The breakthrough: High on emotion
After the heartbreak of 2010, the following year brought one of the greatest days for Dublin fans
FOLLOWING their much publicised capitulation at the hands of Kerry the previous summer, it was fitting that Dublin should commence their NFL Division 1 campaign with a trip to Killarney to face the All-Ireland champions in February 2010.
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Granted, while the hosts were far from full strength, it was evident from the first whistle that there was never any likelihood of a repeat of that 17-point humiliation of the August before and Dublin duly secured a small degree of revenge with a Paul Flynn goal before the break seeing them to victory, 1-12 to 1-10.
The new defensive template was set from that point, with David Henry revelling as the spare defender, and their new-found security was noteworthy when beating Derry by 1-11 to 0-7 in Round 2, with Kevin McManamon the goalscorer.
Another psychological boost arrived in Round 3 as the Dubs travelled to Castlebar and came away with a narrow 1-9 to 1-8 win against Mayo with Bernard Brogan's goal giving a glimpse of the exceptional form that would be rewarded with the Footballer of the Year accolade by the end of the season.
Brogan's form was a major positive for Dublin with his 1-6 tally helping the Dubs to their fourth straight win, with an injury suffered by captain Paul Griffin the only downer in their 2-11 to 1-9 victory over Monaghan.
Dublin's were always likely to face their stiffest test of their new-found defensive template when travelling to Páirc Uí Rinn to face a Cork team that had won the previous two league titles.
So it proved as cracks appeared in their formation with goals in either half from
McManamon and Bernard Brogan failing to spare Dublin as they succumbed by 2-13 to 2-6.
Worse was to follow at Parnell Park in Round 6 as Dublin failed to capitalise on a bright opening as they fell to Galway by 1-14 to 0-14, despite another sparkling showing from Bernard Brogan that yielded 0-11.
However, there was a bright conclusion to their league campaign as a sparkling first-half display that included goals from Alan Brogan and Niall Corkery saw Dublin defeat Tyrone by 2-14 to 1-11 in Omagh, relegating the hosts in the process.
Despite not reaching the league final, five wins from seven games was an encouraging return with manager Pat Gilroy relatively pleased with the progress made over the league as he assessed that win over Tyrone.
"We've probably learned to be a bit better defensively when we've concentrated on it. We still know that there is a gap between us and the top guys but when you see something like today you feel we’re making progress and closing that gap," he said.
There was very little to encourage Gilroy as Dublin opened up their defence of the Leinster title, delivering a muddled and disjointed display as they edged past Wexford by 2-16 to 0-15 after extra-time.
There were many questions to answer emanating from the performance with the most concerning one being how the game-plan which had worked in the league had come so badly unstuck as two goals by Bernard Brogan helped rescue a Dublin team that were booed off at half-time as they trailed by 0-8 to 0-2.
Discipline was an issue on that occasion with Denis Bastick and Ger Brennan both dismissed but that was the least of Dublin's concerns in the Leinster semi-final against Meath that saw their defensive realignment ripped to shreds as they fell by 5-9 to 0-13.
The qualifiers offered Dublin the perfect opportunity to regroup following that heavy loss but there was still some fallibility to their play as they beat Tipperary by 1-21 to 1-13 in Round 2.
Armagh were a pale shadow of their All-Ireland winning team of eight years previously yet they forced the Dubs to dig deep with Bernard Brogan's brilliance masking an otherwise ordinary display as they prevailed by 0-14 to 0-11.
After Eoghan O'Gara had netted twice in Dublin's 2-14 to 0-13 win over Louth, the Templeogue man provided the pivotal moment in their subsequent quarter-final against Tyrone, blasting home in the 65th minute to complete a 1-15 to 0-13 win.
Any win over Tyrone was gratefully received during that period and optimism was high that Dublin's curve of progression would continue when they met favourites Cork in the semi-final.
Bernard Brogan's sublime goal in the second minute helped the Dubs race out of the blocks as Ross McConnell and Michael Darragh Macauley dominated midfield to push their side 1-8 to 0-7 clear at the break.
Sadly, the levels of intensity and concentration could not be maintained as McConnell went from hero to zero in the final quarter, conceding a penalty and then receiving a second booking while the placed ball prowess of Donncha O'Connor ultimately consigned Dublin to a 1-15 to 1-14 loss.
While the loss to Kerry a year previously left most Dublin supporters in a state of shock, acute pain was the primary emotion after a year of encouraging highs and two desolate lows.
WITH the foundations firmly in place and Pat Gilroy embarking on his third year as manager, the big question entering 2011 was whether Dublin could develop their game sufficiently to take that final step into being considered genuine All-Ireland contenders.
In that respect, their league campaign could not have been more encouraging as they opened up on the first weekend in February with a 2-12 to 1-11 win over Armagh, spoiling the hosts' party as they celebrated the redevelopment of the Athletic Grounds.
Diarmuid Connolly and Bernard Brogan nabbed the goals against the Orchard County and the latter kicked six points as Dublin gained a small degree of revenge on holders Cork when defeating them by 3-13 to 0-16 in their Round 2 clash in Croke Park a fortnight later.
Some errant shooting aside, this was a hugely impressive showing from the Dubs with goals by Tomás Quinn, Kevin McManamon and Barry Cahill reflecting their greater emphasis on attacking play.
This delicate balance between a resolute defence and a more consistent threat up front was being constantly fine-tuned and Quinn and McManamon once again found the net, alongside Michael Darragh Macauley, as Dublin completed a Munster double by edging Kerry by 3-10 to 1-15 in Round 3.
The tightness of the exchanges continued into Round 4 with Dublin surviving by the skin of their teeth once again as they got the better of Monaghan by 0-13 to 1-9 in Clones.
A string of seven unanswered points swung the tie in Dublin's favour with Connolly, who was dismissed late on, Seán Murray, Barry Cahill and Darren Daly the key performers as they maintained their perfect record.
A fifth straight win arrived on March 20 as Connolly gave a virtuoso performance in the first half, netting a hat-trick as Dublin fought off a brave Mayo comeback to eventually prevail by 4-15 to 3-13.
They beat Down 2-10 to 0-13 a fortnight later, confirming their final berth in the process, thanks to goals by Paul Flynn and Alan Brogan. Their only blemish arrived in the concluding group match as they shared the spoils, 2-9 to 0-15, against Galway in Salthill.
The momentum from the group stage was carried through into the decider, well the first half at least, as Dublin dominated League and All-Ireland holders Cork, despite the absence through suspension of Alan Brogan.
Goals from Quinn and Bernard Brogan, augmented by a typically barnstorming display by Macauley, had Dublin 2-11 to 0-10 to the good early in the second-half but injuries to Brogan and Connolly saw Dublin lose their edge in attack as Cork outscored their flagging opponents by 0-11 to 0-2 in the last half hour to win by the narrowest of margins.
If Gilroy's intention was to dampen expectations during the ensuing Leinster championship, he could feel justifiably pleased with his efforts as his side laboured through the province, starting with a casual 1-16 to 0-11 victory over Laois.
Dublin's finishing left on a lot to be desired on that occasion, with Connolly's goal arriving after a host of goal chances had gone abegging with Laois showing little or no attacking intent as they involved themselves in an exercise of damage limitation.
Kildare were next in Dublin's sights and despite controlling matters in the first half, with a Paul Flynn goal prompting a 1-7 to 0-4 interval lead, their challenge wilted in the second-half as Eoghan O'Gara was dismissed within five minutes of the restart.
The Lilies took their time in making their numerical advantage count but eventually drew level entering injury-time before Aindriú Mac Lochlainn was adjudged to have fouled Bernard Brogan close to goal. Brogan did the necessary from the resultant free, ensuring a 1-12 to 1-11 success, as Dublin moved on to a Leinster final date with Wexford, with another below-par display culminating in a narrow 2-12 to 1-12 win.
The Dubs struggled for the large part, particularly their inside-forward line that saw Connolly, Brogan and O'Gara all replaced, albeit the latter with a wrist injury, with the highlight being a superb finish from James McCarthy for Dublin's first goal.
"We learnt to win in a very ugly way," was Gilroy's assessment of their performance with the pivotal score arriving through an unfortunate error from Wexford goalkeeper Anthony Masterson.
Any concerns about the potential of the Dublin attack were quickly allayed in their ensuing All-Ireland quarter-final against Tyrone, as they dominated far more than the scoreline of 0-22 to 0-15 would suggest.
This performance was the marker that Gilroy craved since his arrival as manager with his St Vincent's club colleague Connolly leading the way with seven points from play of the highest quality.
Dublin's reward was a last-four clash against Donegal as the Dubs veered from the sublime to the ridiculous in a match that will live long in the memory for all the wrong reasons.
Granted, it showed Dublin's ability to remain patient and to adhere to their game-plan as they refused to panic despite managing just two points during one of the most negative halves of football imaginable.
It took the 60th minute dismissal of Connolly to eventually spark Dublin into life with McManamon proving the value of his direct running. His point and further scores by Bryan Cullen and Bernard Brogan saw Dublin close out a 0-8 to 0-6 win.
That victory secured Dublin's first All-Ireland final appearance in 16 years, and what unfolded on September 18, for many, was the greatest day ever for the county's supporters.