Tuesday 12 December 2017

The team everyone (except Kerry) wanted to win

Dublin captain Bryan Cullen lifts the Sam Maguire cup
Dublin captain Bryan Cullen lifts the Sam Maguire cup
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

The moratorium will soon come to an end and normal service will resume.

Dublin football will find itself in a splendid state of isolation once again. One against 31. Just the way the Blue Book had advised many of these same players to be comfortable with some years ago.

It remains one of the striking features of the 2011 championship -- not that Dublin won, but that they brought so much of the country with them on their journey.

What turned so many heads? Where and when did the 'one versus 31' dynamic diminish? Why for those couple of months did Dublin, so often the pantomime villains of an Irish summer, become so many people's chosen 'second team'?

Why did so many who took guilty pleasure in watching Ciaran McDonald swing over a winner in 2006 or Sean Cavanagh barge through a hapless defence in '08 or 'Gooch' open the gates to a rout 12 months later suddenly have a crisis of conscience?

It is one of the things that Pat Gilroy finds most satisfying about what Dublin have achieved: how they have been received beyond the lights of the capital. Recently Gilroy spoke about warm receptions for him in places like Laois and Cavan, where he was last month to deliver a talk on aspects of team management.

It's one thing to be held up in a shopping centre in Swords for an hour or two a week after the All-Ireland, but when appreciation moves so far beyond the pale then you know you have achieved something special.

Some of it has its source in the manner of the dramatic finish to the final, the goalkeeper with the stoic presence of a Buckingham Palace guard casually swinging over the winning kick to complete a sensational comeback.

Some of it too was down to the heartbreaking moments that had dotted much of their landscape for the previous 16 years since their last All-Ireland title. Dublin had become losers of epic games throughout the last decade. The 2000 Leinster final replay against Kildare, Kerry in Thurles '01, Ray Cosgrove so near and yet so far in '02, the 'Fawlty Towers' script line that accompanied their submission to Armagh in '03, Tyrone over two games in '05, epics that ultimately threw up the same result.

A team can only take so much, so when it came to it -- a group of players, some of whom had five All-Ireland medals and most of whom had four, against a group with empty pockets -- the neutral was easily convinced to set aside their traditional aversion.

They had stayed the distance and earned respect, not sympathy, for that.

The knock-on effect of Dublin winning an All-Ireland title couldn't be misplaced either. With over 400 boys' schools alone in the city and county and one third of the country's population within a 20-mile radius of the city centre, the waves of the success were lapping up on even the remotest of coves.

Any card-carrying GAA member would have acknowledged the importance of that, at least on an occasional basis.

Humility

But above all, perhaps, was the manner in which the 'me' was taken out of Dublin football and how their business was conducted with a sense of humility that much of the country would not have associated with previous teams, however right or wrong that perception was.

The sometimes histrionic aggression, grandstanding and goading of opponents so rampant in the past faded as a more respectful culture of engagement took over. For Dublin that has been a discreet yet hugely significant change.

Nothing reflected that more than the emotionless reaction of James McCarthy to scoring his first ever championship goal, a wonderful solo effort to tie things up against Wexford.

A young man in his first full championship season bursting forward as he did to score such a goal was entitled to a raucous celebration. But that would not be in keeping with the creed being preached by his manager.

The "nonsense of paying tribute to the Hill and kissing the badge, all that kind of carry on", as Robbie Kelleher referred to it prior to the All-Ireland final, had been removed.

Dublin once took to Croke Park on a big match day like Mike Tyson and his entourage would enter a boxing ring. Kelleher saw things differently now.

"They just look to be very focused. They won the last day and they won against Tyrone and played so well and yet they just walked straight off the pitch. There was none of that walking down to the Hill and that sort of stuff," he said.

It was a sentiment shared by many in Dublin football and beyond. There were many strands to how Gilroy would get them to where he did, how he moulded a group not just to play like a team but to act like one too.

Personal appearances, which would have earned some members of the team a lot of money in the lead-up to the All-Ireland final, were shelved.

Gilroy's own even temperament was a key component in helping to generate this new culture, allowing it to develop within the team. The tempo and mood of his analysis to defeat didn't differ much from that of victory.

When Meath flooded them with five goals in the 2010 Leinster semi-final he didn't deviate off the path he had set for himself and the team. Even the pre-match media conferences, which could have been sacrificed in the wake of the blizzard of criticism after that game, were retained.

For Dublin to succeed, Gilroy knew he had to take them beyond the comfort zone.

In their commemorative DVD "Sam 11" the only footage aside from match days and interviews is of an early-morning training session on the beach near Clontarf, and the feeling of Siberian cold is palpable through the lens as they carved paths through the snow-covered dunes.

Sometimes, reflected Gilroy, when you are taken beyond that comfort zone a bond forms naturally and so it was for these players.

But the greatest sacrifice for some was the individual streak they had to park up. In rebuilding, Gilroy had to find players for a system, not a system for the players.

If it meant leaving a perfectly fit and well-rested Bernard Brogan on the sidelines for the first three league matches of 2011, then that risk was worth taking for longer-term benefits. If it meant whipping off Brogan in this year's Leinster final when he was off cue with so many shots, that too had to be done for the greater good of the team.

To succeed they had to become greater than the sum of their parts, and in the end they were.

Business

Think back to the week before the All-Ireland final and ask yourself how many Dublin footballers would have been good enough to make it on to the Kerry team playing a style that conforms with how Kerry like to do their business.

Stephen Cluxton definitely, Rory O'Carroll surely, Kevin Nolan probably and without doubt Bernard and Alan Brogan. Paul Flynn would have a job ousting Kieran Donaghy or Darran O'Sullivan from the frontline, taking it that Colm Cooper and Declan O'Sullivan are untouchable. Michael Darragh Macauley in place of Anthony Maher? That would take a lot of arm-twisting.

So the case could have been made for five strong candidates, possibly six. That's a ratio just below two to one, an indication of the scale of the challenge that faced Dublin on the afternoon of September 18 last.

It was the measure of Dublin that their collective will got them over the line, just as it had done against Donegal, games they probably would have lost 12 months earlier.

Pat Gilroy and Dublin achieved much in winning the All-Ireland title for the first time in 16 years. But perhaps their greatest achievement of all was taking so much of the country along with them. It may be short-lived but it will have felt sweeter nonetheless.

Irish Independent

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