (the only mainstay yet to see action in 2017) didn't feature.

The lesson to be gleaned from all this? As the weeks pass, Dublin will get stronger. Their chief rivals must step on the gas just to stay in touch.

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