In hurling, there is no longer a Kilkenny that bestrides the narrow world like a colossus but in football there is.
The way Dublin set about another league campaign last weekend, making Kildare peep about to find themselves dishonourable graves, underlined just how Cats-like Dublin have been in nearly everything they do in recent years.
Once it was Cody who overshadowed the landscape like Caesar once did Rome. Now that spectre is Gavin.
Earlier that day, Jackie Tyrrell in his newspaper column pondered how hurling teams would approach the spring campaign, knowing there was another and more important league coming in May.
He personally would have found it quite a quandary were he still a player. Whereas every team now would probably have to pace themselves, on the team he played on there was no ‘taking it handy’ in the league.
“You went out to win every ball, every game, every league, every competition,” he’d write in The Irish Times.
“You went out, first and foremost, to win the jersey and then to hold onto it. If you were in any doubt about what was expected, you had Brian Cody’s words ringing in your ears the whole time. ‘I don’t care about a settled team. I care about a settled spirit.’”
In recounting the Kilkenny mindset, Tyrrell eloquently captured the essence of Dublin’s.
Everything about every Dublin player last Saturday screamed of that outlook, from Brian Howard making his first competitive start to a veteran superstar like Bernard Brogan.
They wanted to win every ball, and more so, to win and hold onto that jersey. If Gavin cared in a settled team, Brogan would have been a starter all through last year’s championship.
But because he doesn’t, he’s now giving Brogan a chance to start all through this year’s. One of the reasons they have a settled spirit is because there isn’t a settled team.
Once Dublin got on top of Kildare, there was hardly any let-up; as Jim Gavin noted, they reeled off 2-10 in the second half, all from play.
There was a team dimension driving such relentlessness; as a unit they were out to continue their adherence to one of the edicts of Tyrrell’s Warrior Code by putting football “out of these lads’ heads for a long time”, just as Kilkenny reduced every other team in their province to a similar state of learned helplessness.
But as Cody would explain in his own book, there’s also an individual dynamic to the ruthlessness. “Bring it down to man-on-man. Whether you’re 20 points up or 20 points down, the challenge is the same. Say, for instance, you’re the full-back and your team is comfortably ahead. The ball is dropping between you and the full-forward. Are you going to say, ‘I don’t care if he catches it over my head, turns and sticks it in the net — sure we’re going to win anyway’? No bloody way.You want to soar 10 feet in the air, grab the ball and drive it down the field.”
Gavin instils and operates by a similar creed. Last spring, when they were cruising to a comfortable win over Roscommon under the Croker lights, corner back Davy Byrne was whipped off four minutes before half-time when Kevin McStay’s team reduced the deficit from nine to eight.
Gavin’s backroom team now includes Lisa Fallon, renowned for her analysis work with League of Ireland champions Cork City as well as a previous collaboration with Kerry in the earlier part of Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s tenure, who has replaced Ray Boyne who after 15 years working with the senior footballers, has now teamed up with Pat Gilroy’s hurlers. And it would be no surprise if under Gavin’s request, her video analysis this week will not have queried how in the dying moments of last Saturday night’s game the team conceded a second goal for the first time in 11 competitive games.
In every player striving to win every ball, they’re naturally trying to win every game, every competition, including — especially — the league.
“You always wanted to get to a league final,” Tyrrell would say at the weekend, “because it would be played at close to championship pace.”
Under Cody, Kilkenny have contested eight league finals, winning six.
Under Gavin, Dublin have yet to fail to reach a league final, winning four, and losing just the one, to Kerry, by a point, which had the consolation of being played at a championship pace.
In fact, Gavin would identify a few more, namely the resilience of his team when they fell four points behind at one point midway through the
Indeed one of the most
revealing insights into how Dublin have won so much is in how they lose by so little.
In 44 league games under Gavin, they’ve lost just six times. And of those six losses, only one of them was by more than two points — a six-point defeat to Derry up in Celtic Park four years ago, which Dublin would avenge six weeks later with the heaviest league final hammering handed out to any team in 53 years.
A few years ago, we declared Cody’s Kilkenny the greatest GAA team of all-time, edging Mick O’Dwyer’s Kerry team out by virtue of a tie-breaker: while Cody’s Cats had amounted six league titles, O’Dwyer’s Kingdom had accumulated just the three.
Gavin’s Dublin are orbiting that pantheon.
This year they are seeking a fourth consecutive All-Ireland, something both O’Dwyer’s and Cody’s teams of all talents achieved.
And should they pull it off, their league record could similarly be the equivalent of goal difference in deciding the identity of the greatest football team the game has known.
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