Thursday 19 September 2019

First shoots of success - How St. Vincent's created a new blueprint for Dublin football

Decades of the Dubs - The 50s/60s: A unique mix of loyal self-sacrifice and intense individual determination laid the groundwork for the Dubs' future dominance

25 September 1955; A general view of action between Dublin and Kerry. All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final, Dublin v Kerry. Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Connolly Collection / SPORTSFILE
25 September 1955; A general view of action between Dublin and Kerry. All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final, Dublin v Kerry. Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Connolly Collection / SPORTSFILE

Eamon Carr

They couldn't have known it at the time, but the victorious footballers who celebrated Dublin's 1942 All-Ireland title win in Clery's Ballroom on O'Connell Street, with a party that went on until dawn, set in motion a chain of events that would change the face of Gaelic football forever.

The final in September that year was attended by 37,105, a crowd that was considered small, even allowing for the restrictions and deprivations of the war years. The gate receipts from the attendance watching Dublin's first All-Ireland title win since 1923 were £2,635.

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Association Football was hugely popular in the capital at the time and the Dublin Gaelic football team, which featured a number of players from other counties who were working in Dublin, didn't connect as readily with sports fans or inspire the passionate loyalty associated with teams from other counties.

While it's impossible to say exactly who experienced the eureka moment first, St Vincent's are credited with being the first to stress the importance of having local talent representing their community or parish.

As the club successfully nurtured and developed local talent up through the ranks of the minors in the 1940s, the suggestion was put to the Dublin County Board that the county team should follow suit.

When the county board took the decision to include only players born or educated in Dublin on the county team, the stage was set for the emergence of a Dublin team that would rally phenomenal support and inspire future generations.

As Dublin and Na Fianna legend Jimmy Gray has said: "The Fifties was really the birth of The Dubs as such. That was the first time I ever heard Dublin being called 'The Dubs'. Vincent's, to their eternal credit, constituted the majority of the players on the Dublin team."

Croker 1955.JPG
A141(A) Croke Park. Source N/A. N.D. (Independent Aerial Photographic Collection) These aerial views of Ireland from the Morgan Collection were taken during the mid-1950's, comprising medium and low altitude black-and-white birds-eye views of places and events, many of which were commissioned by clients. In 1957, a number were published weekly in the Irish Independent in a series called, 'Views from the Air'. The photographer was Alexander 'Monkey' Campbell Morgan. (Part of the NPA/Independent Newspapers Collection)

St Vincent's set new levels of excellence with a team that won seven county championship titles in a row from 1949 to 1955, playing an attractive, fast-paced style.

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"Goliaths," is how Tony Hanahoe has described these players. "They were icons in their day who established the footprint in the All-Ireland championship as far as Dublin teams were concerned."

When Dublin beat Cavan in the National League final of 1952/53, history was being made on many levels.

Not alone was Dublin winning the National League for the first time, but the team that defeated reigning All-Ireland champions Cavan in the final featured 14 St Vincent's players. The odd man out was goalkeeper Tony O'Grady of the Air Corps. Training that Dublin side was Peter O'Reilly, a man who'd played on the 1942 All-Ireland title-winning team.

This was when the foundations were laid for the towering Dublin success of future decades. From this sturdy base camp, Dublin would begin the ascent that has seen them scale the highest peaks of the sport's most challenging terrain.

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Dublin fans at 1955 All-Ireland final

Mickey Whelan recalls the impressive achievements of those St Vincent's players.

"They played phenomenal football. They started to bring the crowds. When they were winning championships, in the area they were in - Marino, Donnycarney, Cabra West - support started to build. But, as winning teams, they bring them from everywhere. The real catalyst was the early championships they won."

The St Vincent's and Dublin revolution was also challenging the game's bedrock catch-and-kick style of play. Introducing accurate, fast-paced foot-passing with forwards attacking at speed, Dublin's stylish performances became the focus of national attention.

For sure, soccer was hugely popular but these Dublin lads had verve and swagger.

Unlike the more pedestrian approach of fellows from outside the capital, these players introduced a fresh sense of passion to the game.

They appeared to have discovered the power of a short, well-timed foot-pass. They cut a dash. Through clever and incisive passing they found hitherto undiscovered open space and created scoring opportunities.

Their style could be thrilling to watch for urban spectators, who felt a new rhythm pulsing through the game.

Success in sport doesn't come cheaply or easily. In 1955 hopes were high that this exhilarating Dublin team would claim an All-Ireland title. It was a year when two of Dublin's greatest and most enduring rivalries were crafted out of sweat and blood.

In 1955 Dublin met neighbours Meath in the Leinster final. The Royal were reigning All-Ireland champions and had a formidable side with men in the panel, including full back Paddy 'Hands' O'Brien, who had two All-Ireland medals on the mantlepiece.

Dublin were on song. Leading by example, Kevin Heffernan notched up two goals early in the game and, orchestrating the attack to stunning effect, delivered Meath a crushing 5-12 to 0-7 defeat.

1955 Dubs.JPG
25 September 1955; The Dublin squad. GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final, Kerry v Dublin. Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Connolly Collection / SPORTSFILE

The All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo was a serious test and took a replay to send Dublin through to meet Kerry in the final.

On the day the official attendance of 87,102 was inflated by thousands of eager spectators who'd broken down a couple of gates to gain entry to Croke Park.

But for those enthusiastic Dublin supporters it was to be an afternoon of heartbreak as Kerry's catch-and-kick traditionalists scuppered Dublin's dizzying geometrics. Out-muscling Dublin's attacking play, they capitalised against an injury-hit side and won by three points, 0-12 to 1-6.

As the immense crowd of Dubs who pressed together on Hill 16 in feverish anticipation of seeing Dublin lift the Sam Maguire experienced the disappointment of defeat to Kerry, a new unbreakable bond was forged in adversity.

Hill 16 became the spiritual home of hardcore Dublin supporters. A citadel of broken dreams, perhaps, but a place where hope remains eternal and no finer spot on which to celebrate all that's great about Dublin's sporting spirit.

That narrow defeat by Kerry put iron in the soul of the Dublin players. But no one represented more how personal anguish could be forged into steely resistance and unshakable resolve than Kevin Heffernan who felt the pain so acutely that afternoon in 1955 that he would later reveal it "formed a large part of what I became as a person".

And the pain didn't end there. Two years later, Louth ended Dublin's hopes in the Leinster final. But it was the spectre of defeat by Kerry in '55 which haunted Dublin and provided the spur for Kevin Heffernan to assert Dublin's authority.

As he said later: "Any All-Ireland that you beat Kerry in, is a double All-Ireland."

An inspirational figure, Heffernan was proving himself to be more than just a gifted footballer and hurler.

On the field, he showed himself to be an astute strategist. Off the pitch, he carried a fierce determination to improve. Always, at Kevin's core was an unshakable winning mentality.

Back in an All-Ireland final in 1958, Dublin were captained by Heffernan against Ulster champions Derry. The team that had lost to Louth the previous year had worked hard on improving in all areas. Clever tactical switching during the game, by a team that were not afraid to play the ball on the ground, ensured that Derry were denied any advantage as Dublin clinched their first All-Ireland title in 16 years by the decisive score of 2-12 to 1-9.

The Dublin minors also won the All-Ireland that year and the timing couldn't have been better. Dublin city was expanding and GAA clubs were being formed in the new suburbs. The grassroots of the sport were flourishing.

Dublin were now a footballing force. They knew what it took to become All-Ireland champions. They'd been to the mountain top.

Heffo.JPG
Kevin Heffernan, captain of the Dublin team, with the Sam Maguire Cup after the 1958 final. Dr. Stuart, President of the GAA, is on the left beside Marcus Wilson of the Dublin team

While it would be another five years before they'd win again (when they beat a formidable Galway team that would go on to win three-in-a-row), the blueprint for success was now firmly in place.

That blueprint, and many of those men who'd helped draft it, would be feted a decade later when a revamped Dublin team would capture the imagination of the country who'd know them as 'The Super Dubs'.

Through a unique mix of loyal self-sacrifice and intense individual determination, the groundwork had been laid for future Dublin dominance.

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