Sunday 15 September 2019

A captain's tale: Coman Goggins' year of broken dreams

Claiming Leinster glory in 2002 was special but Armagh loss felt gut-wrenching

14 July 2002; Dublin's captain Coman Goggins leads his side in the pre-match parade. Dublin v Kildare, Leinster Senior Football Championship Final, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Damien Eagers / SPORTSFILE
14 July 2002; Dublin's captain Coman Goggins leads his side in the pre-match parade. Dublin v Kildare, Leinster Senior Football Championship Final, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Damien Eagers / SPORTSFILE

Coman Goggins

IF you dig out the Leinster SFC ‘Roll of Honour’ and scan across the 58 titles that Dublin have collected over the history of the competition, sandwiched between a four in-a-row run in the mid-1990s and Dublin’s recent record-breaking haul of nine consecutive Delaney Cup successes, you will see 2002 sitting as a stand-alone entry.

Perhaps it is insignificant against the backdrop of what Jim Gavin's troops are currently doing across several All-Ireland Series, but 17 years ago the celebrations that followed that 2002 glory was akin to the outpouring of emotion that swept across the Capital in 2011.

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In 2001 we had witnessed the ‘Trip to Tipp'. Two All-Ireland quarter-finals against Kerry in Thurles, that famous Maurice Fitzgerald point and a wave of emotion that under Tommy Carr's stewardship hinted that the following season might bring silverware – something that had been missing in Dublin football circles since 1995.

However, before the new season had even started, the Dubs had a Tommy at the helm but it was no longer Tommy Carr. He was removed from his position in controversial circumstances and a new era in Dublin football was about to begin as Tommy Lyons, former Offaly and All-Ireland  club-winning manager with Kilmacud Crokes, landed the top job in Dublin football.

A pre-season like no other that involved lots of laps – counter balanced with lots of other laps – probably best captured the contrasting styles of Carr and Lyons, although a new footballing philosophy of hitting our full-forward line early showed early signs of promise.

As the league drew to a halt and summer football appeared on the horizon, the championship was somewhat overshadowed by a minor issue in Saipan as Roy Keane headed home from the World Cup!

Simultaneously Tommy Lyons' new-look Dublin were gearing up for a Leinster SFC quarter-final against Wexford in Dr Cullen Park.

What made the game more interesting for me, was that Tommy had asked me to captain the team that summer. What an honour. To be asked to lead out the team was a proud day for my family, my club Ballinteer St John's and all the coaches who had helped me achieve my dream of not only playing for the Dubs but captaining them.

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1 June 2002; Coman Goggins lies injured on the ground as his team-mate Peadar Andrews, (7) and referee Brian Crowe look on, Dublin v Wexford, Bank of Ireland, Leinster Football Championship, Dr. Cullen Park, Carlow. Football. Picture credit; Damien Eagers / SPORTSFILE

It didn't take long for that dream to become a nightmare though.

Early in the first half I twisted my ankle, rupturing ligaments, and was replaced before half-time by the evergreen Paul Curran.

Things weren't going much better on the field for the team. Despite a strong opening and the game appearing to go to script, Wexford rallied after the break.

Instead of being out of sight, it took a goal-line clearance from Paul Casey at the death to keep the show on the road as we ran out two-point winners (0-15 to 1-10).

The early summer promise was under scrutiny now and I imagine as the Dubs headed back up the road, talk centred more on Ireland's hopes of progressing from the group stages of the World Cup, having earlier that day played out 1-1 draw with Cameroon, rather than any talk of All-Ireland aspirations. 

I wouldn't say morale in the camp was affected following the Wexford game, but expectations across the city were probably low as a Leinster semi-final against reigning provincial champions Meath was next up.

They were All-Ireland champions in 1999, beaten finalists in 2001 and as if that wasn't enough of a challenge, Dublin hadn't beaten them in championship since 1995.

With a three-week break I had managed to get my ankle somewhat playable, you didn't want to miss a game against Meath. These were the days that measured you as a Dublin footballer.

A million miles from the performance in Carlow, we went after Meath from the get-go and, as the full-time-whistle sounded, seven points (2-11 to 0-10) to the good, I made my way to Ciarán Whelan.

In his seventh season playing senior championship football it was his first taste of success against the Royals. I'm sure it was one of the sweetest feelings he had throughout his illustrious inter-county career. But more importantly it gave us another shot at lifting a Leinster title.

If anything was different as we prepared for a third final in as many years, it was the buzz that was starting to grip the city.

Tommy Lyons had often claimed earlier that year that the ‘swagger' was gone out of Dublin football and that he wanted to reawaken it.

As we travelled to Croke Park, blue lights flashing and sirens wailing, it was clear he had achieved his aim.

Fans in bars spilled out onto the streets, cheering as the bus passed. Cars had flags fluttering in the summer breeze and the new faces that Tommy had unleashed that summer, Alan Brogan, Barry Cahill and Johnny McNally were knitting into a team that had the city hopping.

I can't honestly put into words what it feels like to run out onto the hallowed turf of Croke Park on match-day.

The noise, the colour, it's hair standing up on the back of your neck, it's goosebumps, it's a butterfly farm in your stomach, it's a moment in time you wish you could freeze, step out of it and just watch it.

That particular day I also experienced leading the team around in the parade. I don't have much by way or memorabilia from my playing days but a picture of that walk is something that I did keep.

Tommy Lyons had asked us to focus on the Dublin crest on the back of the guy in front of you, I guess in an effort to drown out the noise and occasion.

At the top of the line I'm not sure what I focused on, but looking down the line you can see a clear intent for what was to come.

There is a saying that ‘revenge is a dish best served cold' and with Kildare as our provincial decider opponents that was certainly the case. 

Two years previously in my debut season in 2000 they hit us with two goals in as many minutes at the start of the second-half to scupper our chances of Leinster glory.

Leading by 2-8 to 0-12 midway through the second-half, it looked like Kildare would again prove to be our nemesis, but in a case of history flipping, Ray Cosgrove and Alan Brogan hit two goals within a minute to send us four points clear.

From time initially racing away from us it now appeared that the clock was stuck.

Minute after minute seemed like an eternity until finally the whistle sounded. Over 78,000 supporters, a record attendance at the time for a Leinster final had been enthralled. Half went away deflated, but the other half celebrated wildly and I gladly joined in.

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14 July 2002; Dublin captain Coman Goggins lifts the cup after victory over Kildare. Dublin v Kildare, Leinster Senior Football Championship Final, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

I left Croke Park with the Delaney Cup and headed towards the Five Lamps where a lift waited for a trip to meet the Ballinteer St John's crew who generally set up fort in the Seán O'Casey pub (now Pipers Corner) on Marlborough Street for match days.

Before we got to the car a young lad from the local flats complex approached us and asked what the cup was for. I told him it was for winning the Leinster championship, he paused before asking "Soccer or Gaelic”?

Long before Bryan Cullen's "See yiz in Coppers” we had already found it a safe haven for celebrating.

Leaving Coppers on that Monday morning a brother of mine noticed that the front of the Irish Independent carried a photo of me lifting the Delaney Cup in the Hogan Stand.

He ripped open the bundle of papers outside some shop but no sooner had he done that than a passing Garda car collared him for his exploits.

"I'm sorry”, the brother exclaimed, "but it's not every day he is (pointing at me) on the front of the paper!”

The couple of days that followed were truly memorable and even included a trip around Ballinteer on an open top bus!

Well not quite. It was a Hiace van that in today's world would have failed a health safety check in looks alone.

It was like a mix of scenes from Father Ted and the D'Unbelievables as myself and my club-mates, Johnny McNally and the late Tom Mulligan stood mortified on the back of the van, horn blaring as we weaved through the estates of the parish.

What was one of the funniest nights of my life is, unfortunately, also coupled with massive sadness when I think of Tom.

A player of immense ability who had transferred to Ballinteer from his childhood club of Good Counsel, he was a real natural talent of whom Dublin supporters, unfortunately, never got to see the best.

His contribution to the club was unquestionable, helping us reach a Dublin SFC semi-final in 2003. His death in 2007 shocked club and county colleagues alike but his imposing presence on the back of the van from that night is forever etched in my memory.

With an All-Ireland quarter-final next up, the exploits of our partying needed to be washed out, and washed out they were through Tommy's favourite training method of a gallop around Leopardstown racecourse.

He liked to call it "truth serum”.

From the bottom of the final straight on the racecourse up the hill and around the corner, they were runs that tested every part of your being.

Some players got sick, some dropped with cramp but I imagine most of us avoided Leopardstown for race meetings for many years afterwards, unable to come to terms with the trauma it had heaped upon us!

We probably went into our All-Ireland quarter-final meeting with Donegal as favourites, but before a ball was kicked it emerged that Tommy Lyons had been admitted to hospital and would not be in attendance for the match.

Paul ‘Pillar' Caffrey, one of Tommy's selectors would don the ‘Bainisteoir' bib for a contest that was level on the scoreboard nine times across the 70 minutes.

Personally the drawn game was a tough day for me. Adrian Sweeney, my direct opponent, was on top of his game and in the last couple of minutes his two points salvaged a draw for Donegal.

They were delighted to have come back from the brink and by all accounts celebrated that comeback with gusto that night.

We, on the other hand, felt we had missed an opportunity and before we departed Croke Park were adamant that we would grab the chance the second day out.

It might have been these differing attitudes that contributed to it, but when the replay came around we controlled the game from start to finish running out 10-point winners (1-14 to 0-7).

With Tommy back on the line I'm sure he claimed it was his presence that made the difference – either way we were in an All-Ireland semi-final for the first time in seven years facing into a mouth-watering challenge of meeting Ulster champions Armagh.

Often in the sporting world the term ‘cauldron' is used to describe an environment, well, when Armagh came into town that is exactly what it felt like.

The noise that day was off the scale.

It was next to impossible to hear instructions from Stephen Cluxton. His booming voice would generally help direct you as to the movements of the inside forwards, something Armagh's Stevie McDonnell was adept at.

That day it was certainly each man for himself as the intense noise from the stands washed down onto the field. Having secured a couple of Ulster titles in the previous three years, Armagh were a battle-hardened team who were arguably a little further down the road in terms of strength and conditioning then Dublin were.

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1 September 2002; Stephen McDonnell, Armagh, is tackled by Coman Goggins. Dublin v Armagh, All Ireland Football Semi - Final, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Pat Murphy / SPORTSFILE

That said, when the ball was thrown in the contest was evenly-matched and had we nailed a couple more of the scoring opportunities we created in the opening half, we might just have planted some doubt in the mind of Joe Kernan's men.

Late in the game Armagh managed to get their noses in front but with one last play we engineered a free. 

Ray Cosgrove who had the summer of all summers in front of goal took on the shot. Our chances of grabbing a replay rested on one kick.

With time standing still the ball looped through the air curling inwards with every rotation. Despite willing for one extra turn, the ball struck the upright and dropped into the grateful arms of Kieran McGeeney.

The whistle sounded and it was devastation.

Despite being surrounded by almost 80,000 people it's amazing how alone you can feel, thinking instantly about the tiny margins that might have influenced the game. 

It might be an over exaggeration, but when you get knocked out of the championship it is like a death in the family.

The routine, training, gym, mental preparation ends and you suddenly find yourself frozen in time, grieving a lost chance, a broken dream as the world moves on.

Ultimately, yes, it's only sport, but at that time in your life it is the be all and end all.

Time is certainly a great healer and, as history reflects, 2002 is now but a date on a roll of honour.

But when you consider how a period of dominance in the 1990s led to what at the time was referred to as a famine, the success of that year will always be viewed as a significant achievement in a time boasting a very different landscape.

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