Although much has been said and written about their resources, their back-up and their depth of talent, their recent pre-eminence owes as much to their attitude as to anything else.
That attitude manifests itself in their reaction to being fouled coming out of defence with the ball. When the likes of Jack McCaffrey or James McCarthy get stopped in their tracks, we rarely see the type of petulance and irascibility displayed by previous defending champions. When Bernard Brogan, Eoghan O’Gara or Kevin McManamon aren’t granted a free kick because their natural strength masks the pounding they’re getting, they hardly ever resort to bitching and moaning to the referee. Instead they get on with the business of tackling to regain possession.
Whether by accident or design many champions of recent vintage have come undone because of indiscipline. Kerry teams in 2008 and 2010 floundered because they were missing key players in big games who decided winning wasn’t enough. Cork’s downfall in 2011 was brought about by a calamitous run of injuries to important players but their eventual swansong against Mayo saw them concede far too many kickable frees to Cillian O’Connor and lose a player to a straight red card at the death. Dublin in 2012 didn’t escape the curse of the defending champion but their demise was perhaps down to the inevitable slump that followed a first win in a decade and a half that saw Tiger Ireland rise and fall. Dublin football, after undergoing an unexpected revival, hadn’t yet fully learned to resist the charms of success.The promotional obligations after 2011 seemed to ensure the application and intensity were never the same when defending what had been won. That, and the hubris of playing a clearly injured player, Alan Brogan, did for Dublin in 2012.
Even Donegal, champions just two years ago, and ostensibly the most disciplined and least hubristic of all recent champions had a player sent off for a stamping incident last year when their reign went south against Mayo.
The message from the last half decade of flux seems clear – winners lose when they tire of winning. They don’t even notice it at first but the thing that made them champions, the thing that seemed irresistible on the way up becomes mundane when they get there.
The impulse to be an individual in a team environment becomes too strong and things start to unravel. This perhaps explains why Jim Gavin set discipline and humility as the cornerstones of his regime when he took over from Pat Gilroy in October 2012. Gavin said at the time he hoped to see Dublin teams that play with humility. “I’ll expect that from them. I’ll expect a disciplined approach, both on and off the field. I’ll expect the players will play with passion, but with discipline and respect for all officials and I’ll expect them to go out there and express themselves.”
Despite a few red cards in the league, a Machiavellian willingness to abandon core principles at the end of last year’s final and a few other isolated unsavoury incidents along the way, Gavin’s Dublin have remained true to his word. Dublin have kept on winning virtually as a by-product of their pursuit of excellence. Even though they have yet to be properly tested, you get the sense from all opponents left in their wake this year that they would appreciate Hemingway’s oft quoted line about how enthusiasm is never enough for aspiring fishermen.
This is especially true if you are going after Jaws. In that case, as Chief Brody of Amity Island put it — “you’re going to need a bigger boat!”
Monaghan are the latest team to crash like the tide against the rocks in Croke Park but it is unlikely they will do anything more than test Dublin’s sea-worthiness ahead before the champions face into a real battering from Donegal.
Even at their most belligerent best the Monaghan team that took Kerry to the brink in the All-Ireland quarter-final seven years ago, would struggle to get a reaction out of Dublin in their current state of imperturbability.
No matter what happens them during the course of this evening’s game, Dublin seem capable of ploughing on regardless. Monaghan, if they are really bold and audacious, will come out to play for the first time all season and might just commit more than two or three forwards to attack. The problem, however will probably be the same either way. Dublin showed how at ease they are with themselves at the back by putting Michael Fitzsimons on the opposition danger-man, Stephen Bray in the defender’s first big game this season. If Monaghan are on their game and have a well thought out plan they may cause some glittering Dublin names to be hauled ashore early this time as quarter-final weekend is always a good time for a manager to shake up the panel.
Monaghan themselves may introduce honeymooners such as Cormac Costelloe and Nicky Devereaux to the real world of inter-county championship football. Rory Beggan might outscore Stephen Cluxton and he may even be the first goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet in Croke Park against Dublin since Cork on the first of March. Heck, Malachy O’ Rourke might even have all the main angles covered most of the time. But against a team with Dublin’s attitude, pace and it still won’t be enough. Staying in the game longer than any team have done to date might get Dublin sufficiently concerned ahead of the semi-final but it won’t kill them – it will just make them stronger.
The first game at headquarters is an altogether less predictable affair.
Because Armagh have spent the entire summer ducking and diving, and Donegal’s instinct is not to come out to play until they get to Croke Park, this should be a cagey enough game.
Both teams play a type of football that is adapted, much like a reptile or an insect, to its function which is, of course, to win games.
Just like a bee in autumn, both teams waste nothing in their movements. Every run, every pass, every tackle has a purpose and nobody goes missing. For very different reasons, there is a sense of desperation about Donegal and Armagh this weekend. Donegal are desperate because they have wasted a year when many of their best players don’t have that time to throw away. Armagh, for their part, have started to enjoy the buzz of championship football this late in the year and will want to squeeze every last drop out of the summer that keeps on giving. It might not come again.
The key to the outcome is that, Roscommon aside, for the first time this season Armagh are about to meet a team who have trained and played under their system for a sustained period. Having a double layer of orange-clad players on or behind their 50 yard line won’t faze Donegal.
They are likely to build just as patiently from the back as Armagh do and despite the fact that he would relish a more advanced role, Michael Murphy is likely to be used further back the field for the sake of his team. Murphy has the strength to break any tackles when he moves into an attacking area and the option of matching him up sporadically with either Charlie Vernon or Brendan Donaghy could prove fruitful too.
Because they are further down the road than Armagh are, Donegal are less likely to lose their shape when the pressure comes on. Having Murphy back behind midfield means that Paddy McGrath will be able to play the sweeper role and ramble with impunity like he did in the Ulster final when Conor McManus and Kieran Hughes were frustrated by his presence in front of them. Expect Jamie Clarke and Tony Kernan to be similarly frustrated this evening. What’s going to happen? Who’s going to get their crack at Dublin?
It being the weekend of the Dingle Races, I am reminded of stories told of the Sammy in the Barrel or Bully Maggie character of race meetings gone by. Sammy was, by all accounts, a trickster, a jack in the box, a will o’ the wisp at a time when travelling musicians and singers, three-card trick men, weightlifters, fortune tellers and pedlars of the arts were the order of the day.
Ducking and diving, he urged the punters to take their pot-shots with wet sponges, urging them to hit him with a well timed effort and win the prize.
“Roll up, roll up” he said, “take your shot, anything can happen”
Anything can happen this evening too, but I expect Dublin and Donegal to advance.