Sport Decades of the Dubs

Friday 18 October 2019

The evolution of five-in-a-row: 'We were going to change the way football was played - that's what we used to say'

6 August 2016; Paul Flynn of Dublin in action against Anthony Thompson of Donegal during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Dublin and Donegal at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
6 August 2016; Paul Flynn of Dublin in action against Anthony Thompson of Donegal during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Dublin and Donegal at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Conor McKeon

IT'S impossible for Paul Flynn to narrate the story of the Dublin footballers: 2015 to 2019, without a prologue.

"I always thought that '13 and '14 were the best years of my playing career," says Flynn, with an unmistakable tone of regret.

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"We were going to change the way football was being played — that's what we used to say."

Of all the things Flynn has been accused of in his lifetime, lacking ambition isn't one of them.

"The sweeper systems and the defensive football were going to be made redundant if we could get this right in 2014. That's the way we saw it," he says.

"It was full-on pressing. Risk-reward. And it was such an exciting way to play."

The game that springs immediately to Flynn's mind is the League semi-final against Cork that year. At half-time, Dublin were eight points down.

In the end, they won by seven, leaving some Cork players looking distinctly like they never wanted to play football again.

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"They couldn't get out of their own half," he recalls. "We pinned them in. I loved playing that way."

So it went.

As the year wore on, Flynn was locked in a two-way battle with Diarmuid Connolly for Footballer of the Year.

Dublin were breaking every verifiable scoring record and the football world stood agog at their freewheeling ambition.

And then, Jim McGuinness and Donegal sickened them in the All-Ireland semi-final.

"It's one that, even after being involved in the four-in-a-row, still hurts," Flynn admits.

"We were so close. But that was definitely the end of something. A very short era."

There ends the prologue.

If the story of the Dublin footballers: 2015 to '19 is mostly a tale of success through consistent evolution and improvement, it starts more gloomily than you'd expect.

"The next few years," Flynn freely admits now, "even though we were really successful, they weren't as enjoyable."

Revolution could wait. Dublin had to learn to walk again.

"We were playing much more controlled football," he notes.

"We weren't kicking the ball as much. Every turnover was being looked at and analysed. So it was a total change of our whole philosophy.

"But now," he adds, finally getting towards the good stuff, "looking back, that was the creation of the 'legacy team'."

So that's how it started.

It ended for Flynn last May when he came to the conclusion that, physically, he couldn't be an active part of Dublin's journey this summer.

And he hadn't sufficient interest in being an inactive one.

Only in the past few week really has he reflected on the latter, silver-plated years of his football career.

That summer of 2015 was, he notes was, "a learning experience for everyone. Players and management."

Dublin weren't anything like a polished team but they made the All-Ireland final against Kerry nonetheless.

"When I woke up the morning of the final, I thought 'this could go either way'. It was a wet day and it was a dank game.

"But we were just the team that made less mistakes. That's why we won."

That was Flynn's third All-Ireland medal but for the team as an entity, it felt like the start of something.

"I know it's clichéd but the competition internally was the main driving factor in all of those years," he says.

"Jim's mentality was 'you train well, you play'. And once that mindset was there, lads always felt that they could get into the team and other lads felt they could be dropped.

"When you factor in the scale of talent in the squad, it just kept driving up standards. It kept us all on edge."

With Flynn and his vintage still influential and a crop of richly talented players beginning to sprout, they were confident of at least having a better crack at winning back-to-back All-Irelands than they managed in 2012 or '14.

Enter Mayo.

Flynn is adamant now that: "Mayo should have beaten us the first day [in the 2016 All-Ireland final].

"There's no denying that. That was the day they should have won their All-Ireland."

"And then, the replay wasn't until the first of October.

"For four days, there were serious questions in my head whether I'd have preferred to have lost the first game or go back training for two more weeks.

"For four days, it felt dark.

"And," he adds, "it was actually starting to get dark. We were training under lights. It was colder. We were wearing leggings at training. I was thinking 'this is the longest season of my life'."

Worse.

Flynn was one of the more experienced players whose worth in Jim Gavin's starting 15 was being publicly questioned.

"We got hammered in the media," he says. "People asking 'how are we still starting?'"

Bernard Brogan and Michael Darragh Macauley, two of his closest friends, were dropped for the replay.

Flynn hung on. Cormac Costello scored three points from the bench in the rain. And Dublin went back-to-back.

But the dynamic within the squad had already begun to change.

Almost inevitably, Dublin and Mayo met again in the 2017 All-Ireland final, when Dean Rock iced the winner and Flynn came off the bench after just eight minutes when Jack McCaffrey ruptured his ACL.

In hindsight, it stands as probably the best All-Ireland final of the decade, indicative of how the chemistry between the teams produced high-octane classics.

"If you look at a game against Mayo from up in the stands, you think 'look at all that space! Why aren't they kicking it into the space?'" explains Flynn.

"But when you're playing in them, you can't actually see the space because you have a guy literally in your face the whole time.

"You honestly couldn't see 20 yards or 30 yards in front of you."

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17 September 2017; Dublin's Paul Flynn celebrates following the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Adding spark to it was the fact that somewhere between '16 and '17, the rivalry had veered from fiery to toxic.

And Flynn wasn't inclined to be shy.

"When you retire, that just dies," he stresses.

"It's like 'what was I thinking?' You realise they're exactly the same as you are.

"They were in the same position, doing the same things trying to win the same cup as you.

"You only appreciate afterwards how much in common you had with them."

By the start of the summer of last year, Gavin's remodelling of the Dublin attack was complete.

Niall Scully, Ciarán Kilkenny and Brian Howard formed a fresh half-forward line.

Conscious of his status, Flynn made sure to be on hand to impart any required wisdom but, as he admits now, "it's very hard to fulfil that role when you're not in the starting team because you lose some of your aura. And I struggled with that."

The central character in it all, he says, remains Stephen Cluxton.

Flynn describes the Dublin captain as "an innovator" and "a crusader".

"He's always been the leader of the team. And I always felt he didn't get the credit he deserved."

Equally influential in the most successful decade Dublin has known was Gavin's transition of the team.

There would, Flynn stresses, have been no consistent success for Dublin without continual evolution.

When he looks at the new leaders — Ciarán Kilkenny, Jack McCaffrey and Brian Fenton — he recognises something of himself, Brogan and Macauley in how they interact on and off the pitch

"They're moulded into the Jim way of playing and the Jim way of thinking," Flynn points out.

"There were some of us that Jim inherited that he would have had to work on a bit more because we had our own way of thinking or our own way of playing.

"Now, this is the full cultivation of his type of player. And they've built a dynamic among themselves.

"I look back from some games from that period and nearly every time I got the ball, I was passing it into Bernard.

"We were really close. We were good friends. And we played well together.

"And I see that a lot with the current crop of players. There's a trust there. It's in your sub-conscious.

"So," Flynn concludes, "they're the fellas that are central to all this now.

"For us and for Jim and for themselves — but especially for Dublin — they just came at the perfect time."

Together, they penned the the story of the Dublin footballers 2015 to '19.

You suspect there'll be an epilogue.

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