Sunday 19 November 2017

Why are Dublin leagues apart?

Positive reaction to pressure keeps Gavin's men at the spring summit

Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton lifts the cup following his side’s victory over Cork in the Allianz Football League Division 1 final at Croke Park last April. Pic: Sportsfile
Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton lifts the cup following his side’s victory over Cork in the Allianz Football League Division 1 final at Croke Park last April. Pic: Sportsfile

"Just who can stop the Sky Blue juggernaut?" Once upon a not-very-distant time, that question would have left the speaker open to the following accusation: either he desperately craved a career in alternative comedy or he was suffering from an as-yet undiagnosed delusional psychosis.

Not any more.

Now it has become a familiar summer refrain, and the answer will only come after an elephantine pregnant pause, something along the following lines: "Eh, Kerry? Maybe Mayo? Donegal at a long shot … but I wouldn't bet on any of that lot."

But what about stopping the Dubs in spring time?

That question has a particular relevance in the week that will conclude with the Croke Park launch of Dublin's latest Allianz Football League title defence - an enticing All-Ireland final rematch with Kerry in Croke Park.

In his first three seasons, Jim Gavin oversaw an unprecedented (for Dublin) NFL hat-trick. Given that he's backed this up with three Leinster and two All-Ireland successes, little wonder they are hot favourites to complete a spring quadruple - they're 11/10 with Boylesports, followed by Mayo and Cork at 11/2.


While Cork completed a three-in-a-row as recently as 2012, league four-timers happen as infrequently as All-Ireland equivalents. One of the great ironies is that Kerry did so between 1971 and '74, in the very years that preceded Mick O'Dwyer's all-conquering era.

Gavin still has a journey to travel before emulating the Mayo team that won an incredible six leagues on the spin - and it required a certain global conflagration to halt that previously unstoppable run from 1936 to '41.

But would you bet against Dublin completing four-in-a-row? Not at this juncture. Doubtless Stephen Rochford would love to hit the ground running in Mayo but he has injury issues to contend with; ditto Kerry whose propensity for February hibernation under Eamonn Fitzmaurice is so ingrained that you'd swear it was a county board by-law.

Cork's history of spring achievement cannot be ignored, even if the jury remains out on whether new boss Peadar Healy can revitalise this incorrigible crew. Will Donegal be keeping their powder dry for the summer? Maybe Monaghan offer the best 'dark horse' potential? Surely the newly promoted Roscommon and Down will be striving for survival, no more?

So it's simple to see how Dublin are favourites … less easy to figure out the secret of their spring success.

It's true that, in 2013, they blazed a trail through the group stages, topping the pile with 11 points. Tyrone were about the only opponent that Dublin's gung-ho attack struggled to break down that spring (the Red Hand won in Croke Park and then narrowly lost their league final renewal). Maybe history might repeat itself? Not this year, mate: Tyrone are in Division Two.

An intriguing feature of Dublin's last two league victories is that they struggled to reach the semi-finals. Vulnerability was at its most marked during the regulation rounds.

In 2014, they squeezed through in fourth place after a last-day, last-gasp victory in Omagh: but for Diarmuid Connolly's exquisite injury-time winner, Tyrone would have advanced instead of Dublin.

Their ensuing semi-final against Cork was remarkable for the fact that they trailed by ten points soon after half-time before launching a 17-point turnaround to win by seven.


Last spring, meanwhile, Dublin were road-testing a new defensive system and had some early teething problems. They were blessed to draw with Tyrone in round four (via a late Dean Rock goal) and yet all the talk afterwards was of a looming relegation dogfight.

But a week later they ripped Mayo asunder in Castlebar, kickstarting a run of five league victories that culminated in a final demolition of Cork. Before that, though, they weren't assured a semi-final spot heading for Monaghan on the last day … with the pressure on, they again went for the jugular, early and often.

Maybe that has been the secret of Dublin's league success under Gavin. When backed into a corner (be it in Omagh, Clones or Croker), the Blues have always risen to the challenge.

Now comes another one: four-in-a-row.

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