Ger Brennan: 5 steps on our road to success
Reassessing our values and placing honesty and humilty at the centre of team culture allowed the Dubs to take the all-important step from being over-hyped pretenders to Ireland’s finest
THE moment that Cavan referee, Joe McQuillan, blew the final whistle of the 2011 All-Ireland SFC final is a moment that will stay with me forever – we finally did it. The years of hard work had paid off at last.
We were the best football team in Ireland. No more questions over the character of this team and Dublin Gaelic football.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
We had defeated the two outstanding teams of the noughties, Kerry and Tyrone, on our journey to Dublin’s first All-Ireland success since 1995.
You often hear people say: "It’s not really an All-Ireland unless you’ve beaten Kerry along the way." Job done!
From Startled Earwigs to history-makers
PAT GILROY faced probably his toughest post-match managerial interview in early August 2009.
Kerry wiped the floor with us in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
We, the 'startled earwigs' lost by 17 points. It was an embarrassment – and still is, to be honest. Thankfully, the success of 2011 has reduced the pain of that day.
The team regrouped under Pat and his management team soon after that sobering defeat to Kerry.
We still had talented and athletic players, however, our individual and collective standards and behaviours were nowhere near the required level.
A seismic change in player and team values would be required in order to elevate the ‘Startled Earwigs’ to All-Ireland champions.
Thankfully, Pat and his management team were willing to bring this about.
Step 1: The Definition of success
IN October 2011 some of us were interviewed for a Dublin GAA documentary.
These interviews took place in the dressing rooms at St Clare’s, DCU – where the majority of heated team meetings occurred.
While I think the decision to locate the interviews at St Clare’s was more to do with convenience than artistic creation, the significance of the location and what had taken place there in the previous months dawned on me.
As I waited to be interviewed, one particular thought kept popping up.
The real success of the 2011 team was not just winning the All-Ireland. It was the fact that under Pat and his management team’s guidance, a group that had contained a few semi-egotistical, Celtic Cross-lacking, 'startled earwigs' were now part of something greater than ourselves!
We had given everything for our team-mates as opposed to seeking individual glory and external plaudits.
This is the true definition of success and the real success of Pat’s time in charge of Dublin’s senior footballers.
Achieving this was something we could control regardless of whether we won the All-Ireland or not. The All-Ireland victory was the icing on the cake. It was proof that hard work beats talent, when talent doesn't work.
So how we did reach this point?
Step 2: Honest reflection
THERE are one or two defining moments during the life of successful teams. These occasions almost always occur after a big defeat.
The successful team reflects honestly on the how, why, what that happened ... while others settle for mediocrity and the laying of blame to external factors. We had a healthy mix of both!
Thus, the management led numerous team and individual meetings in the winter of 2009 and on into 2010.
What this process uncovered was unsurprising to most of us.
The team had a vision of winning All-Irelands but we lacked the necessary values to uphold such a dream.
Subconsciously and sometimes consciously, Dublin players believed a lot of the external hype.
Lads were more interested in the superfluous perks of playing for the Dublin senior football team instead of pursuing collective and honest goals.
The transition was tough but we got there eventually.
One of the first examples of this transition took place at a team meeting in Ballymascanlon Hotel in the Cooley Peninsula.
We spent roughly 90 minutes discussing whether there should be a Monday/into Tuesday drinking session after Leinster Championship games.
Pat was trying to enculturate a top down, bottom up leadership style to bring about a change of culture and mindset.
Therefore, he allowed the discussion to continue as long as it needed to.
Don’t get me wrong, I always enjoyed a few pints during my career but a lot of us less experienced players were sitting on the fence.
The craic would 'be ninety' but the team kept losing at quarter and semi-final stages of the All-Ireland Series.
Under Pat’s guidance, players saw the light.
This meeting was the foundation for a behavioural change among the panel that filtered down to several other of our team’s behaviours that needed drastic improvements.
Step 3: What do we value?
HUMILITY: When a player is selected for the senior county team, he can become caught up with the external fanfare around his selection. You can become a bit of a Ron Burgundy!
There are different levels of it and it can happen to any player consciously and subconsciously. A player’s down-to-earthness can get away from him.
It’s hard to see it happening but it does creep up on you.
In my opinion this had happened to the Dublin panel before 2011.
Therefore, Gilroy and his management team had a lot of work to do – firstly, to help us become aware of the fact that we thought we were better than we actually were and secondly, erasing the superficial bulls**t that can come with being a Dublin senior footballer.
Former US President Theodore Roosevelt said: "Keep your eyes on the stars but your feet on the ground."
I don’t know if Pat had read this particular quote but that was part of his vision for the present and the future.
He knew we could potentially be All-Ireland champions but for starters we weren't grounded enough.
Step 4: How could we bring about real change?
GRATITUDE: Almost every team talks the talk but few ever walk it. We had to actively experience humility instead of just chatting about it!
Thus, before 2011 began, the team spent a winter night sleeping rough on the streets of Dublin to raise money for the homeless.
This was a freezing cold yet intimate night. We came away from the evening with a sense of gratitude for our own families and the talent and opportunity we had been given.
We could waste it or work together and see where it would take us.
In addition to the sleep out Pat would have the Dublin minors train with us on a few occasions.
While an outwardly kind gesture to the U-18s, it was a reminder to the senior players of where we all once were.
BELONGING: Pat and the management took us on a surprise walk to the Dublin Docks early one Saturday morning.
As a team we strolled out along the Pigeon House Pier. It was the most central point in Dublin Bay and the place which allowed you to see as far as Howth Head and North County Dublin on one side, across to Dun Laoghaire and Killiney Head on the other.
At the red-painted light house we stood huddled in the cold, together like Emperor Penguins as Pat drove it home what it meant to be from Dublin and what it meant to represent the people of its city and county. Pat gave us a history lesson of Dublin City, the achievements of former great Dublin teams, and the opportunity that stood before us. It was all there to pursue if we really wanted it.
Step 5: Accountability and hard work
IN the spring of 2011 we travelled to Cork for a National League game. Pat took a large panel to stay at Inchydoney, Clonakilty in beautiful West Cork.
One group of players togged out on Friday night in a challenge against a Cork selection. It was a cold night and miserable game to attend as the remainder of the panel looked on waited until the next night’s league game.
This equally turned out to be a miserable night for the team. We hadn’t played well in either game against the top team in the country at that time and it was clear we still had a lot to learn tactically.
The real positive from this trip was the level of honesty and reflection that players began to show after the game. To a man players looked at themselves first before assessing the errors of team-mates.
It was refreshing and challenging to be in this environment and we were convinced only good things would flow from it.
The other positive from that weekend was learning that a certain player could eat a large block of Dubliner Cheese in one sitting! I didn't think this was possible but there you go!
This happened after we visited the production factory of Kinetica and Dubliner Cheese. Most of us enjoyed the tour and the protein bars that came with the goody bags. Others decided that a €50 bet to eat the block of cheese (instead of the protein bar) was a good bet!
IN conclusion, I could go on all day, and I have, about the type of training we underwent and the type of game-plan employed that ultimately lead to the 2011 success.
Pat and his selectors, Mickey Whelan, David Hickey and Paddy O'Donoghue, were highly astute in both areas and we were pushed to beyond our perceived boundaries. But as Mickey Whelan always says: "It’s not rocket science fellas."
And the truth is, Gaelic football is not that complicated.
The real ‘rocket science’ though was changing the culture and behaviour of the team and its group of, at times, egotistical ‘startled earwigs’!
When Pat and the management team secured these foundations the results were soon to follow.