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Dublin: 3 °C Saturday 23 March, 2019
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'The most significant subplot unresolved may be whether Tyrone agree to participate in 'Up for the Match''

The Dubs’ invincibility is no great mystery, writes Eoin Butler in this week’s column.

Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

IS IT ME… or is anyone else bored already with this year’s Gaelic football championship?

At the business end of the GAA season, fans are entitled to expect high drama. But neither of this weekend’s big games really ignited and September’s All-Ireland decider between Dublin and Tyrone is already looking like a potential damp squib. Attendances are down. Neither of last weekend’s football semi-finals even came close to filling Croke Park.

I watched the Tyrone v Monaghan game in a pub in County Meath, where a sizeable minority of those in attendance opted instead to watch Man City v Arsenal on Sky Sports in a back room. I must confess, there were moments that afternoon when I was tempted to join them there.

A late Niall Sludden goal saw Tyrone run out deserved 1-13 to 0-15 winners. As a neutral, I felt bad for Monaghan, who were contesting their first semi-final in 30 years. They battled hard all day – as they have all season – and, in a one-point game, an apparent foul by Tiernan McCann on Kieran Hughes right at the death, which somehow went unpunished, could have handed them a lifeline.

But, to be honest, I was secretly very glad Tyrone ultimately ran out as winners. Because Colm Cavanagh & Co. are the only outfit left in the competition who look capable of giving Dublin a serious test on 2 September. Tyrone’s defence on Sunday was extremely impressive.

With Galway handily dispatched, the Dubs are now closing in on four All-Ireland titles in a row. The two teams I’d have nominated, pre-season, as the best placed to end the Dubs’ amazing run of victories – Mayo and Kerry – both crashed and burned early on. For Kerry’s rising stars, this year’s championship may have come too soon. For Mayo’s battle-hardened veterans, alas, it may have come too late.

If the bookies are right – and they usually are – the destination of the Sam Maguire is already a foregone conclusion. In fact, the most significant subplot remaining unresolved in this year’s championship may be whether Tyrone agree to participate in ‘Up for the Match’ the night before the final – or whether Mickey Harte will first insist on final approval over which RTÉ presenter hosts the pre-game light entertainment staple.

Watching Dublin in action against Galway on Saturday, even as a layman, their invincibility seemed no great mystery to unravel. Their players are fitter. They’re stronger. They’re better coached, better conditioned and their squad has far greater strength in depth than any of their rivals. Their score conversion rate is higher because they attack in such great force they rarely have to shoot from long distance or while under pressure.

For a long time, prior to 2011, Dublin’s footballing mediocrity managed to convince us that no great advantage accrued from their having a far greater population base to draw upon than any of their rival counties. As the past decade has gone on, the suspicion that such an advantage does exist has become harder and harder to shrug off.

County Dublin has five times more inhabitants than County Galway, eight times more people than Tyrone, and 22 times more citizens than Monaghan.

When Croatia reached the finals at the World Cup earlier this summer, they proved that population base isn’t the be-all-and-end-all when it comes determining success in sport – provided you’ve got a once-in-a-lifetime generation of talent on which to draw. But their success was the exception to the rule.

There are no transfers in Gaelic football. To paraphrase a crude expression, counties can only urinate with the equipment with which they were born. In Mickey Harte’s 17th championship season in charge, I’d love to see him win a fourth All-Ireland title. But I seriously doubt that’s going to happen.

For my own native Mayo, I would have hoped the coming winter would be a period of radical change and rebirth. Instead, from the very superficial indicators I’m reading at this early stage, the suggestions are that’s not going to be the case.

The prospect, recently mooted, of Jim McGuinness replacing Stephen Rochford as manager didn’t receive much support from Mayo fans online. As a county, we’re known for our positive, attacking play. Having McGuinness in charge would obviously have led to drastic changes on that front.

But the prospect of McGuinness taking over from Rochford received a much more positive response from Mayo supporters I spoke to privately than it did from those who publicly declared their loyalty to the current set-up online. The McGuinness move is not going to happen now, and Rochford has committed to a fourth season in charge.

But please God, some major challenger will spring out from somewhere. For us non-Jackeens, the prospect of a Dublin five-in-a-row All-Ireland triumph in September 2019 is just too much to take…

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About the author:

Eoin Butler

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