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Relentlessness sets Dubs apart

Expect a very focused performance tonight

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Paddy Small in action for Dublin against Galway in the League

Paddy Small in action for Dublin against Galway in the League

SPORTSFILE

Paddy Small in action for Dublin against Galway in the League

You want to know what has separated Dublin from all the rest over the past five years?

At the start of this week, Jim Gavin spoke about how he was "relentless" in his managerial role and it's abundantly clear that this attitude transferred to his players.

This was apparent not just in those white-knuckle All-Ireland battles with Mayo and Kerry, but in that seemingly endless chain of Leinster massacres.

Just consider some of the margins: Longford by 27 (2015), Westmeath by 31 (2017), Wicklow by 23 (2018), Louth by 26 (2019).

That's why neutral observers are expecting another walk in the O'Moore Park this evening (6.15). Maybe not quite on the above scale: it's winter, after all, and Westmeath have just survived their first year back in Division 2 with a degree of comfort.

Yet the perception of a giant chasm remains. All the pre-match talk is not about if Dublin will win but by how much?

But here's the thing: is it really the same old remorseless killing machine? The manager has changed; the league signals were mixed; and we have yet to see if Dublin under Dessie Farrell will remain as potent a force in this weirdest of years.

Ray Connellan is one of those Westmeath players who will be striving to repel the blue wave in Portlaoise and, in a wide-ranging interview ahead of tonight's game, he gave a vivid description of Dublin's greatest strength.

Recalling how they "absolutely blitzed" Mayo in 12 destructive second half minutes last August 12 months, Connellan expanded: "They have a switch, where all of a sudden it's a full press on your kickouts and they've 12 men in your half. They leave your full-forward line open at the back, because the ball can't get there, and next thing they swamp you.

"If you're trying to work the ball out from the half-back line, they've two men tackling you, three men tackling you. You go to turn back, all of a sudden you're into another blue jersey and then it's a turnover and they're going the other way.

"They're far better drilled than any side I've ever played against at doing that. And I think that's what the difference is. The level of organisation and the level of commitment to their own plan, and how well they know it, is just something that you don't really see at GAA level. You might see it in professional sport."

What remains to be seen is whether Dublin, under Farrell, can retain that voracious intent. There were flickers of it during the league; yet almost every game was equally notable for periods of inconsistency.

In mitigation, Farrell's game of catch-up has been exacerbated by the pandemic, and a topsy-turvy form graph was almost inevitable in the context of using 38 players in those seven Division 1 outings.

Outliers

However, the time for experimentation must draw to a close very quickly. Not necessarily against Westmeath - Farrell has yet to announce a team, but one or two 'outliers' could conceivably get a starting chance.

At this stage, it probably isn't even fair to describe Paddy Small in those terms. The younger brother of John put down a brilliant club campaign with Dublin champions Ballymun and has carried that form into the inter-county arena when league battle resumed against Meath and more especially Galway.

Paul Mannion, the only Dublin forward to win All Stars in each of the last three seasons, hasn't been involved in either of those games, amid unconfirmed reports of an injury niggle.

If Mannion doesn't feature this evening, Farrell won't have to look very far for a No 13 ciotóg alternative. Small has made a compelling case - thus far.

But that could still leave at least one attacking vacancy to fill, nominally at wing-forward. Cormac Costello, who resurfaced as a sub in Salthill, is an obvious contender; there could be an instant recall for Niall Scully … or why not give Seán Bugler his big starting chance?

Bugler's potential - in last year's Super 8s dead rubber in Omagh, in the early league rounds and in his most recent 1-1 cameo against Galway - has revealed itself almost every time he sees game-time.

What the above underlines is that options are not the issue for a Dublin attack still backboned by Ciarán Kilkenny, Con O'Callaghan and Dean Rock. Bernard Brogan and Diarmuid Connolly may have departed and, with them, some of the stardust … but the bigger issue, as this championship unfolds, could be at the other end.

The majority of Westmeath's household players are to be found in Jack Cooney's attack, but it would still constitute the shock of the century were John Heslin, Ger Egan, Kieran Martin and Ronan O'Toole to run up a winning score against Farrell's defence this evening.

The truth is, Dublin are embarking on two parallel missions right now. They need to keep winning these Leinster outings as they always do - because, this year, there is no alternative.

However, it's even more important that Farrell uses the next few weeks to get them seriously primed for December when, if all goes to form, Donegal and then Kerry look the two most likely roadblocks to six-in-a-row.

"Dublin need to hit the ground running for when the semi-final arrives," says Johnny Magee, who suggests that his former Dublin teammate "doesn't know what his strongest team is yet."

That is what makes this weekend, and the weekends that follow, so intriguing. Farrell needs to settle on his best 15 (or close to it) and he needs to find momentum.

The result, tonight at least, should look after itself.


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