'Blues now a target'
Caffrey says champions face tough task to retain Sam as rivals up the ante
FOR maybe 10 days, Dublin were the people's champions. And then, according to Paul 'Pillar' Caffrey, normal order was restored and it was back to the once-familiar scenario of 31 counties against the Dubs.
This reality will hit Pat Gilroy's charges -- literally at times -- when their weather-disrupted Allianz League campaign resumes with a run of six top-flight matches on consecutive weekends.
And it will stay that way for the summer too. How they cope with their altered status as All-Ireland champions, there to be shot down, will go a long way to shaping Dublin's 2012 destiny, predicts their former manager.
"I don't know whether the players themselves have realised the bit of a love-in that was there last September has well and truly gone," said Caffrey, speaking at this year's launch of the Cadbury U21 Football Championship in his role as a Hero of the Future judge.
"I just see other teams now really upping the ante big time, and we all know how hard it is to do back-to-back All-Irelands.
"You hear any of the Armagh players from 2002 being interviewed, and they have huge regrets that they couldn't back up their All-Ireland.
"The same with this Dublin squad -- we are full of admiration, we all enjoyed it hugely, but this Dublin squad is good enough and talented enough to compete and contest the next two or three All-Irelands in a serious way," he added.
"But I don't think they are going to have it all their own way. I think the standout teams are still going to be Cork and Kerry, and we'll see if Tyrone can muster up a big challenge again."
Even before summer, 'Pillar' is anticipating a few spring bumps for the Blues and he cites some recent acts of indiscipline as a possible indicator of players "not coping as well as they should" with a more physical approach from the opposition.
In their one-and-a-half league games to date, Dublin have shipped a couple of straight reds -- one for Eamon Fennell against Kerry, another contentious one for James McCarthy in the first half of their weather-aborted trip to Mayo.
Before Gilroy took the reins, Caffrey managed Dublin to four Leinster titles on the bounce without ever reaching the holy grail of September. But he knows what it's like to manage a team who go from popular pretenders to enemy number one.
"I always felt in my Na Fianna days, before we had won a Dublin title, that everyone was saying Na Fianna were lovely fellas," he recounted. "And once we won one (SFC title), we were hated.
"It's not a word I use lightly but there is a different intensity when you're champions. Even provincial champions, the next year it's harder to do it -- it's certainly harder to do it as All-Ireland champions, and Dublin will find that and are finding it."
Explaining his county's popularity with the neutrals last September, Pillar cited two standout reasons -- the 16-year gap since their previous All-Ireland appearance and their status as underdogs, meaning most neutrals were cheering them instead of Kerry.
"It was a once-off," he stressed, "and I would firmly believe that lasted for 10 days afterwards and then the begrudgery started setting in. It's well and truly in full mode now."
The former boss believes Dublin have the "strength in depth" to cope with their hectic league schedule and, moreover, expects them to reach the Division One semi-finals.
But he cautioned: "They've six big weeks ahead of them now in terms of back-to-back league games, and you'll see every team upping the ante when it comes to Dublin.
"My fear is just how these guys are going to cope with what's coming at them physically -- the little lack of discipline and fellas taking swipes back when they're getting hard hits and this type of thing.
"This is going to impact hugely on the mentality in Dublin.
"The feelgood factor is well and truly gone now and it's back to, as I used to say, 31 against Dublin."
Looking further ahead to their All-Ireland defence, Caffrey concluded: "I just hope that some of the main players stay injury-free and get a crack at the championship, because it's going to be a very hard championship for Dublin this year.