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Monday 18 December 2017

Roche's Point: League hat-trick is not on Jim Gavin's Dub priority list

Jim Gavin
Jim Gavin
Jim Gavin

AS day-one tremors go, for Dublin footballers to falter late on against Cork registers well down the Richter scale. But it does pose a valid question: how important is another good league for Jim Gavin?

Our own belief: Dublin don't need to complete a Division One hat-trick this spring. In fact, it might even facilitate their championship ambitions if they fail to do so. Firstly, it would dampen public expectations, which can have an insidiously corrosive effect, unbeknownst to players. Secondly, a few reality checks for the most talented squad in the country might be no bad thing on the cusp of summer.

However, none of the above should equate to a desire for having a poor league. Kerry under Éamonn Fitzmaurice may be famously slow to emerge from winter hibernation (plus ca change after Sunday's home loss to Mayo) ... but the county with more Sam Maguires than anyone else isn't the most reliable benchmark when it comes to judging All-Ireland prospects.

Without disrespecting Paul Caffrey's achievements in the Sky Blue hotseat, coming within a whisker of reaching the All-Ireland finals in 2006 and '07, we happen to view the '09 quarter-final against Kerry is a key watershed in Dublin's development from game pretenders to true contenders. Henceforth, Pat Gilroy's "startled earwigs" would be banished to a faraway insect kingdom; what remained would be less flamboyant but also less prone to crazy oscillations.

What's equally noticeable, since 2009, is how Dublin haven't merely become a more serious All-Ireland proposition - their league graph has soared upward in similar fashion.

For much of the noughties, Dublin's league form was mired in an inconsistency that tended to repeat itself at the business end of summer. Yet in 2010, they came tantalisingly close to reaching their first Division One decider in 11 years, beating Tyrone away on the last day but losing out on a final place because of their head-to-head record with Cork. Come summer, Cork again scuppered dreams of a final appearance - but Dublin were getting closer.

COLLAPSE

The league was even more beneficial in 2011: this time Dublin reached the final and raced eight points clear of Cork at one stage. The lessons absorbed from their subsequent collapse proved invaluable during the subsequent All-Ireland run.

The first two years under Gavin speak for themselves: league and All-Ireland 'double' winners in 2013, league winners again last year and hot favourites for Sam until the semi-final wheels came off against Donegal.

You may have noticed we skipped a year: it was intentional. In 2012, Dublin returned to the infuriating spring inconsistency of the 'Startled Earwig' era. League form veered from decent to diabolical. They ended the campaign with just six points, in fifth place. It all proved an ominously accurate omen for what happened in that harum-scarum All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo.

Three years on, Dublin are in a slightly different place. Gavin has a greater abundance of options, especially up front. There's a younger generation, who have prospered at minor and U21, snapping at the heels of marquee players who have already won two Celtic Crosses and who'll be desperate for a third after last summer's jolt.

On Sunday, many of those young guns got their big league chance in Cork, either starting or off the bench. Some looked the part - in parts. Others struggled with the step-up in intensity.

But those youngsters need game-time far more than Gavin needs the validation of a league hat-trick. Fitness and form permitting, Messrs Cluxton, McCarthy, Brennan, Macauley, O'Sullivan, Flynn, Connolly and Brogan (or Brogans) will return to the playing fold, and Dublin will then be a far more formidable force. In the meantime, though, Gavin needs to road-test his options while staying competitive. A difficult juggling act, but one worth persisting with.

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