Instead, they find themselves in a last-ditch relegation game against Galway, the side that beat them most comprehensively in the regular rounds.
Paul Ryan is their usual dead-ball expert; against Kilkenny (one-point loss), Cork (one-point loss), Tipperary (draw), he would surely have made a difference. That’s an extra five points picked up right there, giving Dublin something extra to play for in their final game against Waterford, and a possible table-topping eight points.
Them’s the breaks, says Paul, and in all those close games in last year’s, those breaks all fell Dublin’s way.
“Yeah, everything fell for us last year, but a lot of teams are very close to each other now, all trying to catch Kilkenny — everyone else is trying to reach that standard,” he said.
“You see it in the league, how close it was, teams beating each other. Galway beat us fair and square in Salthill but we could easily have won three of our games — really, there’s nothing between a lot of teams now. We’ll go to Tullamore now, try to put in a performance, let the result take care of itself.”
But isn’t that the problem? Dublin have been putting in the performance, game after game, but in the event of your dead-ball specialist being absent — do you not need someone else to take up the slack? A good free-taker can mean the difference between winning and losing — take Cork’s win over Kilkenny, the first free conceded by Michael Fennelly with a fierce body-charge slam-dunk on teenager Conor Lehane.
Michael got a yellow card for his troubles but he was even more severely punished when Patrick Horgan split the posts from 65m out — a massive psychological boost for Cork, and the young side went on to give their best performance of the league. Had Dublin been similarly accurate in Nowlan Park and in Croke Park, who knows?
“We do have other good free-takers,” Paul insisted. “Alan McCrabbe is very good from placed balls.”
Yes, but what when Alan is also missing, or off form?
“There’s a young lad there, Shane Stapleton, he’s a free-taker, but it’s not easy for someone to just all of a sudden be thrown into that situation. As a free-taker you need that ice in the brain — I focus on that a lot, the mental side. In training it’s far more about the quality than the quantity of frees you take, and I’m very conscious of that when I go down to the club to do extra practice.
“You don’t focus on your stroke, you’ve already perfected that as a young lad; it’s more about trusting your technique, focusing on putting the ball over the bar. I read a great article lately about using the brain. When you’re taking frees if you go back [it’s] your ‘learning brain’ that takes over and you start missing, you’re going back to the stroke as opposed to just having confidence in your technique.” You’ve got to visualise, use your visual brain, ‘see’ the ball all the way over the bar even before you bend to lift.”
Speaking of visualising, with the championship just around the corner, the league over after this game for another year, how important – really – is this game to Dublin? Having just spent a few days in training-camp in Portugal, the players must surely now have one eye already on the championship.
“We haven’t even thought about championship yet,” claims this son of Holycross/Ballycahill, his father Jim is a proud Tippman.
“Our mentality is to take one game at a time and we haven’t got past this game yet. It’s very important to us — we don’t want to be going down a division, and I’m sure Galway don’t either. We’ve worked so hard to get to where we are now — it’s important that we stay up, you want to be playing against the cream of the crop every year, the likes of Kilkenny. This game is our focus now and I’m sure it’s the same for Galway — we’re in for a big match.”
It’s unlikely that David ‘Dotsie’ O’Callaghan will be playing, due to the death of his father Paddy this week and buried today, which will weaken the Dublin attack, but Paul returns which is a major plus, and not just on the free-taking front. As Paul says, should be a big game.