Transmogrification is a transformation into something mysterious and magical. It is what happens with the greatest sports teams: The All Blacks 2011 to 2015, Barcelona when Carlos Puyol captained them. Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics, who won 10 championships in 11 seasons.
ublin are in this category. They have the systems of play: The zonal kick-out press, the man-to-man press, the careful traps laid against the opposing goalie’s short kick-outs. Their own kick-out work, with several different kick-outs and an absolute go-to one when they absolutely must retain possession.
Their attacking systems, with the offensive D left free, then the careful probing with players looping around into scoring positions using the passer as a shield, cutting back in, etc etc.
The track defence, with different players dropping in to sweep depending on the way the attack develops. Then comes the individual excellence. Finally, and only in the very rarest cases, comes transmogrification, the mysterious transformation of a team into something incredible.
In those exceptionally unusual cases, there is a chemistry between players and management that is impossible to describe, a chemistry that reveals itself when the team is under the most intense pressure. Then, the group thrives. So, this Dublin team has never lost a replay. Most recently, against Kerry in 2019, they forced a draw (and almost won it) when playing poorly. In the replay, they were imperious. The challenge had energised them.
At times in Parnell Park against Meath yesterday they looked superb. Yet they conceded 0-19, including gifting Meath a shocking eight scoreable frees and repeatedly giving possession away under not much pressure.
They were also fortunate that Meath — who had lost their previous five league games on the trot — showed zero composure or know-how when they were presented with three one-v-one goal chances. On each occasion, the Meath player panicked as though he had never been in this position before and the chance was botched.
Which brings me back to the question of chemistry. Jim Gavin established a zen-like culture in this group, a culture of selflessness and humility and each player being a servant of a bigger cause.
This is why he had an uneasy relationship with Bernard Brogan, sidelining and distrusting him. With a new manager, there is a risk that this chemistry will be altered. It is a bit like the new man gathering the children in the living room and saying, “Hi kids, I’m your new stepdad”. Things might appear outwardly the same but there is a new and complex set of relationships to wrestle with.
Jonny Cooper struggled before being injured. Cian O’Sullivan, whose Dublin career looked over last year, was brought on. Aaron Byrne from Na Fianna doesn’t look like a prospect at this level. The defence struggled and more worryingly played with indiscipline, giving away a succession of needless frees.
On the other hand, the silence of the empty stadium gave us an opportunity to marvel at Dublin’s constant, excellent on-field communication.
“Take your time Paddy, I’m on your right,” said Dean Rock to Paddy Small. “I’ll take it now Davy, now,” said Brian Fenton as he made a diagonal run from behind Davy Byrne, then picked out Paddy Small for a beautiful team score. “Scully drop now,” said Kilkenny.
For Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs, they were pointing and talking to each other, switching, blocking off, constantly communicating. Which in turn means they were constantly concentrating.
At one point, Jonny Cooper and Fenton had a long conversation at centre-field, both holding their hands over their mouths like the mafiosi in Casino when they had been tipped off that FBI lip-readers were watching them.
Meath’s goalie’s kick-outs were superb, save for his second, a short one which the Dubs returned for a sickener of a goal. Meath made a seven points to one run in the middle phase of the game to come within one point of the Dubs, but they blew the goal chances and the Dubs coasted home.
Dean Rock was flawless, bar one suicide pass that could have gotten Mick Fitzsimons seriously injured, scoring 1-8 to beat Jimmy Keaveney’s all-time Dublin scoring record.
Afterwards, Dessie Farrell said three times on eir Sport that he was delighted, reminding me of Gerry Donnelly’s great line, “Well, if you are so delighted, get your brain to send your face a message.”