If Dublin heads are right, this is their game to lose

When I stepped down from Dublin last September, I was barely back down the M7 when some people already thought I had relocated to Galway. 

If Dublin heads are right, this is their game to lose

The stories were doing the rounds that the ink was just dry on the deal.

One local media head of sport in the county made stupid comments about a potential and impending appointment (apparently going as far as to say I couldn’t be afforded). God love us, never let the truth get in the way of some class of a story anyway. The only one who didn’t seem to know what was going on was me.

They are never slow about rashly taking out the knives in Galway - just ask Ger Loughnane - and there was some talk about a push on Anthony Cunningham at that time. It obviously wasn’t that strong when nothing happened and Anthony was re-appointed. He deserved another chance especially with young coach Eugene Cloonan being very well respected by players and only one season under his belt.

I had no plans to take on another high-profile inter-county job in the immediate future but nobody from the County Board in Galway approached me at any stage. The phone never rang once. All I was doing was reading about supposed phone calls.

When Dublin and Galway were pulled out of the hat together last October, I thought to myself was, ‘Thank God that phone didn’t ring’. The last thing I would have wanted this weekend would be to be facing the Dubs in Croke Park with a maroon top on my back.

It will be a strange enough occasion for me anyway. Over the course of the last 26 years, it’s only my fifth time not involved with an inter-county team as either a player or manager during a championship season. I found it slightly weird last Sunday in Thurles, but tomorrow will be even stranger, given how immersed I was with the Dubs over the last six seasons.

I’ll be able to fully enjoy the day, to relax and switch off instead of being doped up to the gills on adrenalin and anticipation.

With Galway in the other corner, it will also rekindle some great memories. Two of the greatest days Dublin hurling has had in the last five years has been against Galway – the 2011 Leinster semi-final and the 2013 Leinster final. Those games reminded me of Clare meetings with Galway and Offaly in 1995 after we’d broken through in Munster. There was no rivalry or history and we could just have a cut and express ourselves.

When Dublin met Wexford the last two years in Wexford Park, there was way more fear. No disrespect to Galway hurling but Dublin just have no modern history of losing to them in comparison to the memories of the bad days against Wexford which still hang around Dublin hurling’s subconscious.

With each passing season, Dublin have gradually rinsed those doubts from their minds. The two bad days during the spring against Cork were the only blips on a graph of progress from last season but they’re not without all doubt either.

For a start, there has been uncertainty about the goal-keeping position. I’m led to believe that the two goalkeepers – Gary Maguire and Alan Nolan – had no idea all week who was going to start. Both are brilliant keepers but if I was in their shoes and especially knowing their healthy respect and rivalry, they’d prefer to know sooner than last night, just to prepare the mind 100%.

It’s a big step up for Cian O’Callaghan in the full-back line, and especially Chris Crummy in the pivotal position of centre-back. He had some great days in the league, and equally some tough ones; excellent on Declan Hannon against Limerick, he struggled on Cork’s Seamus Harnedy.

Chris will have the trust of his team-mates but how will he cope when faced with the robust and aggressive Cyril Donnellan? How will Chris manage if Joe Canning decides to spend some time in his company? Any young centre-back has to be fired into the deep end at some stage but tomorrow is choppy waters to begin with.

The loss of the three Burkes - David, Daithi and Niall - along with Conor Cooney, is a huge blow to Galway. It reminds me a little of Clare last week and the impact that had on their chances. If the Dubs’ heads are right, and I think they are in a good place, this is their game to lose.

They seem to have all their ducks in a row; Danny Sutcliffe is back fully fit, Ben Quinn is reportedly flying around the middle of the field, Peter Kelly has been restored to his best position at full-back and both Schutte brothers were on the team of the league.

The fact that guys like Johnny McCaffrey, Joey Boland and Mikey Carton, three huge players and leaders within the squad, are fighting for their place further underlines the depth of talent and experience the Dubs now have to call on.

Dublin look to have reached that optimum stage of maturity. After six years listening to me, I’d be the first to admit that a fresh voice was needed.

It wasn’t as if they were a washed up team after those six years but, at a time when some players are reaching their peak and other young players were finally ready to step up, a new direction has re-energised them. To date, Ger Cunningham has done a top class job.

Galway’s forwards should be suited to Croke Park. On his worst day, Johnny Glynn will fetch a few balls. On a good day, he could wreak havoc and score three goals. Galway have firepower in their inside line and they could put up a big score.

I just think Dublin will rack up more because their defence looks far more settled than Galway’s. This is a great chance for Dublin, an important first step on winning a Leinster title this year which is well within their grasp.

On another issue, it was very sad and disappointing to see Seamus ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett depart from Laois during the week. After a difficult league campaign, followed by a tough qualifying campaign in Leinster, Laois have a huge chance to scalp Offaly in Portlaoise next weekend.

For him to walk away – as we’re led to believe – because two players played a club challenge game on Monday night, is even more disappointing. The logical reaction would be to drop the two players but as a manager you have to your principles, fight for what you believe in and be hopeful the players back you on that.

Maybe there is some other underlying issue here - I could always appreciate a lad wanting a match to sharpen up if he wasn’t seeing game time - but to lose a man who finally looked to be taking Laois somewhere is a real shame.

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