DARA O'CINNEIDE: No-one’s going to Killarney for the scenery

IF Bertie Ahern is entitled to an artist’s exemption on the grounds that a certain amount of creative and imaginative toil went into the production of his biography, then surely the humble hack tasked with previewing the National League deserves similar treatment.

We can make confident-sounding predictions but, in truth, guessing what will happen in the National League in any given year requires a leap of imagination as great as anything managed by our former Taoiseach. The league remains the most curious of competitions, unique almost in a global sporting context in that it tends to generate more excitement at the start of competition than it does at climax.

The fun at this time of the GAA year is in trying to figure out who wants to win the league more and who needs to win the league more.

Apart from Galway under new management, very few teams in Division 1of Allianz NFL 2010 have as much to gain as Dublin have this spring. The penny has surely dropped by now that Dublin can no longer continue to turn up their noses the National Football League and the correlation between Dublin’s last league win and their subsequent success surely hasn’t gone unnoticed.

While there may be a sense amongst the Dublin faithful that a good run in the League would do their team no harm, they will know too that the GAA’s second competition offers no real chance of atonement for the sins of summers past.

Even if the last 14 summers have helped to quell the sometimes ridiculous and often unrealistic demands on the team, the ghosts that spook Dublin football will have to be exorcised in Croke Park in September, or in August at the very least to fully restore confidence.

There was always a debate over whether Dublin were an underachieving or over-hyped team but in 2009 they finally exhausted our willingness to be deceived into thinking that they might be on the cusp of something big. Because of the abject nature of their capitulation in last year’s quarter-final, it will be a while before anyone begins to believe again.

As he begins his primary task of restoring belief to his team, Pat Gilroy will probably be thankful for any lull in expectation levels before the bandwagon inevitably begins rolling again.

DUBLIN start their campaign tomorrow against Kerry, the same county that, in the words of their own manager, had them resembling “startled earwigs” in Croke Park last August. While conscious that the road back will be long and arduous, Gilroy and his team will surely see this game as a chance to take a small step towards redemption.

Having tried to overcome the trauma of being mauled by Tyrone in 2008 by ignoring it, Dublin will have to draw up a new roadmap for recovery in 2010. Gilroy is again faced with the dilemma of whether to undergo some radical rebuilding or to trust in some familiar faces to bounce back from a series of crushing disappointments.

In this regard, the Dublin team selection for tomorrow’s match tells us something about what may lie ahead for Dublin in 2010. Alan Brogan, Denis Bastic, Barry Cahill, Ger Brennan, Conal Keaney Pat Burke, Mossie Quinn, Mark Davoren and Darren Magee are absent for various reasons but novices like the O’Carroll brothers and Philly McMahon get their chance to make an impression in a county where Dublin haven’t won a match on their travels since the halcyon days when Dublin players and fans could realistically expect to dream.

Gooch’s Nagasaki moment last August bank holiday Monday represented the merciless killing of a dream but in a peculiar way, Dublin and particularly this group of Dublin players needed that definitive punctuation mark so that they could get on with the business of closing the book on the tragi-comedy they had become.

GILROY too, will surely have learnt much from his freshman mistakes. Of these, allowing the dissolution of the best midfield partnership in the country to happen (Whelan & Ryan) was probably his biggest mistake and also most likely the hardest for the true blues to forgive. Playing a completely new full back line (Andrews, Bastic & Hubbard) against the All Ireland champions in front of 80,000 people in the corresponding fixture last year was also a bold move. Steeling the O’Carroll brothers and Philly McMahon in front of a few diehard travelling fans and a few thousand curious local aficionados might not be as adventurous but it represents a statement and a different departure nonetheless.

The Dublin management were also criticised for not trying anybody other than Denis Bastic in the full-back position throughout all of last year’s league campaign. When the pace quickened and the angles of running changed in early August, Bastic’s aggressive but ultimately crude style got badly exposed. Should a rookie full back be used as a stick to beat management with though? The only difference between Rory O’Carroll and his Kerry counterpart tomorrow, Tommy Griffin, is ten years experience and a healthier and more stable environment for hot-housing full-backs.

Those who decry the selection of David Henry and Alan Hubbard in the forwards forget that both players have regularly played club football up front. Henry will probably play further outfield than corner forward and will contribute to the traffic jams that will be expected to disrupt the one man ‘mark’ machine that Micheal Quirke has become under the experimental rules in 2010. It is also hoped the congestion would have the effect of stifling Kerry’s strongest line of Galvin, O Sullivan and Walsh.

Tomorrow’s match is unlikely to be viewed as a revenge mission but as a former player I know that if Kerry got a crack at Meath so soon after our own Croke Park tragic-comedy at the start of the last decade, we wouldn’t lack for motivation.

Next Monday week, when the Dublin County Board and Croke Park sit down to a strategy day, it represent a bigger day in the history of Dublin GAA than tomorrow, but the small things such as league points matter too at this time of year. Whatever about two league points, by the time Dublin footballers return to Parnell Park with Bertie’s support ringing in their ears next Saturday evening, they could have some valuable lessons learnt in Killarney.


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