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Wednesday 29 March 2017

Let the leagues begin

Frank Roche reflects on Dublin's quite staggering run of league success under Jim Gavin - and ponders the obstacles now blocking their path to five-in-a-row

Dublin captain, Stephen Cluxton, lifts the cup after the Allianz FL Division 1 final victory over Kerry last April. Photo: Sportsfile
Dublin captain, Stephen Cluxton, lifts the cup after the Allianz FL Division 1 final victory over Kerry last April. Photo: Sportsfile

It's only when you sift through the record books that you grasp the full magnitude of Dublin's stellar Allianz League achievements under Jim Gavin.

When he took over as manager for the 2013 season, his county's NFL famine was stretching back over two full decades, to his own playing days in 1993.

Now, as Gavin embarks on year five, he is chasing a fifth consecutive Division 1 title.

This is not without historical precedent but it has never happened in the modern era, heralded by the mid-70s managerial appointments of Kevin Heffernan and Mick O'Dwyer.

Even more telling is the correlation between league and championship success achieved by this Dublin team.

There was a time when NFL glory and September coronation were deemed mutually exclusive. That notion (somewhat suspect to begin with) has been shattered by Gavin's haul of three All-Ireland SFC titles in four years, and by his team's current unbeaten run stretching over 29 league and championship games.

His record contrasts starkly with the last county to win four leagues on the trot. Kerry were spring kings from 1971 to '74 and didn't win a solitary All-Ireland, before Micko took over and the rest is Sam Maguire history to the power of eight.

Trailblazers

Gavin's league trailblazers still have a distance to travel if they're to emulate the Mayo team of the 1930s, who held the NFL title for six consecutive years between '34 and '39 before pulling out of the next year's competition and then returning to reclaim their crown in '41.

But again, Mayo had to be content with just one All-Ireland in that period.

Eight decades on, their green-and-red descendants will be among a select crew hoping to end this stunning Sky Blue run. Their ability to push the Dubs into awkward summer spots is beyond question - hence the need for those two edge-of-the-seat replays in 2015 and '16 - but Mayo have found it far more difficult to reach such consistent heights in spring combat.

They might be further advanced this February, compared to last, but Stephen Rochford is still missing several mainstays.

If pre-season results are to be trusted, then Kerry and Tyrone could provide the biggest threat to Dublin's five-in-a-row dream.

But there are other obstacles. Four of Dublin's seven games are on the road. Two of their home ties, against Tyrone and Mayo, carry point-loss potential. Their later-than-usual team holiday - Jamaica in January - means that none of Gavin's front-line troops has seen any O'Byrne Cup action.

Then there's the reduced wriggle room that comes with abolition of the semi-final stage. Only the top two advance, straight to the final on April 9.

"I think it will be difficult for them this year," predicts Paul Curran, the former Dublin star and Herald columnist. "I'm not so sure that it's a priority either even though, knowing Jim, he'll want to keep this thing going."

Whereas teams tend to "give it everything" in the current league format, Dublin's main men are playing catch-up.

"They do have a few young lads that they can throw in, from the O'Byrne Cup latter stages, that will be up to speed. But the guys who have mainly won the four leagues are starting very late, and some of them are not as young as they used to be," says Curran.

"I think it all points to being harder to win this one, and certainly harder to go unbeaten. Is it beyond them? No. It will be important to get a good start. I think Sunday's game (in Cavan) is going to be a big one for them."

Tip-top

Karl O'Dwyer - Kildare All Star, and son of Micko - fancies his native Kerry as the most likely contender to end Dublin's run. A recent chat with new selector Maurice Fitzgerald convinced him they're in tip-top shape.

"Kerry will definitely give the league a good rattle, and I think they'll beat Donegal next Sunday," he predicted.

But O'Dwyer remains wary of the team to beat in blue.

"Sure, they have the talent. Their second or third team could probably win Leinster now at this stage," he signs off.

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