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Blue room for improvements

WHAT Donegal achieved in Clones last Sunday was, in historical terms, extraordinary. What Dublin managed in Croke Park a couple of hours later was, by statistical contrast, nothing out of the ordinary.

Let us explain. Donegal's ruthless second-half demolition of Down ensured they became the county's first ever back-to-back Ulster champions. Their success is even more remarkable when viewed through the prism of where Donegal were at prior to Jim McGuinness's arrival (an abject qualifier exit to Armagh in 2010).

Now throw in the fact that these Tír Chonaill trailblazers won each of these titles from the traditional snake pit that is Ulster's preliminary round. As we said, extraordinary.

There is no doubting now that Donegal -- a more fluid, attack-minded version of last year's oft-criticised masters of the massed defence -- are more than mere provincial champions. They are genuine All-Ireland contenders.



Memorable

The same, obviously, can be said of Dublin: they have the cup and all that separates them from retaining Sam is three more wins. It's just that they aren't quite playing with the verve of champions right now.

That might well come at the first straight knockout hurdle -- care to remember that memorable Saturday night last August when a team that had laboured to Leinster victory laid waste to their old Tyrone nemesis? But it will only happen if Pat Gilroy and, even more so, his players absorb the lessons of Leinster and kick on. Otherwise, there will be no back-to-back.



Shy

As for back-to-back Leinsters? Well, as said at the outset, this scarcely qualifies as extraordinary, and not just because Meath -- for all their recent improvements -- are a team still shy of the elite level.

Here's why: defending All-Ireland champions almost invariably make it back (by hook or by qualifier crook) to the following year's last-eight stage.

They enter August as viable contenders, but only then do we discover if they still have the hunger, form, freshness, even good fortune, to retain their crown.

Since the inception of the 'back door' system in 2001, only once have we seen holders slip quietly off the stage before the quarter-finals. That happened in 2006, when a leg-weary and listless Tyrone lost a second-round qualifier away to Laois. It was July 8, and the champions were gone.

They remain the exception. Kerry in '07 are the only team to achieve the elusive two-in-a-row, whereas three other holders have reached the following year's final (Armagh '03, Kerry '05 and '08), two have reached the semis (Kerry '01, Tyrone '09) and four have crashed at the last-eight stage (Galway '02, Tyrone '04, Kerry '10 and Cork '11).



Alarm

Those last few words in brackets should send the alarm bells ringing for Dublin. The last two champions have fallen, when least expected, at the quarter-final hurdle. Now maybe Kerry were hit by a suspension double-whammy (to Paul Galvin and Tomás ó Sé) against Down and maybe Cork's attacking options were scuppered by cumulative injuries (to Daniel Goulding, Colm O'Neill and Ciaran Sheehan) against Mayo.

But the salient fact remains that neither looked up for the unexpected fight posed by a ravenous upstart.

Dublin won't have any suspension issues for their quarter-final against opposition unknown -- indeed they'll have Diarmuid Connolly back hoping for a chance to atone for his red mist moment against Wexford.

But there is a question mark over Alan Brogan's fitness -- one of several areas of concern for Gilroy and his selectors to ponder post-Meath. Namely ...

1. WORK HARDER FOR LONGER

Overall, Dublin's Leinster final performance was a step up on their fraught semi-final against Wexford. At times (notably the first quarter) they moved with real purpose and a hint of swagger while their defence was solid for even longer.

But, but ... if you switch off as they did during the fourth quarter, the damage next time could well prove fatal because the bar is about to be raised dramatically.

2. GET ALAN BROGAN ON THE PITCH

An obvious one, but no less significant for that. The elder Brogan is the human dynamo who links it all between defence and attack. He offers direction, energy and guile from his usual starting point on the '40'. When he went off injured on Sunday, Dublin's attack lost much of its shape.

3. CONSIDER MIDFIELD OPTIONS

The excellence of Denis Bastick against Meath and Dublin's initial dominance of the kickout stats (15-7 in the first half, 29-21 overall) masks the fact that this area may need another overhaul.

Eamon Fennell has been substituted three games running and it's a moot point whether his fielding forte (he was eclipsed on this front by Bastick on Sunday) is sufficient to justify retention.

Michael Darragh Macauley did not look comfortable in his floating forward brief and should be restored to an engine-room crying out for his dynamism.

4. PASS THE ACCURACY TEST

When at their best, Dublin's foot-passing is a notable strength, enabling them to switch from defence to attack in seconds and create space for Bernard Brogan et al inside. Against Meath, though, their ball retention was sloppy.

Even Paul Flynn, usually an assured long passer, kicked two balls into touch in quick succession. Last year's quarter-final against Tyrone should be the benchmark -- for pinpoint passing and all the rest.

Otherwise, a different type of rest could beckon.