Inevitable break-up of Dublin's 'Power Five' will open a window to others
WHILE it might be brought under the strict remit of this decade, Dublin’s 2011 success does stand apart in that it was a culmination for so many rather than a beginning.
Ger Brennan, Kevin Nolan, Barry Cahill, Bryan Cullen and Alan Brogan were all tethering the rope by which they clung to inter-county careers, with only Brennan playing in the final two years later.
Denis Bastick would defy nature to go on for another few years but while there were was the traditional All-Ireland winning blend of youth and experience in 2011, the dynastical side that we know effectively began their domination two years later.
Unlike the great Kerry team that failed at this stage in pursuit of five-in-a-row, these Dublin achievements aren’t based solely around a core group of 18 men.
They haven’t lined out the same way for consecutive All-Ireland finals under Jim Gavin. They’ve barely, if ever, lined out the same way for consecutive championship games.
Yet if you start back in 2013, the only true constant in their attack has been Ciaran Kilkenny. He’s the sole starter in all six finals (including the 2016 replay with Mayo).
Circumstances have dictated to that, most notably Diarmuid Connolly’s sabbatical, Paul Flynn’s ageing and Paul Mannion taking over from Bernard Brogan in latter years.
Dean Rock has started the last five deciders but there have been starts for Paddy Andrews, Kevin McManamon and in the last two seasons, Niall Scully and Con O’Callaghan have broken in.
The defence isn’t an exception in the sense of change, with Rory O’Carroll out after 2015 and the loose corner-back spot rotating between Michael Fitzsimons, Davy Byrne and Eoin Murchan.
But it’s at the back that Dublin have been unerringly recognisable – and it’s there that others will take hope beyond this Sunday.
They’ve had a power five in the last six finals. Stephen Cluxton in goals. Philly McMahon, Jonny Cooper, Cian O’Sullivan and, somewhere at the back end, James McCarthy have all started the six ties.
Perhaps what’s most interesting isn’t that they’ve all started, but that they’ve largely all finished too.
Jim Gavin took Cooper off for the last 17 minutes in 2013, the last 21 minutes in 2015 and the token last seven minutes last year. Those have been the only unenforced changes he’s made to that quintet.
Cian O’Sullivan lasted 61 minutes playing with injury against Kerry four years ago, and just 26 minutes with a hamstring strain last year, while James McCarthy and Cooper have both suffered black cards in the first halves of deciders.
Despite the notion that their defence is a weakness that can be got at, their consistency and versatility has been the backbone of their success.
You might see Jonny Cooper at full-back one day, then Philly McMahon the next and then Michael Fitzsimons the next. McCarthy won Footballer of the Year two years ago at midfield but is back a bit deeper again this year.
The curtain is drawing on them, however slowly. But it could depend how heavily history rests on them. Win on Sunday and what else is there to achieve? The post-banquet air could be sobering for a lot of men.
It’s widely expected that Bernard Brogan and Eoghan O’Gara will both jump ship when Sam is lifted, regardless of who lifts it. Kevin McManamon will most likely go too, and despite his excellent form, Michael Darragh Macauley is 33.
It is, however, any cracks in the pillars of defence that would have the most impact.
Cian O’Sullivan and Philly McMahon, both 31, have shown signs of a dip over the last 18 months, to the point where neither of them is the cast-iron guarantee for a starting berth this weekend they would previously have been.
If Jim Gavin has to go without one or both for a day, Dublin will survive. But Fitzsimons is 31 now too. Cooper and McCarthy have a bit to go yet at 29, but it’s as much about the unit as the individual.
What that Dublin defence has brought to the table in recent years has been a fearsome physicality. They’re ruthless and disciplined in the tackle, and every man among them would fancy themselves in a 50-50 ball against even the best in the land.
All that physical mastery, all that experience that they’ve chalked up, all the wisdom to problem-solve for themselves on the pitch – that’s what Dublin will miss if it starts to break up after Sunday.
No doubt that’s all part of Jim Gavin’s thinking, and you can picture him selling to Cooper and McCarthy over the next week the absolute necessity of their retention. They’ll help guide the next generation through.
No-one is suggesting that the possible retirements will see Dublin tumble. It’s all too well thought out for that now. The plan is one of succession that we’ve seen work to perfection in their attack.
There, they’ve been replacing quality with quality. In the deep end of the full-back line, it’s arguably harder to replace the physical strength as much as anything. The boys coming through cannot be men overnight.
If Dublin can Cooper at three and McCarthy at six and rebuild around them, they might keep the window shut.
But the temptation is to think that over the next two to three years, there’ll be a serious opportunity to play on the passing of time that even Dublin can’t escape.
Dublin’s potential retirees
Stephen Cluxton (37)
Bernard Brogan (35)
Eoghan O’Gara (33)
Michael Darragh Macauley (33)
Kevin McManamon (32)
Cian O’Sullivan (31)
Philly McMahon (31)
Michael Fitzsimons (31)