Monday 16 September 2019

The hangover: Dublin football comes crashing down to earth

There was a palpable air of expectation on Hill 16 in the 1980s and 1990s, but these would become the decades of unfulfilled promise for the Boys in Blue

18 September 1983. Dublin's Brian Mullins is sent off by Referee Sean McKeogh as a Galway players lies on the ground. All-Ireland Football Final, Dublin v Galway, Croke Park. Picture Credit: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE.
18 September 1983. Dublin's Brian Mullins is sent off by Referee Sean McKeogh as a Galway players lies on the ground. All-Ireland Football Final, Dublin v Galway, Croke Park. Picture Credit: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE.

Seán Potts

There was something symmetrical about the 1980s and 1990s for Dublin football's fortunes. Both decades yielded a single, if glorious, All-Ireland title while both were punctuated with seasons of unfulfilled promise.

Early in the 1980s Offaly and Dublin became circuit-breakers in Kerry's all-powerful surge to immortality.

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Séamus Darby's late goal in 1982 to deny Kerry's five-in-a-row remains one of the most striking moments in GAA history, yet Kevin Heffernan's achievement the following season, rebuilding a team to compete at the top table, taking them to Páirc Uí Chaoimh for the semi-final replay demolition of Cork and watching them survive in the trenches with 12 men during a pitched battle with Galway must rank alongside the glorious breakthrough of 1974.

For the 20-year period up to the dawn of the new millennium, the GAA was in a state of flux; television coverage of Gaelic games grew exponentially during this time - live broadcasts of matches outside of All-Ireland semi-finals and finals became a regular occurrence and consequently commercial sponsorship, of the championships and subsequently the jerseys, became a reality. Dublin were in the thick of it.

The GAA had to change; its future depended on it.

The 1983 final is remembered for a lot of things, and not very favourably by those outside Dublin. But it's fortunate that the controversy was confined to a few slaps on the field.

The gates of Hill 16 were breached after the terrace had been closed and serious overcrowding occurred. Those who remember the old set-up behind the Railway End understand only too well how ill-equipped the area was. And the Hill was a rougher environment in those days. Mercifully, nothing serious occurred but it marked the beginning of the end of old practices and the Hill was rebuilt later in the decade.

Another remarkable aspect to '83 was not the dismissal of one of the county's greatest warriors, Brian Mullins, but rather the remarkable personal journey of rehabilitation he had taken, back from the brink of death after a horrendous car crash, to the field of play and All-Ireland glory.

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The county was alive again with its new heroes . . . Joe McNally, Barney Rock, Kieran Duff, Tommy Conroy and PJ Buckley, while veterans like Tommy Drumm, Anton O'Toole and Mullins were elevated higher in the Dublin pantheon. John O'Leary, an enduring member of Dublin's elite goalkeeping band, pocketed his first Celtic cross - he would wait 12 long years before he added another.

The All-Ireland hurling final in 1984 was moved to Thurles to mark the Association's centenary but it was business as usual in Croke Park, with Dublin and Kerry locking horns in the football decider. Well, more business as usual for Kerry. They destroyed Galway in the semi-final - the atmosphere that day was described as 'funereal' by the late Mícheál O'Hehir - in contrast to another feisty encounter between Dublin and Tyrone the following week when the Ulstermen, first on to the field, went to the Hill end for their warm-up.

Dublin followed suit but, as O'Hehir subsequently remarked in his commentary, despite the Hill end being Dublin's goal following 'recent tradition', that didn't give them 'squatters' rights' - some GAA topics are timeless.

However, less than a year after the problems on Hill 16, the pre-match circus resulted in serious crowd trouble and baton charges on the terrace. Despite the distractions of the original 'Hillgate', Dublin ran out comfortable winners.

The joy was short-lived. Mick O'Dwyer's team kick-started their second coming in the final with a five-point victory. Just as Heffo had done, O'Dwyer added new blood, players like Ambrose O'Donovan, Tom Spillane and Ger Lynch. The fusion with the established base was seamless.

After a two-match showdown with Mayo in the '85 semi-final, Dublin, with new recruits like Noel McCaffrey and Davy Synott in the line-up, booked their sixth final appearance against Kerry in 10 years.

Kerry, captained by Páidí Ó Sé, blitzed Dublin the opening half despite getting lucky when Jack O'Shea picked a ball off the ground in his own square. The introduction of John Kearns to the Dublin midfield, however, turned the tables and two goals from Joe McNally had Kerry visibly rattled.

Not for the first time in these legendary battles, Pat Spillane kicked a defining score after his brother Tom had punched a loose ball along the ground. A goal from Timmy O'Dowd sealed Dublin's fate.

Empires inevitably fall and Dublin's victory over Kerry in the 1987 league final merely deflected attention from Leinster champions Meath who, under the charismatic hand of Seán Boylan, had become a formidable force with a very potent forward division.

It would be 1989 before Dublin bettered their neighbours who had secured back-to-back All-Ireland titles, but that campaign ended against Cork in a wind-swept semi-final.

Dublin made a great start but conceded two penalties, both scored by John Cleary, and had a young Keith Barr sent off before half-time after retaliating to an incident with Dinny Allen.

Meath reasserted their control of the province a year later before falling to Cork in another tempestuous final.

The contribution of the two now great Leinster rivals the following summer proved to be epochal.

The four-game saga between Dublin and Meath in 1991 is seared into the hearts and minds of both counties. It captivated the nation during a time when the GAA needed a shot in the arm. Tickets for the final instalment were like hen's teeth, while, significantly, the sell-out fourth game, on a Saturday afternoon, was televised live.

Not for the first time in the series, Dublin had established a match-winning position by playing really well, despite missing a penalty where Mick Lyons almost blocked the kick. Barr, Eamonn Heery, Paul Curran - there was a wonderful mixture of dash and menace in these players and they were motoring.

Meath never played to the clock, however, and kept the ball moving through the hands before Kevin Foley emerged as the unlikely hero after a dazzling sequence that had commenced on Meath's own end line. David Beggy's winning point was a dagger through Dublin hearts, yet as compelling a score as you could witness.

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6 July 1991; Niall Guiden, Dublin in action against Colm Coyle, Meath, Dublin v Meath, Leinster Football Championship 1st round, 3rd replay. Picture credit; Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

Football people had travelled from all over the country to watch that game and mingled with the contrasting sets of supporters afterwards. The sense of pride in the game itself was palpable - the result for the neutral not as important as the manner of victory and the attendant heroism of the epic itself. Italia '90 was finally eclipsed by groups of amateur players going about their daily working lives in the middle of a six-week sporting saga.

For Dublin, meanwhile, it was a case of picking up the pieces again. A new rival was born in Leinster when the county's old nemesis Mick O'Dwyer took the reins in Kildare.

A melodramatic Leinster final was marked by an absolute screamer of a goal from Keith Barr but the year was to end in serious disappointment again when Donegal produced a tour de force in the All-Ireland final.

That defeat changed the mood considerably in the capital. Dublin were supposed to bury the ghosts of 1991 by winning the Sam a year later. They had won every championship game relatively comfortably; Donegal's semi-final victory over Galway, meanwhile, had been a turgid affair - the Dublin team had travelled to Croker to watch it.

There was fallout. There was an acrid tinge to football talk in Dublin during the winter of '92 with the blame game in full swing.

The 1993 league final provided a modicum of revenge for Dublin over Donegal but the victory proved costly when a ridiculous summer-long suspension was dished out to captain Tommy Carr for a petulant kick at Brian Murray.

Eamonn Heery was man of the match that day but the subsequent decision to move him to the half-forward line backfired in the All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Derry. The redemption craved by the team and the county was denied once again and the fallout continued.

In his biography Dessie Farrell spoke about the team almost wanting it too much, that there was an emotional drain, particularly on the eve of the 1994 final clash with Down. Commentators love to sneer at the modern idea of employing process to sports management, but it is used to cope with pressure of expectation.

There was also a nagging sense that individual hubris was costing Dublin, the sum of the parts just wasn't adding up.

Dublin were now seen as king-makers; a moniker which persisted well into the 2000s when Kerry and Tyrone saw beating Dublin as pivotal.

Manager Pat O'Neill changed the set-up in 1995 and took the courageous move to throw young teenager Jason Sherlock into the mix. The result was transformational. Sherlock scored key goals against Laois and Cork while setting up the match-winning score in the All-Ireland final against Tyrone.

As often happens with a team that has endured such a protracted journey to success, Dublin fell over the line in the '95 final. O'Neill's team had excelled all summer but, in the end, had to survive a disallowed equalising point by Tyrone's Seán McLaughlin.

The 1995 victory was huge for the county. As Barr famously remarked after the match, it was like a 'donkey' off their backs.

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17 September 1995, Dublin's Keith Barr celebrates with Jason Sherlock after victory in the 1995 All Ireland Final, Dublin V Tyrone, Croke Park. Picture Credit: David Maher/SPORTSFILE

Unfortunately for Dublin, however, the effect wasn't cathartic. O'Neill stepped down and the innovative Mickey Whelan took charge of a group which, collectively, probably took its eye off the ball.

As has been shown repeatedly since, Whelan was ahead of his time but the players weren't and many have admitted subsequently that corners were cut by them in 1996. The net effect of this was to open the door to a Meath side reconditioned with talented young players.

The subsequent treatment of Whelan by some elements in the county was shameful. In hindsight, it was pure ignorance. Whelan is a county treasure and with a lifetime of first-class coaching experience, continues to contribute handsomely to this day.

Tommy Carr took the reins after Mickey Whelan but despite overseeing a very united camp, a period of transition had commenced and the competitive edge of the early '90s was blunted.

Strikingly, the door opened to opponents by Dublin in 1996 remained ajar for 16 years. However, four protagonists from that era - Farrell, Pat Gilroy, Jim Gavin and Mickey Whelan - helped slam it shut from 2011 onwards.

The question for the county now is, are we prepared to keep it bolted?

Winning - as Vince Lombardi famously put it - is not a sometime thing, it is an all-time thing.

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