When Cork exited the championship in early July, Leesiders’ football interest moved from supporting our own to the ABK camp.
In the month that has followed, thanks largely to the exploits of Galway and Monaghan, the “Anyone But Kerry” bandwagon no longer requires our armchair backing.
At the semi-final stage, we are left with a situation where no outcome is dreaded.
The preferred sight on September 2 in most neutrals’ eyes is the sight of Monaghan lifting Sam Maguire for the first time in their history.
One would think that other than that, a Galway or Tyrone victory would be more palatable than seeing Dublin complete the four-in-a-row.
However, given the respective teams’ style of play, most neutrals would be at peace with the 2019 storyline being all about the Dubs and their quest for a first five in a row.
As things stand, Dublin are odds-on favourites to make that happen. Regardless of what criteria is employed, Jim Gavin’s men hold all the trump cards. Experience, individual brilliance, squad depth, athleticism, mental strength, tactical adaptability, aggression, support, motivation, the list goes on.
You name it, they have it. Sport would be boring if predictable, so let’s clutch at some straws and attempt to find reasons to be hopeful for the remaining three contenders, starting with their opponents today, Galway.
The year so far for Dublin has been flawless; overcoming a tough Galway challenge in the league final, strolling through Leinster, before dealing admirably with the defensive approaches of both Donegal and Tyrone in the Super 8s.
In their final group game, they rotated heavily and still racked up 4-24 to crush Roscommon. Those performances and results, coupled with Galway’s poor showing at home to Monaghan last weekend and the Dublin players would be forgiven for allowing a hint of complacency to develop. Galway are far better than they showed against the Farney men.
For Monaghan, it was do-or-die. For Galway, regardless of what they told themselves or anybody else, it was simply a free shot at avoiding the Dubs. They were never going to match Monaghan’s appetite and intensity.
But will Jim Gavin allow his side to lose focus and drop by even 1%? I doubt it.
The thought process for some before the final weekend of the Super 8s was that the semi-final stage may actually provide the best opportunity to catch Dublin and there is logic to this. This evening is Dublin’s first knockout game of the year. The first game where their All-Ireland crown is on the line.
That brings a different pressure. If Galway explode into the semi-final and put Dublin on the back foot, will the reigning champions be able to get to their previous brilliant best after coasting through the summer?
In Damien Comer, Ian Burke, and Shane Walsh, Galway have a forward line that can cause trouble. Will they be positive enough to push more numbers forward to occupy the likes of Cian O’Sullivan and expose Johnny Cooper and Philly McMahon to one on ones inside? Recent history has shown that Dublin can adapt and overcome defensive systems and grind out hard-fought victories.
Outside of Mayo, how many teams have been brave enough to be aggressive and ask real questions of Dublin? Then again, not many teams have the physicality and balance to their play of a Mayo.
For all their dominance and deserved success Dublin have enjoyed their slice of fortune in recent seasons.
Two Mayo own goals in 2016 got them out of jail and Dónal Vaughan’s overzealous reaction to John Small’s high challenge on Colm Boyle was key to their one-point victory in last year’s decider.
For all their individual talent and attractive style of play, there is also a hard edge to this Dublin side. They are physically imposing and have the type of characters all good sides need to ensure they win the battle should it be required.
In Johnny Cooper, Philly McMahon, and James McCarthy, they have men accustomed to the dark arts. All it takes is one rush of blood to the head or instinctive reaction and Dublin might find themselves in an unfamiliar position of being a man down in a tight knockout game.
John Small in the Leinster final versus Laois, though maintaining his innocence, is proof of how easily these things can happen.
Even still, would you bet against them in such circumstances? I’m not so sure.
Since 2011, Dublin’s core starting 15 has gradually evolved. From Michael Darragh McAuley, Paul Flynn, Diarmuid Connolly, Bernard Brogan leading the way to the current crop where Brian Fenton, Ciarán Kilkenny, and Dean Rock are pivotal, one man has remained constant in his performances and importance to the team.
As well as Evan Comerford deputised in the Leinster final following his injury, Stephen Cluxton remains the most critical factor in Dublin continuing their drive for five and immortality. As Mayo have regularly shown and as Kerry showed in the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final, Dublin’s monopoly on their own kick-out can be disrupted and to great reward.
Are Galway, or either of their potential All-Ireland final opponents willing to be brave and push up quickly and aggressively on Cluxton’s kick-outs? For the sake of the spectacle and our enjoyment, I certainly hope so.
It is a testament to their style and how they carry themselves as champions that there isn’t more of a public dislike towards this Dublin team. With their numerous advantages over the rest of the playing field including population, finances, and home venue, one would expect neutrals to be very much rooting for the underdog.
However, football at inter-county level is in a precarious business. Games involving two defensive teams border on unwatchable.
It is one thing when minnows cut their cloth to suit but when teams with All-Ireland aspirations adopt these approaches it is little wonder rule changes are becoming a genuine consideration.
Continued Dublin success over such setups will surely only convince others to use more forward-thinking methods. Can Galway become the first team to knock Dublin out of championship since Donegal in 2014?
It will take something special from the Tribesmen. Or something uncharacteristic from Dublin.
Neither is likely.
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