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Bringing it all back home to the soul of the game

IN 1995, a few hours after winning the All-Ireland, the Dublin captain John O'Leary and an accompanying delegation believed to include county chairman John Bailey, the secretary John Costello and Sam Maguire got into a taxi and drove to the north county border town of Balbriggan.

From what O'Leary can recall, it was a spontaneous gesture, made on the hoof. They sneaked in a back door of the O'Dwyer's GAA club and surprised the delighted locals. Soon, though, they were returning to the city to rejoin the rest of the celebration party.

Times change and some things stay the same. On Monday night last, O'Leary was in the nearby town of Skerries, home of the man who has relieved him of the distinction of being the last winning captain. Bryan Cullen didn't slip quietly home like his predecessor 16 years earlier. This was a carefully planned and extravagant homecoming and the whole entourage was present.

When O'Leary got his hands on Sam he was 34 and it had been 12 years since he won an All-Ireland for the first time as a younger man. People thought then that they would never suffer anything like the same emptiness but the next wait would be even longer. The famine that ended last Sunday fell only three years shy of the longest ever, the great hunger of 1923 to 1942. So when the open-top bus made its way from the old mill in Skerries, past the Cullen household and turned onto the main street through the town, the crowds were there in their thousands and suitably exultant and agape.

By coincidence, O'Leary lived in Skerries when he was captain in 1995 and he has two sons currently playing with the local Harps. One of those is part of an under 11 team which Bryan Cullen mentors. The club was keen to make the most of their link to Dublin's latest triumph and laid on a memorable reception for the victorious guests. At one point Denis Bastick clambered on top of the bus and hoisted the Sam Maguire -- his acrobatics caused a few hearts to flutter but the evening passed without any regrets or mishaps, with nothing left to chance.

Skerries is a pretty seaside fishing village with a confluence of sporting interests -- rugby, sailing, motorbike racing, cricket all have a foothold. The GAA club is over 100 years old and an important part of the demographic and Cullen now greatly embellishes its legacy and standing. He joins a lineage that goes back to the great Bobby Beggs, who won two All-Ireland medals for Galway and Dublin. They don't see as much of Cullen as they'd like to and the club is struggling to avoid relegation but those headaches are eased by a day like last Sunday when they see one of their own raise the Sam Maguire for the first time.

Among those in close attendance were the Skerries Harps club chairman Niall Murphy and PRO Fergal Lynch. With five minutes left they were looking at the prospect of an evening of relaxed socialising and some foreboding over what might have been. Then the game swung dramatically and it was, as they put it, "all action stations". It takes a lot of hard work to win an All-Ireland; it takes a lot of hard work to celebrate one too.

"At half five on Sunday evening we had Plan B, if Dublin won, so a phone call was made. We had a meeting early on Monday morning. We had to arrange marquees, the grandstand, stewards. Dublin Bus provided us with open-deck buses," says Murphy, sounding breathless still, a few days later.

Murphy is, ironically, a native of Tralee who played with Austin Stacks before moving to Skerries in 1979. He went to last Sunday's game in his Kerry shirt but wanted Dublin to win for Bryan Cullen and his own close affiliations to his adopted home. They aimed for a reception on Monday night to match the occasion and he feels they managed that.

"We got on the bus and Bernard Brogan said to Bryan, 'what are you taking me out to the sticks for?' When they went round by his house they saw four people sitting on the wall. Is this it, they probably thought? Then they turned round the corner to see all the bunting and flags and the thousands to greet them."

Skerries may appear an unusual locus for such festivity, over 20 miles from Croke Park and a peaceful idyll and escape for city dwellers. It is far removed from the old football strongholds in town. But the last two captains have been Fingal men and for many years the football in the old Fingal leagues was ferociously competitive -- fabled for its explosive rivalries. The joke doing the rounds is that if they've any sense they'll appoint the Fingallians player Paul Flynn as the next county captain and maintain the good run of fortune of talismanic Fingal men.

In the 1960s, Skerries Harps lost a championship quarter-final to the great St Vincent's team in some controversy. A Harps penalty to win the game was missed after car lights were flashed from behind the goal which distracted Noel Comerford, the kicker. On Monday night all the attending St Vincent's men were welcomed with open arms and those old wounds were forgotten.

At the monument in Skerries, near where Harry Boland was fatally wounded during the Civil War, the bus veered left towards the GAA clubhouse where the Sam Maguire was welcomed. On the pitch there were thousands of parents and their children. They had come from not just Skerries but the surrounding areas like Rush and Lusk and Balbriggan and various other north county hamlets and further afield.

The chairman said a few words. Pat Gilroy was too hoarse to speak. Cullen introduced the players to the crowd one by one and Stephen Cluxton smiled broadly as he received the loudest cheer. "The Sunday before," says Lynch, "we were out at half six or seven with 30 or 40 volunteers and we decorated the whole town. We knew the wind was coming on Sunday night and the whole thing came down. We had to come back out Tuesday and do it all again."

On Tuesday, Cullen returned to the club with the Sam Maguire for a few hours and the word spread and before long the place was heaving again. In a week's time his brother Graham, a recent county panellist, will be getting married and had the match ended in a draw then the replay would have clashed with the chosen date. They figure that Cluxton should be invited to the wedding for saving the day.

It has been an eventful and difficult year for Skerries beyond the sporting field. In April, a fishing tragedy claimed the lives of two men, a native of the town, Ronan Browne, and his companion from Rush, David Gilsenan, who were missing for eight days. A massive voluntary search effort undertaken by locals and people from towns and parishes within the wider region was recognised with a People of the Year award recently. Ten thousand people took part in a walk of solidarity in support of the search at the time. To the great relief of the bereaved families, their bodies were eventually recovered.

The GAA club drew from the same well of voluntary aid and goodwill ahead of Monday night's event. The cricket club donated the marquees, the biking club gave them support barriers, the chamber of commerce phoned to offer assistance, and so on. With everything in place, they celebrated long into the night.

"The bus was taking them all back," says the chairman, Murphy, "but Bryan stayed on. I think (Eoghan) O'Gara was left behind, was he? The (county board) vice-chairman was left behind as well. He didn't seem to be too worried. It went on till half seven in the morning."

Reflecting later, John O'Leary felt, like many others, that the chance of such a homecoming was gone. "Kerry were four up and the clock was ticking and they were very comfortable on the ball. But I think Kerry's play allowed Dublin's pressure to turn them over, that (Declan O'Sullivan) pass was like an intercepted pass in rugby. I felt Kerry's momentum or intensity had dropped off. I won't say they were showboating but maybe over-playing the ball."

In 1995, Dublin showcased 19-year-old Jason Sherlock and Keith Galvin, 20, but most of the cast was seasoned. Four were over 30, a few more nearing that mark. Most of their best football was played when they defeated Tyrone that September. In the previous three years they lost two All-Ireland finals and one semi-final. In contrast, no Dublin team had reached a final since until Gilroy's players overcame Donegal in August.

"The '83-'95 period was a bit different, we did play in four finals and two semi-finals," says O'Leary. "I just think that the 12 years were not 12 barren years, we were fairly close. The last one was much more barren. But why? There is no why? We have come up against the Tyrones and the Kerrys and Dublin haven't got to that pitch."

The chairman of the county board, Andy Kettle, another north county man and member of Fingal Ravens, was a spectator in 1995. This time he found himself in the thick of it, spending one moment in a desolate Dublin minor dressing-room after they lost to Tipperary and the next on the pitch watching the seniors take the cup to the Hill.

"I wouldn't have any fear it's going to be that long (to win an All-Ireland) again," says Kettle. "It is a long time since a Dublin team has won back to back, so it would be a huge ask on this particular team to win next year, but if any team can do it this group of lads can."

He cites last year's All-Ireland under 21 win, this year's minor run and the current promising batch of under 17s as promising indicators for the future.

"Football has evolved in that 16 years, we are not playing the same football. Perhaps we were a bit slow to catch up, particularly on the northern teams, maybe Dublin were a little bit slow in recognising where things were going.

"Winning will have a huge impact but it is a start, we have to capitalise on it. Sixteen years ago we didn't have the same structures in place, it was a different world."

Kettle was in the dressing room after the 17-point loss to Kerry, which followed a hefty defeat by Tyrone at the end of the previous championship. This, he notes, was their transitional moment. "Immediately there was a determination they were going to try a different style the following season; that that type of defeat was never going to happen again. We had a talk with Sean Fitzpatrick, the former New Zealand rugby player, earlier this year and he spoke about the All Blacks and said while they enjoyed their victories they really dissected their defeats to see what we had to do to turn them round.

"The same attitude was evident that day. It would have been led by Pat Gilroy; he is a very, very determined man. He knows what he wants. Dublin played the old style of (open) football. After that Pat started to build his own style, he was criticised for it, but had the courage of his convictions.

"This is a beginning, it is not an end. The structures will be continually looked at and improved, it is a huge shot in the arm for GAA in the county, between football and hurling. We have to build on that success. Hopefully when we have the Sam Maguire next time, he might be joined by the Liam MacCarthy."

On Wednesday night, the cup was in St Vincent's, a club which has had a renewed and growing influence on Dublin affairs. Tommy Conroy, winner of an All-Ireland medal in 1983 and part of the management team with Gilroy and Mickey Whelan that steered St Vincent's to a long overdue county title, and later an All-Ireland, admits he felt Dublin were doomed.

"I didn't see it happening if I am to be totally honest, but that group of players and management have had their fair share of knocks and that may have made the difference. I just think a lot of lessons were learned over the two years. It is a very tight-knit group of players and I think they were on a mission and nothing was going to stop then.

"I think that team could win another one within the next three or four years; it won't be easy, next year will be tough. Believe it or not I was never so nervous coming up to it. When the goal went in, where I was, genuinely the ground shook, the stadium rocked."

Afterwards he ran into Bomber Liston, and Ogie Moran's son, David, who missed the championship with a knee injury. At the Burlington later, some of the players remarked how they noticed a longer interest in the championship by odd things like the change in their training gear from summer to winter wear. They knew it was developing into something extraordinary.

Conroy also met Darragh ó Sé and was surprised that he was recognised by a player who was of the next generation.

But neither had been a player when Dublin last defeated Kerry in an All-Ireland in 1976, or in a championship match of any description, in 1977. It was, for all concerned, a momentous day.

Andy Kettle addressed the distraught Dublin minors on Sunday night, trying to find some way of lifting their spirits. Four of them had lost All-Ireland finals in both codes. How do you tell a minor about the future and life's hard knocks?

"I pointed out to them if they wanted a role model they couldn't look further than Bryan Cullen, who two years ago sat on the bench; people had him written off and he knuckled down and two years later he is All-Ireland captain."

On Monday night, Cullen came home to his people. Victorious. On top of the world. A hero.

Sunday Indo Sport