Because only Kerry in modern times have managed to retain their title, it has become almost axiomatic that reigning champions will fall at some hurdle along the way. It needn’t be so and in the case of Dublin nothing more than an indifferent league campaign and wishful thinking on the part of other contenders suggests they can’t become champions again.
The team selection for tomorrow’s clash with Louth should see Dublin operating at close to full throttle earlier than expected. There was a hint during the league, which saw Dublin only beat the teams that finished below them (Laois, Armagh and Donegal) and lose their last three successive games, that Pat Gilroy was aiming to get his team to peak for a possible late July date with Kildare.
The expectation was that perhaps he might have even thrown a few of last month’s successful U21 team into the fray to check their pulses. That he hasn’t experimented shows that Dublin have shed their winter skin and are in championship mode.
The last time we had a defending All-Ireland champion from Leinster, Meath were still unknowable and unbeatable to most football counties but they crashed out to Offaly on the June Bank Holiday Sunday of 2000 with Trevor Giles famously commenting about not wanting to win an All-Ireland on a building site. The back door and a reasonably handy draw should ensure Dublin avoid the ambushes this time and the best chance of catching them would be if they were to lose a Leinster final on July 22 and have a tough assignment a week later.
At some stage since the big win last September, I have no doubt Dublin got fed up being told they rode their luck at critical stages to beat Kerry, Kildare, Donegal and even Wexford but they will surely be encouraged that they, of all the champions of the last decade, have the most scope for improvement.
You might struggle to find a more potent six forwards than those selected for tomorrow and Eoghan O’Gara was showing real signs during the league that he is ready to become more than just a battering ram up front and once Ciarán Kilkenny gets his Leaving Cert out of the way, it will only increase the amount of options available to the Dublin selectors.
Dublin supporters are already salivating at the prospect of Diarmuid Connolly, the Brogans and Kevin McManamon allied to the hard work of Cullen and Flynn revealing some of the hidden potential of forward play. With O’Gara, Kilkenny and possibly U21 Gary Sweeney added to the mix, the possibilities this summer appear boundless.
The Dubs seem to have back up in every line of the field now with Jack McCaffrey (post Leaving Cert), Cian O’Sullivan (once recovered), Barry Cahill, Johnny Cooper, Craig Dias and Denis Bastick among those not even on the starting 15 against Louth.
The only thing Dublin have to prove at this stage of the championship is the capacity to recover the manic hunger that defined the tail end of last season. The indiscipline of spring can and will be ironed out but it might be a bit more difficult to get the team committing to a team ethic in areas like tackling, covering for others, diving in on breaks and the countless other maintenance jobs that ensure things go smoothly.
Kerry’s sloppiness in Thurles last Sunday serves as a further reminder to Dublin of the pitfalls of disrespecting or looking beyond immediate opponents.
Louth’s injury-time goal against Westmeath a fortnight ago merely papers over the cracks of a desperately poor showing and despite their stated ambitions of having a cut off Dublin and playing all out attacking football, their naive nature is bound to catch up with them. Having already blown off the league cobwebs with a championship game is worth something, Paddy Keenan and Ronan Carroll should do better at midfield after getting cleaned out by John Heslin against Westmeath and Darren Clarke will take watching up front.
Other than that though, there isn’t even a grudge factor between the teams to stir things up after Pat Gilroy’s typical showing of respect for Louth when they exited the championship at Dublin’s hands two seasons ago.
Louth haven’t beaten Dublin since 1973 and have lost to them 13 times since. The only thing they both have in common in the last two seasons is the concession of five goals to Meath. Dublin have moved on since then. Louth haven’t. Dublin should ease home.
The Longford v Wexford game promises to be one of those games where you get to measure in a carefully calibrated way, the difference between league and championship. It’s little over a month ago that these two teams fought out the proverbial game of two halves in the league Division 3 final and it will be interesting to gauge how much progress both teams have made in the meantime.
While Longford’s win against Laois two weeks ago hardly registers as a shock, it still represents the only turn up for the books so far in Championship 2012. Longford have a light young team on something of a roll which means they need good weather conditions and top of the ground type of game. They should get that tomorrow but they must get an awful lot cleverer on their own kickout if they’re to advance. Damien Sheridan is a fine keeper but his booming restarts don’t always give his half backs and half forwards the best chance of securing possession and they can’t expect Paul Barden to keep bailing them out from the forty.
Wexford will take fierce encouragement from their second half showing in the league final when they outscored Longford by ten points to two and with Ben Brosnan and Niall Murphy in better shape this time out, I believe they can set up a rematch with Dublin in July.