It remains the view of many knowledgeable people that Dublin will win this year’s All-Ireland football championship. With that in mind, it was fascinating to watch them play Kildare under lights in Croke Park last Saturday evening.
Against Kildare, Dublin were deserved winners but they were not convincing.
It would obviously be an act of extreme foolishness to pass judgment on their chances of recovering the All-Ireland after just a single league match.
But if it is permissible to declare Dublin as favourites or second favourites for the All-Ireland, it must be allowed also that there are significant question marks over this supposed favouritism.
As things stand, it is widely considered that the All-Ireland is between Dublin and Kerry. This presumption is based on the notion that Kerry will be better for having won last year, that the team will have matured and that, in particular, they will strengthen their defence.
And as there was just a point between Dublin and Kerry in last year’s semi-final, both teams are presented as being ahead of the pack.
For their part, those who believe that Dublin will win in 2023 mostly point to the absence of Con O’Callaghan in last year’s semi-final. A fit Con, so the logic goes, would have meant a Dublin victory. The return of Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion is seen to further underline the idea that Dublin will be sufficiently improved this year to win Sam.
Con was back in the team and played well last weekend – but he was not devastating, in the way that he can be. Any team that he plays in will have a chance of winning any match. It is a quality which separates him and David Clifford from every other forward in Gaelic football.
But to consider him the answer to all of Dublin’s problems is not realistic.
What was very striking on Saturday was the decline in skill-level of Dublin. They were sloppy in possession and inaccurate in shooting. When Dublin were dominant in the All-Ireland championship, much was made of their physical prowess. That they were fitter than every other team was routinely posited as central to their record-breaking successes.
And of course Dublin’s athleticism was outstanding and crucial.
But what was also vital was the fact that Dublin were more skilful than every team they played against. Whether matches were played in January or May or September, Dublin just had better footballers than their opponents. They were precise and accurate and – until they got too obsessed with taking risk out of the game – they were able to use those attributes when it mattered the most.
Against Kildare last weekend, Dublin gave away the ball so often that Kildare enjoyed more possession in the game. And the only Dublin forward to score from play in the first half was Niall Scully, who kicked an excellent point late in the half. Littered around this were some poor misses and even poorer shot selection.
The returns of Paul Mannion and Jack McCaffrey will doubtless raise the quality significantly. Similarly, James McCarthy and Brian Howard will also be a huge help in this regard.
But what is striking is that all of those players are now in or entering the veteran category.
Of Dublin’s younger players, Sean Bugler and Paddy Small will also improve the team.
But there is no denying the enduring reliance on the old guard.
Will they be able to do what Kerry did in the 1980s?
It is worth recalling the nature of how the Kerry team that won four in a row between 1978 and 1981, before losing in 1982 and 1983, came back and won three in a row between 1984 and 1986.
The 1984-86 team remained hugely reliant on the four-in-a-row stars. From Jack O’Shea and Ogie Moran to Paidi Ó Sé and Pat Spillane, the core remained more or less constant. There were a couple of additions – notably John Kennedy and Ambrose O’Donovan in 1984 – but there was not wholesale change.
By the time of the three-in-a-row 1986 victory over Tyrone, the only other permanent additions to play every match in the championship were Willie Maher and Timmy O’Dowd.
But the fact remains that the top five scorers for the year were Mikey Sheehy, Pat Spillane, Eoin Liston, Ger Power and Jack O’Shea.
And Pat Spillane was named 1986 Footballer of the Year, as Kerry coasted to All-Ireland victory.
That there were simply not the players to replace them was apparent when Kerry slumped to more than a decade without an All-Ireland after 1986.
The question now is a simple one: will Dublin be able to return after their own two-year losing streak and win the Sam Maguire?
In this attempt to win again, what Dublin are trying to do is a little different than Kerry in 1984 – they are trying to blend the old with the new on a much larger scale.
This begs two very basic questions:
1. How many of the veterans are still able?
2. How many of the new generation are good enough?
These are questions that can only properly be answered in high summer when the intensity of championship is no respecter of age or reputation. All that matters is capacity to perform when it is most needed. To be sure, there will be no want of hunger. The sight of Kerry’s victory last summer will see to that. But you can hunger for something all you want, you still have to be able.
It will require considerable skill to blend this new team together. This is what makes the return of Pat Gilroy to the Dublin management team so intriguing. Gilroy is a hugely respected figure in Dublin GAA and is rightly perceived as the man who made possible the glories of the last decade by leading Dublin to victory in the 2011 All-Ireland championship.
His presence on the management team can only really mean a shift of power away from Dessie Farrell. To believe otherwise is to believe that Pat Gilroy is back but not really back at all.
Such a sharing of power is not necessarily wrong, need not create problems and might be precisely what Dublin need. But it is nonetheless an experiment that is intriguing. And it carries risk.
If it works, and if they can find the right blend among themselves, and then on the pitch, it may very well be that Dublin will dethrone Kerry.
At the moment, the evidence in either direction is not persuasive.
There is, of course, another prospect: across Divisions One and Two are other teams who will not be content to be also-rans to a two-horse race.
Like Dublin (and Kerry), they also have many problems to resolve.
It feels like this season is wide-open.