Dean Fitzgerald explains how the Dublin team changed the game.
Every few generations, a team emerges from the chasing pack and undergoes a period of massive success. Amazingly, the Dublin side of the 2010’s is the tenth inter-county football team in history to win at least three consecutive senior All-Ireland titles, so sustained dominance isn’t unheard of whatsoever in Gaelic Football. However, this Dublin side's hold of the brass ring has created a culture change.
In an ever-blurring line between amateurism and professionalism in Gaelic Football, Dublin have become the flag-bearers and the standard setters, with many teams now beginning to follow their lead. Most football fans recognise that Jim McGuinness’ Donegal upped the ante considerably in terms of fitness and conditioning of players, but this Dublin team has improved upon that further, delivering performance after performance of attacking and oftentimes breath-taking football.
It has forced counties with realistic hopes to win Sam Maguire to adapt a more attack-minded approach to keep up with the Dubs’ blistering pace. After a heavy defeat to Dublin in this year’s All-Ireland semi-final, Tyrone goalkeeper Niall Morgan declared Dublin “a different animal." Their defensive sweeper system, which to that point had conceded just 1-46 in four games, was hit with an unbelievable 2-17.
The All-Ireland final this year was a spectacle showcasing the very best of these attacking qualities. As Dublin and Mayo went toe to toe, they were separated only by the biggest score of Dean Rock’s career to date. Mayo, who have also embraced the more attack-minded approach to the game, could stay with Dublin for over 70 minutes, and may yet topple the Dubs to end their All-Ireland heartbreak. They acknowledge that the only style that should be adopted to threaten this Dublin side’s pre-eminence is to match their blistering forward play. As a result, Dublin must constantly improve to stay ahead of their nearest challenger. Mayo and Dublin have a symbiosis of sorts, for which the audience, and Gaelic Football itself, has been highly rewarded.
For all the complaints and disparagements about Dublin’s dominance, their extra funding and other such excuses offered, they have made the All-Ireland series a more entertaining watch since 2012, when defensive powerhouse Donegal were All-Ireland champions. That year, an average of only 25 points per game were scored in the championship’s entirety. This year, in the third of Dublin’s reign, the average score was well over 35 total points per game. The style of Gaelic Football has been changed, and possibly irrevocably by the excellence of this generation of Dublin players.
Nobody is a more obvious embodiment of this adaptation and improvement than Stephen Cluxton. Always an excellent keeper, Cluxton’s pinpoint accuracy from short and long-range kick outs has been continuously copied, even trickling down to club level. This quicker style of restarting the game creates more scoring opportunities, and therefore, a more entertaining spectacle.
The idea that Dublin’s lengthened reign has hurt the so-called ‘smaller’ counties is also not completely accurate. These teams were rarely challenging before Dublin’s deluge of trophies began, so to blame the Dubs for weakening other counties is preposterous. Dublin, Kerry and Mayo have appeared in the semi-finals in each of the last three years Dublin have won the
All-Ireland, which may have unwittingly created a ‘top tier’ of teams. Outside of these top teams, as harsh as it may be, there is little hope of major success for lower-rated sides.
Yet, the last three years have seen the emergence of Tipperary and Clare football, the ending of Mayo’s control in the Connacht championship, and Westmeath finally beating Meath in championship football. These are not totally coincidental. Tipperary and Clare adopted a freer, more attacking strategy to the game. Galway beat Mayo twice, not through defensive football, but by matching their attacking intensity and heart. Meath led comfortably against Westmeath at half-time in 2015, but a switch from a blanket defence imitation to simple, attacking football ended with the lake county’s biggest win since their 2004 Leinster title.
It’s very difficult to argue that Dublin have not improved the entertainment factor of inter-county football. They have created a way of playing that lower teams can adapt to a degree of success. Hopefully, this attractive brand of football will continue for several more years to come, and football supporters will look back eventually, knowing that this Dublin team ushered in a new era of football based on attacking prowess.