So, a bit over five months since our last appearance there, tomorrow evening the lads are once more set to take to the field in Croke Park, although this time the stakes are far lower than was the case last September. It’s good, though, to get a run-out at HQ early in the year and the half-decent weather we’re experiencing at the minute could help push the attendance level up a bit, which would help make more of an occasion out of the match.
It’ll also be my first time seeing the team in the flesh this year, as I wasn’t able to make it to the west for any of the earlier clashes. And, of course, seeing as it’s the Dubs we’re playing, I’ll be bringing a few small opposition supporters with me to Croker.
When the final whistle sounded at the end of our semi-final against the Dubs last September, the little lad howled (and, boy, can he howl) for what seemed like an hour. But I doubt even he will get too down in the gob tomorrow night if we record what would be three wins on the trot over the Dubs. This is the league, after all and it’s still only the start of March.
A win tomorrow night would, of course, be good to see but it can’t in any sense be portrayed – as Sean Rice seemed to be doing earlier in the week – as some kind of do-or-die contest. A quick glance at Jim Gavin’s pick for tomorrow night confirms this: like our man back in 2011, the new Dublin manager is using this NFL campaign to cast around for some new talent and so the team he’s sending out for this one contains only six survivors from the one that faced us last September. We, in contrast, retain eleven of our starting fifteen from that day.
There isn’t a huge amount to say about the team we’ve named to start. If you want to quibble with James’ selection, then, sure, Aidan O’Shea’s more natural position is in midfield, Chris Barrett is a wing-back and not a corner-back and the full-forward line lacks a bit of heft. But, on the plus side, the experiments involving Lee Keegan and Kevin McLoughlin have, rightly, been abandoned and Jason Gibbons has been given a long overdue start, partnering Barry Moran at midfield.
We look very strong in that midfield diamond area – especially when Donal Vaughan and Aidan O’Shea are factored in – and, in the absence of the suspended Michael Darragh Macauley, Dublin definitely lack the kind of experience we have in this sector. Our semi-final win over them last year was based on establishing dominance around the middle third and if we can repeat the same dose tomorrow night we can be hopeful of securing a similar result.
To do this, of course, the forwards need to click better than they’ve done in their two league outings to date. With Jason Doherty in flying form, however, and given the way that the likes of Kevin McLoughlin, Richie Feeney and Michael Conroy seem to revel in the wide open spaces at HQ, this may not be as big an ask as might first be imagined.
What would be great to see tomorrow night is a fully switched-on performance right from the throw-in, one that sees us use our greater experience to dictate how the match is played. Regardless of whether or not we get the win, a more committed performance is a must: we were lackadaisical in the extreme for long stretches against Tyrone and, three weeks on from then and the days now visibily lengthening, it’s time for us to start playing some football again.
But if the result doesn’t go our way – and there’s every chance it won’t – I don’t think we need to see it as a sign that we’ve entered some kind of downward spiral. Personally, I think fifth or sixth place in Division One is ideally where we want to end this league campaign, thus avoiding the teeth-gnashing that would accompany finishing in the bottom two and the unnecessary distration of being in the play-offs in a year where we have a May championship clash with Galway in Salthill to think about.
If we lose tomorrow night then it’s definitely the case that the need to get a few more points on the board becomes that bit more urgent. However, with two eminently winnable matches coming up next – against Down and Kildare – we could still have six league points in the bag before Donegal come to town at the end of the month. And if we do, there’s every reason to expect that we’ll once again maintain our Division One status. We might even fail to avoid a league semi-final appearance.
So, although the spoils on offer tomorrow night aren’t to be sniffed at, what’s really important is that we see an improved performance and that we learn something tangible from the experimenting we’re doing. A bit of howling from the small lad at the final whistle would be an added bonus, but no more than that.