Long before its conclusion, the 2018 football championship had assumed all the air and feel of a national league coming to its customary mild conclusion. Yeah, yeah ,yeah, yeah, OK, so such-and-such won it, fair play to them, but cut to the chase — how will they get on in the forthcoming championship?
That sense was all the more compounded last Sunday. Being well short of the sort of nailbiter which Mayo and Kerry subjected Dublin to in previous years and left neutrals breathless and moved, the sight of Stephen Cluxton and his teammates on the steps of the Hogan Stand to raise Sam Maguire aloft was a bit like impassively watching them up there some Sunday in April upon collecting and clocking up another league at their considerable leisure. They were always likely to win that but on to what’s next — will they win the big one?
They were always going to win four in a row — but will they win the five?
That Dublin reduced the 2018 championship to such a seeming inevitability, that they have reduced the league — even in its condensed Super-8, dog-eat-dog, week in, week out format — to a virtual inevitability, is a credit to and a reflection of their staggering and relentless consistency under Jim Gavin.
Already their year-round dominance is unmatched in football history. Under Gavin they’ve now hoovered up 10 of the 12 national titles available on his beat — five All-Irelands, five leagues. Under Micko, Kerry’s best stretch was five out of 12 — four All-Irelands and the ’82 league.
The Kerry four-in-a-row team of the late ’20s/early ’30s managed to also accumulate four leagues in that time span but even that peak period is two national titles short of the Gavin machine — as is Kilkenny hurling’s hottest streak under Cody.
But all sort of other possibilities are opening up to confirm their all-time supremacy and not just with a possible — probable — and unprecedented five in a row.
Just as the Ring-Doyle tally of eight All-Ireland medals seemed insurmountable before Shefflin and company came along to claim 10, Dublin footballers are now bordering on Kerry territory.
As of now the most senior All-Irelands won by a footballer is eight, all of them Kerrymen. James McCarthy already has six at 28. Ciarán Kilkenny has five at 25.
Could they do a Shefflin and JJ and Jackie and win nine or 10? If Jim Gavin wants to continue to sit in the captain’s seat of this particular plane beyond the current agreement of 2020, it seems more likely than not.
And should he do a Cody, or if the transition from him to his successor is as seamless as Shankly to Paisley — or indeed Gilroy to Gavin — (with Gavin very likely in a performance director of football role), then we’re looking at all kinds of milestones being surpassed.
Like overtaking Kerry on the roll of honour before 2050, something that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago; where once the gap was 14 with the chance to go to 15 on the eve of the 2011 All-Ireland final, now it’s down to just nine: Kerry with their 37, Dublin on their 28.
That now is the expectation of a Dublin footballer: To win All-Irelands, multiple.
Never in the long and proud history of Kerry or Gaelic football itself has the Kingdom been confronted by such a formidable prospect and rival.
When Tyrone and Armagh were at their most daring and innovative best in the last decade, it was often remarked how Kerry had encountered, adapted to, overcome, and outlasted such movements before: Kildare in the ’20s, Galway in the ’30s, Down and Galway in the ’60s, Heffo’s Dubs in the ’70s, Morgan’s Cork in the ’90s, then those uppity northerners of the noughties. But all those were just temporary tilts at the title.
All were mere teams, not counties. Dublin are not going away. Dublin are here for good.
Finally they have a Kilkenny and Tipp to their Cork.
Football, while being considerably more democratic than hurling with its Big Three, has essentially had just a Big One. Now in the grander historical scheme of things it has a Big Two.
Before we delve into how Kerry might respond to such a challenge, it’s worth remembering that Kerry under Éamonn Fitzmaurice responded as well as anyone — including Mayo — to the Gavin supremacy.
Although you would think from much of the commentary of the past month that it was only Lee Keegan & Co that put it up to Dublin the past six years, Kerry’s body of work against Dublin basically matches up to Mayo’s over that time. In the 2013 and 2016 semi-finals, they put Dublin as much to the pin of their collar as Mayo did in 2016 and 2017.
In the 2015 final, they lost by only three points though underperforming, while the same year Mayo lost by seven.
And that’s not to mention their 2017 league final triumph or the fact they ended up winning the 2014 All-Ireland, the only two pieces of silverware that have eluded Gavin.
Yet it wasn’t enough. And even all the things they’ve recently put in place — the underage structures that have resulted in five minor All-Irelands in a row, the Centre of Excellence in Currans — won’t be enough.
On a recent podcast with sportsjoe.ie’s Colm Parkinson, former Dublin footballer Paddy Christie spoke about how the team of ’95 struggled to adjust to Mickey Whelan’s new methods, with Christie attributing it to a lack of education.
That mindset and culture would change, though, with how Dublin GAA linked up with DCU where many of the current team have shared the same hallways and lecture halls as Niall Moyna and Mickey Whelan.
As well educated as the current Kerry player may be, there is still an anti-intellectual, almost macho streak within the county senior Kerry football culture.
From the kitman right up to every selector and the future senior manager, are they all willing to embrace something like the performance coaching role of a Bernard Dunne or a yoga instructor-sport psychology role of an Anne Marie Kennedy like the collective Dublin set-up has done?
Will they retain a high-performer like Joe O’Connor and link up even more so with the expertise in Tralee IT?
Will they continue with the tradition of their captain being the nomination of the county champions instead of the county manager at a time when a book like Sam Walker’s The Captain Class showcases the wisdom of Stephen Cluxton, a man yet to win a county with Parnells, being Gavin’s constant captain?
Especially when Kerry’s current internal leadership is lightweight compared to Dublin’s and Mayo’s since the retirement of the likes of Declan O’Sullivan, Aidan O’Mahony, Marc Ó Sé, and the likely departure of Kieran Donaghy?
Because understand this: Dublin aren’t looking at Kerry or even Cody’s Kilkenny when it comes to a model of best practice, as respectful as they are of the traditions and set-ups in those counties.
Jim Gavin’s benchmark is more a Joe Schmidt. Someone who works at a world-class, not just an All-Ireland, level.
For 2019 Mayo still represent the best — possibly only — hope of someone foiling the five in a row, but while the talent level of their current crop of players is in the same orbit as Dublin’s, is their county board in the same solar system as John Costello’s?
They’ve put great store in the recent announcement of a planned training centre by Lough Lannagh, Castlebar, but would the millions involved in such a project be better channelled into coaches rather than concrete?
Expertise rather than facilities? Counties like Derry, Laois, even Louth have centres of excellence but what’s excellent about football in those counties?
Dublin don’t have a centre of excellence but what they have is a coach for every two clubs, all on teacher’s salaries.
With the spectre of a blue-only future, the GAA now have to look to roll out nationwide the Marshall Plan they provided Dublin with in the Strategic Review Committee report of 2002; a bit like the Government with a housing crisis, Croke Park can no longer turn a blind eye to such gross inequality in how it distributes its games development funding.
But counties need to be more proactive in their own recovery. Start planning for the future like Limerick hurling did almost 10 years ago with the foundation of its academy and availing of the facilities in UL. After all, the future isn’t long coming round.
Probably the county best positioned to challenge Dublin in the ’30s onwards is Cork, every bit as much a sleeping giant as dormant Dublin were around that 2002 mark. It has the tradition and the population base.
In CIT and UCC it has obvious partners to tap into like Dublin with DCU and UCD, not just in terms of facilities but expertise.
Recently, the county board have teamed up with such local colleges in rolling out a pilot scheme not unlike the Dublin model, with two or three clubs pooling together to fund a sports science graduate to act as effective games development officers and coaches, with the other 50% of their wages met by GAA funding; clubs have until the end of this week to apply for such a collaboration.
Playing catch-up with Dublin it may well be, but football needs them and others to get back in the chase.
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