Sunday 21 January 2018

Time to banish away day blues

Results on the road are a summer signpost for Dubs

SO you think league results don't really matter? That players get worked up for 70 minutes and then, by the time they're showered and changed and back on the bus, the outcome of all that blood and sweat is already some vague, half-forgotten detail?

You'd be wrong.

Tonight in Castlebar (7.0), a recently stuttering Dublin face a Division One showdown against Mayo that could make or break their spring campaign. Second-bottom tourists against table-topping hosts: the onus on Jim Gavin's men to deliver a result, not just a performance, is obvious.

"A key game" is how Barry Cahill describes it. "Even though they have Derry and Monaghan in the last two games, if they didn't get a win in Mayo it would be a case of only one win in the first five games," the retired All-Ireland winner expands.

"I would expect a stronger line-up from Dublin - plus there's a fair chance they will end up playing Mayo at some stage in the championship."

That's the thing: league results against your most dangerous rivals do carry a longer-term significance beyond the mere two points on offer.

A study of Dublin's away league form over the past half-decade underlines that reality. They won three of their four spring trips in 2010, a precursor to their back-door run to an All-Ireland semi-final. They won twice and drew once away in 2011 - and we know how that summer panned out.

Dublin's most ominous league dip in recent years came in 2012, when they lost three of their four away dates - a tell-tale sign of the erratic form that ultimately led to the unravelling of their All-Ireland defence against Mayo.

Fast-forward three years and Dublin, having won back-to-back leagues under Gavin, are now suffering a further dose of the away-day blues. They've already lost in Cork and Kerry; a repeat tonight would complete an unwanted hat-trick, not to mention shorten the odds on a shock relegation.

Historically, for much of the late '90s and noughties, Dublin's away league form was mired in inconsistency ... a kink that frequently came back to haunt them in Croke Park later that summer.

Perhaps they simply weren't good enough. But maybe the only way to change that reality was to forge a new-found resilience on the road. As Cahill recalls: "When Pat (Gilroy) came on board, we targetted two or three key games out of the seven ... in order to get over the line later in the year against the bigger teams, we had to start beating them consistently in the league first."

One match, in particular, stands out for Cahill - Dublin's final league outing of 2010, away to erstwhile nemesis Tyrone. Their more dogged resistance that spring had already been reflected in victories at Fitzgerald Stadium (a first on Kerry soil since November 1982) and at MacHale Park. Then they won emphatically in Omagh, 2-14 to 1-11, only to be squeezed out by Cork for a league final place.

According to Cahill, this was referenced more than once in the build-up to their All-Ireland quarter-final against Tyrone, just a few months later.


"For a lot of the newer players coming in, it was their first victory over Tyrone, who had been the main team in the championship over the previous seven years," he points out.

"Similarly, we beat Kerry in the league in 2010 and beat them in Croke Park in 2011. Beating teams in the league certainly gives you a bit more confidence when you meet them later in the summer. Pat tried to change our mindset and encouraged us to look forward to away games."

Likewise, Jim Gavin has repeatedly talked up the bonding value of these trips away. Back in 2013, even though Dublin had already qualified for a semi-final, the way they battled back to force an injury-time draw with Donegal in Ballybofey was a positive portent for the league-and-championship double to come. Beating Tyrone at the death in Omagh last April, via Diarmuid Connolly's sublime winner, was another notable away-day triumph.

Now, as he heads west, Gavin needs another one.


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