Darkness before the dawn

RAVENOUS: Dublin were on the receiving end of some brutal defeats to Tyrone in this era

RAVENOUS: Dublin were on the receiving end of some brutal defeats to Tyrone in this era

Progress was painfully slow in an era defined by draining losses to top dogs and question marks over the Dublin mentality, writes Seán Potts

AUTUMN 1999; the dawn of the new Millennium was on the horizon. Rational folk and conspiracy theorists alike believed they were in imminent danger of being plunged into an apocalyptic nightmare by the impending Y2K crash.

In Dublin however, to paraphrase Patrick Kavanagh from his poem ‘Epic’, that was the year of the Munich bother and of much more concern to football supporters was the urgent need to reboot the prospects of success on the inter-county stage.

The team had drifted alarmingly from the somewhat heady days of the early 1990s. The shock departure of Dr Pat O’Neill from the helm only a few months after the 1995 All-Ireland success had precipitated a turbulent period. Mickey Whelan’s short reign came to an end before the close of the 1998 League amidst recriminations and strains in the camp.

But as the old Latin phrase goes, there is properly no history, only biography.

Regardless of the subsequent finger-pointing, the turning point was the 1996 Leinster final loss to Meath who went on to win the All-Ireland. Things in the camp never really recovered.

The arrival of Tommy Carr in 1998 marked a new beginning but the annual optimism of the early years of the decade had evaporated and heroes of that period such as John O’Leary, Keith Barr and Eamonn Heery, who had returned under Whelan, called time or had time called on their days in the blue jersey.

Worryingly after four barren years we appeared trapped in the province; Meath, All-Ireland champions again in 1999, and Kildare were a step ahead and Offaly, Laois and Westmeath were not far behind.

The mood music from the camp in 2000 was melodious, however.

Dessie Farrell was a popular captain; Carr had an excellent rapport with his players, the set-up was solid, players such as Ciarán Whelan and Collie Moran were at the peak of their powers and the return of the great Vinnie Murphy added the x-factor.

But none of this could mask the team’s shortcomings on the field, particularly around the area of free-taking in the absence of the injured Declan Darcy.

Nonetheless, a tenacious performance in the 2000 Leinster final earned a hard-fought draw with Kildare and confidence was high going into the replay.

At half-time in the replay Dublin led by six points. During the interval Farrell gave an impassioned speech that they would not yield an inch to Kildare in the second half. He opened the door to lead the team back out only to slam it shut again, warning that any player who went through the motions would be removed from the fray immediately.

Within 90 seconds Kildare had equalised with two quick goals and Dublin were, in Farrell’s own words, “reduced to a group of bewildered incompetents”. Kildare went on to win by five points.

Hard as it is to fathom now, Dublin could simply not break free of the Leinster stranglehold and, after scraping passed Offaly (Stephen Cluxton was in goal after making his debut in the previous outing against Longford), were beaten again in the 2001 provincial decider by Meath, an early soft goal gifted to Graham Geraghty left them chasing the game.

Carr probably would have been shown the front door at that point were it not for the arrival of the back door and the inaugural qualifiers.

The new system added great excitement to the Championship and Sligo’s epic victory over Kildare set up a novel Round 4 clash with Dublin.

Desperate for a break, Dublin’s dubious reward for an uninspiring win against Sligo was a meeting with All-Ireland champions Kerry in Thurles.

The two games in Semple Stadium between Gaelic football’s great historic rivals have become the stuff of legend, not always because of the football but for the sheer novelty of the venue and drama of the occasion.

Kerry blitzed a wasteful Dublin in the opening half of the first game but, inspired by Murphy, they overhauled the deficit and led by a point going into injury-time before Maurice Fitzgerald’s amazing sideline kick levelled it at the close.

However, Dublin’s six-year wait to reach an All-Ireland semi-final would continue when Kerry proved too strong the second day, with the three-point winning margin flattering Dublin somewhat.

The aftermath of defeat in Tipp prompted a great show of unity with the late John Bailey, then county chairman, to the fore.

However, despite his public backing for the management, Bailey changed tack in the intervening months and Carr was replaced in November 2001 by former Kilmacud Crokes and Offaly boss Tommy Lyons.

Lyons’ credentials were excellent. An All-Ireland club title and League and Leinster titles with Offaly made him the obvious candidate and he put together a strong backroom team of ‘Pillar’ Caffrey, Paddy Canning and the late Dave Billings.

Lyons’ impact was immediate. Crokes forward Ray Cosgrove made a meteoric return to the fold and he inspired Dublin to their first Leinster championship victory over Meath for seven years in front of the newly opened Hogan Stand.

The Leinster final win against Kildare in 2002 was greeted like an All-Ireland for the expectant county and the enduringly poignant image of the late Tom Mulligan celebrating with his team-mates at Hill 16 is freeze-framed in the minds of Dublin fans.

Victory over Donegal at the second attempt set up a semi-final clash with the emerging Armagh side, a game which pitted Kieran McGeeney against his Na Fianna club-mates on the Dublin panel.

It was a truly epic contest, one that stands the test of time and including one of the great Dublin goals scored in the second half by Whelan after being set up by seasonal debutant Alan Brogan.

However, heartbreak was the all-too-familiar conclusion when the width of the upright denied Cosgrove a late equalising free.

Armagh’s resilience that day was evident as they went on to win their first All-Ireland title in an equally epic final clash with Kerry.

McGeeney, Oisín McConville, Ronan Clarke, Steven McDonnell et al would become household names over the subsequent years. Dublin’s fortunes were to take a different twist.

The feeling going into 2003 was fairly optimistic given the provincial breakthrough but it was very much the case of one step forward, two steps back when Mick O’Dwyer returned to haunt his old rivals, this time at the Laois helm.

Despite possessing a talented outfit with two recent All-Ireland minor successes, losing to Laois rankled in the capital and it appeared Dublin had not afforded them the respect they deserved.

After a brief respite in Clones against Derry when Lyons reintroduced Na Fianna’s trio of Jason Sherlock, Farrell and Senan Connell who between them bagged 3-5, Dublin’s season ended in the qualifiers at the hands of Armagh once again after Stephen Cluxton was red-carded by ref Pat McEnaney.

Things were fragmented in the Dublin camp but worse was to follow a year later when Westmeath, under the charismatic leadership of Páidí Ó Sé, shocked Dublin in Croke Park in the Leinster quarter-final. The fallout was severe with Lyons facing a barrage of criticism within the county, a lot of it vitriolic and personal.

Dublin’s full-forward line scored 10 points of the side’s 12-point tally that day but a pattern was emerging and criticism of a soft underbelly and a lack of leadership during tight periods of games, particularly during the closing stages, was being levelled at the team.

This criticism pertained for many years after Lyons had departed.

The loss to Westmeath heralded an exotic itinerary against London, Leitrim, Longford and Roscommon before the old enemy Kerry put the Dubs out of our misery with a fairly comprehensive quarter-final win.

It brought the curtain down on Lyons’ management.

It is only right that hindsight should soften the light in which managers, and indeed players, are cast.

Lyons’ period in charge was, at times, divisive but Alan Brogan and Barry Cahill took their first steps under his tenure and both were to play a key role in Dublin’s eventual All-Ireland breakthrough in 2011.

Lyons continues to serve Dublin football today in a wider supporting role.

Tommy’s erstwhile selector ‘Pillar’ Caffrey took over the reins and a narrow victory over Laois in the 2005 Leinster final heralded a period of total dominance in the province for Dublin, a monopoly only interrupted since by Meath in 2010.

There is no doubt that Dublin were improving but a traumatic loss to Tyrone over a two-game quarter-final in 2005 left the same doubts lingering, doubts that were dramatically deepened when Dublin were pinned back by Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final in 2006.

The game was marred by the pre-match clash in front of Hill 16. Dublin shipped a lot of stick not only for the clashes before the game but by the manner of their collapse after leading by seven points in the second half. It didn’t help that Mayo were reddened by Kerry in the final.

The Dublin set-up was attempting to counter the image of being flaky, vulnerable down the home stretch and obviously felt one way of addressing that was to tap into the county’s passionate support.

However, and with the benefit of hindsight, the psychology behind such an approach is evidently flawed. Only the men between the white lines could control their own destiny.

Caffrey continued to identify and address shortcomings and 2007 was probably their best year during his tenure. The campaign was solid if not spectacular but it finished with Dublin’s strongest performance at the business end of the season when they pushed reigning champions Kerry to two points in a close-fought All-Ireland semi-final.

Unfortunately the upward curve was reversed dramatically with a horrible defeat to Tyrone in the 2008 quarter-final where we were torn apart; a lot of personal performances fell way short of what was expected.

The backdrop of a deluge with thunder and lightning throughout heightened our sense of doom during the rout. When would Dublin be rescued from the floods of despair? Where was our arc?

Much was made that particular year of the discovery of the ‘Blue Book’, a secret guide for the squad which was primarily motivational and goal-setting. A lot of the reaction, particularly among some GAA commentators, really reflected how out of touch they were with the modern dressing room. The ‘Blue Book’ was merely a Dublin version of a squad charter – a set of principles, however cobbled together and simplistic they were, aimed at getting individual buy-in to a set of collective values.

For sure, the notion of focusing on ‘Dublin arrogance’ was flawed and hindsight has shown us that the opposite – embracing humility and being understated – proved to be a very powerful weapon in Dublin’s armoury.

Any teenager aspiring to play sport at an elite level now has their own version of the Blue Book in their kit bag. Indeed most modern corporations are driven by mission statements, mottos, company values, specific goals, individual targets and volumes of jargon-based guides aimed at achieving maximum productivity. 

However, sport is a results business and aspirations can look decidedly threadbare and embarrassing in the wake of bad defeat.

After the Tyrone game, ‘Pillar’ and his management team stepped down. Handing the baton to his successor Pat Gilroy two months later, there’s no doubt it was now a perennial observation with Dublin that the collective response to the challenges posed by top opposition was insufficient.

Too many players continued to revert to type. Neither talent alone nor individual heroics could rescue Dublin.

We were beatable; fodder to the ‘real’ contenders. Worse still, we were functional losers; pack Croke Park in the build up to our inevitable failure.

It’s easy to forget that the task facing Gilroy, as it had been for Carr, Lyons and Caffrey, was onerous. Changing personnel was one thing, changing the culture of Dublin football a whole other and it was almost accepted that there was a fatal flaw in the county.

When his first season in charge (2009) concluded with the infamous ‘startled earwigs’ display against Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-final, there is no doubt that morale in Dublin was probably as low as it had been under the tenure of any of the three previous  incumbents. The Dubs still could not beat one of the top teams.

Given he was a former player, the knives remained in their scabbards but Gilroy’s doubters and critics were emerging.

On the eve of the 2010 season, our 15th without an All-Ireland, expectations were fragile.

However, that was about to change. Behind Gilroy, Dessie Farrell was busily working with underage talent and heading for the minor job while Jim Gavin was about to take charge of the Under-21s.

For Dublin football, the darkest hour had come before the dawn. 

The Trip to Tipp

How Thurles thrillers reignited a rivalry

Semple clashes of 2001 brought novelty, hype and a fleeting unity, writes Seán Potts.

WHEN Dublin were drawn to face All-Ireland champions Kerry in the 2001 All-Ireland SFC quarter-final after the inaugural run of the qualifiers had concluded it all felt a bit surreal.

Generations had been weaned on the great rivalry between the counties in Croke Park but Dublin had failed to win a Leinster title for six years, had just beaten Sligo... now we were gate-crashing the champions’ party.

The game was fixed for the ‘home of hurling’ in Semple Stadium which made it all the more exotic though initial widespread reservations about getting the short straw quickly gave way to a wave of hype. We were about to embark on an epic Dubs odyssey for the first time since the 1983 semi-final replay in Cork.

With Páidí Ó Sé at the Kerry helm we had coach-loads of journeys down memory lane in the build-up to the match and no shortage of the traditional ‘sweet talk’ coming out of the Kingdom.

While Dublin’s shortcomings on the field were pretty well documented at the time, the preparations under Tom Carr are recounted as being professional and structured; this was no routine league trip.

The panel travelled to Horse and Jockey the night before the game and even went to mass together the morning of the match.

It was while billeted in the Tipp village that Irish actor from Star Trek and massive Dubs supporter Colm Meaney called to the camp to offer his best wishes. While chatting to a few of the players outside the recently-returned Vinnie Murphy appeared at a window of the hotel and roared down “Hey, beam me up Scotty!”

Match day on August 4, 2001 was equally bizarre; legendary traffic jams all the way back to Kildare with rumours of bewildered fans still stuck at the Poitín Stil as the ball was being thrown-in in Semple.

Recounting the first day in Thurles, Dublin captain Dessie Farrell described the occasion as a “chaotic passion play”. The words of Labi Siffre’s anthem “the higher you build your barriers...” blared on the team bus sound system as they inched through the crowded streets en route to the stadium.

But as Farrell continued “there is nothing like reality to rip the f**king heart out of romance” referring to his glaring miss of an open goal along with a similar spurned chance from Collie Moran as Kerry went on to lead by eight points.

Whatever about their weaknesses, Dublin didn’t lack spirit and Murphy’s introduction turned the game when he found the net in the 62nd minute. Having been outplayed Dublin swamped Kerry in a cauldron of noise and when Darren Homan fisted the ball to the net to put them a point up it looked like the champions had been dethroned.

Ó Sé admitted later that he was sure they were gone only for Maurice Fitzgerald’s masterstroke from the sideline, a kick that has gone into the annals of GAA history.

The legend is enhanced by the story that Fitzgerald rejected the first ball as it didn’t contain the required pressure. Dubs manager Carr applied plenty of it as Fitzgerald lined up the kick but he curled his effort with the outside of his right boot over the black spot in Davy Byrne’s goal to set up a replay. 

One last chance did present itself in the dying seconds but Wayne McCarthy, who had replaced regular free-taker Declan Darcy earlier, missed a long-range free and the shock evaporated.

The second day was only a shadow play. Dublin prepared well but no-one could jettison the notion of a missed opportunity. Dara Ó Cinnéide and Johnny Crowley caused countless problems and only the dismissal of a young Tomás Ó Sé early in the second half for a rash challenge on Moran gave Dublin a glimmer of hope but the scoreline was flattering in the end.

Carr was banished to the stand for remonstrating with referee Mick Curley the first day and after their victory in the replay Páidí also let loose following the dismissal of his nephew.

Dublin boss Tommy Carr rows with referee Michael Curley

Dublin boss Tommy Carr rows with referee Michael Curley

For all the drama and melodrama of the Thurles saga it was only a suspension of Kerry’s fate as they suffered a heavy defeat to Meath in the subsequent semi-final.

Regret in Dublin was masked somewhat fleetingly by the sense of a united camp, a united county.

Farrell spoke passionately about the importance of the special bond forged among the players. The then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern visited the dressing room after the match accompanied by the late John Bailey who was outspoken in his support for the manager, only to carry out an unremarkable volte-face later that year.

The feeling of mutual loyalty shared by the panel, management and indeed the county wasn’t long dissipating. On October 1 Tom Carr was removed and subsequently replaced by Tommy Lyons.

The decade was young but Thurles marked the end of an era.

Connections with the successful period of the early 1990s were diminishing; only Farrell, Paul Curran and Jim Gavin remained and a new broom would change the look of the Dublin set-up.

The baton was about to be passed to a cohort of young players such as Alan Brogan, Barry Cahill, Tomás Quinn and Paul Casey.

Optimism would be renewed after Thurles but few believed that our ultimate redemption was still a decade away.

My year of broken dreams

Captain Coman Goggins leads out the parade before the Leinster final in 2002

Captain Coman Goggins leads out the parade before the Leinster final in 2002

Claiming Leinster glory in 2002 was special but Armagh loss felt gut-wrenching, writes former captain Coman Goggins.

IF you dig out the Leinster SFC ‘Roll of Honour’ and scan across the 58 titles that Dublin have collected over the history of the competition, sandwiched between a four in-a-row run in the mid-1990s and Dublin’s recent record-breaking haul of nine consecutive Delaney Cup successes, you will see 2002 sitting as a stand-alone entry.

Perhaps it is insignificant against the backdrop of what Jim Gavin’s troops are currently doing across several All-Ireland Series, but 17 years ago the celebrations that followed that 2002 glory was akin to the outpouring of emotion that swept across the Capital in 2011.

In 2001 we had witnessed the ‘Trip to Tipp’. Two All-Ireland quarter-finals against Kerry in Thurles, that famous Maurice Fitzgerald point and a wave of emotion that under Tommy Carr’s stewardship hinted that the following season might bring silverware – something that had been missing in Dublin football circles since 1995.

However, before the new season had even started, the Dubs had a Tommy at the helm but it was no longer Tommy Carr. He was removed from his position in controversial circumstances and a new era in Dublin football was about to begin as Tommy Lyons, former Offaly and All-Ireland  club-winning manager with Kilmacud Crokes, landed the top job in Dublin football.

A pre-season like no other that involved lots of laps – counter balanced with lots of other laps – probably best captured the contrasting styles of Carr and Lyons, although a new footballing philosophy of hitting our full-forward line early showed early signs of promise.

As the league drew to a halt and summer football appeared on the horizon, the championship was somewhat overshadowed by a minor issue in Saipan as Roy Keane headed home from the World Cup!

Simultaneously Tommy Lyons’ new-look Dublin were gearing up for a Leinster SFC quarter-final against Wexford in Dr Cullen Park.

What made the game more interesting for me, was that Tommy had asked me to captain the team that summer. What an honour. To be asked to lead out the team was a proud day for my family, my club Ballinteer St John’s and all the coaches who had helped me achieve my dream of not only playing for the Dubs but captaining them.

It didn’t take long for that dream to become a nightmare though.

Early in the first half I twisted my ankle, rupturing ligaments, and was replaced before half-time by the evergreen Paul Curran.

Things weren’t going much better on the field for the team. Despite a strong opening and the game appearing to go to script, Wexford rallied after the break.

Instead of being out of sight, it took a goal-line clearance from Paul Casey at the death to keep the show on the road as we ran out two-point winners (0-15 to 1-10).

The early summer promise was under scrutiny now and I imagine as the Dubs headed back up the road, talk centred more on Ireland’s hopes of progressing from the group stages of the World Cup, having earlier that day played out 1-1 draw with Cameroon, rather than any talk of All-Ireland aspirations. 

I wouldn’t say morale in the camp was affected following the Wexford game, but expectations across the city were probably low as a Leinster semi-final against reigning provincial champions Meath was next up.

They were All-Ireland champions in 1999, beaten finalists in 2001 and as if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, Dublin hadn’t beaten them in championship since 1995.

With a three-week break I had managed to get my ankle somewhat playable, you didn’t want to miss a game against Meath. These were the days that measured you as a Dublin footballer.

A million miles from the performance in Carlow, we went after Meath from the get-go and, as the full-time-whistle sounded, seven points (2-11 to 0-10) to the good, I made my way to Ciarán Whelan.

In his seventh season playing senior championship football it was his first taste of success against the Royals. I’m sure it was one of the sweetest feelings he had throughout his illustrious inter-county career. But more importantly it gave us another shot at lifting a Leinster title.

If anything was different as we prepared for a third final in as many years, it was the buzz that was starting to grip the city.

Tommy Lyons had often claimed earlier that year that the ‘swagger’ was gone out of Dublin football and that he wanted to reawaken it.

As we travelled to Croke Park, blue lights flashing and sirens wailing, it was clear he had achieved his aim.

Fans in bars spilled out onto the streets, cheering as the bus passed. Cars had flags fluttering in the summer breeze and the new faces that Tommy had unleashed that summer, Alan Brogan, Barry Cahill and Johnny McNally were knitting into a team that had the city hopping.

I can’t honestly put into words what it feels like to run out onto the hallowed turf of Croke Park on match-day.

The noise, the colour, it’s hair standing up on the back of your neck, it’s goosebumps, it’s a butterfly farm in your stomach, it’s a moment in time you wish you could freeze, step out of it and just watch it.

That particular day I also experienced leading the team around in the parade. I don’t have much by way or memorabilia from my playing days but a picture of that walk is something that I did keep.

Tommy Lyons had asked us to focus on the Dublin crest on the back of the guy in front of you, I guess in an effort to drown out the noise and occasion.

At the top of the line I’m not sure what I focused on, but looking down the line you can see a clear intent for what was to come.

There is a saying that ‘revenge is a dish best served cold’ and with Kildare as our provincial decider opponents that was certainly the case. 

Two years previously in my debut season in 2000 they hit us with two goals in as many minutes at the start of the second-half to scupper our chances of Leinster glory.

Leading by 2-8 to 0-12 midway through the second-half, it looked like Kildare would again prove to be our nemesis, but in a case of history flipping, Ray Cosgrove and Alan Brogan hit two goals within a minute to send us four points clear.

From time initially racing away from us it now appeared that the clock was stuck.

Minute after minute seemed like an eternity until finally the whistle sounded. Over 78,000 supporters, a record attendance at the time for a Leinster final had been enthralled. Half went away deflated, but the other half celebrated wildly and I gladly joined in.

I left Croke Park with the Delaney Cup and headed towards the Five Lamps where a lift waited for a trip to meet the Ballinteer St John’s crew who generally set up fort in the Seán O’Casey pub (now Pipers Corner) on Marlborough Street for match days.

Before we got to the car a young lad from the local flats complex approached us and asked what the cup was for. I told him it was for winning the Leinster championship, he paused before asking “Soccer or Gaelic”?

Long before Bryan Cullen’s “See yiz in Coppers” we had already found it a safe haven for celebrating.

Leaving Coppers on that Monday morning a brother of mine noticed that the front of the Irish Independent carried a photo of me lifting the Delaney Cup in the Hogan Stand.

Goggins lifts the Delaney Cup

Goggins lifts the Delaney Cup

He ripped open the bundle of papers outside some shop but no sooner had he done that than a passing Garda car collared him for his exploits.

“I’m sorry”, the brother exclaimed, “but it’s not every day he is (pointing at me) on the front of the paper!”

The couple of days that followed were truly memorable and even included a trip around Ballinteer on an open top bus!

Well not quite. It was a Hiace van that in today’s world would have failed a health safety check in looks alone.

It was like a mix of scenes from Father Ted and the D’Unbelievables as myself and my club-mates, Johnny McNally and the late Tom Mulligan stood mortified on the back of the van, horn blaring as we weaved through the estates of the parish.

What was one of the funniest nights of my life is, unfortunately, also coupled with massive sadness when I think of Tom.

A player of immense ability who had transferred to Ballinteer from his childhood club of Good Counsel, he was a real natural talent of whom Dublin supporters, unfortunately, never got to see the best.

His contribution to the club was unquestionable, helping us reach a Dublin SFC semi-final in 2003. His death in 2007 shocked club and county colleagues alike but his imposing presence on the back of the van from that night is forever etched in my memory.

With an All-Ireland quarter-final next up, the exploits of our partying needed to be washed out, and washed out they were through Tommy’s favourite training method of a gallop around Leopardstown racecourse.

He liked to call it “truth serum”.

From the bottom of the final straight on the racecourse up the hill and around the corner, they were runs that tested every part of your being.

Some players got sick, some dropped with cramp but I imagine most of us avoided Leopardstown for race meetings for many years afterwards, unable to come to terms with the trauma it had heaped upon us!

We probably went into our All-Ireland quarter-final meeting with Donegal as favourites, but before a ball was kicked it emerged that Tommy Lyons had been admitted to hospital and would not be in attendance for the match.

Paul ‘Pillar’ Caffrey, one of Tommy’s selectors would don the ‘Bainisteoir’ bib for a contest that was level on the scoreboard nine times across the 70 minutes.

Personally the drawn game was a tough day for me. Adrian Sweeney, my direct opponent, was on top of his game and in the last couple of minutes his two points salvaged a draw for Donegal.

They were delighted to have come back from the brink and by all accounts celebrated that comeback with gusto that night.

We, on the other hand, felt we had missed an opportunity and before we departed Croke Park were adamant that we would grab the chance the second day out.

It might have been these differing attitudes that contributed to it, but when the replay came around we controlled the game from start to finish running out 10-point winners (1-14 to 0-7).

With Tommy back on the line I’m sure he claimed it was his presence that made the difference – either way we were in an All-Ireland semi-final for the first time in seven years facing into a mouth-watering challenge of meeting Ulster champions Armagh.

Often in the sporting world the term ‘cauldron’ is used to describe an environment, well, when Armagh came into town that is exactly what it felt like.

The noise that day was off the scale.

It was next to impossible to hear instructions from Stephen Cluxton. His booming voice would generally help direct you as to the movements of the inside forwards, something Armagh’s Stevie McDonnell was adept at.

That day it was certainly each man for himself as the intense noise from the stands washed down onto the field. Having secured a couple of Ulster titles in the previous three years, Armagh were a battle-hardened team who were arguably a little further down the road in terms of strength and conditioning then Dublin were.

That said, when the ball was thrown in the contest was evenly-matched and had we nailed a couple more of the scoring opportunities we created in the opening half, we might just have planted some doubt in the mind of Joe Kernan’s men.

Late in the game Armagh managed to get their noses in front but with one last play we engineered a free. 

Ray Cosgrove who had the summer of all summers in front of goal took on the shot. Our chances of grabbing a replay rested on one kick.

With time standing still the ball looped through the air curling inwards with every rotation. Despite willing for one extra turn, the ball struck the upright and dropped into the grateful arms of Kieran McGeeney.

The whistle sounded and it was devastation.

Despite being surrounded by almost 80,000 people it’s amazing how alone you can feel, thinking instantly about the tiny margins that might have influenced the game. 

It might be an over exaggeration, but when you get knocked out of the championship it is like a death in the family.

The routine, training, gym, mental preparation ends and you suddenly find yourself frozen in time, grieving a lost chance, a broken dream as the world moves on.

Ultimately, yes, it’s only sport, but at that time in your life it is the be all and end all.

Time is certainly a great healer and, as history reflects, 2002 is now but a date on a roll of honour.

But when you consider how a period of dominance in the 1990s led to what at the time was referred to as a famine, the success of that year will always be viewed as a significant achievement in a time boasting a very different landscape.

Ray of light

Boy of summer: Cosgrove hit 6-23 in 2002

Boy of summer: Cosgrove hit 6-23 in 2002

Cosgrove made 2002 his own after Lyons gave him the freedom to shine, writes Conor McKeon.

MORE than anyone directly involved in Tommy Lyons’s short-lived insurrection during the long hot summer of 2002, Ray Cosgrove exemplified what the Dubs briefly became.

“Six-twenty three,” Cosgrove says without hesitation, recalling the tally that made him the highest scoring player in that year’s All-Ireland SFC.

“Top scorer in the Championship. Our first Leinster Championship in a long time. Full houses in Croke Park. Filling the place and getting to perform in front of the crowd.

“When you look at the small crowds coming to the game now,” he adds, “you think ‘God, we were fierce lucky’.”

Luck might have been part of it.

But in Lyons, Dublin not only had a new manager after Tommy Carr had been controversially discontinued the previous November, but a prolific publicist.

“The biggest gig in town,” was his self-proclaimed job spec, and Lyons pledged to restore the “swagger” to Dublin football.

Nobody was quite sure when or how the swagger had left.

But to listen to Lyons was to be privy to the revelation that its return would make Dublin football whole again.

Media types, meanwhile, would not only be entertained but facilitated and encouraged to tell the story of the revolution.

Dublin and Lyons, with his bullish predictions and immortalised quips (see: arseboxing) would fill the Hill and the team would surf the wave of collective euphoria in the capital back to All-Ireland contention.

It was the sort of communications/PR strategy that might give Jim Gavin a panic attack.

Sustainability, as it turned out, wasn’t Lyons’s strength. But for one season only, the Dublin players, Lyons, their support and the wooed media types all sang in sweet harmony.

And Cosgrove was perhaps Lyons’s greatest achievement that year.

“He showed a huge amount of confidence in me,” Cosgrove confirms.

“But I came back on the scene in 2002 and Tommy literally put the arm around my shoulder and said: ‘Regardless of how you’re playing, I’m going to play you.’

“And it’s that confidence he had in me that allowed me to express myself. And by playing well, my confidence grew and grew.”

When Lyons was appointed manager, Cosgrove had been in exile for two years.

What made all his 2002 largesse the more remarkable was the way his Dublin days during Carr’s tenure had ended, a horrendous experience in the 1999 Leinster final against Meath when he was sent on to give the team some vim – and later was hauled off again.

The accepted wisdom about Ray Cosgrove prior to 2002 was that for all his silky scoring talents at club level, he hadn’t the mind or might for the inter-county game.

Lyons’s instinct however, told him that Cosgrove hadn’t been managed in the right way as to liberate his undeniable potential.

By the time Dublin’s championship started, Cosgrove was the central figure in a brand new full-forward line alongside Alan Brogan and neighbour Johnny McNally.

They were fresh and hungry and Lyons simplified their task.

“Our instructions were clear and simple,” Cosgrove recalls.

“Get out. Get on the ball. Take your man on. And kick it over the bar.

“Get out and express yourself. If you kick a wide, get out and get the next one and have a go at that one as well.

“So there was no straight-jacket put on any of us. And my confidence throughout the National League grew and grew.

“And by the time we played Wexford down in Dr Cullen, things just fell for me and everything I touched turned to gold.

“When I look back – in hindsight – I didn’t quite realise how much of an impact it was having. It’s not until you step back and you said ‘Jaysus!’

“But again, once I got on a roll, I wouldn’t say I felt bullet-proof, once I got in the zone, I could just turn and pull the trigger. I didn’t even have to look at the target.

“Likewise in front of the goal. I got a few lucky breaks but I was in the right place at the right time.”

Whatever suspicions about Cosgrove’s ability to better the hardier defenders occupying the inter-county scene at the time were killed stone dead on the afternoon of June 23 when he scored 2-3 off Darren Fay in the Leinster semi-final.

“Darren would have been one of the best full-backs of that generation,” Cosgrove points out.

“That was the real acid test. We were always told how you perform in a Dublin-Meath game is how you’re going to be judged.

“And from that day on, I knew I could produce it against quality opposition like Darren. So I thought there was no reason why I couldn’t kick on and do it in the later stages of the Championship.”

By that stage, the city had been almost dangerously intoxicated by the collective strut of Lyons’s young team and their bombastic leader.

Dublin’s supporters began to dream big.

There were 78,033 people at the Leinster final when they ended a seven-year stretch without a provincial title for the county against Kildare, up more than 10,000 on the previous year’s loss to Meath at the same stage.

By the time Dublin played Armagh in the All-Ireland semi-final, the scramble for tickets was panicked and the city was practically levitating with excitement.

“Probably remembered most for missing the free against Armagh in the semi-final,” says Cosgrove of his late free into Hill 16 that rebounded off an upright  with a replay on the line.

“But hand on heart, it’s probably the best game I played that summer. So disregarding the free at the end, I thought my contribution in that game was better than in any of the other games.

“But I’ll be reminded of the miss and not for the influence on the other 70 minutes.”

The atmosphere in Croke Park that afternoon felt as though Mardi Gras had been cancelled at the last minute in favour of midnight mass.

The biggest ‘what if?’ moment of Cosgrove’s Dublin career?

“People might call me a liar, but I’ve never really thought about it,” he maintains. “That team in 2002, we were very young. I honestly believe... I don’t know if we were good enough to beat that Kerry team (in the All-Ireland final).

“With the quality of players they had... Armagh were probably better suited to playing them. They had more experience.

“I honestly think that Kerry team were a better team than our team in ‘02.

“We were young. Brogie (Alan Brogan), Barry Cahill, Shane Ryan, Clucko (Stephen Cluxton), Darren (Magee) – we were green. And you look at some of that Kerry team of ’02, “I have to be honest... You never know when you get to a final. But on paper, that Kerry team – man v man – I think they were a stronger team than us,” Cosgrove adds.

“That’s my own gut feeling.”

From Leinster joy to falling short

Rare smiles: Cosgrove and Sherlock

Rare smiles: Cosgrove and Sherlock

Laois defeat set tone for anti-climax in 2003, Rónán Mac Lochlainn.

AFTER the much-needed boost of a first Leinster SFC title in seven years in 2002, hopes were high within the Capital that Dublin could build on the progress made during Tommy Lyons’ first campaign at the helm.

Sadly, what ensued over the following two campaigns was a tale of mediocrity and underachievement as the Dubs struggled to find the free-flowing form of 2002.

The omens were not particularly promising as they started off their 2003 NFL campaign by hosting All-Ireland champions Armagh in Croke Park and the Orchard County showed few signs their celebrations were an issue when easing to a 1-15 to 0-7 success.

Although matters improved with successive wins over Donegal and Tyrone in their following two games, the Dubs stuttered from that point, losing to both Kerry and Cork with a lack of firepower already evident in their meagre tallies.

Indeed, they managed just one goal in those seven league matches (Tomás Quinn v Donegal) and after edging Roscommon by 0-17 to 0-14 in Round 6, they just about preserved their top flight status when drawing with Galway by 0-12 to 1-9 in their final league game.

Despite the relative tedium of their league jousts, Dublin began their provincial campaign on June 1  with a degree of optimism and they were never truly troubled as they eased past Louth by 1-19 to 0-9 in a one-sided quarter-final in Croke Park.

Ciarán Whelan was in majestic form all afternoon and his dominance increased when Louth midfielder Séamus O’Hanlon was dismissed in the second half after an altercation with Johnny Magee.

Alan Brogan’s fifth minute goal following a pass from Ray Cosgrove proved the ideal platform for the Dubs but a lack of clinical play punctuated their display against such limited opposition with Joe Brolly commenting that evening on The Sunday Game that to “watch Louth play football today would make you sad”.

Sadness was one of the emotions that Dublin supporters would feel in shedloads a fortnight later as they succumbed to Laois by 0-16 to 0-14 in one of the most dispiriting afternoons experienced by their loyal following.

In hindsight, the defeat was probably not the seismic shock that it appeared at the time but to put it in context, it was the first time since 1981 that neither Dublin nor Meath would appear in the Leinster final and the first time in 22 years that Laois had beaten the Dubs in the championship.

Dublin could have few excuses on the day as they kicked 16 wides to Laois’ six, while their keeper Fergal Byron made two superb first-half saves to deny Dublin the oxygen of an early goal.

Paddy Christie excelled with a towering display from full-back but he proved powerless to prevent an iconic score from Pauric Clancy in the second-half that, at the last count, was from 95 metres out!

It left Laois manager Mick O’Dwyer with that familiar feeling of getting one over on the Dubs once again with Tommy Lyons’ men left to rue their profligacy in front of goal, another all-too-familiar feeling. 

The qualifier draw could have been kinder to Dublin as they were pitted against Derry in Clones but Dublin went from zero to hero in the space of just 70 minutes. Manager Lyons shuffled his deck from defence to attack and introduced a host of returning faces including Darren Homan, Senan Connell and Dessie Farrell.

The Na Fianna duo had a point to prove and did so in emphatic manner as their goals helped Dublin to a 2-4 to 0-5 interval lead.

Another Mobhi marvel, Jason Sherlock, had been dropped initially but his brilliant cameo of 1-3 off the bench, including a goal served up on a platter by Farrell, helped ensure what was an ultimately comfortable 3-9 to 1-9 win.

If that draw was considered less than favourable, Dublin’s task grew even steeper in the next round of the qualifiers and, despite a courageous display, they fell to holders Armagh by 0-15 to 0-11 in Croke Park.

The Dubs dominated the first-half but their 0-8 to 0-4 interval lead failed to reflect their supremacy over the field and the inevitable Armagh comeback arrived after the break as John McEntee kicked three superb points to help turn the tide of the game.

Stephen Cluxton’s dismissal in the 42nd minute, after Paddy McKeever’s red card earlier on, was out of character with what we have witnessed since then. Indeed Lyons’ post-match comments added a depressing footnote to what was a disappointing campaign.

“They tell me that Stephen Cluxton threw a kick and if he did, he deserved to go as well. It was ridiculous stuff – your goalie getting sent off. It turned the whole game.”

Not the most sensitive of comments and one that would lose Lyons sympathy and support the following year.

Tears to jeers

Wheels come off: Tears from Tommy Lyons

Wheels come off: Tears from Tommy Lyons

A shock loss, fans’ fury and Lyons’ departure told the story of 2004, writes Rónán Mac Lochlainn.

WITH Dublin manager Tommy Lyons coming under renewed criticism, the knives may not have been out but they were certainly sharpened as the Dubs took their first tentative steps into 2004.

While the pressure was taken off after they edged All-Ireland champions Tyrone by 0-9 to 0-8 in their opening NFL 1A contest, the wheels fell off spectacularly in Round 2 as they suffered a notorious reversal to Mayo in Castlebar.

That 1-10 to 0-3 defeat seems inconceivable today but was horribly real for the supporters who travelled to McHale Park that bleak February afternoon with Dublin’s display matching the desperately poor state of the pitch in terms of its quality.

Such was the ire that Tomás Quinn, who had seen his penalty crash off the crossbar and had spurned a number of frees, was subjected to an anonymous abusive phone call the following evening.

In an interview a number of years later the St Vincent’s man recounted: “I was at home on the Monday night watching telly and my phone rang. It was some fella, some punter giving me abuse. I answered the phone and said hello and someone says, ‘Oh you...’ – I won’t repeat what he said.

“I eventually hung up and thought, ‘That was pretty random’. I was sitting there, sort of shell-shocked, on my own watching the television. I wasn’t really sure how to take it or how to deal with it. That was a once off, it never happened again.”

A dark weekend for the Dublin footballers was encapsulated by the Irish Independent headline on the defeat to Mayo: ‘Rub a dud Dubs, three points in the mud’.

A narrow 1-12 to 0-12 loss to Kerry highlighted Dublin’s inability once again to find the net and, while they beat Westmeath by 0-15 to 0-10 in Round 4, again no goal was recorded.

That sequence was maintained in the next two rounds as the Dubs drew with Fermanagh (0-12 to 0-12) and Cork (0-9 to 0-9) before they finally managed their first goals (Johnny McNally and sub Jason Sherlock) in seven games when beating Longford by 2-12 to 2-9 at Parnell Park.

With their league position secure for another year, Dublin turned their focus to regaining their provincial title but were unable to hurdle their first obstacle as they sensationally came a cropper at the expense of Westmeath by 0-14 to 0-12 on June 6.

For the second year running, a Kerry legend had masterminded Dublin’s downfall with Páidí Ó Sé at the helm as Westmeath beat Dublin for the first time at senior level since 1967.

There was little to suggest from the early stages that Dublin would struggle for scores with Jason Sherlock in sublime form as he kicked four points from play inside the opening quarter. 

Alan Brogan matched that tally but Dublin’s weaknesses up front saw just Bryan Cullen manage a score from play from the remaining quartet of attackers, while a team selection that included not one recognised freetaker was to prove fatal by the final whistle.

With the sides level entering injury-time, the unfamiliar sight of Paddy Christie standing over a ‘45’ highlighted their lack of placed ball options and his subsequent miss and points at the opposite end from Joe Fallon and Paul Conway sealed Dublin’s fate.

The abuse that Lyons received in the aftermath painted an unsavoury picture of Dublin at their lowest ebb in many a year. The Irish Times stated “from the blue jerseys in the stands came a chorus of booing, confirmation perhaps that whatever Tommy Lyons once had with the team and their followers isn’t there anymore”.

Angry Dubs abuse Lyons as he leaves the pitch in 2004

Angry Dubs abuse Lyons as he leaves the pitch in 2004

Rehabilitation for both the team and their supporters was required, and required quickly, and it arrived to a degree against the unfamiliar presence of London in their round 1 qualifier just six days later.

Senan Connell starred in a comprehensive 3-24 to 0-6 win in Parnell Park. And fortune favoured Dublin in the next round as they were pitted against Leitrim, albeit away. The Blues did enough to prevail by 0-13 to 1-4 by the end on the weekend that the Luas Green line was made open to the public.

Their Round 3 qualifier with Longford at the neutral venue of O’Moore Park saw Ian Robertson find the net in the final quarter as Dublin pulled away to a 1-17 to 0-11 win.

Croke Park was the venue for Round 4 as Roscommon got a chance to test Dublin on their supposed ‘home turf’.

Stephen Cluxton spared Dublin’s defensive blushes on a number of occasions while at the opposite end of the field, Sherlock was the key man once again, kicking 1-4, while the input of Alan Brogan and Robertson ensured a hard-earned 1-14 to 0-13 win.

However, Dublin’s failings finally caught up with them in their subsequent All-Ireland quarter-final against Kerry with Dublin wasting chance after chance.

Kerry were little better but took the lucky bounce that came their way as Dara Ó Cinnéide fired home after a point attempt had rebounded off the upright, leaving the Kingdom to pull away by 1-15 to 1-8.

With that, the summer, and Lyons tenure was as good as over, while it’s fair to say that his three years in charge offered the good, the bad and the downright ugly.

Alan Brogan’s comments in the Evening Herald, as it was at the time, offered a more considered view of the period.

“Ultimately, he (Lyons) paid the price but what people don’t appreciate is how well Tommy looked after his players.

“Everything was sorted with regard to training. There was no question in my mind that Tommy always had the right intention.”

Red Hand benchmark fuelled epic rivalry

Rollercoaster ride: Pillar Caffrey left after four years

Rollercoaster ride: Pillar Caffrey left after four years

Riveting battles with Mickey Harte’s troops came to define the Caffrey era, writes Frank Roche.

IT happened 14 years ago but Paul ‘Pillar’ Caffrey’s recall is still vivid. It ranks as one of the great games of an epic summer. It was illuminated by Owen Mulligan’s goal of the decade.

But it isn’t just the visual snapshots of Croke Park that come flooding back to Dublin’s then-manager. It’s the sound.

“When people think back to that game,” says Caffrey, “the atmosphere in the stadium was absolutely phenomenal. The noise from the crowd. 

“Nobody likes looking back on classics when you didn’t get the right result – but it was 1-14 each, it was a very special game of football.”

Hindsight might even suggest that this 2005 quarter-final stalemate, watched by 78,514 transfixed fans, was Dublin’s best performance of the ‘Pillar’ era against a heavyweight contender.

In time, the rivalry between Caffrey’s Dublin and Mickey Harte’s Tyrone would take a spiteful twist (the Battle of Omagh in 2006) and end in a monsoon mauling (2008).

But back in 2005, it was a riotous roller-coaster for all the right reasons.

Tyrone, the All-Ireland champions of 2003, had taken a ‘back door’ detour after a draining two-game Ulster final duel with Armagh. Dublin were an emerging force under Caffrey, who had stepped up from selector to main man and duly landed a first Leinster title in three years.

Their first-half was the pinnacle of Dublin’s summer. Soaring highest of all was Ciarán Whelan.

“Unbelievable,” waxes Caffrey, recalling Whelan’s seven clean kickout catches before the break. “It was certainly football from a bygone era! And even then, Shane Ryan was coming on song... they were the ideal midfield partnership.”

When Tomás ‘Mossy’ Quinn goaled on the rebound, Dublin’s first-half dominance was finally reflected on the scoreboard: 1-10 to 0-8.

“Couldn’t wait to get the second-half on,” says Caffrey. “But they’d made an awful lot of positional changes, so it was nearly like facing a completely different Tyrone 15.”

Amid the musical chairs, the recalibration of midfield was Harte’s masterstroke. Enda McGinley moved there and was joined by Joe McMahon off the bench. Whelan’s supremacy of the skies was stifled; McGinley ended up Man of the Match.

“They took care of Whelo in the second-half – eh, by some means!” Caffrey wryly surmises.

Meanwhile, a decision that Harte never signed off on proved equally instrumental. 

“They were writing out the script to take him off before he came up with that piece of magic,” says Caffrey of Mulligan’s watershed goal in the 49th minute.

“It just shows you how fickle the game is. But, no, we were on the receiving end of a wonderful piece of individual skill that has stood the test of time.”

A moment that left Paddy Christie for dead and then Stephen O’Shaughnessy and Paul Casey – victims of the most outrageous double-whammy dummy in memory – grasping at thin air.

Ultimately Dublin scrambled for a draw, secured by two late Mossy Quinn points, including a disputed free at the death.

It’s fair to surmise that Tyrone and their inscrutable boss learned more for the replay. Or maybe they simply rediscovered their mojo. ‘Mugsy’ certainly found his: he finished with 1-7, 1-5 from play, as Tyrone triumphed by 2-18 to 1-14.

“We just didn’t hang in the game long enough,” Caffrey laments.  

Briefly, trailing by eight, Dublin threatened the improbable. Five points on the spin turned Croker into a deafening cacophony as Dublin voices in a crowd of 81,882 dared to dream.

“The noise when we were mounting that comeback – it was nothing I’ve heard before or since,” their former boss declares.  But then Seán Cavanagh pilfered a Stephen Cluxton kickout from Declan Lally and fed Mulligan.

“Next thing ‘Bang’, it’s in the back of the net. And it was nearly like the bubble was after being burst in that one play,” says Caffrey, recalling how Dublin’s tormentor “just stood with his ears cocked up to the Hill”.

Four weeks later, Tyrone were All-Ireland champions again.

Before the end-game of 2008 came the fractious interlude: the Battle of Omagh in February ’06. Both sides finished with 13 men but that was only the half of it.

By now, the forensic detail has mostly faded from memory: who ignited the various melees; who saw red; who faced disrepute charges (only to be ultimately cleared). The fact that Dublin actually won quickly became an afterthought.

But certain snapshots remain. Such as Caffrey calling his Dublin subs down from the stand as tensions soared. Or Harte’s immortal post-match line: “If Paddy Russell had been God Almighty, he couldn’t have refereed the game today.”

The context has not been lost on Caffrey: “They were the benchmark. We hadn’t reached their level, and something had to change from our perspective. They had two brilliant man-markers in Ryan McMenamin and Conor Gormley. And it was an area the players had identified it as a group and said, ‘Look, we need to toughen up, man up in the physical stakes against Tyrone’.

“It was early season for them; we had that game in our full view for a while. When the physical stakes intensified up there, we weren’t going to back down.”

Post-battle, Caffrey was called out for an RTÉ interview with Ger Canning. “There were still supporters shouting abuse down. I got hit with a plastic 7-Up bottle on the bridge of the nose... the supporters were still hanging around, looking for a bit of action.”

Most of the quarter-final action, in 2008, was relentlessly one-way. And virtually no-one saw it coming.

Dublin had massacred Wexford by 23 points in the Leinster final, then waited for four long weeks. Tyrone had lurched through the qualifiers.

“We were cannon fodder in a way to a Tyrone team that were being written off,” Caffrey can now rationalise.

After the heavens erupted, the game itself opened in even fashion. But the early loss of a hamstrung Alan Brogan and a butchered goal chance were portents of the grimness that awaited: goals from Seán Cavanagh and Joe McMahon before the break, and a third from Davy Harte, propelled Tyrone to a 12-point cakewalk, 3-14 to 1-8.

“My most disappointing day in charge,” Caffrey concludes. “We felt the team was ready. We were thinking that we were capable of getting to an All-Ireland final that year, with the momentum that we had from the previous seasons. 

“That Leinster final gave us a false reading ... but hindsight tells us that Tyrone team were a special group of players. 

“I decided if we didn’t get to the All-Ireland final that year, I was stepping down. I had four attempts, and I felt that progress had to be made in year four. A quarter-final wasn’t progress in my eyes. So that was the final nail in my coffin.”

Whelan in the years

Midfield maestro: Ciaran Whelan made his championship debut in 1996

Midfield maestro: Ciaran Whelan made his championship debut in 1996

Heartache outweighed joy during noughties, says Ciarán Whelan.

2000

AFTER 1999 as a group we felt we were progressing under Tommy Carr. The camp was united and we felt a breakthrough was on the horizon.

After a mixed league campaign, we cruised past Wexford in the Leinster SFC quarter-final. Struggling with an ankle injury, I missed the Westmeath semi-final but returned for the Leinster final against Kildare.

Micko O’Dwyer was still looking after the Lilywhites and a lot of their Leinster-winning team of 1998 were still going strong. A drawn Leinster final in front of a packed house meant we had to do it all again.

There was a serious edge to both games. These were the days before cameras picked up a lot of the off the ball stuff.

I remember exchanging pleasantries many times with Martin Lynch during the game. It was a case of an eye for an eye. Deliver a belt when the referee’s back was turned but expect to receive it back once the opportunity arose.

In the replay we tore out of the blocks and played exhilarating football in the first half to lead 0-10 to 0-5 at half-time. We were all over Kildare and the half-time whistle was probably their saviour at the time.

Two early second-half goals for Kildare rocked us and the momentum swung their way. We struggled to get any sort of foothold back and another Leinster title slipped away.

This one hurt badly and it’s one I felt we left behind. We drowned our sorrows after the replay but that defeat damaged any progress we had made. A tough winter lay ahead.

2001

TOMMY CARR came under a bit of pressure in the off season but the players were fully supportive. We felt we had the components of a team to make the breakthrough in 2001.

In a tough Leinster semi-final a win against Offaly by two points (1-12 to 0-13) put us back in a Leinster decider. This time it was our old rivals Meath who stood in our way once again.

Unlike the previous year, we did not reach the pitch of the game in the first-half and left ourselves chasing the contest.

I remember being on the end of the hairdryer treatment from Tommy at half-time and, whilst we got some momentum in the second half, we had too much to do.

Meath proved the better team and for me it was a fourth Leinster final loss.

This was certainly not what I envisaged when I came into the dressing room of All-Ireland champions in early 1996.

It was strange in 2001 in that the qualifiers had been introduced so there was a second chance. Never before had we to regroup in Parnell Park on the Tuesday after a championship loss.

The challenge was not a physical one but more a mental one as we got our heads around another game the following weekend against Sligo in Croke Park.

A victory opened up the opportunity for a trip to Tipp to play Kerry, then the All-Ireland champions.

This was to be my first championship game out of Croke Park. The buzz and the excitement around Thurles was unreal.

We travelled down the night before and stayed in Horse and Jockey. I’ll always remember the sea of blue as we passed through the square in Thurles that day on the bus.

In truth we left it behind us the first day in Thurles. Kerry were always the much better team and, from being eight points down, we got two goals from Vinnie Murphy and Darren Homan which set up the perfect smash and grab for us.

It was not to be as Maurice Fitzgerald created a moment of history with the outside of the boot to bring the game to a replay.

We replicated everything we had done for the rematch and once again gave Kerry a good start. This time there was no coming back and 2001 was brought to a close.

However, there were more talking points to come off the field.

After the replay then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern came into the dressing room to commiserate with us. Bertie usually joined us after games but this was the first time he came directly to the dressing room which maybe was more to do with the hype of the Dubs on the road and the two great games that had unfolded.

Tommy Carr was in ‘year four’ of his management reign and Bertie delivered a motivating speech about how the county was behind us.

The late John Bailey, who was chairman, and also a man who had strong political ambitions, jumped on the bandwagon and gave a rousing speech backing Tommy Carr and the team.

It was not until the next county board meeting that the players realised there was a problem. County Board delegates had the knives out of Tommy Carr and the extension of his management reign was put to a vote.

You could not write the script in that the vote was split exactly 50-50 and the casting vote fell to the chairman John Bailey.

Tommy was duly stabbed in the back and it brought the curtain down on his Dublin management career. Dublin were about to get their fourth manager in just seven years.

2002

FINALLY a Leinster SFC title. After seven years and four Leinster final defeats, there was silverware in the Dublin dressing room.

The kids of today would hardly believe it but the barren years were finally at an end. When I made my debut in 1996, I remember Trevor Giles being interviewed after Meath had beaten us in the Leinster final.

He made reference to the fact that he had suffered four Leinster final defeats to Dublin and finally he was glad to have got over the line. I always remembered that interview and how the cycle had changed so radically.

Tommy Lyons had been appointed manager in the winter of 2001 following the sacking of Tommy Carr.

Tommy had a good reputation coming from Kilmacud Crokes and he had delivered a Leinster title against all odds for Offaly in 1997.

He arrived with a swagger and was determined to put his imprint on Dublin.

He told me I was not a midfielder and I spent a lot of the 2002 NFL playing at 10 or 11 where I struggled for a number of games.

As the ground hardened I had convinced him, for the time being anyway, that the number 8 jersey was for me. To put 2002 into context, we had not beaten either Meath or Kildare since 1995 so the semi-final victory over Meath (2-11 to 0-10) in front of a packed Croke Park was massively significant for the group.

I will always remember the hug from my father that night when I went back to Raheny GAA club.

Years of pain were released and the sing-song went late into the night.

Whelan lifts the Delaney Cup in 2005

Whelan lifts the Delaney Cup in 2005

We now had confidence and momentum but we also had the impetus of youth. Alan Brogan and Barry Cahill were making a huge impact and Ray Cosgrove was hitting top form.

Micko and Kildare awaited in a Leinster final but we were a different animal than 2000 and Dublin were back on top in Leinster. Finally!

After spending the week of the All-Ireland quarter-final replay against Donegal in bed sick thinking I was not going to play, I hit the ground running as we took one step closer to the final with Armagh our obstacle in the semi-final.

Armagh were seasoned campaigners at that stage, winning Ulster titles for fun but they were stumbling when they got to Croker.

It was a chance missed for us in a game that went point-for-point and was played with serious intensity.

A dodgy Paddy McKeever goal (Joe Sheridan-esque) gave them a platform early in the second half until Alan Brogan teed up a pass to me on the run. An optimistic left-foot shot hit the roof of the net and we were quids in coming down the stretch.

Many will remember the game for Ray Cosgrove’s free hitting the upright with almost the last kick of the game when a point would’ve brought the game to replay.

It is one of few games I have watched in recent years, as it has been shown on various channels. I watched it one night in a hotel a couple of years ago and went to bed that night as thick as can be. Why?

When Ray kicked that ball and it came off the post there was a lone Dublin figure and six Armagh men within 20 metres of the rebound – Dessie Farrell. Inches make the difference and we never gave ourselves that extra chance.

2003

IN truth the hype from 2002 probably got to the squad in 2003.

Tommy Lyons was a one-man PR machine and he said himself the swagger had returned to the team. Was that healthy? Probably not, because it was not controlled.

We began the 2003 Championship year with a win against Louth (1-19 to 0-9) and Laois awaited in the provincial semi-final.

Micko had taken charge in Laois and, after a gruelling winter’s training, he had them flying throughout the league.

They were a dangerous opponent in Leinster. Tommy Lyons and his management had made five changes to the team after the Louth victory and it backfired.

Everything that could go wrong, went wrong. I kicked four wides and every minute that passed Laois began to believe more.

We were handed our arses on a plate and dumped out of the Leinster Championship.

Morale hit the floor and there was a lot of disquiet in the background. We got Derry in the qualifiers and I recall Tommy only naming the team on the day of the match which further added fuel to the fire.

Beating Derry in Clones, we drew Armagh in Round 3 of the qualifiers – the defending All-Ireland champions.

We were like boxers on the ropes that day waiting to be knocked out. After the championship there was an appetite from some within the group to oust Tommy.

On the back of this, our U21s had just won their first All-Ireland title and young players such as Barry Cahill, Alan Brogan and Paul Griffin had given serious impetus to the team.

A stand-off developed within the squad and it was agreed that myself and Paddy Christie would meet with Tommy to discuss our concerns. It proved to be a case of putting a plaster on a cut that needed stitches.

2004

MY toughest year in the blue jersey. The scars from 2003 remained open and harmony within the group was absent.

This all fed into negative personal and team performances. Wing forward was the new position for myself as I tried, once again, to prove myself as a midfielder.

We drew Westmeath in the first round of Leinster. Páidí O Sé had taken up the role after exiting the Kerry job.

The many trips by chopper paid off for Páidí. We arrived in Croke Park low on confidence and allowed Westmeath to stay with us, their confidence grew as the game wore on.

The final whistle was horrible.

Some of the crowd turned on us and the atmosphere around the capital was awful.

London, Leitrim and Longford were games we would have expected to win and it gave us a small bit of resolve as we entered the final stages of the championship. Centre-forward was my new home and, to be honest, I hated it. A win against Roscommon set up a quarter-final against Kerry who were hurting after the defeat against Tyrone in 2003. A gutsy first-half performance by us meant the score was 0-5 to 0-5 at half-time.

I distinctly remember the dressing room that day during the interval.

We had put serious energy into the first half in trying to contain Kerry and I could see the lads were out on their feet. This was a great Kerry team who still had to enjoy a purple patch and it duly arrived in that second half.

We could not stay with them and they ran out easy seven-point (1-15 to 1-8) winners.

It was not surprising that it was the end of Tommy Lyons’ reign. The swagger from 2002 was gone. It was obvious to us that his time was up. We needed a change of direction.

2005

PROBABLY the lowest point of my career but also the turning point.

My confidence was low and I spent a lot of time that winter wondering whether the Dublin team was the right place for me.

‘Pillar’ Caffrey was appointed manager and the general mood was sceptical.

Change was needed badly and as Pillar was involved the previous three years many wondered was it the right appointment? We were to be proved wrong.

Paul Clarke was part of Pillar’s backroom team and I knew Paul from playing with him back in 1996/1997.

We both lived in Swords and through that winter we became very good friends.

Knowing I was struggling with my game, he took me under his wing. We hit the gym and I probably trained harder than I ever had done throughout November and December.

When we returned in January, I was fit, strong and the early season gave me the momentum to get my confidence back throughout the league.

The camp under Pillar so different.

There was a new vibe and energy with a lot more attention to the detail of each game and what our key objectives were.

Confidence was high going into the championship but it was nearly all over for me at an early stage.

As the ball was being thrown up for our Leinster semi-final against Meath, I clashed with Nigel Crawford.

In hindsight, it worked out as I got away with it and went on to play well but it could have been so different. If I had been shown an early red, it could have been a disaster.

I received two yellow cards against Wexford in the provincial semi-final as we progressed to a Leinster decider.

Whilst the victory over Laois in the final may not have been as significant as 2002, it was still a huge win after the turmoil of both the summers of 2003 and 2004.

It rekindled my love and we had been re-energised by the management.

The two All-Ireland quarter-finals against Tyrone were fantastic but we probably left it behind us the first day.

After a brilliant first half, Tyrone made eight changes to their team structure and altered the flow of the game.

It was left to Mossy Quinn to bail us out and bring the game to a replay.

Tyrone were a top team and they did not let us out of the blocks in the rematch.

A second-half comeback from us was enough to shake the stadium in terms of noise but was not enough to dethrone Tyrone who went on to win the All-Ireland. We left ourselves something to build on in 2006.

2006

THE confidence was high entering the season and as a group we felt we could improve on our performances of the previous season.

The year started in controversy – ‘The Battle of Omagh’. Tyrone were All-Ireland champions and we set off up the road to lay down a marker.

The verbal exchanges from some of their players in the 2005 quarter-final had not gone down well in our dressing room.

As a group we were not going to lie down in Omagh and we felt it was a must-win game.

The fallout was massive at the time and the ‘Omagh 10’ spent many days on the front and back pages of national newspapers.

We used the fall-out in a positive way as it bonded the group going forward. 

A narrow escape against Longford in the first round of Leinster was followed by a convincing performance against Laois who we had beaten by only a point in 2005. We controlled the Leinster final against Offaly from start to finish.

We drew Westmeath in the All-Ireland quarter-final and we were easily motivated to beat them after the 2004 loss.

We felt as a group we were really progressing and we believed we had the ability to reach the Promised Land. We were collectively playing great football and there was a great buzz of anticipation around the county.

Mayo were next up and what a day it proved. The ‘Mill at the Hill’ set the scene for an explosive game. I remember being in the dressing room when we heard they had gone down the Hill end and there was no hesitation about what we were going to do.

Many reflect on that day and are of the opinion that the pre-game fiasco had an impact on the result.

Could you imagine if we had gone to the Canal End for our warm-up and Mayo still won the game? We would have been slated.

We can only blame ourselves for the loss. Seven points up with 20 minutes to go but we lost momentum at a crucial point after the Andy Moran goal and we never got it back as Mayo kicked points from all angles.

From a personal perspective the game was chaotic. A late hit on Ronan McGarrity may have ended in a red card but I got off the hook with a yellow.

Twice I had to leave the field as a blood sub after picking up a facial injury but never at any point did I think we would lose the game.

It was a horrible defeat to stomach and it was a few days before I left the house in late August 2006.

2007

I WAS now 31 and the gruelling training each winter was getting tougher. No longer was I leading the way in runs or sprints and I knew I was running out of time.

‘Pillar’ rested me for much of the league campaign and it certainly worked.

By the time the summer was on the horizon and the ground was getting harder, I was fresh and I was really enjoying my football.

We drew Meath in the first round of Leinster. Nothing was easy against the Royals.

They took us to replay when Mark Vaughan came into the team to convert some crucial frees as we progressed by four points.

Our Leinster final victory against Laois set up another opportunity through the All-Ireland series. Having beaten a good Derry side it was the All-Ireland champions, Kerry, waiting in the semi-final.

Surely our time was due? Well that’s what we thought. We could not have prepared any better and on the day there was nothing in the game with Kerry emerging winners, 1-15 to 0-16.

For me it was the first real time as a group we had put it up to Kerry, who with Tyrone, were dominating the decade.

As a group we were flying with Alan Brogan and Conal Keaney going very well up front and I was probably playing the best football of my career, having formed a partnership with the brilliant Shane Ryan. We were a resilient bunch and knew we were getting the most from ourselves. We had no choice but to regroup and go again.

2008

PILLAR'S plan was the same for 2008. He left me off the panel through January and February and I came into the equation for the second half of the league.

Things did not go to plan though.

The ‘Dust-up in Donnycarney’ during a league game against Meath resulted in me picking up a two-month suspension which included the first round of championship.

While the suspensions had an impact on preparations, it did not affect our performance.

We cruised through a Leinster final against Wexford and then awaited the draw for the quarter-final.

Whelan celebrates the Leinster Championship win in 2008 with his son Jamie

Whelan celebrates the Leinster Championship win in 2008 with his son Jamie

We drew Tyrone. Confidence was high but maybe that confidence became complacency.

Tyrone had stumbled through the qualifiers while they are struggling against the lower-ranked teams, we were waiting for four weeks as provincial champions.

We were ambushed and if ever there was a lesson that the value of games outweighs rest then this was the perfect example.

That afternoon was tough going. Leaving the pitch I felt I was done and dusted. The body and mind could not take much more.

Pillar’s years in charge had been fantastic but when he announced that his time was up, I felt the end of the road was in sight for me.

I decided to wait until the new manager was appointed before I would make a call on my future.

2009

I REMEMBER flying to Spain for a few days of golf in October of 2008. When I landed I got a call to say Pat Gilroy had got the job. I was shocked.

I knew Pat from having played with him in 1996 but he had no real experience in football management. Within 24 hours the phone rang and it was Pat.

We had a long conversation about my future and Pat wanted me as part of his plans.

My heart strings for that blue jersey were easily pulled at and I agreed I would go another year. I knew it was going to be tough and I knew my pace was slipping a bit.

Pat’s first idea was a training camp in La Manga in January – wives and kids were all invited.

I anticipated that we would train but we would also get some family time.

My wife Fiona was pregnant with our second child at the time but we hadn’t told anybody yet. We trained twice-a-day every day and hardly saw our families. The weather was also brutal so it certainly did not work out like many of us thought it would!

We started the league and, unlike in 2007 and 2008, I played every game and struggled badly at times with my form.

A hamstring injury pre-championship meant I missed a lot of training and for the first time in 14 years, I found myself on the bench for our championship opener.

I accepted my status and knew my performances in training needed to improve.

The strategy around goalkeeping was also changing with Pat and Mickey Whelan radically altering the role of the goalkeeper with short kickouts and retention of possession becoming the priority.

While it was understandable and made sense, it also changed the role of a midfielder.

Throughout that summer I never felt I could build my confidence around the 50/50 midfield battles. Going toe-to-toe with Darren Magee or Darren Homan in previous years was sometimes more challenging than actual championship.

Aerial contests were my bread and butter. I needed those games to sharpen up but it was not happening. Pat had other ideas for me.

He felt I could play a role at full-forward and that’s where I spent most of the summer in training. Playing on the ‘Killer Bs’ with Dean Rock and Mossy Quinn either side, we ran amok in some training games!

However, I still wanted the number 8 jersey.  A good performance off the bench in the Leinster final against Kildare gave me hope that I was returning to form.

Pat informed me on the Tuesday after at training that if we drew Kerry I’d start.

Still playing at full-forward in training, low and behold we drew Kerry. The reality of the situation is that Pat was never going to start me and he took a flyer on us not being pitted against Kerry in the draw.

He strung me along right up to that game telling me that I was most likely still starting in place of Jason Sherlock.

It disappointed and annoyed me because all I wanted was honesty. However, it is not something I hold a grudge against Pat for. Life is too short for that nonsense.

We have had that chat face-to-face and it’s all ‘water under the bridge’.

Despite what was going on personally behind the scenes, as a team we felt we had a great chance of taking out Kerry who, like Tyrone in 2008, had struggled in the qualifiers.

Once again the house came crumbling down as I sat and watched from the Hogan Stand subs area.

Plan B may have been to introduce me at full-forward that day but Plan C was initiated after just 15 minutes when Pat asked me to go on in midfield, we were eight points down.

I knew it was to be my final hour in the Dublin jersey. My daughter was born that same weekend and I knew it was the end of the road.

Kerry beat us out the gate and the ‘Startled Earwigs’ expression was coined by Pat Gilroy.

Little did we know what lay ahead for the county in the years to come following that defeat!

The only way is up

Ciaran McDonald takes on Dublin's David Henry in the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final

Ciaran McDonald takes on Dublin's David Henry in the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final

Battle of Omagh and Mill at the Hill in 2006 steeled Dubs for success, writes Eamon Carr.

IT was a trusted former colleague of mine, Seán Potts, who protested to me that 1974 was the year that Dublin refused to be regarded as a soft touch.

That was the era when aggression was met with aggression.

By the 2006 season, I needed a sharp reminder of Dublin’s combative history because the memory of the 1983 All-Ireland final and the heroics of ‘The Twelve Apostles’ had been wiped out on the sorry Saturday afternoon in July 2003 when I watched Tommy Lyons holding back his players at half-time for fear of bumping into lads from Armagh in the Croke Park tunnel.

It was an example of what the colourful bainisteoir might have termed ‘arse-boxing’.

Arguably, it was Dublin’s darkest hour. The day the Boys in Blue stepped aside and gave the impression that they were a soft touch. A pushover. A team without backbone.

It was on this wasteland that the foundations of the current impregnable citadel were dug.

The first men into the ditch with the bulldozers and concrete were Paul Caffrey, Brian Talty, Dave Billings and Paul Clarke.

Their task was never going to be easy. And they knew it.

For years they’d watched the toughest teams take the prize.

After the concrete came the steel as a new Dublin was fashioned in the foundry of hard knocks.

It was understood that it would take time to build a fortress.

Some day someone will compile an unofficial guide to the realities of football. The wisdom is out there. It’s handed down. We hear it from the veterans.

To get to an All-Ireland final you needed to impose yourself on the game. As former Meath All-Ireland-winning midfielder Liam Hayes once noted: “In a physical sport intimidation will always have a part to play.”

His team-mate of the 1980s/90s Colm O’Rourke cautioned, “Nice guys finish last”.

It was in 2006 that we saw signs the Dublin reconstruction was coming along nicely.

In previous campaigns, life had been made miserable by the likes of Kerry, Westmeath, Laois, Armagh and Tyrone, who’d beaten Dublin in a quarter-final replay in 2005 and went on to lift Sam Maguire.

In their opening match of the 2006 National League, Dublin met Tyrone in Omagh.

This was the day Dublin showed they’d no longer be bullied into submission.

On a chilly February afternoon, Dublin laid down a marker. They refused to be brow beaten and showed they could dish it out if necessary.

‘The Battle of Omagh’ they called it, as both teams finished with 13 men. This time Dublin emerged victorious.

Brimming with passion and belief, Dublin gave the All-Ireland champions a display of all areas of football skills, good fielding, tenacious defending, fast, accurate passing and impressive scoring.

It was early in the year, but this looked like the complete package and, crucially, Dublin didn’t bottle it.

They soaked up whatever punishment was thrown at them and seemed to draw strength from it.

Pride, resolve and gritty determination had been restored to the Dublin DNA. A vital message resounded, loud and clear, “No more Mister Nice Guy”.

Dublin had found its soul and surely now the team’s courage could no longer be doubted.

The toughest test Dublin received on their way to winning the Leinster final in 2006 was in their first match, a quarter-final against Longford which they won by two points (1-12 to 0-13).

Neither Laois in the semi-final (3-17 to 0-12) nor Offaly in the provincial final (1-15 to 0-9) threatened Dublin’s progress.

In the All-Ireland quarter-final, Dublin beat Westmeath, who’d battled through four qualifying rounds, by 10 points (1-12 to 0-5).

With Kerry already through to the All-Ireland final, having beaten Cork the previous Sunday, a resurgent Dublin faced Mayo in Croke Park on August 27.

We weren’t to know it that morning, but this semi-final was about to unfold as one of the most dramatic matches in living memory.

Mayo were first to come out on the pitch and, as they did, they headed towards the Hill to warm-up.

An unwritten rule, a long-standing courtesy, was ignored as the Mayo squad went through their drills and shooting practice in front of the ranks of Dublin supporters.

When Dublin dispensed with their photocall duties, the panel linked arms and marched towards the Hill like a phalanx of Roman centurions ready to repel invaders.

There were mini-flashpoints and incidents of argy-bargy, the most notable being when Dublin manager Paul ‘Pillar’ Caffrey barged Mayo mentor John Morrison.

This departure from established protocol (tried before by Tyrone in 1984) was believed to have been designed by Mayo manager Mickey Moran in the hope of unsettling Dublin and giving Mayo a psychological advantage ahead of throw-in.

When Mayo had four points on the board with Dublin yet to register a score after 16 minutes, there was concern that the Mayo mind-games had worked. 

But Dublin responded with a Conal Keaney point and, when he was in the right place at the right time in the 23rd minute to fire to the net after David Clarke had denied Alan Brogan, Dublin were in the game.

However, Mayo, following the introduction of Kevin O’Neill, who played his club football in the capital with Na Fianna at the time, finished the half the stronger to lead 0-9 to 1-5 at the interval.

The Dubs, though, were left to rue a series of missed opportunities with Keaney electing to fist a point at one stage when a goal was on, Jason Sherlock hit the crossbar and Alan Brogan was denied in the danger zone by Aidan Higgins.

These squandered chances would come back to haunt ‘Pillar’ Caffrey’s men.

Dublin regrouped at the break and stormed back in the second-half, equalising with an Alan Brogan point and then going a goal up when Jason Sherlock found the net after some stunning interplay by the Dublin attack.

Within four minutes of the restart, they were five points ahead after Alan Brogan had slotted his third point from play.

A few minutes later, Dublin were leading by seven points (2-11 to 0-10) after Kevin Bonner and Conal Keaney were on target and the supporters were belting out a few choruses of ‘Dublin In The Rare Auld Times’.

With an attendance of 82,148 present the decibels levels were going through the roof and the action was compelling.

But gradually, Mayo stalled Dublin’s momentum and reeled them back in with points from Ger Brady and Alan Dillon before Andy Moran goaled, following clever work by Kevin O’Neill.

It was the first goal Dublin had conceded in that summer’s championship and ultimately the one that knocked them out.

With 15 minutes left to play, the sides were level.

In boxing, these minutes are called the ‘Championship Rounds’, the period when endurance, desire and courage are tested to extremes.

It became a game of nip’n’tuck as the sides traded points.

With two minutes left on the clock, Mayo’s Ciarán McDonald lofted a wonder point. The shockwaves stunned the Dublin supporters but still the drama continued.

Dublin substitute Mark Vaughan, who had replaced Tomás Quinn, hit an upright with a free and then a ‘45’ came off the crossbar as the wheels came off the wagon.

A late, late long-range Vaughan free sailed wide and with it Dublin’s dream of reaching a first All-Ireland decider since 1995 disappeared.

The bookies and the pundits had called it wrong. The underdogs had stolen Dublin’s thunder.

“It’s heartbreak stuff,” said Paul Caffrey reflecting on his side’s defeat by a single point (1-16 to 2-12).

“It’s a shattered dressing-room. The players did Dublin proud.”

Martin Breheny, in the Irish Independent, the next day wrote: “Dublin looked in through heaven’s door, liked what they saw and were just about to step inside when Mayo’s eviction squad arrived and ruthlessly ejected them from the premises.

“As the door slammed in their faces, Dublin were left outside in abject misery wondering how an All-Ireland semi-final that seemed comfortably secured when they led by seven points after 46 minutes was surrendered over the closing stretch.”

In Kerry, they used to say that to win an All-Ireland you first had to lose an All-Ireland.

The shock defeat by Mayo was a semi-final but the sense of hurt and disappointment felt that day was as great as falling at the final hurdle.

When you feel this low there’s nowhere left to go except up. The hard work had been done. This was base camp.

From here Dublin would begin their ascent all over again.

The journey from 'startled earwigs' to Hill heroes

The Gooch gets a goal against Dublin in 2009

The Gooch gets a goal against Dublin in 2009

New blood, old values and stats define Gilroy era, writes Conor McKeon.


“He banned all this soccer stuff of kissing the badge and running to the Hill.

“There was to be no sledging: you respected the opposition, worked hard and cleaned the dressing room when you came in – there were no servants on this team.

“It was a lousy winter that year. They started training at six in the morning out by Clontarf and the Bull Wall and there was snow on the ground.

“They worked and worked and a lot of guys left but he ended up with a core of fellas who bought into it. It was Corinthian in the maximum sense – you strive, you’re honest, you don’t cheat and you congratulate the other guy if he beats you.”

David Hickey, September 2015


CORDUFF in South Monaghan on a drizzly evening in November 2009.

There, a Dublin squad still stunned by their public annihilation by Kerry three months previously unpacked it all, addressed that ‘startled earwigs’ defeat in raw but analytical terms and started again.

Then Dublin played Monaghan in a challenge match. Monaghan was only an hour up the road. They were spiky opposition. And they weren’t in the Leinster Championship.

The visitors played a style of football that could be best described as ‘rustic’, replete with a low-fi version of the densely-populated defences that were springing up around the country.

Beforehand, the Dublin players were informed that the metric their performance would be measured by was their tackle count.

Afterwards, the result wasn’t mentioned.

In their post-match chat before they left Corduff, management compared their individual and collective tackle numbers to the Kerry defeat and informed the squad they had increased their output significantly.

It was a start.


“If you look at any game, if a guy is on the ball for a minute in the whole game, that’s a lot. It’s the other 69 minutes, what’s he doing for that?

“People who are going to do that work, when they’re not on the ball, that’s really important to us.

“If you’ve got 15 fellas pulling together for that 69 minutes of not being on the ball, that’s a crucial part of the game.”

Pat Gilroy


RAY Boyne was one of just a handful of members of ‘Pillar’ Caffrey’s backroom team who continued into Gilroy’s when he took over in October 2008.

Before the term ‘performance analyst’ was ever used, Boyne had worked as a ‘stats man’ with Mickey Whelan with both the 2003 Dublin minor team – where Whelan was a selector – and later, the St Vincent’s senior footballers which Whelan managed and with whom Gilroy played.

“The use of stats was very new to GAA around that time,” he recalls. “They were the basic stuff; wides and kickouts.”

There is an unlimited volume of data that can be recorded and relayed from any training session or match.

The only ones that count, Boyne explains, are the figures most relevant to your game-plan.

“Pat wanted it broken down further,” he recalls. “He was more forensic.

“He wanted detailed stats for every player on the pitch, so you can analyse whether that player is performing or where they needed to improve.

“If you have 15 players and you have the metrics that you measure their performance by and you add up all those numbers, you can set targets that if they achieve them, they have a good chance to win the game.

“It was so simple. But it was completely new to me.”

For Boyne, Gilroy’s assembly of the support structure around the team was key to their revival.

And the most important element in that were the individuals themselves.

“Not to put too fine a point on it, but Mickey Whelan is an absolute genius,” he says.

“Innovation is a casually-used word but some of  the things he came up with from a tactical and a technical point of view were genius.

“And his personality is so infectious. He had a huge impact on those players because there is a perception there that when a player comes into an inter-county setup, they’ve already learned all the skills.

“But between the sports science that Niall Moyna and DCU brought and the coaching that Mickey brought to it, those players underwent huge improvement from a physical and a technical point of view.”

Infrastructure was another issue that required Gilroy’s influence.

Under Caffrey, the team trained in St David’s grounds in Artane.

Gilroy utilised his business acumen and range of contacts to engage with corporate sponsors and build the structure that became known as ‘the bunker’ in St Clare’s in DCU’s complex, off the Griffith Avenue extension.

“All of a sudden,” recalls Alan Brogan, “we had our own dressing room, we had our own privacy.

“Small things but they made a difference. We could have an ice bath. We had an area for eating. We had our own notice board that we could put stuff up and no-one would see it.

“It was our own little sanctuary down in Glasnevin that no-one else had access to.”

Between the 6am training sessions designed to test each player’s commitment and the slavish devotion to their new style of playing, management began to notice that the squad that had played as a group of individuals when the pressure came on, started to think more selflessly and collectively in both training sessions and matches.

“What Pat was trying to achieve,” says Boyne, “was to have a group of players who weren’t wondering how they fitted into the team or what their own personal prospects were, but who just gave everything for him.”


“We started training out in Clanna Gael in November, December, January time, between late 2010 and early ’11. I would have met Pat in the Clayton Hotel before every training session nearly. Six or seven times for an hour. And he went through exactly what he wanted me to do.

“It was one-on-one communication. And with real honesty. He’d be showing you clips of training matches or other matches and giving you examples of what worked well or what he felt I could bring to it.

“There was a bit of a journey there. You had to get on board with it and it wasn’t going to happen overnight. But it was all about keeping the communication lines open over a period of time. That was how he got you to buy into his vision.”

Barry Cahill


WHEN Gilroy took over in late 2008, he sought the opinions of most of the senior players in the group about how best to take the team forward.

Many had played in three All-Ireland semi-finals.

And despite how obviously outclassed they were by Tyrone in Caffrey’s final game that year, most believed they were only a couple of tweaks away from winning an All-Ireland.

Initially, Gilroy was open to that idea but the Kerry defeat (2009) and the manner of it convinced him something more drastic was required.

“Pat worked really hard at the whole psychological side,” says Alan Brogan. “Pat did a lot of it himself. He obviously studied it. Lads started to buy into that side of things.

“Pat has a way about him,” Brogan goes on.

“You knew he was serious but he was also very fair. He knew how certain lads would react to how he went about addressing an issue or a problem.

“He could do it with a note of sarcasm, just to get his point across. There was no real fear factor there. He wasn’t like a dictator. Lads knew that if there was something that they wanted to bring up with him or the group, they could at any stage. It wasn’t Pat’s way or the highway.”

Meanwhile, players who had formed the backbone of the team under Caffrey like Ciarán Whelan, Shane Ryan, Conal Keaney and Jason Sherlock were no longer there. A raft of talented, athletic defenders from the underage ranks were brought in.

James McCarthy had pedigree but Kevin Nolan, Cian O’Sullivan and Rory O’Carroll were all fresh-faced and inexperienced.

Outwardly, it looked like they were fast-tracked into the first team but according to Barry Cahill, who had been pushed further forward, no preferential treatment was given to anyone.

“They were brought into the squad and started off on the ‘B’ team in these 75-minute training matches and they were marking Alan and Bernard and Diarmo and going toe-to-toe with them,” says Cahill.

“Eventually, they just worked their way on to the ‘A’ team. They earned those spots.

“And a lot of those guys had pure athleticism as well as being out-and-out good defenders.”

Other new recruits arrived through less conventional routes to the squad.

Michael Fitzsimons, Michael Darragh Macauley, Niall Corkery, Kevin McManamon and Eoghan O’Gara, footballers with rough edges, all had something different to offer and an appetite to acquire what they didn’t possess.

Gilroy’s team quickly took shape.

Cahill recalls one training camp in Carton House in the build-up to their All-Ireland quarter-final victory over Tyrone when both he and Alan Brogan played on the ‘A’ team at centre-forward; Cahill as a deep-dropping defensive outlet and Brogan as a more advanced, creative element.

Inside, Bernard Brogan’s 2010 Footballer of the Year form had sustained and now, he had a more settled and tactically aware, Diarmuid Connolly for scoring assistance.

Dublin’s defence was young but pacey and well marshalled from the front by Ger Brennan and behind by Stephen Cluxton.

In McManamon, they had a rocket to bring off the bench

“The big thing for me was, the quarter-final win over Tyrone and the semi-final win over Donegal would have been two completely different types of matches,” says Cahill.

“We won both games completely differently. The Tyrone game, we scored 22 points, the vast majority from play. We could have scored 5-30 that night. It was all free-flowing football, kick-passing.

“Whereas the Donegal win was just a real tactical battle, where you just have to grind it out and do whatever it takes just to be ahead at the final whistle.

“It was more a test of your head.

“So,” Cahill adds, “the two types of wins gave us a lot of comfort going into the final.”

On the morning of September 18, 2011 the Dublin squad met in St Clare’s, just a mile away from the gathering pre-All-Ireland final crowds down the Drumcondra Road.

They killed time by watching The Damned United, the screenplay based on David Peace’s novel about Brian Clough’s ill-fated tenure as Leeds United manager in 1974 and read the English versions of the Sunday newspapers, provided due to the fact they contained no mention of that day’s All-Ireland final.

Before they boarded the bus, Gilroy presented the squad with a statistic.

It was their tackle count that drizzly November evening in Corduff on the night they began their journey.

Then he revealed the same statistic for their All-Ireland semi-final victory over Donegal.

The number was more than double. Dublin were ready.

The decade of disappointment but fans still kept the faith for Sam

Walking down Clonliffe Road in August 2009 I happened upon this ultra-confident Dublin supporter. A decade of heartache hadn’t weathered his belief, nor did the 32-year championship hoodoo that the Kingdom held over us bother him either!

‘KMB’ represented a chest-beating element of Dublin support that did little to endear themselves to our country cousins or even pessimistic Dublin fans.

The Metropolitans were often derided for their bluster on the back of a lion’s share of glory from the 1970s.

It’s not to say that I wasn’t confident of winning. Kerry had staggered through the qualifiers and looked a beaten docket. Instead they were a wounded animal ready to bite. Maybe Dublin weren’t all that great outside of Leinster? The game was over after a minute.

The only consolation I had that night was perhaps ‘KMB’ must have felt a little foolish? Then again he probably didn’t give a bo***x!

I had been worn out by the near misses, hard-luck stories and misfortune that poxed the noughties. The summer bliss of 2002 was but a faded memory.

It was a decade of failure viewed from my blinkered vantage point on the Hill. I still kept coming back for more. Defeat after bruising defeat reminds me of the David Bowie song ‘Always Crashing in the Same Car’.

2001

Wayne McCarthy hitting a free to win the drawn match against Kerry in Thurles as Darragh Ó Sé soared to pluck the ball from over the crossbar.

2002

Ray Cosgrove hitting the post to draw against Armagh with only Dessie Farrell near the square for the rebound.

2005

Five points up before Owen Mulligan scored ‘that’ goal. Earlier that summer my dad had died while I was on the Hill watching the Wexford match.

2006

Most traumatic day ever as a Dublin fan. Up by seven points against Mayo, thrown away. Still getting over that one!

2007

A point down in the final minutes of the semi-final against Kerry. ‘Gooch’ heads for the sideline at the Cusack Stand to coolly slow play down and kill the game. He eventually works the ball across for Declan O’Sullivan to seal the win. Class act.

2008

The ‘Bar of Soap’ quarter-final against the bearded Tyrone men who had no problems with the wet ball

- Joe Davitt

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The Decades of the Dubs: The 1950s-1960s

Decades of the Dubs: The 1970s

Decades of the Dubs: The 1980s-1990s

Editors: Joe Davitt and Kevin Nolan

Contributors: Seán Potts, Conor McKeon, Rónán Mac Lochlainn, Frank Roche, Ciarán Whelan, Coman Goggins, Eamon Carr

Photographs: INM, Sportsfile

Design: Dermot Keys