Turning points: The only way is up
Battle of Omagh and Mill at the Hill in 2006 steeled Dubs for success,
IT was a trusted former colleague of mine, Seán Potts, who protested to me that 1974 was the year that Dublin refused to be regarded as a soft touch.
That was the era when aggression was met with aggression.
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By the 2006 season I needed a sharp reminder of Dublin's combative history because the memory of the 1983 All-Ireland final and the heroics of 'The Twelve Apostles' had been wiped out on the sorry Saturday afternoon in July 2003 when I watched Tommy Lyons holding back his players at half-time for fear of bumping into lads from Armagh in the Croke Park tunnel.
It was an example of what the colourful bainisteoir might have termed 'arse-boxing'.
Arguably, it was Dublin's darkest hour. The day the Boys in Blue stepped aside and gave the impression that they were a soft touch. A pushover. A team without backbone.
It was on this wasteland that the foundations of the current impregnable citadel were dug.
The first men into the ditch with the bulldozers and concrete were Paul Caffrey, Brian Talty, Dave Billings and Paul Clarke.
Their task was never going to be easy. And they knew it.
For years they'd watched the toughest teams take the prize.
After the concrete came the steel as a new Dublin was fashioned in the foundry of hard knocks.
It was understood that it would take time to build a fortress.
Some day someone will compile an unofficial guide to the realities of football. The wisdom is out there. It's handed down. We hear it from the veterans.
To get to an All-Ireland final you needed to impose yourself on the game. As former Meath All-Ireland-winning midfielder Liam Hayes once noted: "In a physical sport intimidation will always have a part to play."
His team-mate of the 1980s/90s Colm O'Rourke cautioned, "Nice guys finish last".
It was in 2006 that we saw signs the Dublin reconstruction was coming along nicely.
In previous campaigns, life had been made miserable by the likes of Kerry, Westmeath, Laois, Armagh and Tyrone, who'd beaten Dublin in a quarter-final replay in 2005 and went on to lift Sam Maguire.
In their opening match of the 2006 National League, Dublin met Tyrone in Omagh.
This was the day Dublin showed they'd no longer be bullied into submission.
On a chilly February afternoon, Dublin laid down a marker. They refused to be brow beaten and showed they could dish it out if necessary.
'The Battle of Omagh' they called it, as both teams finished with 13 men. This time Dublin emerged victorious.
Brimming with passion and belief, Dublin gave the All-Ireland champions a display of all areas of football skills, good fielding, tenacious defending, fast, accurate passing and impressive scoring.
It was early in the year, but this looked like the complete package and, crucially, Dublin didn't bottle it.
They soaked up whatever punishment was thrown at them and seemed to draw strength from it.
Pride, resolve and gritty determination had been restored to the Dublin DNA. A vital message resounded, loud and clear, "No more Mister Nice Guy".
Dublin had found its soul and surely now the team's courage could no longer be doubted.
The toughest test Dublin received on their way to winning the Leinster final in 2006 was in their first match, a quarter-final against Longford which they won by two points (1-12 to 0-13).
Neither Laois in the semi-final (3-17 to 0-12) nor Offaly in the provincial final (1-15 to 0-9) threatened Dublin's progress.
In the All-Ireland quarter-final, Dublin beat Westmeath, who'd battled through four qualifying rounds, by 10 points (1-12 to 0-5).
With Kerry already through to the All-Ireland final, having beaten Cork the previous Sunday, a resurgent Dublin faced Mayo in Croke Park on August 27.
We weren't to know it that morning, but this semi-final was about to unfold as one of the most dramatic matches in living memory.
Mayo were first to come out on the pitch and, as they did, they headed towards the Hill to warm-up.
An unwritten rule, a long-standing courtesy, was ignored as the Mayo squad went through their drills and shooting practice in front of the ranks of Dublin supporters.
When Dublin dispensed with their photocall duties, the panel linked arms and marched towards the Hill like a phalanx of Roman centurions ready to repel invaders.
There were mini-flashpoints and incidents of argy-bargy, the most notable being when Dublin manager Paul 'Pillar' Caffrey barged Mayo mentor John Morrison.
This departure from established protocol (tried before by Tyrone in 1984) was believed to have been designed by Mayo manager Mickey Moran in the hope of unsettling Dublin and giving Mayo a psychological advantage ahead of throw-in.
When Mayo had four points on the board with Dublin yet to register a score after 16 minutes, there was concern that the Mayo mind-games had worked.
But Dublin responded with a Conal Keaney point and, when he was in the right place at the right time in the 23rd minute to fire to the net after David Clarke had denied Alan Brogan, Dublin were in the game.
However, Mayo, following the introduction of Kevin O'Neill, who played his club football in the capital with Na Fianna at the time, finished the half the stronger to lead 0-9 to 1-5 at the interval.
The Dubs, though, were left to rue a series of missed opportunities with Keaney electing to fist a point at one stage when a goal was on, Jason Sherlock hit the crossbar and Alan Brogan was denied in the danger zone by Aidan Higgins.
These squandered chances would come back to haunt 'Pillar' Caffrey's men.
Dublin regrouped at the break and stormed back in the second-half, equalising with an Alan Brogan point and then going a goal up when Jason Sherlock found the net after some stunning interplay by the Dublin attack.
Within four minutes of the restart, they were five points ahead after Alan Brogan had slotted his third point from play.
A few minutes later, Dublin were leading by seven points (2-11 to 0-10) after Kevin Bonner and Conal Keaney were on target and the supporters were belting out a few choruses of 'Dublin In The Rare Auld Times'.
With an attendance of 82,148 present the decibels levels were going through the roof and the action was compelling.
But gradually, Mayo stalled Dublin's momentum and reeled them back in with points from Ger Brady and Alan Dillon before Andy Moran goaled, following clever work by Kevin O'Neill.
It was the first goal Dublin had conceded in that summer's championship and ultimately the one that knocked them out.
With 15 minutes left to play, the sides were level.
In boxing, these minutes are called the 'Championship Rounds', the period when endurance, desire and courage are tested to extremes.
It became a game of nip'n'tuck as the sides traded points.
With two minutes left on the clock, Mayo's Ciarán McDonald lofted a wonder point. The shockwaves stunned the Dublin supporters but still the drama continued.
Dublin substitute Mark Vaughan, who had replaced Tomás Quinn, hit an upright with a free and then a '45' came off the crossbar as the wheels came off the wagon.
A late, late long-range Vaughan free sailed wide and with it Dublin's dream of reaching a first All-Ireland decider since 1995 disappeared.
The bookies and the pundits had called it wrong. The underdogs had stolen Dublin's thunder.
"It's heartbreak stuff," said Paul Caffrey reflecting on his side's defeat by a single point (1-16 to 2-12).
"It's a shattered dressing-room. The players did Dublin proud."
Martin Breheny, in the Irish Independent, the next day wrote: "Dublin looked in through heaven's door, liked what they saw and were just about to step inside when Mayo's eviction squad arrived and ruthlessly ejected them from the premises.
"As the door slammed in their faces, Dublin were left outside in abject misery wondering how an All-Ireland semi-final that seemed comfortably secured when they led by seven points after 46 minutes was surrendered over the closing stretch."
In Kerry, they used to say that to win an All-Ireland you first had to lose an All-Ireland.
The shock defeat by Mayo was a semi-final but the sense of hurt and disappointment felt that day was as great as falling at the final hurdle.
When you feel this low there's nowhere left to go except up. The hard work had been done. This was base camp.
From here Dublin would begin their ascent all over again.