Where to now for hurlers of Dublin?
Green shoots of youthful promise blighted by kink of inconsistency
It has been another strange, conflicting, hard-to-summarise season for the Dublin hurlers ... all of the above encapsulated by events in Páirc Uí Rinn on Saturday night.
One of Dublin's better performances of 2016, and certainly their most courageously defiant, still culminated in a three-point defeat to Cork - and, with that, elimination from the race for Liam MacCarthy.
Hand on heart, at no stage this year could you watch Dublin in action and form the opinion that they were All-Ireland contenders, let alone champions-in-waiting.
They are not the force they were in 2013, that much is clear - but time stands still for no player or panel and the Dublin team has undergone a radical overhaul under Ger Cunningham in his first two campaigns, but especially his second.
Now the big question is whether the Corkman will be there for a third?
If the comments of county board chairman Seán Shanley, speaking to The Herald yesterday, are anything to go by, the likely answer to that conundrum is in the affirmative.
The man himself was typically inscrutable about his future on Saturday night - to be expected when you're still in the throes of absorbing a painful defeat - saying only that he'd be discussing matters with the board and it was time to "sit back and reflect".
However, according to Shanley, Cunningham's three-year term is not subject to annual review and "it will be his choice" whether he wants to complete it.
"I can't see him taking any drastic action," the chairman added. "I would think he would stay on - and we don't tend to sack managers in Dublin."
In that scenario, the next question is whether Cunningham's Dublin look like a team going forwards or backwards. Again, depending on whether your glass is half-full or half-empty, this is likely to elicit different answers.
There are positives, for sure - the promotion of promising youth; ongoing membership of the Allianz League's top-six elite. And yet the gap to the All-Ireland benchmark (and that remains Kilkenny, even more definitively after Sunday's Leinster final) remains considerable.
Here, then, are the pluses and negatives to another 'what if?' campaign for the Dublin hurlers ...
The sky is blue
(1) Young guns: The progression of Dublin's next generation, epitomised by the championship displays of defenders Eoghan O'Donnell, Shane Barrett and - when handed his first summer start last Saturday - the exciting forward prospect that is Chris Bennett.
James Madden was another to make his SHC debut at the weekend, albeit the corner-back was replaced at half-time. Seán Treacy was given almost half-an-hour in Cork, following on from his cameo against Kilkenny.
All the above will have a chance to banish their Leeside blues when Dublin visit Tullamore for tomorrow night's Bord Gáis Energy Leinster U21 final against Offaly. Following on from Sunday's provincial minor title success against Wexford, the capital's conveyor belt offers future hope for a senior team in transition ... even more so when you consider that Barrett and Bennett carried the fight to Cork, even more so than some of the established players.
(2) Mid-twenties crew: David Treacy hasn't always enjoyed security of tenure on Dublin's first 15; the likes of Niall McMorrow and Eamon Dillon even less so. All three had big seasons in blue and this should embolden them to try and assume leadership roles next season.
(3) Defiance: If Dublin had gone down limply in Páirc Uí Rinn, Cunningham's position would have come under forensic scrutiny. And when Chris Crummey walked for a second yellow on the half-hour, that could have been taken as a handy excuse to down hurls.
Instead, 14 men died with their boots on. The manager hailed their "never-say-die attitude" in adversity. Surely all concerned deserve another chance?
The sky is dark
(1) Gone already: It was oft-quoted in the run-up to Cork that, if Dublin lost, it would represent their earliest championship exit since 2004. That's true according to the Gregorian calendar, but misleading all the same: they lost all three round-robin qualifiers in '05 and '06 (before winning relegation play-offs) and again in '07; they also lost their first and only qualifier in '08 (to Cork) and 2012 (to Clare).
You're on safer ground arguing that Cunningham's only significant SHC scalp was Limerick last July ... Laois last year or Wexford last May don't qualify.
(2) Talking tactics: Cunningham's preference for retaining possession via short puckouts came badly unstuck when Kilkenny applied a full court press ... and once Conor Dooley was forced long, their lack of aerial prowess in the half-forward line was cruelly exposed.
Conal Keaney's post-match tweet, citing a tactical "shambles", attracted inevitable publicity but the recently-retired Dub hasn't been alone in questioning Dublin's over-reliance on Plan A.
(3) The best team? The same tweet touched on another raw nerve, when Keaney argued that "Dublin need all their best hurlers playing to compete". You can argue, all day, whether management is to blame when certain senior players quit in frustration at a lack of game-time, or when others are dropped ... the break-up of Anthony Daly's team was inevitable but Cunningham has shown a ruthless streak in accelerating that process.
Danny Sutcliffe's defection was different; it remains to be seen will he return next year but Dublin need him. The manager has also been unlucky with injuries - robbing his defence of Peter Kelly and Paul Schutte plus, until recent weeks, the feisty half-forward presence of Ryan O'Dwyer. Mark Schutte's form has also been impeded by injury.
For Dublin to dare to dream, they need all their best, fit and playing to a coherent plan. Only then will that elusive consistency come, instead of a league/championship record that reads played nine, won four, lost five.