Wednesday 23 October 2019

The Invincibles: Heroes of Renown

 This Decade of the Dubs saw the emergence of one of the game’s greatest teams

14 September 2019; Dublin team line up for the playing of Amhrán na bhFiann prior to the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay match between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
14 September 2019; Dublin team line up for the playing of Amhrán na bhFiann prior to the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay match between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Seán Potts

IF Carlsberg did decades . . . and so it goes.

David Hickey said they would do it, and who are we to argue with one of our country's greatest people?

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After 2011 they said it would never be the same; that outpouring was unique, never to be repeated. Unless, of course, our heroes were to stand on the precipice of sporting immortality, Gaelic games' most elusive prize, the quintet of successive titles.

Kerry need no reminding of history. Four points up in 1982, game over, record secured; two soft frees and a wonder goal and the grail slips from the hand.

No sooner had the seagulls swooped on Croke Park after Dublin's victory over Tyrone in 2018 than the talk started. Would it spook the team, would Kerry emerge in time to deny the coronation? There was symmetry to that, surely?

History can tighten the limbs, skew the radar, play havoc with the mind. A sending off, a couple of hamstring tears, a stomach bug, bad refereeing . . . the vicissitudes.

Jim Gavin and, in no small measure, Declan Darcy and Jason Sherlock and the rest of the backroom team have been absolutely magnificent in managing the endless process of running a successful county panel.

They have nurtured an extraordinary culture. Basics and percentages are respected, yet there has never been a fear of change. They are pioneers in overseeing the evolution of Dublin football.

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History was embraced, not a cheap sentimental 'drive for five', but a respect for the task, for the opportunity to be part of something really special, something exclusive in the 135-year history of our great indigenous sports.

In today's world of perpetual communication it's important to filter, to focus on what matters, on what you do, respecting values, embracing the opportunity to represent your county, appreciate those who wore the jersey before you and pass it on graciously, no small feat in today's narcissistic society.

Simple comparisons can be trite but it's no disrespect to the warriors of the past to accept that this is the greatest Gaelic football team of all time. And they are not finished.

But it's time to pause and retrace the journey from their last championship defeat.

As the 2015 season dawned, Jim McGuinness continued to bask in the glory of his All-Ireland semi-final coup, despite falling to Kerry in the 2014 final, and critics remained fixated with Gavin's apparent gung-ho approach to the set-up.

Sport, by its nature, is fickle and transient. From being lauded for playing a high octane attacking game, Dublin were now being criticised for being defensively naive and – a regular brickbat thrown in the county's direction – arrogant.

Éamonn Fitzmaurice's approach to the '14 final had indicated a tactical maturity and there was something of a consensus among commentators that Dublin needed to evolve or at least recapture their defensive structure of 2011 and 2013.

Had Dublin converted first-half goal chances against Donegal in 2014, who knows how the team's development may have differed, but that sliding doors moment saw the emergence of the greatest Gaelic football force in history.

Losses in the League to Cork and away to Kerry and a draw with Tyrone in Croke Park strengthened the negative assessment. However, when Derry arrived to HQ in late March and parked the bus for the entire game, Dublin were conspicuously patient in their approach, revealing a clear desire to win regardless of how ugly it looked.

Cork had impressed during the campaign but when Dublin dismantled them in the League final to secure a third title in a row, a signal of progressive intent had been issued.

None doubted Dublin's talent but the approach had visibly altered. Ciarán Kilkenny was the axle of the new machine; Dean Rock's consistent contribution to the side's tally, particularly from range, allowed Dublin to probe and whittle down the blanket defence.

The defence was now policed by Cian O'Sullivan, whose ability as a holding sweeper to identify danger and close down space was unrivalled.

The drawn final with Mayo was a bizarre contest, as finals often are. Mayo's assertive approach was diminished after they leaked two freak own-goals. 

In a scrappy second period, Dublin appeared to have engineered a match-winning lead but Mayo battled to the death and hit a great equaliser through Cillian O'Connor. 

Replays, as we know only too well, have a life and character all of their own and the 2016 retake was a rollicking affair by comparison. 

The setting sun was enhanced by the Croke Park floodlights as Dublin, led by Rock, opened brightly. Then the madness kicked in — Jonny Cooper black-carded, Keegan's wonder goal, Keegan's black card, Rob Hennelly's black card, Connolly's penalty . . . an absolute whirlwind of contrasting emotion and ebbing fortunes. 

Mayo clung desperately to Dublin throughout the closing stages but Cormac Costelloe's Gatling gun attack proved the difference along with Fitzsimons tour de force in defence. The post nearest Jones' Road at the Hill End denied O'Connor a late free and Dublin's mastery of possession during the chaotic closing seconds was franked by the very last play, Darren Daly's powerful block.

So, the first back-to-back since Kerry in 2007 and the county's fourth title of the decade. The Kerry and Tyrone teams of the late 1990s and 2000s now had a modern day rival.

2017 opened with Dublin bidding for five consecutive League titles, with the backdrop of the longest unbeaten run in Gaelic football. Kerry stopped them in their tracks in the League final but fell to Mayo at the second attempt in the All-Ireland semi-final later that summer.

With a self-righteous push from the pundits, Diarmuid Connolly was banished to the sidelines for the summer after touching a linesman against Carlow, a ridiculously excessive punishment.

After seeing off a resolute Kildare challenge in the Leinster final, Dublin then finally put the nail in the coffin of the blanket defence when they obliterated Monaghan and Tyrone, the semi-final was one of the most complete performances of Gaelic football ever witnessed, punctuated by Con O'Callaghan's wonder goal.

It pitted the decade's greatest rivals together again and we were treated to a pulsating classic. Like all the best finals, there was chaos and heroics in abundance.

Con had already announced his arrival on the main stage and he franked his class again after 90 seconds with a deft finish to the net but Mayo were getting a lot of purchase off the Dublin kickouts until the strategy was changed. Losing Jack McCaffrey to a knee injury was a huge blow.

As in many of the championship contests between the sides the game oscillated with second-half goal chances denied by great saves from Cluxton and David Clarke.

Madness prevailed in the 48th minute when Donie Vaughan's retaliatory clip to the departing John Small denied Mayo the numerical advantage. Dublin edged ahead through the imperious James McCarthy until Keegan turned the tide again with a blistering goal in the 53rd minute.

The stadium was suffocating with tension as both teams traded blows to the death. Connolly had made a serious impact after being introduced at the break and, fittingly, given his exclusion for most of the summer, he drew a foul in the 76th minute.

Rock has spoken before about how he can shut out those trying to put him off. This time it was the flying GPS pack. It wasn't enough to deter the master marksman and, just like Cluxton, he kicked a free to win the All-Ireland.

Dublin's subsequent close out was magnificent, regardless of what our moral superiors claimed.

It is almost insolent to talk of handy All-Irelands (quite often levelled at Kerry) particularly given the extraordinary dedication of players, but Dublin's progress in 2018 was seamless even allowing for the loss of Connolly for the summer.

A doughty League final victory over Galway earned garlands for Ciarán Kilkenny, who led the performance particularly following Niall Scully's dismissal for a second yellow with 25 minutes still to play.

The challenge in Leinster was paltry and the biggest talking point was the late tackle on Cluxton in the semi-final against Longford which saw Evan Comerford between the posts for the final victory over Laois.

The novelty of the Super 8s gave a different feel to the championship season but Dublin navigated the three games with quiet efficiency, particularly their victory over Tyrone in Healy Park.

Given their League final exploits, a lot was expected of Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final and they got a return from a few long balls in the first half. However, Dublin's third-quarter push ended their challenge to set up a meeting with Tyrone.

Matching the great Kerry teams of the past 50 years has been a constant footnote to Dublin's achievements and equalling the four-in-a-row of 1978-1981 was hugely important. Seven points up at half-time and six in the end, Dublin were significantly stronger than Tyrone, whose late rally was prompted by Peter Harte's penalty. First-half goals from Mannion's penalty and Niall Scully really established the match-winning platform.

Cluxton was outstanding again but despite his performances, including a penalty save against Galway in the semi-final, he was once again denied an All-Star.

History now beckoned and it was noticeable this season that Dublin returned to action later than normal and the customary relentless push was absent at the outset of the League. Kerry were rightly fired up for their League clash with Dublin in Tralee but their one-point win was somewhat sullied by falling to Mayo in the final.

At no point was there any sense of panic, rather a hint of a slightly different approach in the context of aiming to achieve what no other county had managed in hurling or football.

Meath's improvement was evident this season following their promotion to Division 1 and they caused problems for Dublin in the first half of the Leinster final on a sodden day but the regular third-quarter push created the daylight between the teams.

With progression to the semis already secured with victories over Cork and Roscommon, there was a carnival atmosphere in Omagh with panellists given a run — but Dublin were in no mood to surrender their unbeaten championship run.

The semi-final was box office. Dublin's 10 point swing in the 12 minutes after the break was breathtaking; no one had ever witnessed football as relentlessly brilliant.

Now there was no escaping the talk, no hiding from the expectation — Dublin were 70 minutes (140-plus, as it transpired) from immortality.

Building on a platform of consistent underage success, Kerry are an emerging force in Gaelic football but the accepted wisdom, yerras aside, was that it might be too soon for them to stop Dublin.

No one believed it of course, and there was no doubt a quiet belief in the Kingdom that there was enough firepower and pace in Peter Keane's squad to catch the champions.

And just as we feared, a sending off altered the pattern of the game and Kerry's goal and subsequent lead heading into the last quarter felt like the road to eternal glory was narrowing. But as Michael Jordan famously said, talent wins games but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.

Despite the loss of Cooper, Dublin squeezed Kerry for the final 10 minutes, not allowing them a single attack and engineered a beautiful equaliser. The dominant force at the close, it was another absolutely rollicking contest with a whirlwind performance from Jack McCaffrey.

By their own towering standards, a number of players were below par, but the team ethic never altered.

The replay reached another level, arguably one of the finest Gaelic football matches ever played.

Eoin Murchan's goal just seconds after the restart was the turning point. Murch, taking the baton from McCaffrey, tore through the prairie of space and, with advantage already in the bag, nailed the finish with the outside of his right boot.

Kerry weren't finished but poor shooting and Dublin's increasing press and dominance in possession wore the young pretenders out, with Kilkenny's authority all over the performance. In fact the response of Kilkenny, O'Callaghan and Mannion to the first day was telling, with 12 points from play between them.

At the other end, Mick Fitzsimons, a quiet, enduring warrior from 2011, was outstanding. Cooper, after enduring his dismissal the first day, was equally dominant while there was solidity in every line.

But let's close the decade with the man who got us over the line in the first instance.

Kerry needed a green flag and with three points in it midway through the second half Stephen O'Brien bore down on goal, Cluxton closed the gap, stood tall and parried to safety.

As the players basked in the afterglow of the historic five-in-a-row, Cluxton was on his own, last man standing.

Whenever he decides to draw the curtain on his playing career, his replacement will be standing on the shoulder of a giant.

A decade of the Dubs, heroes of renown.

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