Sport Decades of the Dubs

Tuesday 17 September 2019

From Pillar to post: Red Hand benchmark fuelled epic rivalry

Riveting battles with Mickey Harte's troops came to define the Caffrey era

13 August 2005; Paul Caffrey, Dublin manager, with Tyrone manager, Mickey Harte, at the end of the match. Bank of Ireland All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Quarter-Final, Dublin v Tyrone, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Damien Eagers / SPORTSFILE
13 August 2005; Paul Caffrey, Dublin manager, with Tyrone manager, Mickey Harte, at the end of the match. Bank of Ireland All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Quarter-Final, Dublin v Tyrone, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Damien Eagers / SPORTSFILE

Frank Roche

IT happened 14 years ago but Paul 'Pillar' Caffrey's recall is still vivid. It ranks as one of the great games of an epic summer. It was illuminated by Owen Mulligan's goal of the decade.

But it isn't just the visual snapshots of Croke Park that come flooding back to Dublin's then-manager. It's the sound.

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"When people think back to that game," says Caffrey, "the atmosphere in the stadium was absolutely phenomenal. The noise from the crowd. 

"Nobody likes looking back on classics when you didn't get the right result – but it was 1-14 each, it was a very special game of football."

Hindsight might even suggest that this 2005 quarter-final stalemate, watched by 78,514 transfixed fans, was Dublin's best performance of the 'Pillar' era against a heavyweight contender.

In time, the rivalry between Caffrey's Dublin and Mickey Harte's Tyrone would take a spiteful twist (the Battle of Omagh in 2006) and end in a monsoon mauling (2008).

But back in 2005, it was a riotous roller-coaster for all the right reasons.

Tyrone, the All-Ireland champions of 2003, had taken a 'back door' detour after a draining two-game Ulster final duel with Armagh. Dublin were an emerging force under Caffrey, who had stepped up from selector to main man and duly landed a first Leinster title in three years.

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Dublin v Tyrone...13 August 2005; Ciaran Whelan, Dublin, wins a high ball against Tyrone. Bank of Ireland All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Quarter-Final, Dublin v Tyrone, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Damien Eagers / SPORTSFILE...ABC

Their first-half was the pinnacle of Dublin's summer. Soaring highest of all was Ciarán Whelan.

"Unbelievable," waxes Caffrey, recalling Whelan's seven clean kickout catches before the break. "It was certainly football from a bygone era! And even then, Shane Ryan was coming on song ... they were the ideal midfield partnership."

When Tomás 'Mossy' Quinn goaled on the rebound, Dublin's first-half dominance was finally reflected on the scoreboard: 1-10 to 0-8.

"Couldn't wait to get the second-half on," says Caffrey. "But they'd made an awful lot of positional changes, so it was nearly like facing a completely different Tyrone 15."

Amid the musical chairs, the recalibration of midfield was Harte's masterstroke. Enda McGinley moved there and was joined by Joe McMahon off the bench. Whelan's supremacy of the skies was stifled; McGinley ended up Man of the Match.

"They took care of Whelo in the second-half – eh, by some means!" Caffrey wryly surmises.

Meanwhile, a decision that Harte never signed off on proved equally instrumental. 

"They were writing out the script to take him off before he came up with that piece of magic," says Caffrey of Mulligan's watershed goal in the 49th minute.

"It just shows you how fickle the game is. But, no, we were on the receiving end of a wonderful piece of individual skill that has stood the test of time."

A moment that left Paddy Christie for dead and then Stephen O'Shaughnessy and Paul Casey – victims of the most outrageous double-whammy dummy in memory – grasping at thin air.

Ultimately Dublin scrambled for a draw, secured by two late Mossy Quinn points, including a disputed free at the death.

It's fair to surmise that Tyrone and their inscrutable boss learned more for the replay. Or maybe they simply rediscovered their mojo. 'Mugsy' certainly found his: he finished with 1-7, 1-5 from play, as Tyrone triumphed by 2-18 to 1-14.

"We just didn't hang in the game long enough," Caffrey laments.  

Briefly, trailing by eight, Dublin threatened the improbable. Five points on the spin turned Croker into a deafening cacophony as Dublin voices in a crowd of 81,882 dared to dream.

"The noise when we were mounting that comeback – it was nothing I've heard before or since," their former boss declares.  But then Seán Cavanagh pilfered a Stephen Cluxton kickout from Declan Lally and fed Mulligan.

"Next thing 'Bang', it's in the back of the net. And it was nearly like the bubble was after being burst in that one play," says Caffrey, recalling how Dublin's tormentor "just stood with his ears cocked up to the Hill".

Four weeks later, Tyrone were All-Ireland champions again.

Before the end-game of 2008 came the fractious interlude: the Battle of Omagh in February '06. Both sides finished with 13 men but that was only the half of it.

By now, the forensic detail has mostly faded from memory: who ignited the various melees; who saw red; who faced disrepute charges (only to be ultimately cleared). The fact that Dublin actually won quickly became an afterthought.

But certain snapshots remain. Such as Caffrey calling his Dublin subs down from the stand as tensions soared. Or Harte's immortal post-match line: "If Paddy Russell had been God Almighty, he couldn't have refereed the game today."

The context has not been lost on Caffrey: "They were the benchmark. We hadn't reached their level, and something had to change from our perspective. They had two brilliant man-markers in Ryan McMenamin and Conor Gormley. And it was an area the players had identified it as a group and said, 'Look, we need to toughen up, man up in the physical stakes against Tyrone'.

"It was early season for them; we had that game in our full view for a while. When the physical stakes intensified up there, we weren't going to back down."

Post-battle, Caffrey was called out for an RTÉ interview with Ger Canning. "There were still supporters shouting abuse down. I got hit with a plastic 7-Up bottle on the bridge of the nose ... the supporters were still hanging around, looking for a bit of action."

Most of the quarter-final action, in 2008, was relentlessly one-way. And virtually no-one saw it coming.

Dublin had massacred Wexford by 23 points in the Leinster final, then waited for four long weeks. Tyrone had lurched through the qualifiers.

"We were cannon fodder in a way to a Tyrone team that were being written off," Caffrey can now rationalise.

After the heavens erupted, the game itself opened in even fashion. But the early loss of a hamstrung Alan Brogan and a butchered goal chance were portents of the grimness that awaited: goals from Seán Cavanagh and Joe McMahon before the break, and a third from Davy Harte, propelled Tyrone to a 12-point cakewalk, 3-14 to 1-8.

"My most disappointing day in charge," Caffrey concludes. "We felt the team was ready. We were thinking that we were capable of getting to an All-Ireland final that year, with the momentum that we had from the previous seasons. 

"That Leinster final gave us a false reading ... but hindsight tells us that Tyrone team were a special group of players. 

"I decided if we didn't get to the All-Ireland final that year, I was stepping down. I had four attempts, and I felt that progress had to be made in year four. A quarter-final wasn't progress in my eyes. So that was the final nail in my coffin."

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