Sport Decades of the Dubs

Wednesday 18 September 2019

A harsh end leads to a new beginning: The journey from 'startled earwigs' to Hill heroes

New blood, old values and stats define Gilroy era

3 August 2009; Colm Cooper, Kerry, celebrates scoring his side's first goal past Stephen Cluxton, Dublin. GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final, Dublin v Kerry, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
3 August 2009; Colm Cooper, Kerry, celebrates scoring his side's first goal past Stephen Cluxton, Dublin. GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final, Dublin v Kerry, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Conor McKeon

The humiliation to Kerry in 2009 showed Pat Gilroy that things had to change


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"He banned all this soccer stuff of kissing the badge and running to the Hill.

"There was to be no sledging: you respected the opposition, worked hard and cleaned the dressing room when you came in – there were no servants on this team.

"It was a lousy winter that year. They started training at six in the morning out by Clontarf and the Bull Wall and there was snow on the ground.

"They worked and worked and a lot of guys left but he ended up with a core of fellas who bought into it. It was Corinthian in the maximum sense – you strive, you're honest, you don't cheat and you congratulate the other guy if he beats you."

- David Hickey, September 2015

CORDUFF in South Monaghan on a drizzly evening in November 2009.

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There, a Dublin squad still stunned by their public annihilation by Kerry three months previously unpacked it all, addressed that 'startled earwigs' defeat in raw but analytical terms and started again.

Then Dublin played Monaghan in a challenge match. Monaghan was only an hour up the road. They were spiky opposition. And they weren't in the Leinster Championship.

The visitors played a style of football that could be best described as 'rustic', replete with a low-fi version of the densely-populated defences that were springing up around the country.

Beforehand, the Dublin players were informed that the metric their performance would be measured by was their tackle count.

Afterwards, the result wasn't mentioned.

In their post-match chat before they left Corduff, management compared their individual and collective tackle numbers to the Kerry defeat and informed the squad they had increased their output significantly.

It was a start.



"If you look at any game, if a guy is on the ball for a minute in the whole game, that's a lot. It's the other 69 minutes, what's he doing for that?

"People who are going to do that work, when they're not on the ball, that's really important to us.

"If you've got 15 fellas pulling together for that 69 minutes of not being on the ball, that's a crucial part of the game."

- Pat Gilroy

RAY Boyne was one of just a handful of members of 'Pillar' Caffrey's backroom team who continued into Gilroy's when he took over in October 2008.

Before the term 'performance analyst' was ever used, Boyne had worked as a 'stats man' with Mickey Whelan with both the 2003 Dublin minor team – where Whelan was a selector – and later, the St Vincent's senior footballers which Whelan managed and with whom Gilroy played.

"The use of stats was very new to GAA around that time," he recalls. "They were the basic stuff; wides and kickouts."

There is an unlimited volume of data that can be recorded and relayed from any training session or match.

The only ones that count, Boyne explains, are the figures most relevant to your game-plan.

"Pat wanted it broken down further," he recalls. "He was more forensic.

"He wanted detailed stats for every player on the pitch, so you can analyse whether that player is performing or where they needed to improve.

"If you have 15 players and you have the metrics that you measure their performance by and you add up all those numbers, you can set targets that if they achieve them, they have a good chance to win the game.

"It was so simple. But it was completely new to me."

For Boyne, Gilroy's assembly of the support structure around the team was key to their revival.

And the most important element in that were the individuals themselves.

"Not to put too fine a point on it, but Mickey Whelan is an absolute genius," he says.

"Innovation is a casually-used word but some of  the things he came up with from a tactical and a technical point of view were genius.

"And his personality is so infectious. He had a huge impact on those players because there is a perception there that when a player comes into an inter-county setup, they've already learned all the skills.

"But between the sports science that Niall Moyna and DCU brought and the coaching that Mickey brought to it, those players underwent huge improvement from a physical and a technical point of view."

Infrastructure was another issue that required Gilroy's influence.

Under Caffrey, the team trained in St David's grounds in Artane.

Gilroy utilised his business acumen and range of contacts to engage with corporate sponsors and build the structure that became known as 'the bunker' in St Clare's in DCU's complex, off the Griffith Avenue extension.

"All of a sudden," recalls Alan Brogan, "we had our own dressing room, we had our own privacy.

"Small things  but they made a difference. We could have an ice bath. We had an area for eating. We had our own notice board that we could put stuff up and no-one would see it.

"It was our own little sanctuary down in Glasnevin that no-one else had access to."

Between the 6am training sessions designed to test each player's commitment and the slavish devotion to their new style of playing, management began to notice that the squad that had played as a group of individuals when the pressure came on, started to think more selflessly and collectively in both training sessions and matches.


3 August 2009; Barry Cahill, Dublin, celebrates after scoring a point. GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final, Dublin v Kerry, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

"What Pat was trying to achieve," says Boyne, "was to have a group of players who weren't wondering how they fitted into the team or what their own personal prospects were, but who just gave everything for him."

"We started training out in Clanna Gael in November, December, January time, between late 2010 and early '11. I would have met Pat in the Clayton Hotel before every training session nearly. Six or seven times for an hour. And he went through exactly what he wanted me to do.

"It was one-on-one communication. And with real honesty. He'd be showing you clips of training matches or other matches and giving you examples of what worked well or what he felt I could bring to it.

"There was a bit of a journey there. You had to get on board with it and it wasn't going to happen overnight. But it was all about keeping the communication lines open over a period of time. That was how he got you to buy into his vision."

– Barry Cahill

WHEN Gilroy took over in late 2008, he sought the opinions of most of the senior players in the group about how best to take the team forward.

Many had played in three All-Ireland semi-finals.

And despite how obviously outclassed they were by Tyrone in Caffrey's final game that year, most believed they were only a couple of tweaks away from winning an All-Ireland.

Initially, Gilroy was open to that idea but the Kerry defeat (2009) and the manner of it convinced him something more drastic was required.

"Pat worked really hard at the whole psychological side," says Alan Brogan. "Pat did a lot of it himself. He obviously studied it. Lads started to buy into that side of things.

"Pat has a way about him," Brogan goes on.

"You knew he was serious but he was also very fair. He knew how certain lads would react to how he went about addressing an issue or a problem.

"He could do it with a note of sarcasm, just to get his point across. There was no real fear factor there. He wasn't like a dictator. Lads knew that if there was something that they wanted to bring up with him or the group, they could at any stage. It wasn't Pat's way or the highway."

Meanwhile, players who had formed the backbone of the team under Caffrey like Ciarán Whelan, Shane Ryan, Conal Keaney and Jason Sherlock were no longer there. A raft of talented, athletic defenders from the underage ranks were brought in.

James McCarthy had pedigree but Kevin Nolan, Cian O'Sullivan and Rory O'Carroll were all fresh-faced and inexperienced.

Outwardly, it looked like they were fast-tracked into the first team but according to Barry Cahill, who had been pushed further forward, no preferential treatment was given to anyone.

"They were brought into the squad and started off on the 'B' team in these 75-minute training matches and they were marking Alan and Bernard and Diarmo and going toe-to-toe with them," says Cahill.

"Eventually, they just worked their way on to the 'A' team. They earned those spots.

"And a lot of those guys had pure athleticism as well as being out-and-out good defenders."

Other new recruits arrived through less conventional routes to the squad.

Michael Fitzsimons, Michael Darragh Macauley, Niall Corkery, Kevin McManamon and Eoghan O'Gara, footballers with rough edges, all had something different to offer and an appetite to acquire what they didn't possess.

Gilroy's team quickly took shape.

Cahill recalls one training camp in Carton House in the build-up to their All-Ireland quarter-final victory over Tyrone when both he and Alan Brogan played on the 'A' team at centre-forward; Cahill as a deep-dropping defensive outlet and Brogan as a more advanced, creative element.

Inside, Bernard Brogan's 2010 Footballer of the Year form had sustained and now, he had a more settled and tactically aware, Diarmuid Connolly for scoring assistance.

Dublin's defence was young but pacey and well marshalled from the front by Ger Brennan and behind by Stephen Cluxton.

In McManamon, they had a rocket to bring off the bench

"The big thing for me was, the quarter-final win over Tyrone and the semi-final win over Donegal would have been two completely different types of matches," says Cahill.

"We won both games completely differently. The Tyrone game, we scored 22 points, the vast majority from play. We could have scored 5-30 that night. It was all free-flowing football, kick-passing.

"Whereas the Donegal win was just a real tactical battle, where you just have to grind it out and do whatever it takes just to be ahead at the final whistle.

"It was more a test of your head.

"So," Cahill adds, "the two types of wins gave us a lot of comfort going into the final."

On the morning of September 18, 2011 the Dublin squad met in St Clare's, just a mile away from the gathering pre-All-Ireland final crowds down the Drumcondra Road.

They killed time by watching The Damned United, the screenplay based on David Peace's novel about Brian Clough's ill-fated tenure as Leeds United manager in 1974 and read the English versions of the Sunday newspapers, provided due to the fact they contained no mention of that day's All-Ireland final.

Before they boarded the bus, Gilroy presented the squad with a statistic.

It was their tackle count that drizzly November evening in Corduff on the night they began their journey.

Then he revealed the same statistic for their All-Ireland semi-final victory over Donegal.

The number was more than double. Dublin were ready.

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