Saturday 21 September 2019

Ray of light: 'By the time we played Wexford everything I touched turned to gold'

Cosgrove made 2002 his own after Lyons gave him the freedom to shine

23 June 2002; Dublin's Ray Cosgrove celebrates after scoring a goal for his side. Dublin v Meath, Bank of Ireland Leinster Football Championship Semi-Final, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
23 June 2002; Dublin's Ray Cosgrove celebrates after scoring a goal for his side. Dublin v Meath, Bank of Ireland Leinster Football Championship Semi-Final, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

Conor McKeon

MORE than anyone directly involved in Tommy Lyons's short-lived insurrection during the long hot summer of 2002, Ray Cosgrove exemplified what the Dubs briefly became.

"Six-twenty three," Cosgrove says without hesitation, recalling the tally that made him the highest scoring player in that year's All-Ireland SFC.

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"Top scorer in the Championship. Our first Leinster Championship in a long time. Full houses in Croke Park. Filling the place and getting to perform in front of the crowd.

"When you look at the small crowds coming to the game now," he adds, "you think 'God, we were fierce lucky'."

Luck might have been part of it.

But in Lyons, Dublin not only had a new manager after Tommy Carr had been controversially discontinued the previous November, but a prolific publicist.

"The biggest gig in town," was his self-proclaimed job spec, and Lyons pledged to restore the "swagger" to Dublin football.

Nobody was quite sure when or how the swagger had left.

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But to listen to Lyons was to be privy to the revelation that its return would make Dublin football whole again.

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17 August 2002; Dublin manager Tommy Lyons urges on his team during the game. Dublin v Donegal, All Ireland Football Quarter - Final replay, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Media types, meanwhile, would not only be entertained but facilitated and encouraged to tell the story of the revolution.

Dublin and Lyons, with his bullish predictions and immortalised quips (see: arseboxing) would fill the Hill and the team would surf the wave of collective euphoria in the capital back to All-Ireland contention.

It was the sort of communications/PR strategy that might give Jim Gavin a panic attack.

Sustainability, as it turned out, wasn't Lyons's strength. But for one season only, the Dublin players, Lyons, their support and the wooed media types all sang in sweet harmony.

And Cosgrove was perhaps Lyons's greatest achievement that year.

"He showed a huge amount of confidence in me," Cosgrove confirms.

"But I came back on the scene in 2002 and Tommy literally put the arm around my shoulder and said: 'Regardless of how you're playing, I'm going to play you.'

"And it's that confidence he had in me that allowed me to express myself. And by playing well, my confidence grew and grew."

When Lyons was appointed manager, Cosgrove had been in exile for two years.

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17 August 2002; Dublin's Ray Cosgrove (14) celebrates after scoring a goal for his side. Dublin v Donegal, All Ireland Football Quarter - Final replay, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

What made all his 2002 largesse the more remarkable was the way his Dublin days during Carr's tenure had ended, a horrendous experience in the 1999 Leinster final against Meath when he was sent on to give the team some vim – and later was hauled off again.

The accepted wisdom about Ray Cosgrove prior to 2002 was that for all his silky scoring talents at club level, he hadn't the mind or might for the inter-county game.

Lyons's instinct however, told him that Cosgrove hadn't been managed in the right way as to liberate his undeniable potential.

By the time Dublin's championship started, Cosgrove was the central figure in a brand new full-forward line alongside Alan Brogan and neighbour Johnny McNally.

They were fresh and hungry and Lyons simplified their task.

"Our instructions were clear and simple," Cosgrove recalls.

"Get out. Get on the ball. Take your man on. And kick it over the bar.

"Get out and express yourself. If you kick a wide, get out and get the next one and have a go at that one as well.

"So there was no straight-jacket put on any of us. And my confidence throughout the National League grew and grew.

"And by the time we played Wexford down in Dr Cullen, things just fell for me and everything I touched turned to gold.

"When I look back – in hindsight – I didn't quite realise how much of an impact it was having. It's not until you step back and you said 'Jaysus!'

"But again, once I got on a roll, I wouldn't say I felt bullet-proof, once I got in the zone, I could just turn and pull the trigger. I didn't even have to look at the target.

"Likewise in front of the goal. I got a few lucky breaks but I was in the right place at the right time."

Whatever suspicions about Cosgrove's ability to better the hardier defenders occupying the inter-county scene at the time were killed stone dead on the afternoon of June 23 when he scored 2-3 off Darren Fay in the Leinster semi-final.

"Darren would have been one of the best full-backs of that generation," Cosgrove points out.

"That was the real acid test. We were always told how you perform in a Dublin-Meath game is how you're going to be judged.

"And from that day on, I knew I could produce it against quality opposition like Darren. So I thought there was no reason why I couldn't kick on and do it in the later stages of the Championship."

By that stage, the city had been almost dangerously intoxicated by the collective strut of Lyons's young team and their bombastic leader.

Dublin's supporters began to dream big.

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14 July 2002; Dublin's Barry Cahill, left, and Ray Cosgrove celebrate victory over Kildare. Dublin v Kildare, Leinster Senior Football Championship Final, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

There were 78,033 people at the Leinster final when they ended a seven-year stretch without a provincial title for the county against Kildare, up more than 10,000 on the previous year's loss to Meath at the same stage.

By the time Dublin played Armagh in the All-Ireland semi-final, the scramble for tickets was panicked and the city was practically levitating with excitement.

"Probably remembered most for missing the free against Armagh in the semi-final," says Cosgrove of his late free into Hill 16 that rebounded off an upright  with a replay on the line.

"But hand on heart, it's probably the best game I played that summer. So disregarding the free at the end, I thought my contribution in that game was better than in any of the other games.

"But I'll be reminded of the miss and not for the influence on the other 70 minutes."

The atmosphere in Croke Park that afternoon felt as though Mardi Gras had been cancelled at the last minute in favour of midnight mass.

The biggest 'what if?' moment of Cosgrove's Dublin career?

"People might call me a liar, but I've never really thought about it," he maintains. "That team in 2002, we were very young. I honestly believe...I don't know if we were good enough to beat that Kerry team (in the All-Ireland final).

"With the quality of players they had...Armagh were probably better suited to playing them. They had more experience.

"I honestly think that Kerry team were a better team than our team in '02.

"We were young. Brogie (Alan Brogan), Barry Cahill, Shane Ryan, Clucko (Stephen Cluxton), Darren (Magee) – we were green. And you look at some of that Kerry team of '02, "I have to be honest... You never know when you get to a final. But on paper, that Kerry team – man v man – I think they were a stronger team than us," Cosgrove adds.

"That's my own gut feeling."

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