Friday 28 April 2017

Child of the Hill

Henry living his dream as Blues renew thier rivalry with old enemy

Dublin's David Henry takes time out to relax at Dollymount Strand during the week
Dublin's David Henry takes time out to relax at Dollymount Strand during the week
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

ALL that is left of the era is an echo now but, for an 80s child of the Hill, the real, smoky, epochal Championship business tended to begin and end with Meath.

David Henry sat with his father, Gene, at all four games in 1991. The heat of those games stoked a guilty sense of trespass away up in the stand. At times, it felt as if they were watching something more elemental than football. Something primal and unrefined.

Henry remembers, especially, the start of the third chapter. Two weeks had passed from the second draw, a momentous, swaying contest in which Mick Lyons had been sent off for an off-the-ball incident with Vinnie Murphy. Mick and Vinnie weren't exactly gentle, equivocal sorts. As the players moved to take up positions, Murphy veered left and away from the 'small square.' Through the mist, Henry remembers watching Lyons follow. There was the smell of a hunt here. Of imminent destruction.

As the two came face to face, it felt as if the whole stadium took a sharp intake of breath. Henry was spellbound. Would Vinnie hit him? Would the two just collapse in an unseemly wrestle, sparking the rest of the cast into the mother and father of all donnybrooks? You could hear the fuse burning.

And that was when Mick Lyons stretched out his right hand and Vinnie Murphy impassively shook it.

Eleven at the time, David Henry felt so privileged at that moment, he could have been sitting ringside for Ali v Frazier. It was as if the world revolved around Dublin-Meath back then. Certainly, the country did. Ireland had little else to talk about.

"You know something?" he smiles in reminiscence. "That's the rivalry that the current Dublin team can really associate with. Much more so than Kerry and Dublin. The Kerry rivalry would maybe mean more to an older generation. I mean, I've seen those great Kerry-Dublin games on TG4, but I don't really feel a strong association with them.

"Dublin-Kerry is a long time ago. Thirty years or more. Most of us weren't born."

Kevin Foley's goal? Kevin Foley's goal was yesterday.

He will never forget the nausea of it. The incredulity. One moment, Robbie O'Malley was on his knees with the ball, by a corner-flag at the Canal End. The next thing, that same ball had passed through twelve pairs of hands and was being side-footed into the Hill-end goal by a defender never previously noted for wanderlust.

Henry could walk along O'Connell Street without being asked to sign a single jerseyIt was utterly brilliant and freakish and spooky. Seconds later, David Beggy kicked the winning point and David Henry slumped into the embrace of a father now left to explain the unexplainable.

Gene Henry, sensibly, just told his son that the world was still turning.

"I'll never forget it," sighs the current Dublin right-corner back. "It was tough stuff back then. You probably got away with more than you would now. Time seemed to stand still when Foley got that goal. I was sick, but I suppose it had to end somehow.

"To be fair, there wouldn't have been an awful lot of bitterness between the counties. Even though the football wasn't for the faint-hearted, the supporters would have been fairly gracious to one another.

"Maybe up around the North County Dublin, you might get a bit of it (bitterness). But I think, in general, it's good and healthy. Tough mind, very tough. But I often go down to Offaly and the rivalry between them and Westmeath would be bitter stuff."

The Offaly connection runs through every branch of the Henry family tree.

Gene comes from Clara and his brother, Vincent, played for Offaly in the '81 All-Ireland football final. And Gene's wife Mary, has a sister married to Brendan Lowry, winner of an All-Ireland medal in '82 when Seamus Darby ended Kerry's bid for five-in-a-row.

So many of David Henry's childhood summers were spent in the midlands, he remembers being moved once to ask Gene where his loyalty might lie if, one day, his son played for Dublin in a Leinster final against Offaly.

"With Offaly," Gene replied. He was bluffing.

Sure enough, last year David Henry played for Dublin in a Leinster final against Offaly. And the Henry household became an unequivocal shade of blue. "I think even some of my relations down there were secretly supporting Dublin," he chuckles.

And maybe that's the strangest thing about life for the Dublin number two.

Outside of his beloved Raheny, David Henry is pretty much Mr Invisible in the city. The denizens of The Hill would instantly recognise the silhouette of his clubmate, Ciaran Whelan, from half a dozen acres away. Other marquee men like Stephen Cluxton, Bryan Cullen, Alan Brogan and Conal Keaney need no introduction to even the most peripheral of Dubs' supporters.

But David Henry could spend tomorrow morning strolling up and down O'Connell Street without running much risk of being asked to sign a single jersey. Five years an inter-county footballer, he is - in a sense - still finding his way.

This is partly explained by the fact that, while Henry has played five full National League campaigns with the Dubs, last year was his first full Championship run.

He looked destined for a settled residency in 2002, but Tommy Lyons lost faith in him on the edge of Championship. That was the summer Dublin rocked the city, winning their first Leinster title in a decade. Henry got runs as a substitute in both the provincial semi-final and final without ever feeling that he was a significant part of the team's DNA.

The following season, he played against Louth in the opening round, thought he had done well, yet was subsequently left out the next day against Laois. In 2004, he played through the League again. Got dropped for the Championship.

"You'd be rightly p****d off sometimes," he remembers. "But if you weren't disappointed, there'd be something wrong with you. The thing is you can't really argue with a manager. At times, I would have been slightly disillusioned. You'd be wondering was it worth the effort.

"But really you had two options. Carry on moaning about it, which isn't going to get you anywhere. Or put your head down and do whatever it is you have to do. I mean, you can be giving out about managers for the rest of your life to anyone who'll listen."

'Breaking my arm was probably a good thing. It made me realise the opportunity I had with Dublin'By 2005, Lyons had given way for 'Pillar' Caffrey as Dublin manager and, after another full League campaign, Henry was confident of being in Caffrey's Championship plans. That April, though, his season came to a premature end.

It was an intermediate club hurling game, Raheny against Trinity Gaels. He really had no business playing. Actually, it would have been just the kind of fixture Caffrey would have told his players not to even countenance. But Henry was aglow with health and appetite. He just wanted a game.

The incident in which his arm was broken isn't one he is willing to revisit. "Playing intermediate hurling in Dublin, I suppose you're always liable to get a knock" is as near as he comes to specifics.

"But it was probably a good thing that it happened. It made me realise the opportunity I had with Dublin. I just decided after that, I would give the Dubs everything."

So he did, too, in 2006, playing right through the League and Championship, all the way to that extraordinary August day in Croke Park when a Mayo corpse climbed off the mortician's slab to deny Dublin a place in the All-Ireland final.

When, in a spring League game in Castlebar, Mayo repeated that Lazarus feat against Caffrey's Dubs, Oscar Wilde's theory about misfortune regressing into carelessness started to come to mind.

Were the Dubs a team with a glass jaw? Henry volunteers a defiant view. When asked if, maybe, Dublin "switched off" last August, he is unequivocal. "No, I couldn't accept that," he says. "It's probably easy for other people to say that but, when you're out there in front of 80,000 people, you don't switch off in any way.

"I don't think there was any mental thing. Mayo just came at us in droves and kicked some unbelievable scores. Their whole season probably peaked in that second-half.

"For us, it was sickening. You think you've done everything you possibly could and it just feels such a long way back. Preparation-wise, there's only a certain amount you can do. Then you have to start all over again. "So it's really just a matter of learning from your mistakes."

The League defeat, he puts down simply to "fitness", just another unflattering entry in the preparatory ledger as Dublin's campaign petered out so meekly after the extraordinary floodlit opening against Tyrone.

That game confirmed what has long been obvious about the Dubs. Their games are easier to market as 'events' than the games of any other county. Every time they play Championship in Croke Park now, the 'HOUSE FULL' signs go up. They are the biggest show in town.

With that comes an incipient pressure but Henry, for one, wouldn't have it any other way. "I'd prefer to have it than not to have it," he says. "When you're a young fella growing up, playing in front of that kind of crowd is all you want." And Meath as opponents?

"Absolutely," he agrees. "And they seem to have a real freshness about them this year. Maybe it's the Colm Coyle factor.

"He was a fairly tough bit of stuff on the pitch and I'm sure he's trying to instill some of that in them.

"Meath have a great tradition. They always have that expectation about themselves. "So it's going to be tough. Patterns and trends go out the window when it comes to a first round derby match. I'm just mad to get out there now and have the waiting over."

A well-trod path awaits him.

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