It has been the longest year ever for GAA nostalgia. Last Sunday night – on the precarious cusp of an inter-county resumption – eir Sport pressed the rewind button 23 years, all the way back to the 1997 Leinster senior football final.
o a time when Leinster football was the poster boy for glorious unpredictability; an era when six different counties would share the eight titles contested between 1997 and 2004.
Even Dublin fans, you suspect, would welcome even a morsel of that mayhem. Just to puncture the tedium of another double-digit cakewalk.
Here lies the ultimate indictment of what Leinster has become (through no fault of Dublin’s, other than their own remorseless brilliance) … it is far more therapeutic to wax lyrical about the past than to talk about the present. We know the last two words of every preview before we even pen the first: Verdict Dublin.
So, forgive us our time-travelling digression back to 1997. That Saturday evening in August was almost too good to be true for headline writers in a hurry to make the first Sunday edition.
Roy Malone tormented a chronically depleted Meath defence with two brilliantly finished goals, including one outrageous solo effort, as an Offaly side domiciled in Division Four that spring toppled the reigning All-Ireland champions, while scoring a jaw-dropping 3-17.
Cue the first back-page crisis: do we go with ‘Rhode runner routs the Royals’ or ‘Roy of the Offaly Rovers’?
The more high-brow publications might have preferred a profound analysis of how Seán Boylan’s Meath – whose never-say-die tendencies bordered on the vampiric – had for once been the victims. Fed to the lions: Tommy Lyons.
Briefly, that evening, a late Jimmy McGuinness goal had cut the deficit to four and elicited visions of another escape from beyond the grave. Except that Offaly immediately retorted with four rousing points, including a hat-trick from the venerable Vinny Claffey, bringing the Doon raider’s personal haul to 1-5.
As the Faithful hordes poured down from the stands to celebrate the end of Offaly’s 15-year famine, and as Finbarr Cullen lifted the cup, you got the clear sense that Leinster football was the story that kept on giving.
Shock and awe, and pitch invasions … a different time and a very different Leinster championship. Dublin’s monopoly (14 out of 15 and counting) is such that even the return of straight knockout football has prompted zero talk of change from the same-old script.
True, the champions are conceivably more vulnerable this winter because of the ever-present potential for Covid complications, and also because Dessie Farrell has been dealt the most disrupted hand that any manager succeeding a legend could have asked for.
But when pundits make that argument, they are second-guessing what happens in December, not November.
The case for the prosecution is overwhelming. Dublin have sucked the competitive life out of Leinster, partly because they have reached levels of excellence never previously scaled by any team from the eastern province, but also because those counties theoretically best equipped to challenge, Meath and Kildare, have meandered between middling and mediocre for far too long.
No matter which statistical metric you apply, there is no scope for sugar-coating this record-breaking run of nine Leinster titles (and 27 matches) on the spin. From 2011-19, the average differential for Dublin in Leinster stands at over 14 points per game.
Pat Gilroy was the manager who launched it all, yet the average margins in 2011-12 (under six points per game) were tiny compared to the carnage that unfolded under Jim Gavin. He oversaw 21 straight wins by a combined 346 points. Do the maths: almost 16.5 points per game.
Only two of those Gavin outings yielded single-digit victories – by seven points over Meath in the 2013 final, and by nine over Kildare in the 2017 decider.
In 2018, Dublin’s average win in Leinster broke the 20-point barrier. The previous summer, they had 31 points to spare over Westmeath.
All of which helps to explain the all-pervasive pre-championship apathy among Westmeath fans, whatever about their players. For Jack Cooney, you suspect, the challenge of consolidating their place in Division Two has surely usurped any grandiose championship ambitions. That’s what a quarter-final draw against the Dubs, without any qualifier safety net, will do to you.
At least Meath and Kildare have the consolation of residency on the other side of the draw; if pedigree counts for anything, they will meet in a semi-final.
Kildare, under Jack O’Connor, need to get back to a Leinster final. Andy McEntee’s Meath need to get there, too – and then bury the ghosts of 2019, when their final haul was just 0-4.
Speaking at a championship launch last week, Bernard Brogan made the case that “Dublin won’t be winning Leinsters forever”. But he also pinpointed how much has changed since his early days in Sky Blue.
“I remember winning our first one and carrying it around in Coppers,” the retired Dub remarked.
The Delaney Cup on a nocturnal tour of Harcourt Street? It couldn’t happen today – even if the night clubs were open.