15:26, 15 Sep 2011
Not that we were fully sure what to expect after all the years of waiting, but we certainly didn’t see this as the time for calm after a 16-year storm. Following all the hyperbole, raw emotion, overreaction and overanalysis that came with each Dublin defeat since the 1995 All Ireland, now that they’ve finally made it back to the biggest stage, it seems remarkably relaxed and strangely subdued. Such an occasion was never going to be as in your face in the capital and was always going to be more diluted than in other counties, but it’s so laid back that it’s been ideal for the Leinster champions. In fact the flags on the houses around Croke Park only went up en masse on Wednesday and all in all, it has the feel of just another championship weekend.
The spate of Dublin hurling teams competing in recent weeks has taken much attention away from Sunday and even in the aftermath of the semi-final, much more was made of Donegal’s tactics than Dublin’s triumph. But don’t underestimate what Pat Gilroy has done either in stopping the hype before it began. It’s meant that there’s been nothing more than a gentle pulse across the city, and there’s something fitting in that.
When Gilroy was given the managerial role in 2009, he was taking over a group that had suffered from small-man syndrome. Everything from the brawls with Meath, Monaghan and Tyrone to Paul Caffrey’s shoulder on John Morrison, the ownership of the Hill 16 end and ‘The Blue Book’ seemed to be manufactured and forced. There was a lot of huff and puff but very little was blown down outside of a province that was far weaker than it is now. Which is all very contrary to this year. Even with the game on the line against Kildare, the game getting away from them against Wexford, the pressure off the field generated by the need to get a result against Tyrone and the pressure on the field generated by Donegal, there’s been a soothing calmness about each victory.
After the last of those wins, Gilroy suggested that he knew the way Donegal were going to play which was surprising because his own tactics to counter such a style were way off. But that’s been the exception rather than the rule because it’s been the system every bit as much as the players that has gotten Dublin this far. It was suggested in some quarters they were every bit as negative as the opposition in that last-four tie, but that’s simply not true. Yes, they cover in numbers to make-up for a lack of quality, but they break quicker than anyone, bypass midfield when counter-attacking and isolate their assets in attack.
But while Kerry have benefited from the easiest run to an All Ireland final since 1997, Dublin have benefited too because - regardless of their tactics, their fitness and players like Rory O’Carroll being their first top-class full-back since Paddy Christie, Paul Flynn having a season to put him on the map, Alan Brogan having the season to keep him on the map and Bernard Brogan and Diarmuid Connolly showing glimpses of brilliance, if only here and there - this is a side that wouldn’t have lived with the best over the last 10 years. Indeed if they do win this All Ireland, they’ll have done so with the weakest midfield and half-back line to go all the way in living memory. Just look at the quarter-final sides and ask how many would trade what they have for what Dublin have from five to nine. Rather than taking that as an insult though, it should be taken as a compliment because in essence they’ve maximised their potential just to be here.
In that sense, there’s something very Armagh 2002 about it all, even if the standard has dropped. Just like Joe Kernan’s side they’ve pioneered and perfected a system that is difficult to live with, they’ve come back time and time again and refused to give up, they’ve finally reached the final against all odds by playing with a huge intensity and are lining out as underdogs against Kerry. But that’s where the comparisons end. Unless they make Tom O’Sullivan and Tomás Ó Sé look like old men, get the better of Marc Ó Sé, hold their own against a superior midfield and limit the best attack in the country with, man-to-man, a class of player that looks like a club team in comparison, they shouldn't get within three or four points.
But at least they’ve made the breakthrough and made a step that hasn’t been taken by many Dublin teams surrounded by much more noise and bluster. It may be their first final but unlike other novices they are a side used to the crowd and it won’t be nerves that beats them, it’ll be Kerry. Which is maybe the reason for that calm after the storm. This is a team that has finally learned how to make it this far, perhaps the city has learned too that they are facing a better side and a monumental task so it's better to quietly look forward than loudly expect.
Ewan MacKenna was a sports writer with the now defunct Sunday Tribune. He was also ghost writer of 'The Gambler: Oisín McConville's Story' and 'Darragh: My Story’ and is currently working on Kenneth Egan’s autobiography, ‘Two Sides to Glory’.
If you have any opinions, good or otherwise, feel free to contact Ewan at Twitter.com/EwanMacKenna or email@example.com
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