Tuesday 21 January 2020

Frank Roche: 'Cruise is over ... now drive for five beckons'


LEADING LIGHTS: Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton leads his players in the pre-match parade before the Leinster SFC Final against Meath at Croke Park on Sunday. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
LEADING LIGHTS: Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton leads his players in the pre-match parade before the Leinster SFC Final against Meath at Croke Park on Sunday. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

After another Leinster final rout, Frank Roche runs the rule over Dublin's many positives and few negatives.


1 LEINSTER FORM GRAPH: How do you judge Dublin's well-being for the allegedly tougher tests ahead in the absence of any rigorous road-testing? With some difficulty ... but you can still glean plenty from their remorseless attitude through the early cakewalk rounds.

The statistics tell us that Dublin are operating at a similar Leinster landslide level to previous years under Jim Gavin. They won their three matches by a cumulative margin of 57 points - 19 points on average per game. This is marginally shy of last year's record combined margin (60 points) and also 2015 (59).

An even more positive spin is that their latest victims included both Kildare and Meath, the two Leinster rivals supposedly best equipped to challenge the blue juggernaut.

2 CLEAN SHEETS: Clearly a factor in the above: Dublin have yet to leak a goal while their concession of points (25, averaging just over 0-8 per game) has been a lesson in frugality.

You could argue that Dublin's much-discussed 'vulnerability' in the full-back line has yet to face any meaningful challenge; you might even cite Kildare's three presentable goal chances, none taken. But that would be nit-picking.

Besides, Gavin is now blessed with more options for his last line than in any previous year, with Rory O'Carroll given just a few late minutes against Meath, Eoin Murchan not even used and Jonny Cooper, his boss says, "close" to fitness.

3 PHILLY ON FORM: On the subject of full-backs … back in March, Philly McMahon spoke of enduring "a bit of a lull in the last two seasons." Then, he had just returned to club action after recovering from a fractured metacarpal in his hand.

His subsequent Dublin comeback was confined to a fourth-quarter cameo in a dead-rubber league tie away to Cavan. For the first two rounds in Leinster, he was again used off the bench, marking his SFC return with a goal against Louth.

Yet, up to Sunday, McMahon hadn't started a single game since last year's All-Ireland final … which makes his busy and sharp contribution, at either end of the field, a real plus for Gavin.

4 ROCK BACK ROLLING: Dean Rock has been a four-in-a-row mainstay, but his status as a perennial starter came under some doubt as he missed the Louth and Kildare games through injury and Cormac Costello assumed deadball duties as if it was second nature.

No bad thing, perhaps, because (a) it reaffirmed that Gavin has freetaking options and (b) Rock's 20-minute cameo against Meath suggested that here is a mad-for-road player with a point to prove all over again. He shot 0-4, three from play, teed up a goal for Con O'Callaghan and should have scored one himself.

5 MAGICAL MANNION: Sometimes it can be hard to showcase your Footballer of the Year credentials when playing on a team that is winning in second gear by 15 or 20 points. That is a recurring issue for Dublin's finest at this time of year.

But whereas Costello was making the early front-running against Louth and Kildare, Paul Mannion may have marginally eclipsed him by now. The back-to-back All Star resembles a player in a hurry to seal his hat-trick.

Mannion can be forgiven his shortlived 0-2 cameo against Louth - given that his red card was duly rescinded. We'll even overlook his second consecutive Leinster final penalty miss (this one was unlucky) because of his towering contribution against Kildare especially (0-7) and Meath (0-3). Not alone has he amassed 0-12 from play, he has grown into the role of Dublin's assassin-in-chief.

6 ALL THE REST: With the exception of Donegal, who have moved up a level this summer and (on form) look the most likely challenger, the other pretenders have all laboured in the shadow of the stand-alone benchmark in blue.

Monaghan have already limped out of the All-Ireland race; Tyrone, Mayo and Galway have floundered in their own province; even Kerry's seventh straight Munster title comes with a giant asterisk, suggesting that none of their old defensive issues under Eamonn Fitzmaurice have been resolved.

7 THE DRAW: On paper, Roscommon are the least formidable of the provincial winners - and they're in Dublin's Super 8s group. The overall group composition will depend on next weekend's qualifiers - and the subsequent round four draw. If, for example, Cork and Cavan end up joining the Rossies and Dublin, you may as well draw lots for second place.


1 INJURIES: When it comes to assessing the negatives thus far, it's all relative. But the biggest obstacle to five-in-a-row could yet transpire to be ill-timed injuries.

On that yardstick, James McCarthy's knee injury exit on Sunday looked worrying. Until a clearer medical picture emerges, we're in the realms of speculation … but the suspicion must be that he's a major doubt for the quarter-final group games, at best.

Other niggles are a concern. Jonny Cooper has yet to play a minute this summer; a fit Cooper has long been one of Gavin's indispensables, but how sharp will he be even if he returns the next day?

Paddy Small's cruelly truncated cameo against Meath is another concern, given the player's injury history.

2 MIDFIELD OPTIONS: Though named at No 5 on Sunday, McCarthy started at midfield - it's where he excelled throughout 2017 and at the business end of last summer. If McCarthy proves to be a long-term absentee, it leaves options to partner Brian Fenton relatively thin on the ground.

Michael Darragh Macauley is the obvious replacement but, of late, Gavin has preferred using his gung-ho dynamism off the bench.

Darren Gavin, who started against Louth, didn't make the '26' on Sunday. Brian Howard could revert from half-forward, possibly freeing up an attacking space for Rock.

3 FLAT FIRST HALF: Dublin were most un-Dublin-like for 35 minutes on Sunday. Against better opposition, especially in a straight knockout semi-final or final, they could have been punished.

The flip side is that their mid-game ability to re-establish principles and correct any technical glitches remains unparalleled. That's why they converted 13 out of 15 second half chances. And why they're still out in front of the rest …

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