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exclusive Westmeath beating Dublin in '04 wasn't such a big shock - it would be seismic now!

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Dejected Dublin manager Tommy Lyons leaves the pitch after defeat to Westmeath in 2004

Dejected Dublin manager Tommy Lyons leaves the pitch after defeat to Westmeath in 2004

Dejected Dublin manager Tommy Lyons leaves the pitch after defeat to Westmeath in 2004

WHEN people identify a modern low point for Dublin football to use as an extreme comparison against the decade we’ve just come through, our loss to Westmeath in 2004 tends to crop up fairly regularly.

And the same tropes are always rolled out.

We were in a ‘bad place’ that year under Tommy Lyons. Westmeath’s belief and energy had soared under the great Páidí.

Both of those things are undeniably true, but it was much more nuanced that that.

People forget that the early months of Páidí’s reign featured all sorts of negative talk that he either wasn’t getting on - or through to - the Westmeath players and mightn’t even last until summer.

And when you look at that Westmeath team, it’s obvious that whatever the extent of Páidí’s motivational powers, he didn’t lack for raw material.

I went to college with John Keane. He’s easily one of the best defenders I ever played with.

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Alan Brogan in action against John Keane

Alan Brogan in action against John Keane

Alan Brogan in action against John Keane

Michael Ennis, David O’Shaughnessy, Dessie Dolan, Alan Mangan, Denis Glennon – all serious footballers.

When we talk about it now, it’s obvious that Dessie still reveres Páidí for what he did with that team that year.

But the main thing that people overlook or undervalue when they reference that game is that the potential for those kind of results was always there in Leinster. And most other provinces.

Yes, we were favourites. But Westmeath beating us wasn’t all that big a shock.The earth didn’t move.

There was 60,000 people at that game – a Leinster quarter-final.

There was anticipation, the sort of excitement you can’t experience in the build-up to a match when you’re 99 per cent sure of who’s going to win.

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And most of the teams in Leinster fancied their chances against us around that time.

Why wouldn’t they?

We were still very much in it late in that game against Westmeath on but they finished stronger. We didn’t quite capitulate, but we were meek and uncertain in most of what we did when the game had to be won.

That’s what we used to do. We’d work our way into a good position because we had good footballers. What we didn’t have was the collective savvy to close those games out or respond when the opposition came with a surge.

It was tough on Tommy.

Micko in ’03. Páidí in ’04.

Men who’d haunted Dublin in the seventies, still at it thirty years later. But again, it wasn’t a meteoric shock.

Since then, by degrees, the Leinster Championship has ceased to be a competition.

We can blame Dublin’s population but at inter-county level now, the chasm between the very top teams and everybody else is becoming insurmountable.

Would Kerry have won any fewer Leinster titles than Dublin had we swapped provinces in 2004? The worrying thing is that it’s hard to see how that ground can be made up.

Year on year, the best are developing at a speedier rate. They are accelerating into the distance.

If you look at the body composition of the players in the top counties now, they’re built differently. More athletic. More robust.

That’s hard to achieve.

There isn’t a single week of the year that goes by when those players don’t aren’t in the gym and that’s only a single strand of preparation.

Being an inter-county player now is a lifestyle choice. You don’t take two months off after the Championship to go drinking and you don’t show up for pre-season not able to fit into your shorts.

And because they exist in a cut-throat environment, where team mates around them are making gains every week, those players are pushing themselves constantly on the training pitch, in the gym and even at home; in their tactical planning and recovery, for fear of falling down the hierarchy of their squad.

You might even be charting gradual improvement in your skill levels, athletic makeup, tactical awareness, but you could still be overtaken by someone who’s working harder.

It’s not that players in other counties don’t work hard or go to the gym. They do.

It’s just difficult to create the same culture of constant improvement unless you have that kind of competition to sustain it.

Especially if you’re in the Leinster Championship and your chances of winning anything mean you’ve to go through Dublin.

If I was an inter-county manager of a team outside Division 1 now, I’d be hell-bent on the League; trying to establish consistency of performance and learning how to win.

I wouldn’t waste a second thinking or talking about the Championship until the League was over.

Because the unfortunate truth is that at the moment, the Championship is the preserve of the very few.

By League position, Westmeath are currently the fourth best team in Leinster and the 12th best team in Ireland.

But the last thing Dessie Farrell wants on Saturday night is to be preparing for a team meeting on Sunday morning where the main item on the agenda is an underperformance.

And that’s enough to ensure that Dublin are totally focused on this game, and this game alone.

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