t was always going to happen. The most surprising thing about it, is that it took until nearly July before we were exposed to our first outbreak of championship restructuring talk.
Twenty three National League places separated the Leinster semi-finalists Dublin and Westmeath on Sunday in Croke Park and it went the way everyone thought it would. The Division One finalists put up record numbers in a seismic 31-point victory against the Division Four champions from earlier this year. Populations sizes of around 1.3 million against 88,000, coupled with the Metropolitans chasing history, meant there was only ever going to be one winner. Nothing to see here.
Westmeath seemed intent on bringing a more positive approach to the game and set up without the same additional defensive cover that kept them in their last two Leinster championship encounters against the Dubs, at least until half-time.
Dublin descended on Westmeath’s repeated long kick-outs like hungry vultures attacking a carcass in the desert. Therein was the platform that the relentless champions used. Their movement and pace gave them the world of time on the ball. They played with their heads up, and under no real pressure were able to pick holes in the Westmeath defence and kick scores at their ease. It was a complete stroll, with very little by way of proper competitive championship intensity.
Mind you, that wasn’t Dublin’s fault. For all their obvious abundances of talent and athleticism, it’s their ruthlessness I admire most.
Their ability to eviscerate inferior opponents is an absolute joy to behold. After Sunday, their average winning margin in Leinster in the past number of years stands at around 16 points per game. And despite their successes and haul of silverware since 2011, their hunger shows no sign of waning.
Old-school thinking would suggest that the more a team wins, the duller their edge becomes. The greater the struggle to ‘get-up’ to play the minnows and the more they need the buzz of the big games to really get the competitive juices flowing.
Not this Dublin.
Their management has fostered a mental strength within their players to keep them chasing their incredibly high standards, generated from within their own group as opposed to worrying about beating the opposition they face. They are competing against themselves.
With the likes of Paul Mannion, Con O’Callaghan, and Niall Scully coming in and performing the way they did, it keeps some of the more established operators like Bernard Brogan, Eoghan O’Gara, and Kevin McManamon looking on from the middle of the Hogan Stand with a scowl on their faces and a fire in their bellies. That’s the source of their hunger and incessant drive to perform, not just to beat Westmeath by 31 points. That result is only a symptom of their insatiable desire to try to claim and keep a Dublin jersey, either on the 15 or the 26.
And those players know that their manager isn’t averse to making a big call if he feels you are not performing at the level the jersey demands. That’s the kind of team culture they have created in Dublin.
owever, for all the excellence Jim Gavin has cultivated with this group of players, I believe he made one of the worst calls of his highly successful reign after the game last weekend by not doing any one-on-one interviews with the broadcast media in the tunnel immediately after the game as per usual.
Not because the viewing public were denied any false platitudes about what an excellent outfit Westmeath were; those interviews are a standard shade of bland no matter the interviewee. But because the Dublin manager wanted to make a point that he was disappointed with the role played in particular by the same broadcast media with whom he is normally so generous with his time, with respect to Diarmuid Connolly receiving a 12-week suspension.
He felt that Pat Spillane and Colm O’Rourke on The Sunday Game, particularly Pat, went overboard in their assessment of the incident. As did Sky Sports apparently, who even had the audacity to even display the rule on screen during their live broadcast.
The 15-minute press conference seemed far more interesting and entertaining that the 75 minutes of football that had preceded it.
Having never met the man or spoke to him, Jim Gavin appears from what I’ve seen of him from afar, to be a shrewd, thoughtful, decent kind of character. He would have been acutely aware that his decision to alter his relationship with the broadcast media in the way he did, coupled with the statement he made afterwards would have headline-grabbing ramifications. I’m sure his motives were well calculated.
Perhaps this is him pulling up the drawbridge. This is the dawning of their siege mentality, that he and his players must band together even more than ever for the remainder of the season. He probably wanted to show loyalty to the group, even if that meant taking a hit himself. You know the ‘we’re all in this together, and to hell with anybody outside’ kind of thing.
Trying to achieve something incredibly special in sport like going for three All-Ireland titles in a row is a once in a lifetime opportunity, Gavin knows that won’t happen with anything less than a once-in-a-lifetime effort. What you did last year may not cut it this year, you’ve got to progress and keep getting better.
For what it’s worth, despite whatever may or may not have been his intentions, I think the Dublin manager got this one wrong. And it’s probably the first time you could say that about his term in charge.
All he has really succeeded in doing was to reignite a blazing fire around one of his most talented players, flames that by now were almost completed quenched. He took the spotlight off his team’s mesmeric performance over Westmeath and placed it on something negative that was better off staying in the shadows.
As someone who is the leader at the cutting edge of a high-performance coaching environment and as someone who has often alluded to their set-up as being player-led, I really can’t understand why Jim Gavin would suddenly depart from those pillars of the team culture. Why he would try to unburden the player of all responsibility for what was an obvious, if momentary, loss of discipline, by trying to apportion blame to Pat Spillane, RTÉ, or Sky Sports instead?
The key point that Jim and a lot of people seem to have missed; Diarmuid Connolly is solely responsible for Diarmuid Connolly’s actions on the football pitch. Nobody else. The 12-week suspension he is serving is as a result of actions he took when he pushed the linesman. Those actions were covered by rule. It’s clear cut. I had to re-watch the tape to be sure, but it definitely wasn’t Pat Spillane, or Colm O’Rourke and it sure wasn’t Sky Sports that shoved Ciaran Brannigan.
They weren’t questioning his ‘good name’ either, as Jim Gavin put it, they were simply stating the facts. And the facts were, given the precedent of the punishment handed down to Tipperary’s Evan Comerford for a similar incident in a recent club match, Diarmuid Connolly was likely facing a lengthy suspension because of his actions.
Like most managers, Jim was far less outraged when Ciaran Whelan used his platform on The Sunday Game to highlight Mayo’s Lee Keegan’s continued man-handling of Diarmuid Connolly that went largely unpunished by the officials between last year’s epic Mayo and Dublin’s All-Ireland final match-up.
Whelan implored officials to watch out for the “instigator”, before showing clips highlighting Keegan as the main protagonist. Mayo supporters could nearly claim that their man’s good name was being smeared. That fact that he got an early black card dismissal in the replay could be construed as another win for The Sunday Game crew, if one was applying the kind of logic that Jim brought to the post-match presser. But again, that would be churlish.
Lee Keegan got himself black-carded, and Connolly got himself suspended. Players play the game, not pundits. The buck stops with them, and nobody else.