In Part Two of our '39 Steps to Greatness' series, Independent.ie retraces the road that transported Dublin to a territory previously untouched by human footprint
Jim Gavin reimagined the football landscape in shades as blue as a cerulean sky.
It was a decade-long journey from Pat Gilroy's famous 'Startled Earwigs' comment of 2009 to the 2019 five-in-a-row invincibles.
1: Dublin’s aurora borealis, the entrancing blue-light show that bedazzled last September’s cosmos, was improbably born, a decade earlier, in Croke Park’s moist garden crevices, the city’s footballers resembling spooked insects.
2: "I think the big factor was that we seemed to be like startled earwigs." - Pat Gilroy, August 3, 2009.
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3: Dublin football was hollowed out that Bank Holiday afternoon 11 years ago, a veiled, hopeless black Monday.
4: Colm Cooper matched Dublin’s miserable 1-7 tally. By the end of an excruciating mismatch, Kerry were 17 points clear.
5: The pattern of stillborn summers was burned deep into the Hill 16 marrow. The previous year, in the last wheeze of the Pillar Caffrey era, Dublin had lost by 12 to Tyrone. In 2010, they would concede five goals to Meath.
6: They had, serious underlying health conditions: a brittle core, and an asthmatic tendency to collapse at rarefied altitude.
7: Dublin then v Dublin now: Ciarán Whelan, for so long the city's pilot light, lit up Croke Park with his freakish athleticism for all of 14 summers. He never played in an All-Ireland final. In the 28 years from 1983's 12 Apostles to 2011, Sam Maguire bathed in Anna Livia's waters for just 12 months after the summer of Jayo. One All-Ireland in 28 years.
8: Gilroy - declared the city Caesar on October 10, 2008 - was the father of the reawakening.
9: A sub on the 1995 All-Ireland-winning team, a St Vincent’s blue blood, MD of a major company while still in his 30s, shortlisted for the GAA director-general job, Gilroy’s blessing by Kevin Heffernan was a critical factor in being preferred to Jim Gavin as Caffrey’s successor.
10: The showboating, shoulder-to-shoulder pre-match parade to Hill 16 was outlawed. Flash gave way to industry, celebrity to selflessness. Dublin’s philosophy would match their blue-collar uniform.
11: Bernard Brogan felt the buffeting winds of revolution – the Gilroy Gale. Neither his heavyweight profile, nor prolific past, would provide a firewall against radical change.
12: Brogan said: "I put a huge amount (of what Dublin achieved) down to Pat, and in 2010, the emphasis he put on me changing my game. "I thought it was easy being a full-forward; that you can swan around and kick scores. I’d been doing that for years and getting away with it for years.
"He showed us what type of a Dublin team he wanted to play and what type of a Dublin team he wanted to build.
"Pat used to pull me up in training for not working and for swanning about the place.
"The pressure he put on me was hard at the time but it really helped me as a player.
"If I wanted to play in the team, this is what I had to do."
13: Transformation was hardly seamless. Teething problems were evident in those losses to Kerry and Meath, but the shift in attitude and ethic laid deep bedrock foundations from which a skyscraping decade towered.
14: A back-door qualifier route took Dublin to a 2010 semi-final against Cork. Brogan delivered a performance for the ages, sufficient for him to be the All-Star Footballer of the Year without playing in the All-Ireland final, but once more the team froze in sight of glory. Four points up with 17 minutes remaining, the Leinster side contrived to lose by one.
15: One more crushing setback, but tangible progress, too. Victory over Tyrone was the group’s first high summer A-list scalp. Michael Darragh Macauley enjoyed a sparkling freshman year, Philly McMahon showcased his credentials, Eoghan O’Gara’s three goals emphasised a growing predatory threat.
16: By 2011, Dublin were ready. Impressive rookie James McCarthy’s goal broke Wexford in the Leinster Final (the first of a provincial nine-in-a-row and counting).
17: Diarmuid Connolly, elegant high-wire dancer one moment, unerring AK-47 the next, a Marino clipper with the wind at his sails, unveiled the full jaw-dropping repertoire of his game-changing artistry in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Tyrone were left light-headed by his seven dizzying flourishes.
18: In the semi-final, the requirement was to win ugly, to break down the Great Wall of McGuinness. Brick by brick, they found a way to dismantle the most grotesque barrier Croke Park had known.
On a day when Manchester United (8-2 winners over Arsenal) outscored the ultra-conservative Ulstermen, when the Sky Blue starting forwards were held to just a single point from play and with Stephen Cluxton their leading scorer, Dublin survived an 0-8 to 0-6 eyesore.
19: Now it is September 18, 2011. Dublin’s first final in 16 years. In the opposite corner, their 2009 nemesis Kerry.
Four down with seven minutes to play, Kevin McManamon’s goal triggers a wild, euphoric magma eruption, makes a compelling case for twinning Hill 16; Cluxton completes the tectonic shift, his nerveless injury-time free releasing the lava of deliverance and settling one of the most vital contests staged at Croke Park.
20: The startled earwigs had morphed, in 25 months, into dazzling fireflies. Nine of those who featured on that wretched afternoon against the Kingdom two years earlier started the 2011 final. Kerry would not beat Dublin for the rest of the Championship decade.
21: When Dublin, their impressive late charge for salvation only foiled by David Clarke’s miraculous save from Brogan, fell to Mayo in the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final, Gilroy stepped aside.
22: Few could have known that for all he had achieved, Gilroy was a sporting John the Baptist. Next would come a breviary-carrying, baseball-capped sideline deity.
23: Jim Gavin had been in San Antonio piloting the government jet when he learned Gilroy had beaten him to the mountain top in 2008. But his glittering body of under-age work – U-21 All-Irelands in 2012, 2010 and 2003 – now made an unanswerable case for his promotion.
24: Gavin had been a selfless foot-soldier in 1995. A forward whose primary job was often defensive, negating the attacking threat of marauding wing-backs like Meath’s Graham Geraghty and Cork’s Ciarán O’Sullivan.
25: Shaped by his military background – the Clondalkin teenager who joined the 67th Cadet Class in 1990, rose to Air Corps chief flying instructor, was chief of military aviation on a 12,000-strong UN mission to Chad – Gavin was systematic, a deep-thinker. A commander for whom putting the needs of the mission ahead of any individual was deeply ingrained.
And yet the thunderclap of his advance down the September Road – a march that delivered six All-Irelands in seven seasons, the five-in-a-row Holy Grail, a single Championship loss in his 2,611 days in office and the Freedom of The City – came largely from giving players their head.
26: “The military teaches you that you gain control by giving it away. Which is another way of saying you empower people.
“As a platoon commander on the battlefield, you can’t control every section of the platoon, every rifle of the platoon. They need to make a choice on the field of play,” he said.
“Myself and the management team are serving the players. We’re enabling them to be their very best. We embrace diversity, we want guys to be different, to think differently.
“We see that as a strength rather than the perception that everyone needs to be robots. That’s the last thing we want.”
27: In 2013, Gavin favoured blitzkrieg. A scorched-earth policy that yielded the NFL, a Leinster title, where games were won by a 13-point average, an epic semi-final joust with Kerry and, in what would become a recurring pattern, a dramatic All-Ireland final victory over Mayo.
Jack McCaffrey was a whirring speed-of-light blur; Paul Mannion and Ciarán Kilkenny restocked the attack with the certainty of youth. The Duracell Bunny sued Macauley for impersonation.
28: In the duel in the sun with Kerry, Dublin touched a moment that will shine like gold. One that yielded another critical
McManamon goal, a predatory Brogan masterclass, Macauley at his powerhouse best.
Cian O’Sullivan extinguished what had been a gorgeous first-half Gooch flame, and Connolly touching the heavens. It might well be the most compelling game of Gaelic football ever played.
29: A terrible bruising of the spirit would follow in 2014. Dublin, free-flowing, luminous, as expressive as any laureate, averaged almost 30 points per game in blowing the best of Leinster and then Monaghan out of the water.
30: Then, came their Béal na Bláth moment. Like Michael Collins, 92 years earlier, the Dubs stumbled into an ambush. Connolly and Paul Flynn started the All-Ireland semi-final in swashbuckling musketeer costume, their rapier thrusts delivered from outrageous angles and distances.
Then, a Donegal stirring of the blood. Racing into an underpopulated canyon at the heart of the champions’ defence, Ryan McHugh led a brilliantly-conceived ransacking. Dublin’s boys of summer fell for the only time in the Gavin era.
31: It would, in hindsight, emerge as the birthplace for the five years of ascendancy that would follow. Gavin’s tactical modifications – an extra security detail at the gatehouse, Cian O’Sullivan an all-seeing, sweeping Red Adair, Jonny Cooper’s influence growing, a more pragmatic, possession-based attacking strategy – created a force that could withstand any cannonade.
32: Brian Fenton, playing his first summer of chess in 2015, was already a grandmaster. Dean Rock added NASA engineer precision. A 17-goal meteor storm (five of them in an epic 140-minute semi-final joust with Mayo) propelled Dublin to another final with Kerry. On a biblical afternoon, only Noah’s Ark could have saved the Kingdom from going under. It never arrived.
33: Alan Brogan, in his last appearance before taking his seat in the old town’s Hall of Fame, delivered a perfect grace note. A lyrical last flourish, the point that put Kerry to sleep, one last drawing down of a talent that blazed so beautifully across the years.
34: Now the flurry of pictures from the highlight reel fuse and merge: 2016 – O’Gara and Connolly’s mighty dagger-thrust floor Kerry in semi-final injury-time; Cormac Costello (below) is sprung from the bench in the All-Ireland final replay, his three-card trick confounding Mayo.
35: 2017: King Con reimagines Croker as his Empire State Building. O’Callaghan, the Dalkey sun king, blinding Tyrone and Mayo with the rays of his conviction; Rock keeping his cool under the sniper fire of Lee Keegan’s GPS to point the winner.
2018: Brian Fenton gliding into territory untouched even by Brian Mullins; Brian Howard – another coltish thoroughbred emerging from the stables of Raheny’s football Coolmore; Mannion and Niall Scully indefatigable; a Super 8 romp in Omagh acting as an All-Ireland preview, Tyrone mastered on both dates.
36: Onward toward 2019 pandemonium. The hype is unceasing, momentous: a team gunning for the most extraordinary moment in the history of their sport – The Drive for Five. Gavin, seeking to boldly go where no man had ever gone before.
37: Dublin drove a hybrid vehicle – one alternately fuelled by wolverine hunger, Buddhist calm and high-octane scoring barrages – to wonderland.
An 11-minute third-quarter avalanche of sustained ferocity, did for Mayo in the semi-final; brought to the edge of ruin by Killian Spillane’s goal, a tutorial in unflappable, 14-man crisis management yielded Dean Rock’s equaliser in the drawn final.
38: On a night like no other, the angelic Eoin Murchan ran and ran and ran, finally firing the magic bullet that punched a hole in football’s ozone. Cluxton, his relentless ambition yielding a footballer of the year gong at 37 years, a GAA pioneer, speared the sky with Sam for a fifth straight summer.
39: Gavin tearfully embraced his father, Jimmy. Fulfilment and joy and love etched into their features. And heaven was a Sky Blue playground.
Next week: The Sunday World and Independent.ie place under the microscope the 39 steps that enabled Liverpool to emerge again from under an Alex Ferguson-shaped shadow to the brilliant sunshine of the Jurgen Klopp era.