Shane Stapleton gives a grim assessment of Dublin’s 1-23 to 0-12 win over Cavan in the All-Ireland SFC semi-final at Croke Park.
BY SHANE STAPLETON
Players grow up dreaming of a chance to play at Croke Park.
That’s the line that has forever been trotted out, and at some point people will stop swallowing it.
No player dreams of what we — a collection of journalists, GAA officials and stewards, and those in both camps — just witnessed at a stony cold Croke Park this evening.
This felt transcational, it verged on soulless, the emptiness of the venue was matched only by the contest, and it leaves you fearing for the future of the game at this level.
A number of Kildare players have packed it in recently, and little wonder.
Former Westmeath footballer John Connellan wrote about disparities after the Leinster final, and it’s only a couple of years since Meath goalkeeper Paddy O’Rourke wrote “how can you justify training five or six nights per week for eight or nine months of the year, without a realistic chance of winning anything? I just can’t do it any more”.
Should some of the counties who know they will never bridge the gap decide to forego entering a team into inter-county action, and simply focus on club competitions, you could understand it.
There’s nothing for them here when it comes to winning a national championship title, unless a Tailteann Cup floats their boat. Even at that, only so many teams will be allowed compete down there during any one season.
Dublin are brilliant in every way and, on a player-by-player basis, you must commend each of them on the shape they have built themselves up to. That takes sacrifice and hard work.
That’s not to suggest they are putting their lives on hold any more than players from elsewhere, more that the Dubs’ individual efforts combined with population and infrastructural advantages have led to depressing levels of superiority on the field.
Having your house in order is why bigger nations such as Germany and England will churn out top-class talent, and why we in Ireland and other little fishes will be left spiralling in their current. Heavy funding has to go to the chasing pack, but it feels as if the blue wave will pound the rest indefinitely.
Brian Fenton has never lost a championship match, and the odds are probably tight enough on his unbeaten run ever being rumbled.
Quite regularly, it is the Raheny man’s record that is spoken of, but a new generation of Dublin players are in the same splash-free boat. Eight other Dublin starters have never tasted championship defeat.
Stephen Cluxton’s scar tissue from defeats of old has long since faded into nothing. James McCarthy and Michael Fitzsimons rung up a few defeats long ago while Ciaran Kilkenny — who missed 2014 due to a cruciate — lost his summer bow to Mayo in 2012, and that’s been it.
For Dean Rock and Jonny Cooper, there was that loss to Donegal six years ago, and a few draws, but otherwise it has been years of necklacing together wins and medals. There’s dominance, and then there’s obliteration.
Analysis of this semi-final is there to be had for those with a stomach for it. Why didn’t Cavan hold onto the ball instead of carrying it into numbers and contact? Could they not have killed the clock? Why not make it a dog-fight and try to ruffle a few feathers?
This amounted to a nice game at a pristine venue, and it afforded Dublin a leisurely match during which they could create 38 scoring opportunities. Not bad going in second gear.
For those looking on and feeling glum, that will be an alien feeling to those inside the capital’s camp. Any winning team will enjoy the feeling, and move on.
Those players grew up dreaming of winning an All-Ireland, and realising it is the end game. No one can take away the medals, the memories, the enjoyment at training, and the shared experience.
They will remember the pulsating tussles with Mayo and Kerry, and the annihilations of also-rans will be little more than a footnote. As it was for the Kerry team of their golden era, and as it was for the Kilkenny hurlers in more recent times.
Would the atmosphere at Croke Park been much different for the final 20-odd minutes had a crowd been present? Unlikely.
The brilliance of Fenton, Con O’Callaghan, Dean Rock, Robbie McDaid and Ciaran Kilkenny would have been appreciated quietly here or at home, and people would still wonder how they can afford to leave Brian Howard and Paul Mannion on the bench.
Cavan left it all out on the pitch, and we always knew it would not be enough. It’s as if their sensational Ulster final win over Donegal
They should have asked for the game to be played away from Croke Park, knowing the Dubs would have won no matter where.
That was never the point and, sitting in an empty Croker, you wonder what is. The other counties will keep trying, and maybe an exception will beat the rulers some day.
On evenings such as this, that feels like something from a dream. Like what playing against the Dubs at Croke Park may once have been.