Monday 23 September 2019

Blue Wave Begins: A new decade brings unprecedented success

Jim Gavin’s evolution secured All-Ireland success in 2013 while laying foundations for future dominance

22 September 2013; Dublin's Diarmuid Connolly, left, and Jack McCaffrey celebrate with the Sam Maguire cup following their side's victory. GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final, Dublin v Mayo, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
22 September 2013; Dublin's Diarmuid Connolly, left, and Jack McCaffrey celebrate with the Sam Maguire cup following their side's victory. GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final, Dublin v Mayo, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Seán Potts

IF "progress is impossible without change," then it is equally impossible without mistakes.

IF "progress is impossible without change," then it is equally impossible without mistakes.

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On June 27, 2010, after a decent league campaign that saw them squeezed out of a place in the final by Cork, Dublin were torn asunder by a five-goal Meath blitz (5-9 to 0-13) in the Leinster semi-final.

While it was their first provincial defeat in six years, it was a championship set-back on a par with the 'startled earwigs' debacle of 2009. The knives, this time however, were out and whetted.

New managers will always get a period of grace, albeit a short one in Dublin. Over the winter of 2009/2010, the Kerry defeat had been seen as providing a chance for Pat Gilroy to draw a line in the sand. Green shoots were visible during the league and there was talk of serious ultimatums at training with established players being shaken out of their comfort zones.

Dublin stars had called time on the blue jersey, never an easy transition. Now Gilroy himself was staring down the barrel; his two-year term and potential legacy would be determined by a trip through the back door with serious question marks being raised over the team's defence.

But to continue George Bernard Shaw's maxim: "Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything"  . . . if there was resistance to the new manager's strategic approach to football, particularly in defence, then the Meath game gave him the ammunition he needed to hammer home the message that he and Mickey Whelan were trying to preach.

For the next outing in the qualifiers against Tipperary the senior quartet of Bryan Cullen, Barry Cahill, Mossy Quinn and Conal Keaney were all dropped. Alan Brogan, by his own admission, was lucky to escape the chop but he recounts how players were either going to toe the line or be banished to the fringes.

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"They were big figures in Dublin football at the time and dropping them could have gone either way for that management team if we hadn't salvaged something from the season," said Brogan.

"We were, under strict orders, to keep six men at the back at all times. Never again would we concede goals so easily or frequently. From then until 2011, our half-backs never really attacked. Our full-backs stayed put. Six at the back. Always," added Brogan.

Brogan admits that the new defensive approach made the team immediately more competitive even though Dublin weren't pulling up trees with wins against Tipp and Armagh.

However, the mood changed with victory over Tyrone in the quarter-final.

While Mickey Harte's side may have been diminishing, the memory of the apocalyptic night two years previously was still raw. More significantly, it had been 15 years since Dublin had defeated a really top county – an All-Ireland contender – in championship football.

Nine points from Bernard Brogan and Eoghan O'Gara's clinching goal late in the game reignited the burning desire for success in the county while quietly affirming the management's desired approach.

Defeat to the subsequent All-Ireland champions Cork in the semi-final may be seen retrospectively either as the one that got away or a really critical learning experience in the process of building an All-Ireland winning side.

Dublin controlled the game with Bernard Brogan leading the charge. They conceded Cork's kickouts and instead built a blue wall which was impregnable for three quarters of the contest.

However, Dublin's intensity took its toll and a lapse in concentration opened the door for their experienced opponents when Donncha O'Connor fired home a penalty in the 53rd minute.

Fatigue, slow changes, inexperience, bad luck, over reliance on Bernard's scores ... were probably some of the contributory factors but the loss somewhat overshadowed the real emergence of Dublin's new selfless servants – Philly McMahon, Cian O'Sullivan, Paul Flynn, Rory O'Carroll, Michael Fitzsimons, Michael Darragh Macauley.

Bernard Brogan's announcement as Footballer of the Year in 2010 was richly deserved given his sparkling displays, particularly at the business end of the season. Brogan's award and Dublin's late blooming was also testimony to Gilroy and his management team's successful turnaround in the mindset of the Dublin camp. The first hurdle had been scaled.

When the Rebels overturned a seven-point Dublin lead midway through the second half to win the 2011 league final the following spring, however, it felt like déjà vú all over again. The defeat prompted one particularly offensive headline "Different circus, same old clowns."

During the relatively barren years of the late nineties and noughties, Dublin's most ardent critics appeared to derive a certain amount of pleasure from the county's misfortunes. Dublin footballers, for them, were seen as flaky, always apparently let down by excessive self-confidence or a lack of leadership.

Dublin blew the league final because of a series of missed chances, the loss of Bernard Brogan to a hamstring injury 20 minutes from time and, once again, a lack of composure in the final quarter.

There were still incremental signs of progress, however. No goal chances were coughed up, Diarmuid Connolly was back in the mix and Kevin McManamon showed real incisive form, kicking five points from play. Stephen Cluxton was playing an increasingly creative role in Dublin's game-plan.

Improvement looked even less than incremental when Gilroy's men stuttered to a narrow Leinster final victory over Wexford as Bernard Brogan suffered a rare off day but that stern examination by Jason Ryan's side was to prove hugely beneficial to a Dublin team still building towards the ultimate goal.

If scoring proved difficult against Wexford, Dublin blew Tyrone away with a wonderful display of power football, hitting 19 points from play, Connolly contributing seven of them. For the first time since the handbrake was pulled after the Meath match, Dublin looked like champions.

Their performance never relented and Cluxton's continued contribution from long-range dead balls added another dimension to their strike-rate while Ger Brennan's steely presence, leadership and communication was pivotal to the defensive shape.

The 2011 semi-final clash with Donegal has become the stuff of infamy or legend, depending on your perspective. Truth is we wouldn't be as shocked by it today.

If Gilroy was implementing a culture change in Dublin football, Jimmy McGuinness was overseeing a seismic shift with Donegal. His radical defensive plan, which hadn't been revealed to its full extent before the semi-final, saw the whole team retreat to close off space. It proved incredibly effective, stymieing creative attack.

Dublin had prepared for the traffic by playing 18 against 15 in training but they were close to being panicked by suffocating defence before McManamon levelled the game at 0-6 apiece with Dublin's first point from play in the 60th minute.

Connolly's unjust red card compounded their frustration but Cullen's great point two minutes later really turned the tide, with gaps starting to appear in the Donegal rampart for the first time.

It was an intriguing contest, one that shook football's landscape to the core and damaged the purists irreparably.

Donegal would go on to add the effective attacking dimension to their game in due course. For Dublin it was a character-building escape and a ticket to a final showdown for the first time in 16 years. The old enemy were up next.

The 2011 decider with Kerry is so well etched in Dublin minds that a detailed account is almost superfluous ... almost. Brennan's tackle on Declan O'Sullivan, Cian O'Sullivan's interception and quick free to Alan Brogan, Brogan's beautiful pass to McManamon and the latter's lethal finish along the ground to rattle Kerry's hitherto dominance, Brennan's retaliation on Kieran Donaghy, the hopped ball, Eamon Fennell's flick down to Alan Brogan, McManamon, Cullen, Macauley combine to feed Connolly who had the strength of a lion to hold the ball up before finding McMamanon on the run. Cluxton's fearless winner in the most dramatic of circumstances.

Cluxton is, arguably the greatest player of the decade and, quite possibly, the most influential footballer of all time.

Yet for the tortured Dublin faithful, under darkened September skies, the outcome for what seemed like an eternity in the second half looked ominously bleak. We had lost two hurling All-Ireland finals (minor and U21) in the preceding weeks (both against Galway), the mercurial minor footballers had fallen to a Tipp sucker punch earlier in the afternoon, Gooch, the Kerry captain, was elusively brilliant and appeared destined to lead his team up the steps of the Hogan Stand.

He should have had a free to put them five up – but didn't get it – which many Kerry people, conspiratorially, speak about as much as we do about Jack O'Shea picking the ball clean off the ground in front of the ref (Paddy Kavanagh, Meath) in the 1985 final.

The joke bet was Dublin to lose all four finals. Jaysus, with seven minutes to go it looked like it until the whirlwind turnaround. Tears, ecstasy, songs, drink and months of a near evil cradling of the precious trophy, a beautifully captured moment when Tomás Ó Sé handed the match ball to Cluxton; Cullen's invocation of the faithful to gather in Coppers.

Tomas Cluxton.JPG
18 September 2011; Tomas O Se, Kerry, offers the match ball to Stephen Cluxton, Dublin. GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final, Kerry v Dublin, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Daire Brennan / SPORTSFILE

Of the 20 players who played in that 5-9 to 0-13 hammering by the Royals in 2010, 15 of them played an active part in the All-Ireland final success. It was an extraordinary achievement by Gilroy, his management and players.

That we came up short against a rising force in Mayo the following year wasn't totally surprising given the outpouring after 16 years in the doldrums, but it was sad to see Gilroy depart after a defeat given how he had contributed so much to changing the mindset in the county.

It was also the first in a series of titanic battles with the Connacht men which was to mark football in the decade.

Fortunately, that semi-final loss was really only the end of the beginning as the birth of a golden era in Dublin football had taken place.

With Dessie Farrell and Jim Gavin moulding the next generation of players so effectively, the latter's appointment for the 2013 season looked like a seamless step in the succession process.

And it's worth reiterating at this juncture just how important these three figures are in the development of Dublin football, regardless of the tedious noise about unfair advantages. Without quality developmental coaches and managers in it for the right reason and possessing the right acumen, you can have all the advantages you like, but you will not achieve the ultimate goal.

If things had been somewhat erratic in 2012 Gavin wasn't long steadying the ship and a narrow victory over Tyrone in the 2013 league final reset the course for the championship. One of Gavin's underage stars, Jonny Cooper, would flourish under the new senior manager, quickly becoming a lynchpin in the Dublin set-up.

No goals were conceded this time in the Leinster final clash with Meath as Dublin progressed comfortably before avenging previous setbacks to Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-final, Jack McCaffrey finishing a spectacular solo effort to the net.

Kerry people complain that Dublin victories over their county tend to be categorised as classics, but the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final really was a gem.

Kerry had opened Dublin up with three goals in the first half, Gooch pulling the strings. However, Paul Mannion's goal kept Dublin in touch and Connolly led the fightback after the break, Cian O'Sullivan negated Colm Cooper's influence, Cluxton's kickouts were immense.

KevMC2a.jpg
18 September 2011; Kevin McManamon, Dublin, shoots to score his side's goal past Kerry goalkeeper Brendan Kealy. GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final, Kerry v Dublin, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

But it was the climax which left everyone stunned. Level heading to the close, Dublin blitzed Kerry in injury-time with dramatic goals by Kevin McManamon and Eoghan O'Gara finishing up seven-point winners.

The 2013 final mightn't have reached the same dramatic heights, but it was an absolutely bruising battle with Mayo. Dublin were on the front foot throughout after a masterclass from Cluxton and Bernard Brogan, but Andy Moran's second-half goal kept Mayo in the game and with Cooper, Rory O'Carroll and O'Gara all injured, Dublin had to dig deep to see the game out.

A league-championship double in his debut season in charge established Gavin's template. If Dublin were good enough, they would prove it through victory; his job was to maximise their potential, continuing Gilroy's culture of suspending hubris, maintaining standards and discipline, humility and dedication. His job wasn't to entertain commentators, it was to win, to win for Dublin.

Dublin survived a mixed bag of a league campaign with a few notable comebacks before hammering Derry in the final for the county's 10th (including the 1964 'home' final) title.

However, 2014 was all about the Donegal game. Outside of McGuinness and his panel, not a sinner could see them overcome a rampant Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final.

Dublin decided to press the Donegal cover, kicking some superb long-range points and probing for an early killer punch. A goal opportunity was also spurned in the 12th minute when a centre from Eoghan O'Gara to Bernard Brogan was slightly off and the Plunkett's man's attempted palmed effort was too tame to cause damage.

Paul Durcan's fingertip save from Connolly's goal effort kept Dublin's lead to four points and although Connolly put them five up, Donegal's counter-attacking game kicked into gear, punishing Dublin's high press. Ryan McHugh's goal before the break strengthened Donegal's control on the game.

Rather than readjusting to try and curtail the counter-attack, Dublin persevered forlornly by pushing up on Donegal who punished the approach with two breakaway goals.

Connolly, in particular, fought bravely to mount a comeback. However, the shock of the season was completed.

That Donegal failed to replicate the tactical coup against Kerry in the final worsened the sense of a missed opportunity in the capital. The worst aspect of the forensic post-match analysis among pundits and supporters alike was the sense that we may have returned to the Dublin of old, excessively self-confident and unguarded.

Most settled that Dublin had simply decided they would outscore Donegal regardless.

However, it was only Gavin's second season in charge and despite external criticism that he was somewhat obstinate, the response to that setback would be the most emphatic since Kerry's return in 1984.

However, as was the case with Gavin's predecessor, progress would come through change.

Out of the embers of 2014, a new Dublin was to emerge.

A blue wave was coming.

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