As a player, the one game I loved to play in most was always against Dublin. I have two main reasons for this. The first is because we had the upper hand on them in most of our matches and we just knew what it took to beat them. The second reason is simply because of their supporters. I loved playing in the carnival atmosphere that they brought to the occasion. The joyous songs that would ring out from the Hill early on but was soon silenced when we gained the upper hand. The craic that you would hear from them even though players often say that they blank the crowd out. Against Dublin though this is not always possible. In a league match in Crossmaglen in April 2008, the Dublin brigade gathered behind the goals that we were shooting into in the first half. As soon as the ball was thrown in they started to sing, “Old MacDonald had a farm, EIEI OHHH.” . I loved this and myself and Clarkey run riot early in that match to which the Armagh support started to sing “Old MacDonald has scored 1-3, EIEI OHHH”. Long before they were getting Eric Lowndes mixed up with Diarmuid Connolly they were getting my surname wrong but to great comical effect. All banter of course and they could take it. I’ll never forget though how they lined the streets and applauded us as we made our way from Croke Park after the 2002 All Ireland semi-final. It really was spine-tingling stuff and greatly appreciated and remembered by the Armagh 2002 team. That’s why I have a fondness for them.
Fast forward to the current era though. Are Dublin the greatest Gaelic football team ever? One of the biggest compliments they could possibly receive is from none other than Pat Spillane. The Kerryman believes that Dublin are in fact the best team ever and he was an integral part in the most successful team in history. He sees something different, something more unique about the current Dublin team compared to the great Kerry team of the late 70s and early 80s. For my money, I can only judge them based on what I have ever seen in my lifetime and the answer is yes, they are the greatest for me.
The frightening thing about most of their players is that they still have a lot of maturing to do and they are only going to get better. The average age of their starting team that faced Tyrone in the All-Ireland semi-final was 24. That’s a startling statistic for a team so young to show such composure and patience and to perform at such high standards game after game regardless of their opponents. The fact that they have one of the most successful managers in Gaelic football in Jim Gavin over the team adds to their dominance. He seems so cool and calculated on the line that his calmness filters through to his players.
Dublin have a conveyor belt of talent coming through at a rapid pace and Con O’Callaghan is the prime example of this. He has settled into the side this year as if he has been there for years. He is also keeping Bernard Brogan, Paul Flynn, Kevin McManamon and Eoghan O’Gara out of the starting team so this is a clear indication of their strength in depth. When teams are considered to be the greatest of all time, they must have three key components. They must have resilience and Dublin have it in bucketloads. They are unfazed about the occasion and they play their way out of pressure situations with good football consistently. Think of the spell Kerry had in the 2016 All Ireland semi-final and how composed Dublin were. They must also have strong characters. Characters in their dressing room that demand respect. Philly McMahon, Stephen Cluxton, Brian Fenton, Cian O’Sullivan, enough said. They must have a figurehead, a general. They have it in Gavin. Put all three together and you have a concoction of ruthlessness, desire, ability, athleticism and ambition that no team can currently match.
Mayo, though, have been the team that have consistently come closest to them in their head-to-heads. In other eras, this Mayo team would have undoubtedly won an All-Ireland at this stage. If it weren’t for Dublin, would Mayo be classed as the greatest team of all time? Certainly not but while they don’t have the individual brilliance of their bygone years with players like Ciaran McDonald, Willie Joe Padden, Liam McHale and Conor Mortimer, they should be ranked as one if not the greatest Mayo team of all time. Their attitude can never be questioned, their ability to bounce back from All-Ireland final defeats and once again knock on the door can only be respected. They have a hunger and desire to get their hands on the Sam Maguire Cup like no other Mayo team before them.
Because Dublin are labelled as the GOAT, this by no means guarantees them success in this year’s final. They must continue to improve on their form from this year’s campaign to come out on top of a Mayo team that almost beat them in last year’s final. The exciting thing about this final is that there has been progress made from both sides to reach it and they are both peaking at the right time.If it is to be Dublin’s year, they will go into the history books as the GOAT and they will enjoy that status alongside the great Kilkenny hurling team from 2006-2009, the Chicago Bulls 1995-96, Spain 2007-2012 and the current All Blacks team. Similar to the All Blacks as they perform their war dance before each test match, The Haka, Dublin have their own tribal war dance before each match: it’s called Hill 16.