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GAA Football

The evolution of Dublin's golden generation

Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton kicks the winning point in the 2011 All-Ireland final. He is one of just six players from that team likely to start Sunday's semi-final against Tyrone.

WHEN is a great team really ever one great team?

The closest thing to it in GAA is the Kerry side that won four-in-a-row between 1978 and '81. By the time they lost that famous fifth final to Seamus Darby's late goal, only three of the starting fifteen had changed in five years.

Only Ger O'Keeffe, Tommy Doyle and Tom Spillane forced their way in during the subsequent blaze of glory.

Beyond that, the wheels of time have turned on them all.

Take the Tyrone crop of the decade gone last, regarded as having won three All-Irelands.

Only six men that started the 2003 final win over Armagh began the decider against Kerry five years later.

Unfortunate and tragic circumstance brought that figure down from eight. Cormac McAnallen would have been in his prime and the death of John Devine's father on the eve of the '08 final skews the perspective slightly.

But like any team, change happened gradually. Even by '05 a third of the team had changed.

It wasn't a new side in 2008 but it wasn't the team that had won Sam Maguire in 2003.

The same applies to this rampant Dublin generation.

Since they finally ended their 16-year wait for an All-Ireland title under Pat Gilroy in 2011, they have dominated the football scene, winning another three of the five titles since.

And like any great team, there remains a tangible link back to the trailblazers.

Stephen Cluxton's imprint on that final will remain the abiding memory of a game that was otherwise kind of forgettable. Whether you choose to recall the brilliance of his match-winning free or what we now know to be a characteristic non-celebration, he has grown to define the entire shape of Gaelic football.

At 35, he is still going strong, leaving Michael Savage a frustrated winner of three All-Ireland medals without touching any leather worth speaking of.

The Parnells goalkeeper will go for as long as he wants to. Time mightn't wait on any man but it ticks by that little bit slower for him.

How much longer he decides to play for is anyone's guess. The barrier is less definitive on a goalkeeper, particularly one that treats his body though it were a priceless artefact.

Cluxton is one of six players that started the final six years ago and, in normal circumstances, would start Sunday's All-Ireland semi-final against Tyrone.

He will play, as will Cian O'Sullivan, James McCarthy and, more than likely, Michael Fitzsimons, whose presence among this group is a half-truth given that he didn't start the 2013, '15 or '16 All-Ireland finals, only truly re-establishing himself with that man-of-the-match display in the replay last year.

If Paul Flynn is fit you'd expect him to start and if Diarmuid Connolly weren't so well acquainted with Ciaran Branagan's shoulder, he would be a shoo-in for the half-forward line.

Both might still start but there is a possibility that they don't. And in that case, Dublin would begin with just four of Pat Gilroy's side.

Ger Brennan, Kevin Nolan, Barry Cahill, Bryan Cullen and Alan Brogan have retired. Rory O'Carroll chose travelling over medals. Denis Bastick and Michael Darragh Macauley have been sidelined, and Bernard Brogan is no longer a starter either.

Philip McMahon was a sub that day and will start against Tyrone, while Kevin McManamon and Eoghan O'Gara also came off the bench.

Interestingly, reserve goalkeeper Savage is the only of the 11 unused subs that is still on the panel.

Jim Gavin took over when they lost their title to Mayo the following autumn and has built an astonishing record 38 wins from 42 championship games in charge.

Eighteen-in-a-row unbeaten is the record they put on the line this weekend. Would you have seen that happening under Gilroy? Perhaps not, but he put the founds in.

Gavin did make it his own team fairly quickly. McMahon, Jonny Cooper, Jack McCaffrey, Ciaran Kilkenny, Paul Mannion and Paddy Andrews were all starters in the 2013 final.

The changes he has made have been that bit more subtle, and forced in some ways. Rory O'Carroll's departure was supposed to leave them susceptible in the full-back line but few have been brave enough to push three men inside and test that theory.

Cooper and McMahon were the inside men of choice up until Fitzsimons forced his way back in. Since then, he has almost assumed the role of go-to man-marker and will most likely pick up Tyrone's one man inside, Mark Bradley, on Sunday.

Almost unnoticed, we've reached the point where he, Eric Lowndes and John Small – one of their best players last year – have become regular starters without much fuss about them.

Even the best finisher of a generation, Bernard Brogan, has slipped into more of a bit-part role and had his scores comfortably covered.

With eight of last year's All-Ireland final replay team now 29 or over, there is further evolution on the way over the next couple of seasons.

And for all the change, the silverware keeps rolling in and the records keep falling.

Dublin 2011 All-Ireland final

S Cluxton; M Fitzsimons, R O'Carroll, C O'Sullivan; J McCarthy, G Brennan, K Nolan; D Bastick, MD Macauley; P Flynn, B Cahill, B Cullen; A Brogan, D Connolly, B Brogan

Subs: P McMahon for McCarthy; K McManamon for Flynn; E O'Gara for Cahill; E Fennell for Bastick

Unused: M Savage, P Conlon, P Casey, D Henry, T Quinn, S Murray, R McConnell, C Dias, D Lally, P Brogan, P Griffin

Probable Dublin 2017 v Tyrone

S Cluxton; M Fitzsimons, P McMahon, J Cooper; J Small, C O'Sullivan, E Lowndes; B Fenton, P Flynn; J McCarthy, C Kilkenny, J McCaffrey; C O'Callaghan, P Mannion, D Rock

Subs: E Comerford, D Bastick, B Brogan, D Byrne, S Carthy, D Connolly, D Daly, K McManamon, C Reddin, E O'Gara, N Scully

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