Kicking Out: If Tyrone don't beat Dublin, Kerry will
FOR the last two decades, it’s been a complete waste of time analysing Crossmaglen’s performances in the Armagh championship.
Take the 2010 season. Halfway through the second half of the county final against Dromintee, they were level and looking in trouble. They would squeeze out by three points without ever being convincing.
Six months later they were Ulster and All-Ireland champions.
In 2014 they were scorned by the previous autumn’s defeat to Kilcoo and all the sounds were that they were out to blitz everyone.
They crushed Armagh Harps by 17 points in the county final and were unbackable for Ulster until Ronan O’Neill popped up and broke them in the provincial semi-final.
The truth was nobody, including Crossmaglen themselves, really knew how they were going until they entered the Ulster series because the challenge presented in Armagh was so weak for so long.
Dublin are on a ship that looks strikingly similar, suffering one defeat in their last 40 Leinster Championship games.
Sunday was the first time in Jim Gavin’s reign that they failed to achieve a double-digit margin of victory.
It was bound to happen some day. There was plenty to admire in Kildare’s performance too, and they are possibly the best side Dublin have faced in Leinster for some time.
Their aura locally is so invincible that nobody in the eastern province has any belief they can beat them. That’s reflected in their results. Since the start of the 2011 season, their average winning margin in the province is just less than 12 points. Since Gavin took over, the average has been just less than 15.
Their performances provincially in 2014 and 2015 were blistering but the resistance was pitiful.
The only results worth analysing from a Dublin perspective are those in the All-Ireland series and in that same six-year period are those in the All-Ireland series.
The average winning margin there is less than five points and if you take out the absolute outlier that was their 17-point win over Monaghan three years ago, then it is less than four.
And while they have proven themselves time and again in winning three All-Irelands, there have been scares along the way.
Kerry have had them by the scruff of the neck twice. Mayo have had their heads down the toilet bowl five times – five! - only to let up as the breathing was about to stop.
Dublin’s strength of character in squeezing through some of those battles is unquestionable. Lesser champions would have collapsed at half-time in the Kerry game last year.
But so much of what they’ve done in winning back-to-back All-Irelands has been based on learning the lessons of the defeat to Donegal in 2014.
Since then, Cian O’Sullivan has been moulded into the fierce protector of the centre of the Dublin goal. He has sat so effectively that after breaking down Stephen Cluxton’s kickouts, the second thing any team trying to beat Dublin must do is find a way to pull him out of that space.
Maybe Jim Gavin is toying with us all but for the last two games, he has had O’Sullivan doing man-marking jobs. He picked up John Heslin against Westmeath, with Jonny Cooper acting as the sweeper instead.
You could see through it once but for the throw-in on Sunday, O’Sullivan went in to pick up Daniel Flynn. That was before Dublin would have known Kildare wouldn’t play a sweeper of their own, so it seemed that the man-marking detail was set in stone.
And he struggled, all day, to live with Flynn’s pace. He has never been particularly suited to marking a man and Jonny Cooper looked lost as the sweeper against Westmeath, failing to cut out anything of consequence.
Kildare, with their blistering pace, shone a light on the defensive chinks, and that was despite Dublin’s impressive workrate in closing down up front. That it was a very good Dublin performance that still didn’t blitz the Lilywhites is the most telling part.
At midfield they so badly miss Paul Flynn. If his injury troubles continue, they will have to keep James McCarthy deputising in there. And as Sunday showed, in terms of the primary job of fetching ball in there, he will struggle.
Kerry have been tormented by Brian Fenton in recent seasons but in Jack Barry, who hasn’t started in Munster after a good league, they seem to have a tailor-made solution.
And yet Kerry might never get a cut off them because Tyrone will get the first slap in, provided all goes to plan.
It’s very hard to see Tyrone losing another quarter-final and they have been itching to meet the Dubs in Championship for three years now.
Regardless of how well Mickey Harte’s side defend, they will still need 16 or 17 points to beat the champions, and given the tallies they have put up this summer that looks a very attainable figure.
Dublin are there for the taking and given how close they have come to being pushed over the edge by Mayo and Kerry in the last three years, those minor chinks could be enough.
If Tyrone don’t beat them, Kerry will.