Peter Canavan: Dubs about to learn that retaining Sam is easier said than done
Published 13/05/2016 | 02:30
"There's only six inches between a slap in the back and a kick in the a**e."
- Michael 'Babs' Keating, former Tipp hurler, footballer and manager
Jim GAVIN will be wise to those oft-repeated words after what happened Dublin in the autumn of 2014. Because they travelled those six inches during 70 traumatic minutes against Donegal that, I suspect, have shaped so much of what his team has been doing since.
It's certainly something that comes to my mind when I look at the challenge that lies ahead of Dublin this summer as Gavin and his players bid to retain the Sam Maguire.
They have the best squad of players in the land; they have the best of resources at their disposal; they have a fantastic manager who, from what I've seen, never loses the run of himself or allows his players lose the run of themselves; they have a backroom team second to none; they have one of the best forwards Dublin has ever produced in Bernard Brogan; they have the classic blend of seasoned experience and youthful exuberance; they have the biggest set of supporters in the country; and they have Croke Park. On the face of it, they have it all.
That should be that then, shouldn't it? Game over ... before a ball is even kicked.
But, as in life, things in the GAA have an annoying habit of not working out as we expect - the glorious uncertainty of sport and all that.
The record books also teach us plenty. Why has only one team in the last 26 years - Kerry - managed to retain the Sam Maguire? Because it's a damned hard thing to do; mind you, one small help to Dublin this year is that most of their players should know that and realise that it will take something extra from within themselves to do it all over again.
I've been there myself with Tyrone, so I can only talk of my own experience which, it must be acknowledged, was much different to Dublin's.
Winning the All-Ireland in 2003 was unbelievable. It was the first time that it had been done and the county, naturally, went wild. There were so many distractions - the big welcome home, victory parades, school visits, club dinners, house calls, medal presentations and parties ... and then there were more celebrations and a team holiday.
Because it was the county's first, this cycle went on longer than it should have but there was little anybody could do. It was history and, after waiting 119 years, everyone wanted a piece of the winning pie and were entitled to it. We, as players, were heroes and were feted accordingly.
The problem with all that, as I'm sure others will testify, is that all the pats you get on the back actually make your stomach softer.
What's worse is that you only realise this much later - when you're on the pitch and get a belt you weren't expecting. Suddenly, you find that mind and body don't respond as instinctively, the willingness to go back for more is not as strong and the sheer mad determination you had 12 months ago is gone.
My own experience of 2004 is complicated from a personal point of view by injury and the resulting surgery I had to undergo that February; from a team point of view, the sudden death of our team-mate Cormac McAnallen was much, much harder to get through.
Cormac's (pictured above) passing on March 2 was a bolt from the blue. It changed our lives and our thinking about life. Gaelic football, which had been the top of our ladder for so long, was down at the bottom rung. How could anyone make sense of a 24-year-old young man, who we saw as fit and healthy and full of life, being struck down with something that we hadn't even heard of - a rare viral infection in his heart?
It made no sense and, perhaps, the biggest problem was trying to make sense of it.
For a time after his funeral, there was no appetite to play or train - the game was far from everyone's thoughts.
But at some point, we had a players' meeting and I will never forget Kevin Hughes for standing up and laying it on the line. Kevin was a member of the younger brigade - along with the likes of Stephen O'Neill and Brian McGuigan - that had soldiered with Cormac from their days in the minor ranks under Mickey Harte. This was a group of players that had lost their team-mate Paul McGirr to a freak injury sustained in an Ulster MFC match in 1997.
Kevin had also suffered family tragedy. He lost both his brother, Paul, and sister, Helen, in separate traffic accidents, four years apart, on a stretch of road near Ballygawley.
So he spoke from the heart. We had a stark choice - we could continue to feel sorry for ourselves and do nothing; or we could try to pick up the pieces and go back doing something we enjoyed, and that our families/loved ones enjoyed watching us. What would Cormac have wanted? There was no need to answer.
The wheels, bit by bit, got back in motion. We were beaten by Donegal in the Ulster semi-final and eventually lost to Mayo in an All-Ireland quarter-final. But when it came around the following year, we had motivation from Cormac and it didn't even have to be mentioned.
When he was made captain at the start of 2004, the first thing he had said was that he didn't want to be remembered as a member of "great team that won just one All-Ireland". So, throughout 2005, that was at the forefront of everyone's mind, but it was never, ever talked about.
Not even when we lost to Armagh in Ulster was it mentioned and I think that was a tribute to the management skills of Mickey Harte that he never used it as a motivational tool.
He could have brought it up, but he saw it was there in the faces of the players at training every night, so why risk saying it and putting everyone under unnecessary pressure? A lesson in the art of tapping into the mood, and putting trust in your players.
Jim Gavin will also have to trust his players this summer and they will have to repay his faith. Dublin haven't won back-to-back All-Irelands since 1977 and if that is not enough to motivate this set of players, I don't know what is. It shouldn't need to be said by anyone in the camp.
However, that alone will not get them over the line. I believe what should be an easy passage through Leinster could prove their biggest hurdle. I also feel the defensive gaps left by the departures of Rory O'Carroll and Jack McCaffrey have yet to be properly tested and you can't judge their appetite levels based on the league, a competition which plays to their strengths.
Despite an ageing profile, Kerry and Donegal will have a big say. Kerry need to know when and for how long to use the likes of Donaghy, O'Mahony and Marc ó Sé, but the fact these players look to be facing into their final summer in green and gold should drive on everyone around them.
Like Kerry, Donegal have a lot of elder statesmen but they still have quality and should not lack for hunger. For Rory Gallagher, it will be very much a case of timing his team's run better than they did last year.
As for my own county, this generation of Tyrone players are heading in the right direction. Winning an Ulster title would be the perfect boost to their confidence, but they have a difficult passage and have to start displaying a more ruthless streak in killing off teams.
Mayo are my own tip for glory. They should not be found wanting when it comes to the three As - appetite, ability and attitude - and by now, the players must be sick and tired of getting kicks in another A; if they're not, they will forever be known as one of the great teams without any All-Ireland.