A subdued Cian O’Neill entered the press centre in Croke Park following his side’s Leinster SFC semi-final defeat to Dublin clearly wondering what the hell had just happened.
The Lilywhites battled back from 0-7 to 0-1 down to trail by just four at the break and full of hope that a strong second half showing maybe, just maybe could see them pull off the shock of all shocks against Gaelic football’s kingpins.
“You probably can’t understand how there can be positives from a 15-point defeat but there actually were in my mind,” said O’Neill.
“In the 11th and 12th minute, we were 7-1 down. The way we battled back to four at half time – and that was with that goal chance. Full credit to the players. Because this is a truly outstanding Dublin team playing at home,
“That was a really good thing, I thought we kicked some really good individual scores, I thought some players really caused Dublin players problems. And that’s a really positive thing because they’re good going both ways.”
The funny thing is, O’Neill was 100% right. Kildare played very well on Sunday. Adam Tyrrell and Ben McCormack each kicked 0-3 from play causing Dublin serious problems at times. However, the score still read 0-26 0-11 after 70+ minutes of action. Dublin were too good.
Compare that to Tyrone, last year’s All-Ireland finalists, who lost to Donegal on Saturday night in a result aptly described by Colm O’Rourke as a four-point hammering. Mickey Harte’s men did well to turn their form around with a style of play more attack focused that utilises the powerful Cathal McShane at full-forward, however, it was completely shut down by Declan Bonner’s side. Imagine what Dublin would do to them now.
The return of James Horan to Mayo sparked huge excitement, not just out west but throughout the country. The man who pushed Dublin to the pin of their collar returns to the only team who has asked questions of them. An 18-year wait for a national title ends and all of a sudden talk intensifies that Mayo are back to stop the drive-for-five.
When push came to shove, though, their old failings showed as they were unceremoniously dumped out of Connacht by Roscommon. I hear you, Mayo have travelled the whole nine yards before to get a crack at Dublin but that argument doesn’t wash now. Mayo have failed to kick on don’t have the depth for a sustained run at ‘Sam’.
Kerry are into a Munster final and not many would argue against them coming away with at least five or six points to spare against Cork. However, do they have it in them to beat Dublin when it really matters? Despite the obvious talents of Clifford, O’Shea and co. they look well short of challenging Jim Gavin’s side based on their second-half performance against Clare.
Outside of these three, realistically who is going to beat Dublin? It won’t be Galway and Monaghan haven’t a chance. All due respect to Roscommon and Cavan for their early season scalps but they aren’t on Dublin’s radar.
Donegal have the forward unit to match anyone but having played been relegated from Division 1 as recently as last year, there is nothing to suggest that they’ll trouble Dublin (for what it’s worth they are my pick to be the five-in-a-row final victims).
Jim Gavin’s side have won six of the last eight All-Ireland titles. Why? Because there is constant improvement.
Their style of play develops year on year, how they deal with the tactical nouse of opposing teams means managers are still trying to figure them out. They never stand still and nobody rests on their laurels.
In 2013 we saw the introduction of Mannion and McCaffrey, 2015 had Fenton, Small entered the scene in 2016. Scully and O’Callaghan made their mark in 2017 while Murchan and Howard stepped up in 2018.
Darren Gavin didn’t start against Kildare but he looks set to see plenty of action this year. However, the real beauty of 2019 Dublin is that one star of old has returned to form and one serial sub is playing like a man reborn.
You probably thought you’d seen the last of Michael Darragh MacAuley considering he hadn’t started an All-Ireland final since 2016 and got three minutes of game time against Tyrone last year but here we are now and at 32, the Ballyboden is playing with a certain swag again.
Then there’s Cormac Costello, part of five All-Ireland winning teams yet failed to start a single final and playing barely a half’s worth of football. He’s become Dublin’s go-to forward (alongside Mannion). He kicked 2-12 against Louth and 0-9 against Kildare and at the moment looks undroppable. Costello is performing at a Player of the Year standard which, if he does win, would be one of the most remarkable storylines of this great Dublin team.
The gap is getting wider. It’s getting wider because Dublin continue to grow, develop and improve while their main rivals seem to be stalling.
The five-in-a-row will probably be the easiest one yet and the way things are going, six-in-a-row looks inevitable.