Saturday night is fast approaching and, with it, yet another joust for us with Dublin. Throw-in for the match in MacHale Park is 7pm that evening and the ref is Roscommon’s Paddy Neilan. The ladies’ Division One League match is on beforehand, that one throws in at 5pm.
I usually find this previewing-the-opposition post good for refreshing my memory about who we’re playing and what their form is like. I think we can all agree that no such promptings are required in relation to Saturday evening’s opponents.
The short version is that Dublin tend to win the vast bulk of the matches they play nowadays. The one game they lost last year – the League Division One final against Kerry in early April – brought to an end an unbeaten streak of 36 games which had lasted for over two years.
Since then, of course, they’ve started another unbeaten run, one that, going into Saturday night, numbers nine games. This series is impressive too, in that they’ve won all nine matches, including their opening three League games this year.
In last year’s League that unbeaten run was preserved by way of a few draws. Their 2017 League campaign reads as follows.
Round 1 saw them record a seven-point win over Cavan in Breffni Park and a week later they played out a low-scoring draw against Tyrone at Croke Park. Many, myself included, saw this as some kind of precursor for how the likely rematch between these two counties in the summer would play out. That proved to be well wide of the mark.
In Round 3 they played out another hard-fought stalemate against Ulster opposition, this time up in Ballybofey against Donegal. Following that they wiped the floor with us at HQ, leading many (this time not including me) to proclaim, incorrectly, that we were a fading force in the game.
Round 5 saw a bit of a boxing match under the lights against Kerry in Tralee, where the Dubs recorded their third draw of the campaign. They ended up with two wins, though, scalping Roscommon by 21 points at Croke Park and then beating Monaghan by three at Clones to finish clear at the top of the Division One table on eleven points.
Then came that fateful League decider against Kerry. The one where Rock missed that late, late free as Kerry squeaked home by a single point.
After the spring campaign, Dublin had, of course, the luxury of strolling through the non-contact kick-about that once used to be the Leinster football championship. Sweet Jesus, the hardest match they got in Leinster – during which occurred the incident which led them to lose Diarmuid Connolly for the bulk of the summer – was the quarter-final tie against Carlow in Portlaoise.
Dublin finally beat the Barrowsiders by twelve points. They then had a whopping thirty-one points to spare over Westmeath in the semi-final and accounted for Kildare by nine points in the final.
Truth be told, Dublin faced no match of consequence at all in last year’s championship until they came face-to-face with our lads in September. Monaghan were comfortably seen off by ten points in the All-Ireland quarter-final and Tyrone were cuts to pieces in the semi-final, Dublin winning that one by the same twelve-point margin they’d enjoyed over Carlow.
The decider was, though, a match for the ages. One of the great All-Ireland finals, it took an unprecedented shot conversion ratio by Dublin, allied in the end to a soft enough free awarded for a challenge on Connolly and, following Rock’s placed ball score, an outbreak of wholesale black card offending by virtually all of Dublin’s outfield team to get them over the line against us by a single, lousy point.
That made it three times in three final meetings with us since 2013 that they’d come out on top against us by the minimum margin. Cold comfort for us, as we all know, and proof, if it were ever needed, that the margins between success and failure in sport can so often be wafer-thin.
But while we can punch our weight against them in the championship, in the League our respective form lines are very different. We always tend to struggle in the spring, saving our energy – and all those endless cross-country journeys to training – for when it really counts.
With no serious championship action to face for most of the summer and no logistical issues about getting their players together as often as they want, Dublin can afford to place strong emphasis on the League. Which they do, every year.
So while we’ve huffed and puffed since late January, winning one (just about) and losing two games, they come into Saturday night with an unblemished record of three wins from three games that leaves them on top of the table and, once again, eyeing a place in the Division One final.
Their form so far in this League campaign has been very good. Kildare were – as Kildare always are when they face Dublin – swatted aside in the opening round, Dublin winning that one by 2-17 to 2-10. A week later and they emerged from Omagh with a 2-13 to 1-11 win over Tyrone and back at HQ last time out they beat a spirited Donegal by 0-20 to 0-15.
More ominously for us, perhaps, is that Jim Gavin has by now already given a run-out this year to the bulk of the 21 players who saw action against us last September. Of that match-day group, only Jack McCaffrey (cruciate), Con O’Callaghan (tearing up trees elsewhere), Paul Flynn, Cormac Costello (seemingly only of nuisance value late on in All-Ireland finals) and Diarmuid Connolly, who could well start in Castlebar, have yet to feature for Dublin in this year’s League.
They’ve also been able to use the likes of former Footballer of the Year Michael Darragh MacAuley, as well as established squad players such as David Byrne, Darragh Daly, Eric Lowndes, Ciaran Reddin and Shane Carthy. This year’s two bolters for them – who are being given plenty of airtime so far – are Brian Howard and Colm Basquel, the latter, gallingly, a player with strong Mayo roots.
By contrast, our forces are in far from rude health at the minute. To date, we’ve only fielded 13 of the 21 players we had on the field at some point on All-Ireland final day last September, some of them only fleetingly. Three of that cohort – Cillian O’Connor (suspended), Brendan Harrison and Paddy Durcan (both injured) – are set to be watching the action on Saturday night from the stand.
Unlike Dublin, some of our heavy-hitters – including Keith Higgins, Lee Keegan, Chris Barrett, Seamus O’Shea and Tom Parsons – remain sidelined and, aside from Tom, seem destined to remain so for most of the League.
At best, it appears that the next night we’ll be in a position to start 11 of our list of 21 who saw action last September. That assumes, by the way, that Tom does make his first appearance of the year in this game.
Little wonder, then, that Paddy Power are fairly clear about how they expect this one to go. They’ve priced Dublin at 1/3 to leave MacHale Park with the spoils in the next evening. But, as ever, let’s leave the final word on this to yourselves: how do you think this latest clash with our great Metropolitan rivals will go?
How will we do against Dublin?
- Win (46%, 330 Votes)
- Lose (45%, 319 Votes)
- Draw (9%, 62 Votes)
Total Voters: 711