Vincent Hogan: Dublin are out to defeat Cork
Twelve years on from losing a final no-one cared about, Dublin are out to defeat Cork and land a title that would lay down marker for summer
The way Tommy Carr remembers it, it was a foolish expedition.
Dublin's last League final returns to him as a kind of basket-case day that left collateral damage. "It was a mistake to go," he says, 12 years later. By special arrangement with the Cork County Board, the Dubs had agreed to play the game in Pairc Ui Chaoimh.
Why? "Maybe there was a bit of naivety," recalls Carr. "But my attitude was wouldn't it be a great thing to say 'Ya, we'll play it anywhere ye want and we'll beat ye as well!'"
But it was a day when ambivalence lay over everything, thick as a mountain fog. The rain came down in torrents and a work-room set aside for the media became off limits, water pouring through the ceiling. The pitch on the stand-side was lidded with deep puddles.
Then, 40 minutes before throw-in, Dublin found themselves sharing their dressing-room with a club team. "Lads looking to go for a p**s and they (the club team) are in the showers.
"So we're crammed into this tiny space, listening to their after-match banter and trying to prepare for a League final," recalls Carr.
In the end, maybe 7,000 watched Cork win a nothing game by two points. Out of the murky twilight, Philip Clifford pushed the cup to the Heavens and people hurried from the old kip as if fearful of contracting something unpleasant from the stonework.
Before heading home, Dublin would dine in the Silver Springs Hotel, their relationship with the League imperceptibly altered.
Only hindsight brings that realisation now. Carr was a young manager, intent upon creating a winning mentality in the Dubs. If he never specifically prioritised the League, he did recognise its value in the creation of good habits. But something soured Dublin to the competition that day in Cork.
"We always struggled in the League after that," he says. "Looking back, I think our experience in Cork nearly negated any sense of urgency to go and win Leagues afterwards. Because I think everybody would have said it was a bad experience.
"I'm not saying you went out the following year and played s***e to make sure you didn't get into a League final, but there wasn't the same urgency to repeat the process.
"A 'once burnt, twice shy' kind of thing."
It was a different time with different ways. Noel McCaffrey, the Dublin team doctor, did not travel on the team bus that day. He took his bike to Cork by train, then cycled down to Pairc Ui Chaoimh and back again to Kent Station afterwards.
Carr recalls Cork players looking "bored" during the presentation.
Over the next decade, Dublin would win an average of just three games in every League campaign. Under Paul Caffrey, they were relegated to Division 2 in 2007, but bounced straight up again in '08, albeit losing the Division 2 final to Westmeath.
Always, there was a sense of maybe having bigger fish to fry.
In Tommy Lyons' first year as manager ('02), Dublin needed a draw in their last game against Galway to avoid relegation, yet kicked on then to win the county's first Leinster title in seven years.
Lyons admits that that first year was, above all, one of exploration for new players. But, thereafter, he insists Dublin did their damndest to have a good League.
"It just didn't happen," he says. "There was a lot of rubbish talked about us running the bejasus out of fellas the week of League games, but that was never the case. Most teams want to compete at the coalface and we were no different.
"But I think the most points we ever got was eight. You always needed at least 10 to qualify. I certainly believe that Division 1 League form counts, especially since it reverted to being a calendar League.
"Because, by and large, a Division 1 team wins the All-Ireland."
In the 1970s, Kevin Heffernan seemed to identify a direct correlation between extended League runs and decent Championship preparation. Dublin appeared in four consecutive finals between 1974 and '78, a period in which they also always reached the All-Ireland decider.
The Dubs made three consecutive League final appearances in the late 1980s too. Yet, remarkably, tomorrow will be only their fourth final in 22 years.
Under Caffrey, they once missed a semi-final spot on a single point scoring difference, yet -- given their harvest of four consecutive Leinster titles under the Na Fianna man -- their League record seemed bound up in a strange inertia.
Dave Billings, who served as a selector to Caffrey, denies they were indifferent to the competition.
"We always took the League seriously," argues Billings. "But we just never had a good run, that's being blunt about it. We were usually mid-table. I suppose we would have decided that we were going to stick with certain fellas for a few matches, irrespective of results.
"But, to be honest, we went out to win every game. We always wanted to make the semi-finals, but just didn't. It wasn't that we were ignoring it, because it would be ridiculous to ignore any competitive game.
"Especially when you have to go off on this ridiculous challenge season once the League is over. You'll see it starting up now. It's crazy that some teams won't play Championship for six or seven weeks. I could never fathom that.
"And we always had that feeling in Dublin. Traditionally, we wouldn't start our Championship until the second week in June, and your last League game might be the middle of April. So this relationship between League and Championship is not a scientific thing. You don't want to be peaking in April.
"I believe everybody goes out in the League to win. But it's easy to start thinking 'Ah, there's an eight-week gap coming ...'"
The irony now, mind, is that a League win might mean more to Dublin supporters than another provincial title. Statistically, Leinster football has been at a remarkably low ebb in the last decade (not a single All-Ireland final appearance since Meath's hammering by Galway in '01).
Hence Dublin's accumulation of six Leinster titles through that period is seen, by some, as the arithmetic of flat-track bullies. Billings believes perspective is shaped by circumstance.
"I agree that winning the League would be huge for Dublin now," he says.
"I mean we've won two All-Irelands in 28 years and the team that won in '95 always did reasonably well in the League. But, remember, Dublin went seven years without a Leinster title until it was won back under Tommy Lyons.
"And people would have killed for that Leinster title in '02."
A further irony is that Leinster's last All-Ireland win was Meath's of '99, when their final opponents were, of course, that League-winning Cork team.
Carr believes the shabby League final experience in Pairc Ui Chaoimh even had negative repercussions for Larry Tompkins' side. "I don't think it did them any good either, it was such a non-event," he remembers.
"The general feeling when you got to the ground was 'How the f**k did we end up down here?' You walked into the stadium, it was empty. You walked out on the pitch to have a look and it was really soft up along the stand-side.
"The buzz wasn't there. The stewards were nearly yawning, as if to say 'Oh here we go, having to open the ground for this thing today'. You knew in your heart and soul it was going to be a slobbery game. There was no Dublin crowd down and even the Cork supporters didn't show.
"There was no sense of occasion, that was the big thing. It was dead."
Carr has seen all of Dublin's games in the current League and been struck by the impression of a team pitched to a higher intensity than most of their opponents. When they beat Cork in February, he was inclined to wonder about the difference in physicality. If the Dubs looked to be operating at stamina levels of 90pc, Cork were -- at best -- moving through the gears at no more than 75pc.
Still, he suspects that Pat Gilroy would covet a win tomorrow, less for the silverware available than the statement a defeat of Cork might convey.
"It's a much healthier League nowadays," says Carr. "It's far more meaningful. When I was manager, the only real pressure put on me by the county board -- and even that wasn't overt -- was to avoid relegation. Once you did that, people were relatively happy.
"But the League could be a bit of a nuisance when it was run off before and after Christmas. I mean you might have three games in October, then players downed tools in November and were even unfit again by December.
"Then you might have a game in early February, followed by a break for the Club Championship. So there was no run at it, no form and, as a result, it made no real difference to your Championship 15. Basically, the Championship of the previous year picked your team."
Tomorrow brings them to a different place.
"I think this League would mean a lot to Dublin now, especially because it's Cork -- the most talented team in the country -- that they're playing in the final," suggests Carr. "Because of that, it has assumed huge status.
"I'm sure in Pat Gilroy's and the players' minds, they're thinking 'Okay, let's find out where we really are now!' You will see Dublin really going for this and Cork reacting as a result. Because they won't want the Dubs to get that little notch of confidence.
"So it'll have more the air of a Championship joust than a League final. For Dublin, it's more about laying down a marker than the actual winning of the League. If they beat Cork, there's no real monkey on their backs.
"Win this and it (their destiny) is in their hands. That's the big thing. They'll know that."
So, 12 years on from the mud and suffocating ennui of Pairc Ui Chaoimh, Cork and Dublin square up again at the harbour-mouth to summer. Only the colours remain unchanged.
The rest is another galaxy.