Dublin – The Class of 95
"The final whistle sounded on Dublin’s fourth serious failure in as many years. I had now landed the hat-trick. We could have already eclipsed our illustrious forebears from the seventies by this stage but, instead, we were ultimate failures. The decade of the Duds."
Dessie Farrell from his autobiography, Tangled Up in Blue
The Decade of the Duds: a very different time to the indomitable decade just left behind. In the long dark winter of 1994, as a wounded dressing-room sifted through the déjà vu of another doomed All-Ireland quest, there must surely have been at least some sense of fatalism.
After the grisly end to that four-game Meath epic in ’91; after the shock final defeat to Donegal in ’92; after the semi-final heartbreak against Derry in ’93; and now after this, another day of Ulster-inflicted agony in the company of Down, who could blame Dublin if they asked themselves: How much more can we take? Why even go through the torment?
But they did, and four years in purgatory finally gave way to the promised land in September, 1995, as Dublin survived the brilliance of Peter Canavan and the staccato saga of Charlie Redmond’s sending-off and maybe even their own self-doubt.
It wasn’t the perfect performance. No matter – it was the perfect day.
Before the dream came the recurring nightmare, four summers of 'what ifs?' and 'why us?'
Dublin of the early nineties were the Mayo of their day before Mayo had even claimed the title. Perennial contenders. Consistently close. Constantly searching for that elusive cigar.
And before all this, they were searching for a manager. It was the autumn of 1990, and Gerry McCaul’s tenure had reached an end.
"I wasn’t even paying any attention to who was going to be next manager of the Dublin team," says Paddy Cullen, three decades later.
The long-retired Dublin goalkeeper was at the Listowel Races in the company of former team-mate Jimmy Keaveney. County board secretary Jim King had contacted Tony Hempenstall – another former Dublin player and selector and mutual friend – who was in Listowel and reachable via hotel phone.
And so Hempenstall was the conduit for a question that Cullen never saw coming.
"Are you mad? I don’t want to do that job, I’ve no experience of it," is how Cullen recalls his immediate response.
But they were different times. "You weren’t trained to be a manager, you just walked in from playing into management," he recounts. In any event, he agreed to mull it over, went home and discussed this bombshell development with his wife, Ann.
Cullen had a pub to run. He didn’t know if he had enough time to commit.
"Ann was all behind me. The night before I was to ring Jim King, I said to Ann, 'Are you sure, because I’m not too sure whether I should put my head in the lion’s mouth.' And she said 'I’ll tell you what, if you don’t do it and you look over your shoulder in a year’s time and say God, I’m sorry I didn’t do that.' So I said 'You’re right, I’ll do the feckin thing and let’s see what happens'…"
What happened is that Dublin won the 1991 National League – confidence-building preparation for a daunting first round showdown with Seán Boylan’s Meath, who had vanquished Dublin in four of the five Leinster finals played between '86 and '90.
The saga that followed, spread over 340 minutes and watched by over 237,000 spellbound supporters, was a godsend for the GAA… and a kick in the guts for Dublin.
The gory details of those fateful closing minutes, when Kevin Foley became the unlikeliest goalscorer in history and David Beggy kicked the winning point, have been analysed to death.
"It’s like as if we froze," says Cullen, recounting the move that led to Foley’s equaliser, "but we actually didn’t. But it was like a ‘stop-in-time’ for that goal.
"I just felt all along that we were a better team. One of the good things was there was no brawl. It didn’t end with any bitterness. All four games were hard-hitting and fair play.
"I just feel that … we weren’t cheated out of it, but the Gods weren’t shining on us the last day."
Meath went on to reach the All-Ireland final, faltering on the last day to Down. It was their tenth game of a marathon summer.
It may be a futile exercise in ‘what-iffery’ but, if Dublin had prevailed, Cullen has "absolutely" no doubt they could have gone all the way.
"Meath were tired," he explains. "They drew with Wicklow in the next match. With all due respects to Wicklow and fair play to them, that just shows you the fatigue… but we had young players, we had fiery players. I mean, it was really a great team of up-and-coming young men."
That’s how it appeared as Dublin advanced to the 1992 All-Ireland final. Destiny awaited. Someone forgot to tell Donegal.
As Cullen and his backroom lieutenants, Pat O’Neill, Jim Brogan and Fran Ryder, reflected on the lessons of ’91, they could see that whereas Meath’s experience had been telling, the future for Dublin was bright.
"We were saying ‘My God, this is just a travesty of justice’ and blah, blah, blah. And we were convinced – all four of us were convinced – that there was no doubt this team could go on."
With Meath jettisoned early by Laois, Dublin overcame a new foe in Mick O’Dwyer’s Kildare to recapture Leinster. Clare, the unheralded minnows from Munster, were beaten in the last four. By then the Dublin panel had already travelled en masse to watch the Donegal-Mayo semi-final, a contest so turgid as to make you wonder who could possibly derail the Dubs.
And maybe, deep down, they felt that too. The subsequent narrative, penned with 20-20 hindsight, is that Dublin were undone by complacency more than anything in ’92.
Dessie Farrell was in his first summer as a starter; in his memoir he described part of the All-Ireland lead-up as "shambolic", citing "fatal distractions" such as modelling clothes for Arnotts and appearing on a local radio station.
Cullen doesn’t buy the theory that Dublin lost because "they were going to get suits and all this crap. I mean, what the hell, at this stage they’re all good players, they’re all grown men… they don’t go off on the piss every night of the week, excuse my language."
"They did everything that was asked of them," he stresses. "By the way, Donegal came into that game with massive experience. Massive. They had played in I don’t know how many major games for about four years … they were a hell of a lot more experienced than we were. But we were a better team."
Crucially, though, not when it mattered most. "On the day, things didn’t go right. And when things don’t go right, then everybody looks for a scapegoat. They look for things that went wrong."
What if Charlie Redmond hadn’t skewed that early penalty high and wide?
"Here we go again. If only, if only," Cullen demurs. "Yes, of course, if the penalty went in, Donegal might have reeled a bit. Whereas they say ‘Oh, Jesus, these guys are human.’"
Emboldened, Donegal went for it and won by 0-18 to 0-14. The next day, Cullen met a Donegal man who told him: "Paddy, you know something, I’m 77 years of age, I’m following that team all my life, and I have never, ever seen them play like that in my life.’"
Donegal’s maiden All-Ireland was subsequently tinged in tragedy when one of their fans lost his life on O’Connell Street that night. This sad occurrence was the backdrop for Cullen’s comments at a civic reception in the Mansion House on the Monday evening – what must have been, in any event, an excruciating function for the losing camp.
According to Farrell’s book, the manager spoke of Dublin’s setback in the context of it being only "a game of football".
"You wouldn’t be far out," Cullen agrees. "I said there’s probably bigger things than football or something (like that)."
As for the suggestion that it didn’t go down well with some present, he ventures: "Well, I think they missed the point, the people who didn’t understand it."
Cullen is adamant that all of this didn’t hasten his departure as manager. He was not pushed. Asked if there was a falling-out with the management team that remained, he insists: "Not at all."
Pat O’Neill concurs that "ultimately it was" Cullen’s decision. "It was there for him to stay, and he made the decision himself. Okay, there was a discussion alright between himself and myself, in the Mansion House. And I think what that was, really, was my frustration with having lost it.
"I mean, Paddy was a great man for taking it as things were: ‘Well, look it, that’s the way it’s happened’… c’est la vie type situation. And I didn’t see it that way. I said, ‘Jaysus, this is serious stuff.’
"And, I mean, on the evening after, Paddy’s approach was probably the better approach and more sensible. But I wasn’t seeing it that way."
Win or lose (and he fully expected to win) Paddy and Ann had already booked a post-final holiday in the United States.
"It was over there that I actually said to myself, ‘You know something, I’m not going to put myself through all that torture again’ because I was so sad … to be quite honest with you, it had affected me an awful lot, in so far as I was so sad for the players," he reveals.
"I did something for two years that I really enjoyed, even though I found it stressful. I really wanted success for them. Not for me; I didn’t care, I had my day. And that’s what breaks you."
He concludes: "I left because I wanted to leave. This is what I said to myself, I swear to God: ‘Am I going to do anything different next year than I did in the last two years?’ And I couldn’t think of anything. I said: ‘What am I going to do?’ We’d a gem of a squad, a gem of a team, two years on the trot we get sickened. So, maybe I’m just bad luck or something."
With O’Neill stepping up to the hotseat, joined by Jim Brogan, Fran Ryder and Bobby Doyle, Dublin remained the most consistent contender over the next two seasons. Early revenge came when defeating Donegal in a 1993 league final replay. They overcame Meath and then, after a half-time tunnel row, turned up the heat on Kildare to retain their Leinster crown. Cue another watershed date with one of Ulster’s deadly Ds…
The bare facts of that All-Ireland semi-final are that Dublin led Derry by five points at the interval, only to be reeled in during a pulsating second half and ultimately KO’d by Johnny McGurk’s audacious left-footed winner from under the Hogan Stand.
But losing another game that was within their grasp cut to the core. Of the many disappointments that Dessie Farrell endured in the nineties, this ranked as "one of the hardest to swallow," he revealed in his memoir.
And when Dublin dusted themselves down to reach the 1994 All-Ireland final, again defeating Kildare and Meath along the way, it was merely the prelude to another punishment beating.
That final against Down contrasted with the previous year’s semi-final: now it was Dublin’s turn to play catch-up.
They had already suffered a major setback beforehand with the loss of Ciarán Walsh, the defender in line to mark Mickey Linden.
Paul Curran, himself just back from injury, returned to the team but not in his customary wing-back role – he was switched to the corner onto Linden. At the time, Curran would recall in The Herald’s ‘Decade of the Dubs’ series, Linden was "almost unmarkable. My plan was to play him from the front because I knew that the ball would be kicked in early and, sure enough, in the opening exchanges, a long ball came hurtling in our direction.
"I’d say I was at least 20 yards out in front and ready to win the opening duel, tear up the field and kick the opening score … but the bloody ball bounced over my head and into Linden’s lap and he was away!"
It was as if that early duel established the template for what followed: a day when Dublin were always playing catch-up. Curran "chased him for about 15 minutes" before being switched to half-back.
And yet, having trailed by six during the second half, Dublin dominated down the home straight.
Critically, big chances were spurned – none more crucial than Redmond’s penalty, saved by Niall Collins. A two-point defeat (1-12 to 0-13) seemed to confirm Farrell’s ‘Decade of the Duds’ depiction.
Tangled Up in Blue laid bare his frustration: "Particularly between 1992 and 1994, the panic-button was pressed too often at the critical stages of our most important games," the current Dublin manager wrote.
"What happened? Well, in my opinion, players started performing as individuals: over-carrying, attempting long-range efforts for scores, giving away needless free-kicks – trying too hard, if you like."
To their credit, they never stopped trying … and the darkest day would soon give way to the sun-speckled dawn of 1995.
Don't miss part two of Dublin – The Class of '95 free with next Friday's Herald and on Independent.ie.
Decades of the Dubs
THE Leinster final of 1995 will live long in the memory of Dublin supporters as their team delivered a performance of brilliance, particularly in the last 20 minutes, in accounting for their nearest and dearest rival Meath by 1-18 to 1-8 on July 30 in Croke Park.