The tiniest of cracks are appearing in Blue machine

Cormac Costello of Dublin looks on after scoring his side's first goal during the Allianz Football League Division 1 Round 6 match between Dublin and Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Although Paul Mannion’s injury-time point in Croke Park last Saturday night maintained the remarkable trend that any Dublin defeat these past five seasons has been by only a kick of a ball, it was striking how Jim Gavin afterwards made no effort to conceal both his acknowledgement and his displeasure that in truth, Tyrone had outplayed his side by more than three points. Go through the previous six defeats Dublin have incurred since he revamped his team in the wake of Donegal’s 2014 All-Ireland semi-final ambush and he has always looked on the bright side of life and his players.

When they lost to Cork by two points on Brian Fenton’s debut down in Páirc Uí Rinn on the opening day of the 2015 season, he repeatedly spoke about the “big positive” that was trying out “a group of players who haven’t a lot of experience, [yet] they put themselves in a position to win the game.” A fortnight later when they lost out to reigning All-Ireland champions Kerry in a dogfight down in Killarney, he spoke about how he was “very proud” of his players “trying their very best”.

When Kerry bookended Dublin’s subsequent 36-match unbeaten run with Fionn Fitzgerald hoisting the 2017 league title, Gavin praised the “great character and resilience” of his players to come from “five points down against Kerry in a final” and lose by a solitary point.

He was similarly unperturbed upon losing to Monaghan in the last round-robin game of last year’s league and the first one of this year’s campaign. “Our boys, we’re [just] two weeks back today,” he’d say after the latter loss up in Clones. “They stuck at it to the bitter end. I can only be happy in that regard.”

Then when they were edged out in last month’s barnstormer in Tralee, he took great encouragement from his side’s late rally. “We could have come away with a point. You could see the desire and the drive which was great to see.”

About the least pleased he’s been after a game Dublin have failed to win was the 2016 drawn All-Ireland final which he’d admit his team did “not deserve to win” and that a 6-out-of-10 would have been an “over-generous” assessment of their performance levels. Yet even then he praised his players’ “great mental resolve to hang in there” against the Mayo onslaught. Last Saturday night he could not identify or at least highlight any redeeming aspect. Their passing was “certainly off”, their shot selection “very poor”.

“That level of performance from the Dublin players,” he’d conclude, “is certainly not good enough.”

Just like with everything he publicly says, Gavin’s key audience with those remarks was his players, more so than even a Dublin public anticipating and expecting an historic five in a row. But previously he would also have been mindful that opponents were listening in. By praising his team’s mental resolve in the wake of any league defeat or All-Ireland final draw, he was both trying to maintain his players’ confidence levels and self-image while also trying to retain their aura in the eyes of others.

His post-Tyrone comments suggest he is less concerned what others might think — even if such thoughts might extend to opponents getting strength from the possibility Dublin are vulnerable, slipping, that there’s a chink in their armour and aura — and more concerned with the mental state of his players. That they need a jolt, that they need to buck up. Should they do so, Gavin is calculating, then it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks or does, the process will likely lead to a positive outcome and another All-Ireland.

Yet a part of him will still be irked that Dublin have even allowed others gain encouragement and that for the first time in his era he won’t have a side running out the day of the league final.

For the neutral, of course, it’s refreshing. Novel, even. Normally the least interesting thing about the last round of league games is who’ll make the Division One final. The buzz is usually in tracking who escaped relegation or who won or missed out on promotion. It’s 10 years now since we last had a league final not featuring either Dublin or Cork, the other, if forgotten, league specialists of the decade — and even that year Cork were a de facto Division One team steamrolling Monaghan in the Division Two final while Kerry took the top-flight title in a dour repeat of the previous year’s final pairing, seeing off Derry.

In fact the only active players in current county football not from either Dublin or Kerry with a Division One league medal in their pockets are Paul Kerrigan and Mark Collins below in Cork, and Neil McGee above in Donegal (though Paul Durcan, who is reported to be returning to the county panel, was between the sticks in their 2007 final win over Mayo). All the Derry boys of 2008 have retired. Ditto Armagh 2005, Tyrone 2002 and 2003.

The pedantic might point that David Clarke was called up as a back-up goalkeeper to the Mayo squad of 2001 while still just a minor. But he didn’t see any game-time in that campaign. Now, were he and Mayo to get back to a final this year, and win it… That would be something. In fact it would mean be highly significant.

Just as it wasn’t possibly acknowledged enough during James Horan’s first stint as county manager, it’s probably been a tad overplayed in recent years how they have a split squad for training during the spring with so many players working and studying in Dublin; the side’s collective experience, especially of playing with each other for so long, should have offset such logistical difficulties to seriously challenge for a league title.

Now, fresh from their August sabbatical and infused with new players, there’s the prospect for some of the players of this generation — Higgins, Keegan, O’Shea, Moran — to add a league medal to their resume. Of course it is not the medal they really crave but in another leading football county the absence of such a medal would be a notable gap in the CV of players of such standing.

Even a win over Monaghan on Sunday though doesn’t guarantee Mayo a league final spot; if Galway win up in Omagh, then Kevin Walsh’s men are assured of a second consecutive Division One appearance, unless Kerry lose by a ridiculously high margin in Roscommon. And Tyrone too still have an outside chance of making it to the final, should they stretch their winning record to four straight games and Monaghan do them a favour in Castlebar.

Galway, Mayo, and Tyrone were always going to be fancied as prospective All-Ireland finalists, even semi-finalists. But winning a league would give their confidence and their status in football a considerable lift. Kerry too, even though they won a league just two years ago. The belief you’d get from lifting significant silverware above in Croke Park is huge. The kind of belief you’ll need to take down Dublin up there at some point.

With the Connacht champions paired to meet the Leinster champions in Croke Park in round two of the qualifiers, Mayo and Galway might find that having lost to Dublin again up in Croke Park this spring, the next best thing is to win a league up there in their absence. But it’s also its own reward: to win a league.

And it can also be a platform for future campaigns. A Derry ’93 doesn’t happen with Derry winning the league of ’92. So obsessed are we all with Dublin’s drive for five, we’ve little 2020 vision, even though the James Horan and Peter Keane projects look likely to peak that year. Dublin will have a huge turnover of senior players after this season — Flynn, Brogan, MacManaman, McMahon, O’Gara, maybe even Cluxton, have only six to 18 months left in their county careers. You’d still just about give Dublin the edge over the rest of the field for Sam 2019. But we’d now give the field the edge over Dublin for Sam 2020. Cracks are beginning to appear in one setup. And confidence is growing among others.

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