Saturday 18 November 2017

Dubs back in the spotlight

Hype, and how they deal with it, may yet define Dublin's season writes Dermot Crowe

SMALL things matter. At the end of their transformative win over Tyrone eight days ago, the Dublin footballers might have been tempted to salute the Hill and bask in the affections of a once-again adoring audience. Instead, they left the pitch without any triumphalism in their step. If they were overjoyed, as they were entitled to be, they concealed it well until safe in the sanctuary of the dressing room.

Even the management and players claimed not to see this coming. Beating Tyrone with seven survivors from the team dismembered by Kerry last summer, a 17-point mutilation followed by months of soul-searching and hard lessons in humility, amounted to a massive coup for Pat Gilroy's management.

Of the defence that started against Kerry only one -- Barry Cahill -- remained in position against Tyrone, although Paul Griffin's absence was injury-enforced. That's rebuilding at a pace the post-war Germans would be proud of.

The old and often hollow sounding maxim of there always being next year had a ring of truth to it when Kerry exited the championship on the same day that Dublin declared themselves a force to be reckoned with. Not since 1995, when they last won the All-Ireland, had Dublin beaten a team of Tyrone's calibre. In the meantime, the aura they once enjoyed as a matter of course gradually frittered away and in the last two seasons the sign-off performance was devastatingly bleak. From that low base they seem to have reinvented themselves and written a new constitution.

After defeating Tyrone there was a noticeable clamour among players to hail teamwork as their new god, and reject the false deities of ego and individualism. People have talked a lot about putting the swagger back into Dublin football; much of Gilroy's efforts look to have been focused on achieving the exact opposite: taking the swagger out. But the hype which afflicts this county like no other is not dead yet and will come back to claim more victims. The crowds will return for the semi-final against Cork and All-Ireland fever will resonate throughout the city and its hinterland.

Nothing inherently wrong or terribly un-Christian about that, except that it has been the bane of Dublin teams in the past. And it is a factor the next day, whereas it was not, almost uniquely, against Tyrone. Surely hype's powers of persuasion were amply demonstrated when Dublin were favourites to beat Kerry last year and Tyrone the year before. They may not be favourites against Cork in a fortnight's time but they will have an awful lot more expectation to deal with and a ticket-rush led off by thousands of followers who were happy to watch their recent trials on television.

"I think it's important to separate yourself from it," says Paul Curran, the former Dublin player, and All-Ireland winner in 1995. "It's going to be difficult. Everyone wants a piece of you; everyone wants a word from the camp. You have to separate yourself as best you can and focus on the next important thing. Playing the 70 minutes is the be all and end all for this Dublin team. All the attention is a great thing but it has not been managed well in the last few years. I think it was one of the keys towards winning this game; managing the hype."

In 1992, Donegal defeated a Dublin team hotly tipped to win the All-Ireland to the extent that an open-top bus had been lined up for the day after to parade them up and down O'Connell Street with the Sam Maguire. The distraught players arrived on cue but the crowds were absent and Sam was headed for the hills of Donegal for the first time. In fairness to Dublin then, commercialism was only in its infancy and the stories of players being used as mannequins for fashion shoots and bouncy radio promotions were more pardonable than they would be today.

Donegal had the most unburdened of lead-ins. Dublin appeared to only have to turn up, punch in one more shift and collect the prize. But they couldn't live with Donegal on the day and afterwards felt like fools who had fallen for their own publicity.

Not that hype and its perils could be deemed the sole governing issue when, more chastened, they failed to beat Derry in 1993 or Down a year later. It may have contributed but who is to say by how much? What mattered is that it was seen as a distraction and that has continued to be a factor for players and managements ever since.

In Tommy Lyons' time, the whole Dublin experience was embraced in the first year before a more guarded approach followed and eventually a virtual sense of siege. Pillar Caffrey moved into the realm of the pathologically private or the pathologically paranoid, depending on your take, and it could be argued that the policy had the reverse effect to that intended.

Gilroy's team looks closely gelled without indulging itself in some of the gimmickry and posturing of the past. Pretence has become the enemy of the soul. There is character without flash. The more ostentatious and self-conscious pomp and striking of pose witnessed in recent years had its roots in the gospel of modern coaching psychology and, while well intentioned, there was an inescapably uneasy sense of contrivance and fabrication to it all -- sometimes it appeared to parody itself and go all Father Ted, or Father Jack as the case may be. Players got caught up in that too.

The run of handy Leinster titles and the intrinsic cult of Dublin football offered a level of recognition and acclaim that might normally be reserved for an All-Ireland winner. It fattened them, stole their hunger, fogged up their focus. Gilroy's team, even if it goes no farther, looks like one built in a time of recession rather than during the Celtic Tiger festival of rampant bling. It has had a tough paper round.

But there was an element of luck missing at crucial times in the course of recent years, too, that fell for Gilroy and his backroom team against Tyrone. In the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo, Dublin made plenty of mistakes, on the sideline and on the pitch, but a few breaks went against them that came down to a matter of inches and imponderable forces. Paper-thin was the difference between reaching an All-Ireland and facing a winter of grievous discontent from which they never truly recovered. Eight days ago you could pick out any amount of examples where luck shone on Dublin to an inordinate degree. It was a blast of good fortune though that the team deserved and which gave it no cause for embarrassment.

A few years ago, talking to this newspaper, the sports psychologist Niamh Fitzpatrick discussed the impact of hype on teams. "This (hype) needs to be seen for what it is," she said. "A distraction, a pitfall, like a hole in the ground covered with leaves. Newspapers can say what they want but it's irrelevant." She said that hype could act as a positive, but needed to be backed up with hard work. "You have to roll up the sleeves."

Without question, Dublin have done that. Players put in the hard yards; they assume nothing will come handy. More than once Bryan Cullen's career has looked washed up and the last time, when he was hauled off against Kerry after less than half an hour last year, there seemed no way back. He is too gnarled and wise and knocked-about to take anything for granted but he is something of a hero for rolling up the sleeves in the way he has, and toughing it out and reinventing himself. Few earned the sweet sensation of beating Tyrone more than he.

The substitution of Alan Brogan, though infinitely puzzling, signalled that no player was sacred or above sacrifice for the overall good of the team. Whatever about the dubious wisdom of withdrawing a player in full stride, having scored and set up another, the basic principle has its merits. Some players who have lost their places were culled on the basis of insufficient workrate. It hasn't all been plain sailing. Gilroy's project has been questioned amid some poor league and championship performances and such a major realignment of the team, in style of play and selection, was bound to stir up levels of dissatisfaction for a management novice.

The Tyrone match saw the same team starting for Dublin for the third championship game in a row. A coherent side is starting to emerge after the uncertainty of the early season. "People haven't really expected too much his year and you can see that from the attendances, 22,000 for one game (qualifier v Tipperary) and 26,000 for another (qualifier v Armagh), and it's not all down to the economy," says Curran.

"When you look at the attendances in 2009 and 2008, when we were well into the recession, they were still filling Croke Park. I think people genuinely felt the team were going nowhere. And it is always best for a team going into a game like that."

The shelves of expectation are being restocked. The championship has been blown wide open. And whisper it: the Jacks are back.

Sunday Independent

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