Sunday 22 September 2019

Cups 'n' Downs: How the lows sparked further highs

Blips of 2012 and 2014 helped transform Dubs into true killing machines

31 August 2014; A dejected Denis Bastick, Dublin, following his side's defeat. GAA Football All Ireland Senior Championship, Semi-Final, Dublin v Donegal, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
31 August 2014; A dejected Denis Bastick, Dublin, following his side's defeat. GAA Football All Ireland Senior Championship, Semi-Final, Dublin v Donegal, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Frank Roche

THE words of Pat Gilroy, spoken in the immediate aftermath, are eye-catching only in the context of everything that has happened since his deflating swansong in early September, 2012.

Dublin had just suffered a fate familiar to countless Sam Maguire holders who had come (and failed to defend) before ... vanquished by Mayo at the semi-final stage.

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"I don't think retaining an All-Ireland is any harder than winning it in the first place," Gilroy maintained. "It's just difficult. Other teams get better, there are good teams there."

You must remember that, at the outset of this decade of the Dubs, there were two immutable laws of football, stretching back to the mid-90s, rarely (if ever) broken.

Firstly, somehow or other, Dublin would find a way to lose ... cue an All-Ireland famine that lasted 16 years.

Secondly, defending Sam had become nigh on impossible. Even some of the finest — such as Tyrone — never got close. Only Kerry, in 2006 and '07, perhaps aided by a managerial change, had defied the modern convention.

Then along came Jim Gavin ...

Yet even Gavin has learned, by painful experience in 2014, that retaining Sam is a very complex equation. 

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Before him, Gilroy in 2012 had likewise absorbed the harsh reality of being the hunted, not the hunter.

In the midst of a glorious epoch, it's fair to surmise that these two 'down' seasons were instrumental in turning Dublin into the consistently ruthless killing machine they have become.

Here's how ...



What shouldn't be forgotten is how painstakingly difficult it was for Dublin to climb the mountain in the first place. Even then, the summit could easily have escaped them in 2011: when Colm Cooper pointed in the 63rd minute, Kerry — the perennial oppressor — led by four points.

Enter Kevin Mac, Clucko's golden left boot and the rest is history.

As the freshly minted champions meandered through the Allianz League of 2012, observers may have forgiven them a few bum notes on the basis that All-Ireland winners are often playing spring catch-up.

But then, at the end of March, came a second trip to Castlebar — and the alarm bells reached a crescendo. The first game in February had been abandoned because of fog ... but Gilroy could see perfectly clearly after watching his team collapse to a 12-point defeat (0-20 to 0-8) in the re-fixture. 

The game was long beyond them when Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly (for two yellows) walked in the second half, but even that was further indication of the team's blurred focus.

Unusually, the manager didn't hold back.

"Our application just wasn't anywhere near what it should be," he lamented that night. "Last year and the year before we had great intensity to everything we did, and we had great discipline in everything we did. That has deserted us for most of this year. 

"We really have to sit down and look at that sharply or else we will have a very short year," Gilroy predicted. "We are in a very bad place now in terms of the group."

Dublin were much improved in their last league outing, on Leeside, but still not good enough as they fell to a fourth defeat.

What followed, in the championship, was also indicative of a team firing only in bursts. True, this was a time when Leinster wasn't a recurring turkey shoot; but Dublin won their semi-final against Wexford by four points and the final by just three, having led Meath by 10 at the three-quarter mark. 

Their All-Ireland quarter-final, against Laois, was also won by three — or a John O'Loughlin 'own goal' if you prefer.

2 September 2012; Bernard Brogan, Dublin, has a shot on goal saved by Mayo goalkeeper David Clarke. GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final, Dublin v Mayo, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

In retrospect, what happened next was not a total surprise: Dublin collapsed either side of half-time against Mayo, who led by 10 points with over 50 minutes gone. Their backs-to-the-wall response — eight unanswered points in the midst of a goal chance for Bernard Brogan, brilliantly saved by David Clarke — revealed the character that had surfaced so thrillingly, and repeatedly, in 2011. 

But it was too little, too late. Mayo eventually won by three and, within days, Gilroy had called time on his eventful four-year reign.



What befell Dublin in 2012 has happened to many other famine-ending champions. You think you want it as much ... until you run into a rival just as voracious as you were the season before.

It may also have been the case that, for all the culture change overseen by Gilroy, this Sky Blue iteration was reaching its natural end point. Jim Gavin provided a fresh voice; just as critical was the graduation of a new generation, led by Ciarán Kilkenny, Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion, the first three promoted from Dessie Farrell's Minor class of 2011.

Thus, Sam returned to the Hill in 2013. And, come the following year, we were talking up a different Dublin beast setting out in pursuit of that elusive back-to-back. Not just because Gavin was now manager, or because they had banked the salutary experience of 2012, but because of signs that they were threatening to pull away from the field.

They retained their league crown in a final cakewalk against Derry. Leinster was now fast becoming a lopsided plaything: Dublin beat Meath in the 2014 decider by 16 points when it could/should have been more than 20. They won their four matches en route to the All-Ireland semi-final by an average margin of 15 points.

Yet, looking back through the prism of 20-20 hindsight, you can spy portents of the defensive implosion to come.

In the 2014 league, they lost twice and were plucky — or lucky, take your pick — to force a pulsating Croke Park draw with Mayo. When that Dublin model clicked, as happened in the second-half of their Division 1 semi-final against Cork, they were a rampaging force of nature: that was the day they transformed a 10-point deficit into a seven-point victory.

But here's the thing: Dublin conceded 8-94 in their seven regulation league games in 2014. A year later, that figure had fallen to 2-78. What happened in the interim? Donegal.

It's tempting to consider how Gavin's remarkable SFC reign might still qualify as technically all-conquering but for falling off a cliff-edge that fateful late August afternoon five years ago. But would they have kept on winning if they hadn't learned such a gut-wrenching lesson? We'll never know.

Diarmuid Connolly 2014 v Donegal miss 2014.jpg
31 August 2014; Diarmuid Connolly, Dublin, reacts after watching his shot go wide during the closing stages of the game. GAA Football All Ireland Senior Championship, Semi-Final, Dublin v Donegal, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Tomas Greally / SPORTSFILE

We suspect the gory details are embedded in Gavin's mind. How Dublin led by five points after 27 minutes, having left two possible goals behind them, only to trail at the break. How their gung-ho instincts saw them lured into Jim McGuinness's defensive web, only to be cruelly exposed on the counter-attack.

Likewise, we suspect a six-point defeat has rarely had such a transformative impact on a team. Or its manager: "I accept full responsibility for that performance," said Gavin a few weeks later. 

"One result won't change the core philosophy of how Dublin play football. But it's been a learning experience, that's for sure," he added.

"And it's about trying to get that balanced approach in the future. The performance wasn't balanced in relation to the game and we got ruthlessly punished by a very good team who exploited it. That's for me to go away and learn from."

What emerged from the carnage was a different Dublin. A team that was, fundamentally, more defensively streetwise, crystallised in Cian O'Sullivan's redeployment as a sweeping No6, covering gaps in front of his full-back line.

But also a team that shed some of its swash and buckle to become more methodical; a team that would seek to exploit the full width of Croke Park, that would patiently hand-pass laterally and even backwards, if required. In essence, a team designed to 'beat the blanket'.

It wasn't always pretty: faced by a mass of Derry bodies, their March 2015 league game in Croke Park was tied at 0-4 apiece after a grim hour before the hosts doubled their tally in the closing minutes. Jarlath Burns labelled it "the death of Gaelic football".

But, over time, Dublin became masterful at shredding blanket defences.

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