Wednesday 13 December 2017

All-Ireland champs can be forgiven the odd form hangover

THE Spring Series is up and running, and already the grim portents of summer crisis are hanging in the ether above Croke Park. Stop the presses: "Disjointed Dubs settle for one-in-a-row!" Stop the presses again: "Same old, same old from Kildare!"

We jest, of course - slightly. Yet it was a salutary opening night, all the same, for the two chief players of the eastern province.

The Lilies lost a game that looked well within their compass at half-time, their defence cut open by Tyrone's ability to conjure up goal chances from nowhere ... and also by Kildare's equally enduring penchant for wasting clearcut openings of their own.

Never mind Seánie Johnston, any chance Muggsy or Stephen O'Neill might fancy a change of scenery?

Then, to cap it all, Dublin also coughed up a game that was there to be won at half-time. Just like Kildare in the curtain-raiser, they lost their second-half joust (with Kerry) by eight points.

It means the All-Ireland holders have already equalled their total number of competitive losses for last season -- two -- and that they're already playing league catch-up ahead of next Saturday night's trip to Mayo.

But does it mean anything more substantial? Well, probably not: we are not here to proffer the hackneyed "sure it's only the league" excuse but it was "only the first weekend" of February, after all.

Our own suspicion is that Saturday's setback could prove more damaging, in the medium term at least, to Kildare. This is their fifth year under Kieran McGeeney, during which they have transformed from wilting Lilies into one of the most consistently competitive outfits in the country.

But that consistency has, for the most part, been confined to a series of epic qualifier adventures. Leinster and the league have been more hit-and-miss. They were relegated from Division One during Geezer's maiden season and in three subsequent attempts have failed to make it back there.

As with last year, they hit the O'Byrne Cup ground running but then couldn't quite sustain it. Moreover, one of only three home league fixtures was Saturday's opener, switched to 'neutral' Croke Park -- which means four of their last six games are on the road. Little wonder their Division Two title odds have drifted, from first to third-favourites at 4/1.


True, Kildare's championship fate is not inextricably linked to their spring progress, but you get the sense that at this stage of their development, they need to be playing top-flight league football.

They also need to be lifting some silverware, even a Division Two title, preferably a Leinster crown, if only for their own self-confidence presuming they make it back to their customary quarter-final hitching post.

Dublin, clearly, are in a different place right now. All-Ireland champions have earned the right to suffer the occasional form hangover the following spring. Even if they were to be relegated (and we don't think they will) it wouldn't matter to the masses once Dublin put up a valiant and sustained defence of Sam.

To make it two-in-a-row, such a rare phenomenon nowadays, would be bonus territory on an epic scale.

But if the past few years have taught Pat Gilroy (pictured left) anything, it is that digging out league wins -- especially at forbidding, faraway venues -- is an invaluable trait when it comes to team-building and morale.

It's not a habit they should relinquish without a fight. That's why McHale Park next Saturday could yet prove a significant night for the Dubs.

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