Thursday 23 November 2017

Like it or loathe it, Hill 16 has become dear to Dublin hearts

'A gang of us used to go up. You'd have right crack, the days when you would have a few pints before the match. There would be good stories going around. You'd have a good few fucking eejits up there as well. I remember being up for one of the matches against Meath in '91 and Westmeath were playing Carlow beforehand – it must have been in an All-Ireland 'B' competition or something like that – and this fella, totally locked, maybe in his fifties was below us, he arrived in during the game and the minute he came in he started roaring at the players. He never stopped. At one stage one of the Westmeath lads got this ball and ran 50 yards towards the Hill and he stuck it over the bar. And your man let off this big yelp and then turned around and says, 'I fucking love Galway, I do'." (Hill 16 fan, now retired to the stand)

Dermot Crowe

DANNY Lynch stood on Hill 16 in 1968 for the All-Ireland football final between Kerry and Down. Being of green and gold persuasion, he couldn't say it was an enjoyable day and the Hill itself wasn't an especially prized location.

"It didn't have the same resonance as it does now," says Lynch. Most of his time, though, would be spent on the other side, especially when the Kerry-Dublin rivalry took off in the 1970s. The Canal End was country. It was miserable too. Dilapidated and often dangerous.

Back then, before he became PRO of the GAA, Lynch was a member of the predominant match-going class of the time; what he calls the cloth cap brigade. It was a staunchly male and rural grouping and from the Canal End it was a relief to be coughed out on to Jones's Road in one piece. In 1981, a few weeks before Kerry won the four-in-a-row, he remembers being there when Johnny Flaherty scored his goal to win Offaly the hurling All-Ireland. "You couldn't put your hand in your pocket," he says. You paid at the stiles and they piled them in.

By then, the Hill had taken on a new identity and purpose. In 1974, Dublin won their first All-Ireland in 11 years with a pageantry and noise that made them appealing and radical. The spill of grey terrace became transformed, a home for a support that had ballooned. It took its influence not so much from Gaelic Ireland as fashions and trends of the terraces of English soccer grounds. It wasn't to everyone's taste but it couldn't be ignored. And it wasn't going away.

Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the birth of Heffo's Army and the emergence of the Hill as a swaying billowing and bellowing orchestra of the times. "There was very little about it until the '70s," says Lynch. "In fact, Micheál O'Hehir, who has the track record of being the brand leader and creator of brands, with his sayings on radio, he never referred to it as the Hill or Hill 16, he referred to it as the Railway End."

It is hard to imagine that some of Ireland's GAA men did not frown at the new Hill and the brash blue spectacle with its soccer idioms. "I suppose the GAA following, while they may ape, and still do to some extent, the less attractive traits of cross-channel soccer, I don't think it was ever a particular issue," Lynch disputes. "Ninety-nine per cent of the people in the Hill were pretty good humoured. There very rarely was an incident. Even if they became rowdy it is well known the other patrons took care of it themselves."

It is a well-established relationship now, almost 40 years on. In 1995, Jason Sherlock became a Hill favourite with his scoring exploits as Dublin ended a 12-year wait for an All-Ireland. Sherlock watched their previous success in 1983 as a seven-year-old on the Hill, when they defeated Galway in a spiteful contest. As for many Dublin followers and players the experience would leave its mark.

"I went with my uncle, he was small and I was very small and we asked a big fella beside us could I go on his shoulders and I gave commentary for my uncle up at the back of the Hill. I remember thinking Pat Canavan had a stormer and I was delighted when I found out later he won man-of-the-match. I thought I'd make it as a commentator. I was there for the Dublin-Kerry finals – you could sit in front of the Hill behind the goal and I remember during the warm-up guys being taken out of it."

The Hill's belting out Boom, boom boom, let me hear you say Jayo, Jayo became a familiar soundtrack to Dublin's triumphant summer, a very public and personalised declaration of affection. The feeling was mutual. "I was only thinking back this week," says Sherlock, "when there was a lot of talk about '95, I think it was the Leinster final

maybe Brian Carthy nabbed me after the game and my first words were, 'Look at the Hill, that is what it's about'. I remember when I scored a goal for the minors at the Canal End and my first reaction was to turn to the Hill.

"I think we are all envious of Kevin McManamon, what he has done against Kerry, scoring important goals into the Hill on two different occasions."

Lest we get carried away, there are some slightly dissenting voices. "It was nice to have one specific section of the ground to yourselves and the noise was great and it did lift the team at times, but I think it was overstated," says one former Dublin All-Ireland medal winner. "People tended to look at it through blue-tinted glasses."

He also makes the point that since the advent of modern psychology the Hill is less oppressive to opposing teams and can even act as a spur. Mostly, though, it is a force for good. Bernard Brogan was ten when Dublin won the All-Ireland in 1963. But his match-going days with his father thereafter usually ended in defeat. The team could raise no momentum and the support that emerged in 1974 filled a yearning for a uniform cause. "It was the first time Dublin had an opportunity to follow a team," says Brogan. "At that time a lot of focus was on English soccer. When we got to the end of the year, my recollection is of big flags, lots of blue, an amazing sight."

When defeating Galway in 1974 the Dublin supporters sang the Liverpool football anthem You'll Never Walk Alone. From there the rivalry with Kerry stoked interest in the game to levels never previously seen, fuelled by television, and the Hill became a key part of the folklore. Micheál O'Hehir no longer called it the Railway End. Supporters milled in through the stiles where they paid in cash. In 1983, the swell of people, the wet conditions and unsafe exit routes along a grass embankment at the rear of the terrace almost led to serious injury and fatalities. The Hill was redeveloped and made safer in time for the 1988 season, and Danny Lynch, in one of his first functions as PRO, performed the official opening.

Keith Barr stood on the Hill for the 1983 All-Ireland final. "It's like a long-term marriage. Like, I was a member of Erin's Isle and PJ Buckley was left half-back that day. You dream you will be out there one day. There was a grass bank at the back and if you did not slide down you were pushed down. There was no sense of panic or feeling you were in trouble. But the new Hill today is like a five-star hotel compared to then, a five-star that's in NAMA – because it's probably the best place to stay but very cheap to get into as well!"

In Barr's playing days players came out at the junction of the Canal and Hogan Stand. "The first thing you could see was Hill 16 in front of you. And you could hear the noise of it before you entered that field. It is probably one of the reasons you played for Dublin. You are representing these people. People from every walk of life.

"It is famous for its one-liners and the crack and the fun. But everything is done in good humour. I am sure some of the best stories about Hill 16 could be given by the gardaí who were patrolling there. In fairness there hasn't been an ounce of trouble."

Barr's teenage daughter and son will be on the Hill today watching Dublin's bid to win another All-Ireland. Born in 1968, Barr can remember Heffo's team emerging and its influence on him as a child. "There was always a great fascination with them and the style they would play. These lads were the George Bests of Gaelic football, all big handsome lads. It left an impression on you."

'There used to be people up there selling chocolate out of the basket. Three bars for a pound . They were all Moore St traders, hard as nails. And there was this one in particular. She was around a while. A bit battered but she had this blonde hair, obviously dyed, very blonde or bleached and one of the lads saw her one day and he said, "Hey, there's Goldilocks and the three bars'."

In 1992, during the pre-match parade for the All-Ireland semi-final, Clare's Seamus Clancy raised his fist defiantly as players walked under the Hill. The signal was that Clare, despite being totally new to this experience, were undaunted. While recent statistics claim lower scoring averages into the Hill for opposing teams, many counties now draw on the Hill as a source of inspiration.

"I think it actually works the opposite for players playing against Dublin," says Ronan McGarrity, part of the win over Dublin in 2006 when Mayo players provocatively warmed-up at the Hill 16 end. "You see the likes of Kerry the last day, people love playing Dublin as it is one of the major sporting events of that year. It is like Leinster versus Munster in terms of Irish sport. And sure Jesus if you are not ready or up for that you are in the wrong game."

Mayo had noticed Dublin's ritual of bonding with the Hill at the time – with players linking up and marching towards the terrace. On the day they decided to spoil the ceremony by heading down to Dublin's end before they emerged from their dressing rooms. Dublin treated it as an outrage, went to their end and chaos ensued. Dublin refute claims it put them off. But they didn't score for 17 minutes and while they recovered to lead by seven they eventually lost the match.

"It certainly stirred up the crowd, I will ever forget the level of noise and the level of anger," says then Mayo selector Kieran Gallagher. "I remember thinking: 'If this goes out of control it could be very serious'. The adrenaline was flowing. To be in that cauldron where the Hill is looking down on you. I will never forget the noise, it was deafening."

McGarrity feels it threw Dublin completely. "It had them absolutely rattled. Then they started clapping to the boys on the Hill. I know the hill is the Mecca. I don't think the Dublin team you have now would be doing anything like that bullshit."

David Brady was surprised Dublin came down to join them. "They could have waited till the game started and then made their point, say, right these lads are in for a rude awakening. It was sacrilege to do what we did. But the Hill is a great part of the GAA and a great part of football."

Paddy Christie played with the Hill behind him and says it was a help in good times and bad. "But it is not going to change a bad team into a good team. I remember when we won the Leister final in 2002, we went down with the cup, it was something very special. It would not mean a lot now, but at the time Meath were completely dominant and Dublin had not won a Leinster title since 1995. We had lost three finals in a row."

The Hill will sing and shout itself hoarse again today. It will have the perfect finale in mind: those Dublin players racing towards the terrace with Sam Maguire in hand. But first, game on.

Sunday Independent

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