As sports fans, we often can’t help but compare players and teams from different eras and enter into bar talk about who is the greatest. Tags like dynasty often help strengthen our arguments.
The obvious dynasty teams in Gaelic football would be the Kerry team of Mick O’Dwyer, Heffo’s Dublin team of the ’70s, and then in more recent times the Kerry and Tyrone teams of the 2000s.
Over the past few years in the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs with four championships in an 11-year period and more recently the Golden State Warriors with two in three, breaking all sorts of records along the way, are the teams closest to entering these upper echelons.
In NFL, it’s all about the New England Patriots, who have also won two championships in the last three years, bringing the total to five for head coach Bill Belichick since 2002.
If you look at the coaches involved with these three American teams, Gregg Popovich of the Spurs (5x NBA champion coach), Steve Kerr of the Warriors (2x NBA coach) and Belichick with his five rings, there are many similarities in the way they carry themselves and how they prepare their teams.
All three are renowned for their attention to detail and an ability to make cool, ruthless, decisions when required.
They are also consistent in their language and message when asked about team activities.
When the New England Patriots went back into camp this May after their most recent Super Bowl success in February, Belichick was asked what he still wanted to accomplish, with all he had done. Belichick’s answer was: “I’d like to go out and have a good practice today. That would be top of the list right now.”
When I read that response I couldn’t help but think of Jim Gavin, who is now chasing his fourth All-Ireland as manager. While there is no doubt his Dublin team have already created a dynasty no matter how this year plays out, the mindset and focus for him and his squad is only on what is to come and the challenges they are facing into.
Throughout last year’s championship when they were looking to retain the All-Ireland, Dublin players often made reference to the idea that they weren’t defending champions, how there was nothing to defend, that they were out to go win another championship.
Detaching mentally from the past and avoiding idle talk of going back-to-back can often be easier said than done but Dublin managed to do that and retain their title.
This kind of talk will go up a notch this year; players will be asked about three in a row on a daily basis by people in the streets, workmates, and even family members. It will be a huge challenge for the group not to let the magnitude of becoming a three-in-a-row team affect them.
While they cannot control what other people say to them or what expectations others have for them, they will have discussed this as a team and talked about ways to deal with people in these types of situations.
Over the past few years in Leinster, the biggest challenges on the pitches at this stage of the year were likely from players pushing each other on in internal training matches. Dublin players were as much competing with themselves for starting position and game time as they were with the opposition.
Dublin have faced Westmeath in the last two Leinster finals, winning by 13 points in 2015 and 15 points in 2016. As they do with every game, ahead of tomorrow’s game they will prepare accordingly and have their homework done on where Westmeath have the ability to hurt them and also look to highlight areas to exploit.
But while they will have this opposition prep work taken care of, I’d expect much of their focus this weekend to be on finding answers to a few questions of their own.
The primary one for me is who is going to put their hand up to partner Brian Fenton in midfield. Over the past few seasons it would be one of Michael Darragh Macauley and Denis Bastick.
But with Macauley still absent through injury and Bastick with just a few minutes’ game time under his belt this season, someone else will have to step in.
Ciaran Reddin started the league final against Kerry and while Ciaran Kilkenny wore 12 the last day out against Carlow, he lined out at midfield. Neither are natural midfielders and while there aren’t too many other regular middlemen in the squad, I’d have Paul Flynn or James McCarthy as favourites to become the solution as the summer progresses.
In an ideal world, Dublin would leave Flynn at wing forward and McCarthy at half back but Flynn did play midfield in last year’s All-Ireland replay against Mayo and produced arguably his best performance of the championship.
While Jack McCaffrey’s return to the squad for this season allows more scope to push McCarthy on from his wing back role.
Both Flynn and McCarthy are capable of competing for kickouts and have the engine to cover the distances required. They also have standout attributes to help their forwards.
I think the inside line would have a preference for Flynn as he is one of the best kick passers on the team and getting on more ball in midfield would allow him increase the direct supply lines.
McCarthy, on the other hand, will look to carry the ball at pace and create overlaps to draw defenders in to allow him slip in forwards coming off his shoulder. He does this naturally from wing back but again the more advanced role with slightly less defensive duties could pay dividends.
The balance and identity of the starting six forwards is another challenge that Dublin are still working out.
In previous seasons you could say that five of the six spots picked themselves, Connolly, Brogan, Flynn, Rock, and Kilkenny were all sure to start but you could argue that only Kilkenny and Rock remain in that group, while no one else has jumped into the certainty category.
Much has been made publicly of Diarmuid’s 12-week ban but I think it’s something the team will have dealt with and moved on from very quickly. There is no doubt they will miss him on matchdays but it must be looked upon as an opportunity for somebody else.
Bernard showed his maturity last year to come off the bench and make an impact after being dropped for the All-Ireland replay and while some are keen to see him in an impact sub role, I wouldn’t be in any hurry to do that.
He is so clinical and his finishing is of such a standard that once he maintains his sharpness he can still perform to the level required from the start.
The remaining places will see experienced players like Kevin McManamon, Paddy Andrews, and Eoghan O’Gara compete with the younger crew of Paul Mannion, Con O’Callaghan, Niall Scully, and Cormac Costello once he returns from injury. The result should bring an interesting mix.
While Dublin scored 0-19 against Carlow, no one really put their hand up to take control of a position. Dublin have shown maturity in their forward play in recent season when facing teams who line up with large defensive systems.
While they are now more willing to recycle the ball and hold possession for longer periods, they will be aware their scoring rates have dropped.
They won’t look to force goal chances but I’d expect a heightened focus on finishing and return on efforts at goal.
These are the types of challenges and questions that surround all teams. However, when you are in the position Dublin find themselves in, things are slightly different.
Every team wants to improve and normally have clear targets as to how to measure that improvement. For this Dublin team, the challenge is to strive to get better just to remain the same.
I’ve no doubt it’s the hardest challenge this group have faced. Tomorrow will be another window into whether they are on the road required.