Kieran Shannon.


Can anyone catch the mighty Dublin?

Such supremacy is as a measure of the GAA’s negligence as it is of Dublin’s exemplary management, from John Costello to Jim Gavin, writes Kieran Shannon.

Can anyone catch the mighty Dublin?

On the last page of  The Road To Croker, his rollicking travelogue following the 2003 GAA championships, the writer Eamonn Sweeney retreats to a bar near Croke Park shortly after Tyrone have claimed Sam Maguire for the first time. Just as he’s sipping a pint to take in all he’s just witnessed, he overhears a conversation between Tyrone fans already discussing the following year.

They like their own county’s chances; now that they’ve finally won one, that group of players could go on to win three or four.

“I suppose,” one of them nods, “but Kerry will bounce back.” Then someone mentions Cork. And how there might be a last kick in Sean Boylan’s Meath. There’ll certainly be another one in Armagh.

“And the Dubs,” muses someone, “you know, they’ll not be bad.” It leaves Sweeney with the line to finish his book. “When you think that it’s over, it’s only begun.”

As it would transpire, those Tyrone supporters pretty much foresaw the rest of the decade, not just the following year. Kerry would indeed bounce back to win the 2004 championship. That group of Tyrone players would go on to win three All-Irelands. Armagh would not go away though they wouldn’t quite get back to the summit. And while Cork and Dublin would both flop again in 2004, they would thereafter embark steely-eyed on a march back to credibility, relevance, and contention before ultimately claiming the first two All-Irelands of the following decade. Only Meath failed to make any great noise — and even they would make it back to two All-Ireland semi-finals before the noughties was out.

Nowadays talk of next year doesn’t wait for supporters to make their way to some watering hole. It starts out on the pitch, under the golden ticker-tape, with Johnny Cooper declaring to TV reporters that Dublin aren’t finished with the business of winning All-Irelands.

Even the losing dressing room are eyeing the following year before they traipse out of the place; at this stage we know Mayo too well to know any vow that they’ll be back isn’t empty rhetoric.

But what about everyone else? What can they say? What can we say about them?

Minutes before this year’s hurling All-Ireland final, Tony Browne made the point to RTÉ sideline reporter Claire McNamara that the upcoming game was also an appetiser of what was to come in 2018 and beyond. He expanded on his point a few days later in his column for this paper. Hurling was now living in a post-Kilkenny world and up to seven counties could win the following year’s All-Ireland, even if one of those seven was Kilkenny.

Football’s landscape appears much different. It’s very much Dublin’s world, only Mayo and Kerry are able to live with them and everyone else just seems to inhabit it. Last Sunday was the best case yet for the Super 8s, a format that almost guarantees another clash of these two titans at some point next summer, and no one would be surprised or disappointed if they ended up meeting in another final too. Yet as brilliant as it to see more Dublin-Mayo just as it is to watch Mayo-Kerry and Kerry-Dublin, football requires new faces to enter the equation of epic matchups, now that Donegal have departed it.

Tyrone still appear the best hope, even if hope is all it possibly is. Next year’s Division One will see plenty of experimentation (before Dublin invariably win it): Kerry will blood a few more of their 2014 and 2015 minors as well as the star pupil of the 2017 class – is there even a need to say who that is? Mayo will – or at least should – rest key veterans and finally give more of the 2016 U21s their head; Monaghan will rotate their squad to an unprecedented level, their year along with Roscommon’s having taught them that relegation isn’t fatal but a lack of freshness come high summer is.

Tyrone’s experimentation will come more in the guise of tactics than personnel. Dublin – and Mayo – have underlined what they and the rest of Ulster should have absorbed at the end of 2016, if not 2015: What wins in Ulster won’t cut it in Croke Park. Not against the big boys. Having so many bodies back is the new naivety.

Like Monaghan, even possibly Mayo, it could leave Mickey Harte’s side vulnerable to relegation, but what about it? When you realise that what got you to here won’t get you to there, sometimes you have to get worse to get better.

There’s a reason though why Mickey Harte asked to be kept on until 2020. It could take three years for Tyrone to be good enough to reach or win a final. Even in Kerry, in the aftermath of the Mayo replay there’s an acceptance that the gap between them and Dublin isn’t going to close over the next year or two.

So if that’s where Tyrone and Kerry are, what about the rest? It’s impossible to see any of them challenging, let alone, winning, in 2018. What you’d be looking at though is for someone to make it their moving year, along the lines of Donegal and Mayo in 2011.

Both Jim McGuinness and James Horan recognised the low hanging fruit in their own county and of all the managers and counties out there, Ronan McCarthy and Cork would appear best-placed to follow their example.

There is just as much talent in Cork now as there was in Donegal and Mayo in 2010 after the wreckages of Crossmaglen and Longford. What McGuinness and Horan were able to do was sell a vision and sense of cause to their players. Can football mean as much to Cork players as it did to those Donegal players and what it still does to those Mayo players? Can they buy into the lifestyle that the Cantys lived by and instilled not that long ago? If McCarthy can achieve that, then Cork are primed to climb, especially from Division Two where Donegal started out in 2011. It will take Cork more than two years to win an All-Ireland but it should not be a stretch for them to get back to a final within three.

If it’s shocking that Cork haven’t been in an All-Ireland semi-final since 2012 – at the outset of this decade, remember, the future looked red, not blue; Cork, not Dublin, had the team culture everyone else aspired to – then the plight and decline of Meath since – well, you could say September 2001 – is scandalous.

There are many reasons for that – not least that they’re paying for the sins of an underwhelming county board propped up by the brilliance of Sean Boylan – but even with what they have they should be doing more. Just like Ronan McCarthy, Andy McEntee has to get his team out of Division Two. Meath have been there for far too long.

That they haven’t been exposed to more spring football against the likes of Dublin and Mayo is an indictment of the GAA too though. During the summer, Sligo player Niall Ewing made a shrew observation.

“Since the Division One to Division Four [format] came in there’s a situation that has developed that the best five or six teams are constantly playing against each other and they’re making each other better.

“It’s very disappointing for ourselves when you only play a Division One team once a year. I remember when there was Division 1A and 1B and there was a more even split of teams. Smaller teams were probably playing bigger teams more often and there were bigger teams coming down to the smaller grounds playing so-called weaker teams. Everything [now] seems to be about developing this elite.”

That’s been a major if largely unspoken factor as to why we have so few contenders.

Ask yourself this: What counties are currently enjoying their best decade in over half a century? Dublin, just as Tyrone had their best decade in the noughties. Donegal, just as Armagh had their best in the noughties. After that, you’re only talking about Mayo, Monaghan and Tipperary. In the noughties you had Sligo, Fermanagh, Laois, Westmeath, Wexford and Limerick all enjoy a golden decade while Banty’s Monaghan laid the ground for Malachy’s.

Such competitiveness wasn’t by accident. That was by design – the GAA’s, with its league format. So is the current elitism, as Ewing has identified.

That’s why the usual line that there have always been dominant teams rings hollow. Between 2003 and 2008 Tyrone were beaten by the likes of Donegal, Derry, Laois, Meath, Down, none of them All-Ireland finalists during that era; Kerry were brought to a replay by Limerick. Since 2011, Dublin have only been beaten in championship by Mayo and Donegal and tested by Kerry. No one else since Cork in 2013 has come close.

Such supremacy is as a measure of the GAA’s negligence as it is of Dublin’s exemplary management, from Costello to Gavin.

Of course there is one retort to all this: Mayo, just like Donegal before them. As James Horan put it there recently, there’s no Abramovich in Castlebar, just as there wasn’t one in Letterkenny. Counties have to do more to help themselves.

Galway and Kildare have put themselves in position to make a further move for position; a season in Division One and possibly a big scalp at home in the Super 8s will bring them on. But as for reaching a final, let alone winning it? Too soon.

For 2018, Mayo still seem all that’s between Cooper celebrating another All-Ireland in Coppers’.

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