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Age of Empires – The Dubs too will fall

History dictates that Dublin’s dominance won’t last forever.

The Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans, the British. All the great empires have fallen. The Dubs will be no different.

History has taught us that no matter how great the rise, how powerful the dominance, greatness eventually flounders and new forces emerge.

Sport is no exception.

If we look to across the water to Liverpool’s dominance of a 20 year period from 1972-1992 that saw them win four European Cups and 11 league titles, who would have predicted their fall from grace that has seen them go without winning a league since.

The demise of Liverpool inevitably coincided with the rise of another empire in Manchester United.

Legend has it that a goal from Mark Robins in the 1990 FA Cup for United against Nottingham Forest saved the skin of a certain Alex Ferguson before the Scot went on to lead a 26-year period of dominance that resulted in two Champions Leagues and 13 league titles.

Having replaced and surpassed the dominance of the mighty Liverpool, the great empire of United has since begun to creak and spend as they might, the Age of Empire could too be behind them as they still await a league title in the post-Ferguson era.

The GAA has not been spared with the rise and fall of greatness either with feast and famine coming and going in the same vein.

Galway strung a three-in-a-row of football All-Ireland’s together between 1964 and 1966 before falling to an 11-point defeat at the hands of Mayo in the Connacht championship in ’67, subsequently disappearing from the roll of honour for 32 years.

The 70’s will be remembered for the Dublin-Kerry rivalry with the two sides sharing seven titles between them across the decade.

Dublin, led by Kevin Heffernan and Kerry with Mick O’Dywer at the helm arguably boasted some the greatest players every to play the game, becoming poster pin-ups and household names.

Micko was one of the first to capitalise upon the commercial appeal inter-county football, signing sponsorship deals with sportswear brand Adidas and washing machine manufacturer Bendix.

Kerry Bendix sponsorship

O’Dwyer’s fundraising exercise allowed the Kerry stars to go on a legendary ‘World Tour’ in 1981 when they jetted off to the US, Australia and Hawaii for a month long celebration after winning four-in-a-row.

 

The Kerry machine continued into the 1980’s with only a controversial Seamus Darby goal denying the Kingdom a historic five-in-a-row.

The Dubs later produced a legendary performance in the 1983 decider when after having three men sent off, the “12 Apostles” still managed to overcome Galway.

Amazingly, that was to be it for the “Metropolitans” as they failed to lift the Sam Maguire again until 1995.

By the time Kerry had secured another three-a-row in 1986 and nine All-Irelands across two decades, one would have been forgiven for expecting the green and gold juggernaut to continue to dominate the football landscape for the foreseeable future.

The Kingdom however fell on lean times by their own standards, not winning another All-Ireland until 1997,

Cycles, waves, innovation and blankets! 

The 70s and 80s were unquestionably eras of cycles with the brilliance and sheer talent of those Kerry and Dublin teams putting them beyond the reach of most sides.

Other teams however managed to innovate with Sean Boylan’s Meath adapting a military-like training regime to facilitate an aggressive style that saw them walk up the steps of the Hogan Stand in both ’87 and ’88 and Cork replicating the same the following two years.

Time as well as innovation had broken the great Dublin-Kerry stronghold and Sam Maguire was shared by nine different teams over the following decade.

We witnessed the emergence of the Northern teams Down, Donegal and Derry who all lifted Sam in the early 90’s.

The noughties marked a period of further innovation with as teams tried to reinvent the wheel to get their hands on Gaelic football’s most coveted prize.

Armagh’s blanket defence of 2002 allowed them to secure a first ever title with Tyrone taking it to another level a year later to repeat the feat, an approach famously described by pundit Pat Spillane as “puke football.”

Kerry Tyrone 2003 blanket defence

Tyrone’s 2003 blanket defence in operation.

While the blanket defence shocked the Gaelic football world in the early 2000’s, it allowed Tyrone to add its first three titles to its history within a six year period.

While obituaries were written for the future of football, Kerry themselves reacted, adapted and innovated.

The emergence of Kieran Donaghy at full forward in 2006 was reminiscent of the impact that the great “Bomber” Liston had in the 70s and 80s and it facilitated something of a revival for the Kingdom as they clocked up triumphs in ’04, ’06, ’07 and ’09 in the midst of the threat to the future of the game!

The obituaries were out again in 2011 with Jim McGuinness’ Donegal rolling out a heavier blanket that had been seen before in an All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin with pundit Colm O’Rourke describing it as the “game from hell.”

A more developed version of the tactic saw Donegal lift the Sam Maguire a year later and with an almost irresistible Dublin falling to a tactical masterclass from McGuinness in 2014, it seemed that ultra-defensive football would be a major feature of the game in years to come.

While Dublin and Jim Gavin licked their wounds after that surprise defeat, the Dubs soon became the greatest exponents of adjustment and adaption.

Gavin learned his lesson from over exuberance in attack and the Dublin machine as we know it was born, striking a balance between bodies behind the ball and devastating attack.

Prophesies of doom

The fact that Dublin have not lost a championship game since that defeat is testament to their coach and players who have transformed themselves arguably into one of the greatest sides in history.

Modern day stars such as Stephen Cluxton, Bernard Brogan, Diarmuid Connolly and Ciaran Kilkenny are the Ogie Morans, Bomber Listons, Jack O’Sheas and Pat Spillanes of yesteryear.

As they embark on a four-in-a-row bid this year, “crisis” has been called in many corners of the GAA with many opting to cry “financial doping” or “split Dublin in two.”

In spite of figures showing that between 2010 and 2014 Dublin received €274.70 per registered player, while Mayo received €22.30 from the GAA’s games development fund, the men from the West have repeatedly pushed them within a hairs breadth.

While the Dubs have secured five titles in seven years, the margin of victory in four finals against Mayo was just one point yet Mayo’s mortality is certainly not being questioned.

Mayo cannot be considered an unrealistic benchmark for other counties in pursuit.

The success of Dublin must be viewed however in the context of the recent history of the game.

These are not ordinary players, they are exceptional.

Exceptional in the same modern context of Brian Cody’s great Kilkenny teams whose success was not ridiculed to anywhere near the same degree.

To cry conspiracy or engage in the current media discourse of prophesies of doom, is to do both them and the history of the game a disservice.

Age of Empires

While all the mighty empires of history reached a pinnacle of dominance, they have come and gone.

The great Liverpool, the mighty United, if it was money and not players that could keep them at the top, they would still be there.

For GAA fans, we must acknowledge greatness when we see it and accept that the game moves in waves and cycles.

The innovation of the likes of Boylan, Harte, O’Connor and McGuinness in particular is the blueprint from which the empire can be challenged.

Indeed, Dublin themselves are evidence of what can be achieved.

While supporters around the country may not be willing to wait even another September for it to happen, it may be time to leave the sensationalism to the pundits and let history take care of the Dubs!

Senior columnist for GAA Wrap.

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