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Dessie’s heavy-metal makeover of the Dubs brings a beast of a panel

THE PERIOD OF slippage, such as it was, began at the start of 2021.

Winning the All-Ireland a mere month before was nice and all, but there was a hollow element to it as well as Dublin beat Mayo in front of a crowd of stewards, poorly-dressed journalists and a select band of Croke Park suits.

With ‘the gaiety of the nation’ at stake, the whole thing was necessary but an empty sugar hit. A slab of pavlova with no dinner dance to work it off.

So in January 2021, the recognisable faces of the decade started dropping off; Paddy Andrews, Michael Darragh Macauley and Paul Mannion all excused themselves.

Those that played the season out, concluding with defeat to Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final were left with a most unusual sensation.

Injuries and lack of game time had caught some of these candidates by this point but still it was something to watch some of the Mount Rushmore figures of Dublin GAA retire in Kevin McManamon, Cian O’Sullivan and Philly McMahon.

Before all that of course, Jack McCaffrey had left in 2020 during the Covid outbreak. He was an actual All-Star and a nominee for Footballer of the Year the year before.

In October, Diarmuid Connolly left. Elvis had left the building.

With such losses, Dessie Farrell’s job in following Jim Gavin was always going to be tremendously difficult.

Losing to Kerry in the 2022 All Ireland semi-final – the day of the famous Sean O’Shea free, was still some example of a man keeping a team competitive.

But their aura had vanished. The whole thing had Brian Fenton confused. Defeat? 

Brian Fenton. Morgan Treacy / INPHO

Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

From Gavin taking over, Dublin hadn’t won a league title in 20 years. They did so in his first season of 2013, backing it up with four of the next five leagues.

For the thing to work to Gavin’s satisfaction, Dublin supremacy had to have a suffocating effect on all others.

After defeat to Mayo in the 2021 All Ireland semi-final, Armagh were the first to go to work on that Croke Park record, scorching by them by five points in the opening round of the 2020 league.

Then it was a seven-point loss to Kerry in Tralee, five points short of Mayo in Croke Park, beaten by three by Kildare – Kildare indeed – in Newbridge.

Wins came against Tyrone and Donegal, but on the final day against Monaghan in Clones, they couldn’t quite pull it off and their 13-year spell in Division 1 was over.

Teams now knew Dublin were beatable, rather than dreaming about it in an abstract way.

They started the 2023 league with a measly one-point win over Kildare. That pattern repeated with narrow wins over Cork and a single point win over Clare.

It would be wrong to say teams could taste blood at the thought of Dublin. Still, it was in their nostrils.

This is where Derry came in. It was this time last year when Dublin turned up to a packed Celtic Park.

How Derry did it added layers of symbolism. Brendan Rogers got the better of Brian Fenton in the final play of the game to kick the winner. It wasn’t to be a changing of the guard moment, but that’s how it felt at the time and how it was presented.

And then Stephen Cluxton returned and it changed everything. Another All-Ireland followed, one against Kerry which in the minds of many Dubs is worth two against anyone else.

Which is why last weekend’s league win over Kerry was so significant. There would have been a ring around that date for Kerry ever since the fixtures were released, and they were nowhere near the levels Dublin reached.

No wonder Eamonn Fitzmaurice has noted since that they are ‘building a beast of a panel.’

At the centre of it is still the ‘Class of 1993’; those born that year include Brian Fenton, Paul Mannion, John Small and Jack McCaffrey.

Dublin manager Dessie Farrell. Morgan Treacy / INPHO

Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

The supporting cast has been built since Farrell took over and embarked on his first league in 2020.

What stands out though when you look at the evolution is how you could barely get a sniff of minutes unless you were a seasoned footballer.

Cian Murphy was 23 before he got his debut in the 2020 league against Meath.

Tom Lahiff was a year older when he made his bow against Galway in the same league.

Sean McMahon, who started against Kerry, took until he was 23 before he started his first game for Dublin.

Lee Gannon made his debut for the county hurlers as a teenager but it took a few years after that before he was in with the county football team.

While Peader ÓCofaigh-Byrne made his debut at 20 against Tyrone in a completely meaningless Super 8s game, he has been raced very lightly up until this season. Ross McGarry had to wait until he was 22 for his first appearance.

The same for Daire Newcombe, while Killian O’Gara is an impressively late developer, first appearing for the Dubs at 28.

There are outliers such as Sean Bugler and Greg McEneaney, but essentially when Dublin transition, they didn’t bring through a bunch of kids. They do it with seasoned adult footballers.

Heading up to Derry, you get the sense they might back up one statement victory with another. Watch out for it.


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