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Something is bugging Pillar as his team basks in a nation's love


Jason Sherlock is airborne as he attempts to get past Donal O'Donoghue of Westmeath during the All-Ireland quarter-final at Croke Park on Saturday. ,6 DAMIEN EAGERS / SPORTSFILE

Jason Sherlock is airborne as he attempts to get past Donal O'Donoghue of Westmeath during the All-Ireland quarter-final at Croke Park on Saturday. ,6 DAMIEN EAGERS / SPORTSFILE

Jason Sherlock is airborne as he attempts to get past Donal O'Donoghue of Westmeath during the All-Ireland quarter-final at Croke Park on Saturday. ,6 DAMIEN EAGERS / SPORTSFILE

PAUL CAFFREY'S gaze fell on the media scrum like a landlady spotting a carpet-stain.

Something was tugging at his patience. Light, ingratiating questions were all but met with searchlights and klaxons.

It was an odd business down in the dressing-room tunnel on Saturday. Gloomy and adversarial. The winning manager looked like someone in charge of a crumbling plutonium depot. The media squawked and flapped around him like nervy magpies by a market stall.

And, outside, the city rattled with party noises, as if on some parallel planet.

So what's bugging 'Pillar'? Why so little sun in his world? There is an energy building around his team right now that is universally positive. After a heavy-legged opening in Longford, they have won their last three championship outings by a startling average of 11 points. They arrive into the last four looking in rude health.

So why all this lantern-jawed solemnity?

Mobilising a few clichés should be the easy bit of this gig. Dipping into the realm of grace. There's a nonsense recycled about Dublin football that 31 counties always want to see them lose. That they're some kind of lonely, islanded presence in the GAA.

Here's the truth about the Dubs. No one hates them. Actually, most people in the GAA want to believe in them because most people want to believe in glamour.

A championship with Dublin involved always feels more epic than one without. If you imagine that every neutral in the game was willing Westmeath to an All-Ireland semi-final last Saturday, you don't know football.

Dublin lift the profile of championship in a way that There's a madness never far

from the surface with Dublin.

It's called human nature. The

bigger the throng, the higher

the percentage of fools

spray-paints the senses. They super-size it. The Hill becomes a magnet to the eye. A solemn wall of city blue, the eternal plinth from which Dublin teams seek propulsion.

It's not a business of them-and-us, culchie and jack. It never was. There were kids across rural Ireland carried further by the waves of Kevin Heffernan's Dublin in the 1970s than they've ever been by the ripples of their own county football team. I know. I was one of them.

The siege mentality is an effective dressing-room tool, nothing more, nothing less. It is also, invariably, the recycling of a lie.

Probably a good deal more than half the GAA community would love to see Dublin win this All-Ireland. That is not an exaggeration.

In some respects, they become less a team than a trademark when the wins accumulate. They become Boys-in-Blue-Inc. They become a story transported to strange places.

Television chat-shows discover the GAA through the blue hue of Dublin. People who couldn't differentiate between Barney and Bundoran Rock come over all giddy at the prospect of a seat in the cathedral. Dublin bring Broadway to the bullpen. It's a good thing.

Over the coming weeks, Caffrey's team may or may not justify All-Ireland odds that are now tightening like an old Sumo's arteries. But what they will bring is at least one more day of wonder. At least one more day when you get the sense of a whole city gone giddy, every slab of the place tingling with awareness.

It's impossible to judge how good they are. Only one of their players (Jason Sherlock) knows what it feels like to win an All-Ireland.

The 'experts' reckon that their full-back line is susceptible to air-raids. On Saturday, they scored just 0-5 in the second-half against palpably resigned opposition. They've yet to face down a juggernaut.

We can but guess what will happen when they do.

And, in the meantime, you can't help wonder about their little rituals. The stage-managed stroll towards the Hill before games. This hand on shoulder thing, moving like pall-bearers towards a church. The endless arm-linking of the preliminaries, for the parade, the anthem, like tremulous You're a Star wannabes, waiting for the verdict.

This is showbiz. It's gallery stuff. A kind of ostentatious group hug, presumably done as an expression of unity.

All fine and dandy, of course. Nothing wrong with trying to broadcast the strength of covenant between you. But it smacks of amateur psychology too. An announcement of difference that seems at best superfluous, at worst affectation.

Win and none of this matters. Lose and it becomes a symbol of silly vanity.

On Saturday, Westmeath tried to counter Dublin's soldiers-going-to-the-front impersonation by gathering for a 30-man huddle just as Brian Crowe was ready to open business more than 10 minutes after the appointed start time. Was this a tactic inspired by the Australian rugby team's recent response to the Haka?

If so, it had all the impact of a dinghy crossing the path of an ocean-liner.

Dublin were five points up inside 16 minutes, slipping regally into the distance. Their football was just packed with too much gun-powder for Westmeath. They looked bigger, faster, hungrier.

Before 'Mossy' Quinn sublimely finished their goal, he had already been thwarted heroically by Gary Connaughton after the entire Westmeath back-line did a passable impression of Stonehenge. Dublin had too much everywhere. They were running on light feet.

Sherlock and Alan Brogan offered targets of perpetual motion, the Dublin attack rotating at a rate that had their markers dizzy. Ciaran Whelan and Shane Ryan strolled around midfield, brandishing the deeds of the place like buyers who had made an easy kill. The backs were stoic and impenetrable.

By half-time, the game had been bled of all competitive aggression. Dublin resumed with a blithe Brogan point, then went 20 minutes without scoring. It told us little. By now, they had nothing to measure themselves against. Westmeath could have been outside, sitting on the bus.

Perhaps Caffrey's mood was shaped by the closing tardiness. The spilling of 16 wides. The sense of a team allowing its focus soften and, thereby, a performance to curdle. Sullenness is certainly not his natural state.

As a garda, he understands the distinction between life's heartbreaks and disappointments. He exists in the real world.

Dublin's stomachs may be beginning to tighten as they close in on Sam, but 'Pillar' has been around long enough to know that the chase only becomes a tyranny if you let it. Maybe hype is at the core of it. And, God knows, hype has been the curse of so many Dublin teams in history that a manager could be forgiven for transporting his team about in hermetically-sealed capsules.

The supposed 'crime' of his predecessor, Tommy Lyons, was to embrace the commotion that accompanied Dublin's Leinster title win in 2002.

Two years later, the end of Lyons's reign was framed in that wretched photograph of him walking towards the tunnel after losing to Westmeath, abuse and spittle raining down from above. Remember the face of the 'supporter', leaning across the rail? And the face of the child whose hand he held?


That's a madness never far from the surface with Dublin. It's called human nature. The bigger the throng, the higher the percentage of fools.

Just now, Dublin may be generating more noise than Caffrey is comfortable with. They have a serious team, but maybe no more serious than the other four left in the championship.

Cullen isn't the new Moran; Whelan isn't a modern-day Mullins (the big St Vincents man had won three All-Irelands by the age of 22); Brogan isn't Hanahoe; 'Mossy' isn't the new Keaveney.

They are who they are. Fine men and fine footballers, edging closer to a prize that could make a city burst its moorings. A prize more people than they probably realise would like them to win.

If they fail, it won't be because of a gaping media or the antipathy of 'culchies'. It will be because the championship invariably hunts down the best team. And the best team isn't constructed to any set, inviolable formulae.

That's the beauty of the chase. It's not science. It's a people thing.

With or without hype.