Ciarán Whelan: 'Sunday's clash against Cork could possibly be the most competitive game of football all summer'
"SOME people have no time for league football although that mindset has changed in recent years. Any year we won the league with Kerry we went on to win the All-Ireland. You could get a definite feel for the hard edge of opposition teams who thought of autumn whilst playing in spring." - Paul Galvin
Above are the words of Paul Galvin from his recent autobiography in which he expressed his views on the importance of winning the Allianz League throughout his career.
The Allianz League is much maligned in some quarters but Galvin gives an insight into how it is viewed from a player's perspective.
Players want to win every game. Players want to win every competition.
Victories and consistency in performance will give individual players/teams confidence and momentum going into the championship. It's a simple approach to sports psychology.
This Sunday's Division 1 final is important for both Cork and Dublin.
For Dublin, it could possibly be the most competitive game of football they will get between now and the August bank holiday weekend.
For Cork , they will be hoping to make amends for their collapse to Dublin in last year's league semi-final when the Dubs over-turned a ten-point deficit to eventually win by seven.
That defeat crushed Cork mentally and a difficult summer followed when Kerry destroyed them in the Munster Final.
The knives were duly sharpened on Leeside for Brian Cuthbert and with their backs to the wall they changed mid-season to a more defensively-minded game-plan to beat Sligo and run Mayo very close in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
Cuthbert deserves credit for taking the flak in a resilient manner and rebuilding confidence from a low ebb by bringing them to this year's league final after an impressive campaign. Cork now have a game-plan that they are comfortable with and they can implement more effectively. Their style of play mirrors the game we saw Dublin play under Pat Gilroy.
Cuthbert has put his faith in some players who may not be as talented as others but they will bring a strong work ethic, dropping deep into their defence and tackle with huge intensity.
This Sunday we can expect Mark Collins to drop back deep in his own half to protect his full-back line. Collins will be supported by Tomás Clancy (Fermoy) to close off the space in front of the Dublin full-forwards. Colm O'Driscoll and John O'Rourke are the workhorses who will work between the two 50-yard lines, closing down the space out the field.
So what's the difference between Cork when compared to the way Tyrone and Derry played in recent weeks? It's simple, they will attack with more purpose that will at times leave gaps for Dublin to expose.
However, Cork also have two real quality inside forwards in Colm O'Neill and Brian Hurley who relish receiving early quick ball into space. It will be an area of priority of Jim Gavin and he must get his matches-up right early in the game to avoid both O'Neill or Hurley building any momentum.
In general , Gavin will have learnt more about his team in recent weeks than he learnt through the last two leagues campaigns.
The profile of the team has been kept lower and the hype has been dampened which in a strange way leaves Dublin in a nice position going into the championship. Gavin will know though that his team is not flawless and will be disappointed with their level of consistency in recent weeks.
Dublin have plenty of scope for improvement.
Whilst Gavin has used 35 players in this league and learnt a lot about his fringe players, some players like Stephen Cluxton, Rory O'Carroll and Michael Daragh Macauley in key positions still remain crucial, where the reserves may not be as deep as many think.
While Dublin have adapted their defensive strategy playing John Small effectively in the holding deep role as a centre-back, supported by the likes of Tomás Brady and Denis Bastick, Gavin will be looking for more in terms of teams work ethic and the quality of their tackling down the central channel.
Up front, Brian Fenton has been a very effective introduction to the half-forward line which has allowed Gavin to relocate Ciarán Kilkenny to the inside forward line where he played most of his underage football.
In the absence of the injured Eoghan O'Gara, Kilkenny could develop and give Dublin the added outlet that is required alongside Bernard Brogan.
Sunday's game will ask more questions for Dublin and though they go in as favourites they could be pushed all the way by Cork.