The GAA Championship, Week 17: Dublin’s Fab Four In A Row

by | Sep 5, 2018

I am ancient enough to remember the last team to win four All-Ireland senior football championships in-a-row.

Kerry beat Offaly in 1981, about as comfortably as their seven-point winning margin suggested, which further suggested that an unprecedented five-in-a-row was on several packs of cards. Best remembered of all the presumptive behaviour in September 1982, was the fact that the five-in-a-row merchandise was already ready, long before All-Ireland final day.

Last Sunday evening, on RTE’s ‘Sunday Game’ highlights show, Kerry-native pundit Tomas O Se joked that “we finally get to use the five-in-a-row memorabilia we have stashed some place below in Killarney” as he analysed his county’s fifth All-Ireland minor (under-18/under-17) title in-a-row.

Kerry lost the 1982 final to a late goal scored just after, and largely because, defender Tommy Doyle was clearly shoved in the back as he prepared to field a high ball into the danger area. But their sense of entitlement, and resultant complacency, conceivably played a part in Kerry being only two points ahead at that stage.

Last Sunday afternoon, Dublin beat Tyrone, about as comfortably as their six-point winning margin suggested, which further suggests that an unprecedented five-in-a-row is on several packs of cards. And there’s plenty more to suggest that the Dubs’ ‘drive-for-five’ will succeed where Kerry’s failed.

In 2018, Dublin showed signs of, if not out-and-out complacency then a tendency to, metaphorically and literally, take their eyes off the ball at certain moments in just about every game they played. I suspect they made more unforced errors this year than in their three previous successful All-Ireland campaigns combined.

However, only for a few minutes this year, all on Sunday, was the prospect of a Dublin defeat remotely serious. The combination of Dublin’s genuine ‘best-of-all-time’ brilliance and the other counties’ imaginative deficiencies suggests, stronger than any stretched historical analogies, that the odds of a Dub five-in-a-row are ‘on.’

The afore-mentioned few minutes were between 3.38pm and 3.49pm. Dublin opened the scoring but Dean Rock, who never misses frees, missed two. And while both sides nervously squandered early chances, Tyrone stylishly took some of theirs. And as 3.50pm beckoned, they led by five points to one, with Dublin in, for them anyway, some disarray.

Yet before 3.55pm, Dublin, having played next-to-no good football and with the laws of physics scratching their heads, were ahead…like Germany’s soccer team (pre-2018) scraping victories from the unlikeliest crannies. Irish people everywhere thought, all at once, “Dublin will win.” And they were right.

Dublin’s goal came when one of the two Paul Mannions who suddenly appeared to be on the pitch was hauled down as he headed for goal. He comprehensively slammed home the resultant spot-kick but only after he’d received his second bout of extensive treatment for injury. And it is perhaps important to divert from the match narrative at this point.

Dublin, being both Dublin AND constant winners, are not the neutral’s favourites, almost as a matter of rule. Fabulous impressionist Conor Moore listed their advantages on RTE’s All-Ireland Final preview programme ‘Up for the Match’ on Saturday night, noting, particularly controversially, “they even get the home advantage.” And while he said this as part of a Donald Trump impression, the laughter from Dublin fans in the studio sounded tinged with a sense of ‘mmmm, he has a point.’

Against Tyrone, though, it is less difficult to bear a Dublin victory. Tyrone are quite clearly Ireland’s second-best team. But they are very clearly Ireland’s dirtiest team. Watching them ‘live’ against Roscommon, I saw their players instigating off-the-ball collisions across the pitch as an intimidatory tactic, until they realised that they would win comfortably without such nonsense. On Sunday, Dublin players needed treatment after three such collisions.

However, Dublin were unsettled in Sunday’s early stages more by Tyrone’s power ON the ball, not off it. When Dublin did settle, the off-the-ball stuff was worse than worthless. Conor Meyler un-necessarily floored Dublin defender Johnny Cooper on 27 minutes, as Cooper scrambled to keep a ball in play near the halfway line. Sixteen seconds later, Dublin’s Niall Scully was palming Con O’Callaghan’s pass into the Dublin net. And if the game hadn’t already been won, it was now.

At half-time, Sky pundit Jim MacGuinness was smugly happy that Tyrone were suffering for ignoring his advice to play 14 defenders, which looked even more crackpot when put up on Sky’s tactics screen than it sounded and was only half-jokingly interpreted as an attempt to nick the final one-nil.

RTE controversialist Joe Brolly, categorically NOT a fan of the MacGuinness tactic template, suggested Tyrone should play 11 defenders on the pitch and three on the crossbar to force Dublin to shoot from distance AND clear the bar by yards to get any sort of score. “Ah, come on, Joe,” RTE Radio’s Des Cahill sighed, thinking this was daft even for a joke. But Brolly’s plan was scarcely dafter than MacGuinness. Mercifully, Tyrone ignored THIS nonsense.

And while they looked well-beaten at half-time, they weren’t ‘put away’ until second-half stoppage-time. Dublin were only intermittently trademark Dublin, one trademark point coming from a very trademark two-minute spell of possession. And Tyrone got enough late success from pinging high balls towards Dublin’s full-back line to suggest that they should have adjusted their sights earlier. Especially as the same scenario played out when Tyrone lost semi-narrowly to Dublin in the superb-eights in July.

With five minutes left and Tyrone eight points behind, they pinged in their first high ball, Dublin defender Philly McMahon wrestled defender-turned-forward Colm Cavanagh to the turf and Peter Harte wrong footed Dublin keeper Stephen Cluxton with the resultant penalty-kick.

Tyrone then closed the gap to four, just as the announcement of SEVEN minutes’ stoppage-time brought gasps with contrasting meanings from the crowd. Especially as Dublin defender John Small received his second booking, which gave him an unwanted ‘two-in-a-row’ of All-Ireland final dismissals. All from another high ball, this time from rush goalie Niall Morgan.

If this had played out like hurling in 2018, Tyrone would now be champions. Instead, Dublin showed why ‘four-in-a-row’ was minutes away. They won their three finals in-a-row by a combined six points. They had managed tight finishes. And from the relative luxury of four points up, even with 14 men, they weren’t mismanaging this one.

Star goalie Stephen Cluxton arrowed a pass to star midfielder Brian Fenton, who has been on the losing side precisely NO times in 27 Dublin championship matches. Fenton arrowed a pass to star sub Kevin McManamon who arrowed his shot over the bar with a composure unavailable to anyone else in Croke Park. And although Tyrone pinged in two more high balls, one went over the bar by mistake and the other was plucked from the sky by the mercurial 20-year-old Brian Howard, who immediately began the move which set up the game’s final score.

History offers one more justification for the odds of a Dublin five-in-a-row being ‘on.’ They should be chasing seven-in-a-row. Jim MacGuinness’s Donegal ‘ambushed’ them in the 2014 semi-final, the only Championship match Dublin manager Jim Gavin has lost AS Dublin manager. But, lauded as tactical genius though that victory was (even by Brolly) it would not have happened without Dublin missing two very good first-half goal chances.

However, there is also hope from that history. Offaly denied Kerry five-in-a-row in 1982, having last been champions a decade previously and having been Kerry’s victims in 1981. Tyrone were last champions a decade previously (OK, ten years ago THIS year but, hey, I’ve got an analogy to stretch) and were Dublin’s victims on Sunday. So…no, YOU’RE clutching at straws.

Dublin’s four-in-a-row was so inevitable from the championship’s outset that even I predicted it. Although RTE pundit Colm O’Rourke let himself down with his sour, incorrect suggestion that “the game has become unwatchable unless Dublin are involved.” Brolly “applauded” Tyrone (a phrase I never expected to use) for “playing with courage,” which contributed to a genuinely decent final. But while Tyrone and others (including, I think, my own team Roscommon) offer hope for a brighter 2019, 2018 was as dismal a football championship as expected.

There was, however, a happy ending of sorts. The Sky studio team’s de-mob happiness transmitted onto the screen after Sunday’s match, helped by the understandable good-humour of ex-Dublin player Senan Connell, who is far from the worst pundit, if you can overcome how much he resembles, and thus reminds you of, fellow Irishman (cough) Andy Townsend. And presenter Rachel Wyse allowed herself an off-script “wow” when confronted with a camera shot of a celebrating, topless, Dublin player, before regaining her scripted composure. Not a robot, then.

I wrote after the hurling final that the 2018 hurling championship DVD would be “awesome” and that even if you aren’t a hurling fan “when you’ve watched it, you will be.” I think it is fair to say that even if you aren’t a Gaelic football fan, when you’ve watched the 2018 football championship DVD, you DEFINITELY will be…a hurling fan.