Dublin - Class of '95
WHEN the final whistle sounded, Pat O’Neill was cursing the outcome and already plotting for the replay.
Except there was no replay. Tyrone’s last-gasp 'equaliser' had never been awarded in the first place.
"We were defending. We were on the back foot," O’Neill recalls. "So much so that, at the end of the match, I thought it was a draw.
"Things were a little bit disorganised on the line at that stage, because of where it was, it was down to the wire in the last few seconds really, and all I saw was the ball going over the bar and I said ‘It’s a draw’ then when the whistle went.
"The thought that came into my head was planning for the replay – without Charlie (Redmond). And then Fran Ryder jumped up on my back.
"He said ‘Jesus, we’ve won it!’ And I said 'Sure, it’s a draw!' 'No,’ he said, ‘the last one didn’t count.'"
Seán McLaughlin’s putative leveller had been disallowed by Paddy Russell, who adjudged that Peter Canavan had fouled the ball on the ground when laying on the assist.
The referee had whistled straight away but, in the chaotic din of All-Ireland day, the Dublin manager had never realised. Maybe his three years in charge, and preceding two as a selector, had convinced him to expect the worst at those watershed moments.
Now, having lost his free-taker after Redmond’s sending-off (another saga to which we’ll return) he had seen his 14 men surrender their lead at the death.
But 1995 was different to ’91 and ’92 and ’93 and ’94: a year when the fates finally smiled on Dublin.
"My first instinct after that was 'I need to get out of here,'" says O’Neill. "I headed straight for the dressing-room. I never saw the presentation of the cup or anything."
He craved that solitude to "get my head around it. Jesus, it’s done now – that’s what we set out five years previously to do.
"There was a relief with it, yeah, but it was still a mission basically and it was an accomplishment. It was a long time since Dublin had won anything. We were always knocking around and being in there, as very competitive foils.
"But they hadn’t won. And the difference between winning and losing… there’s no comparison between winning and losing. It’s not a gold medal and a silver medal. There’s only one medal."
The irony is that Dublin’s "one medal" from that era came after what O’Neill frankly describes as "the worst All-Ireland they played in." Better performances in previous years had culminated in heartbreak.
But did they deserve more than one All-Ireland?
"Ah, they deserved one," he demurs. But as he reflects back on the previous four campaigns – albeit one of them cruelly terminated at the first round stage in Leinster – he can also appreciate just how close Dublin were to making the breakthrough before ’95.
They "could have won" in each of those years, he reckons. "So, you know, they could have ended up with five. My own feeling, though, is that if they had won one or two early, that’s about as much as they’d have got because they wouldn’t have stuck with it. Maybe I’m wrong, but that was my feeling."
He doesn’t dismiss the argument, voiced by Dessie Farrell, that pre-’95 they tended to press the panic button at critical stages in the most important games.
Harking back to when Paddy Cullen took over as manager, the then-selector cites their concern that too many of the team, particularly half-backs, were "over-carrying the ball. Whereas it’s nice football to play and to be seen to be played, we were getting very little off it because we were either running into blind alleys or getting dispossessed.
"So, there was very much an attitude, in the management group, that we wanted a kicking game… and we set about that, and it led to a little bit of discontent among the players."
Convincing them took a while, but they eventually came around. "Going back to your question, that they pushed the panic button," O’Neill continues. "Yeah, there was a reversion to it then when the pressure would come on. Some would say ‘Well, I’ll take this on myself’ rather than sticking to the strategic plan."
By the end of ’94, as O’Neill and his three wise men (Jim Brogan, Fran Ryder and Bobby Doyle) contemplated one more assault on that elusive cannister, there was a mixture of "concern" about Dublin’s big-match failures laced with "a lot of optimism".
It was still, he is keen to stress, a very good team. With one caveat: "We had positions that we were short on really, in terms of what’s required to function at that level. We had lost a few, to injury and attrition for other reasons."
More positively, Brian Stynes was maturing into a top player, leaving them happy with the midfield dynamic.
Of the younger generation, Jason Sherlock and Ian Robertson had arrived on the scene; whereas the latter was "very prone to injury", Sherlock would rapidly deliver that missing X-factor up front.
"He was new and the opposition didn’t know about him; they weren’t expecting him to be as good. And he worked very well with some of the more senior players," O’Neill points out.
Half-forward was another line to be shaken up. Jim Gavin became a key figure in a strategy devised at least partially in response to Graham Geraghty’s 1-2 from wing-back in the 1994 Leinster final.
"His job was to play on the half-back as a marker rather than trying to evade the half-back," O’Neill explains.
"We had trouble with Meath (in the 1994 Leinster final) because Geraghty was playing in the half-backs that year and he had done damage. So we figured we had to deal with that.
"And then Ciarán O’Sullivan (of Cork) in the (’95) semi-final – we said we have to stop this fellow, because he was tending to do the same thing. Jim did a tremendous job dealing with him that day."
Initially, Gavin "mightn’t have been totally happy" with the role, "but I think he saw the rationale. And actually he was fantastic in the semi-final and the final that year – he did that role to perfection."
Did he spy a legendary bainisteoir in the making?
"I knew he was a smart lad alright, but we weren’t in the business of creating managers for 20 years down the road! Our job was to win an All-Ireland, so it wasn’t on our agenda. But it’s actually amazing the number of that team that have gone on to be involved with Dublin – and other teams – as managers."
Back in ’95, O’Neill emphasises, "we ran it very much as a management group rather than a manager." Everyone brought different gifts to the boot room.
"Jim (Brogan) was a great organiser, first of all. He was cool as well, and a great thinker about the game. Then we had Fran Ryder, who was a highly qualified PE teacher. It was the early days of sports and exercise science and physiology coming into (the GAA). Some of my own background had that in it as well. And Bobby (Doyle) was really brought on for forward strategy. He’s an incredibly passionate individual."
When the final bell sounded on the ’95 semi-final against Cork, Dublin’s dream was still alive. Sherlock’s latest party trick, leaving Mark O’Connor in prostrate helplessness to score the only goal, had helped seal a three-point win.
All-Ireland final day brought another Ulster obstacle (like in 1992-’94): Tyrone. And another frightening individual menace: Peter Canavan. They would lose the latter battle yet win the collective war.
Beforehand, there was a "confidence" among the Dublin brains trust mingled with an ongoing concern about the
full-back line – "so much so that we had to play Keith Galvin, who really was a wing-back, not a corner-back. And it proved a little bit problematic, because they brought on (Mattie) McGleenan just before half-time and he physically wasn’t able to handle him.
"We had to make a radical change which was to take Stynes out of midfield and put him back to play on McGleenan. And he actually did a great job; he had a very industrious game."
The credit for that leftfield decision, he stresses, must go to Brogan.
If only this were the only second half headache: the pantomime saga of Charlie Redmond’s delayed dismissal for, in the opinion of the match official, an attempted headbutt was about to leave Dublin battling the numerical odds.
During the All-Ireland countdown, O’Neill recounts, he had run into an inter-county referee while working in hospital. This helpful official duly relayed some "inside information" from the National Referees’ Committee.
"He said: 'If Charlie throws another head-butt this year, he’ll be gone.' So, I had the discussion a couple of times with Charlie in the fortnight coming up to it. Even to the extent that, on the Thursday evening before, I said it again: 'Charlie, I’m reminding you about what the situation is.'"
But then after Dublin’s sharpshooter had won a free on the touchline, Fergal Logan ploughed in. Redmond’s retaliation wasn’t overly aggressive but, having carried a quad injury into the final, he now failed to finish it after 'losing the head', so to speak.
"The amazing thing was that in all those finals Dublin were in during the early ’90s, and semi-finals, it was Charlie who’d got them there really. And then, for some reason, he would implode – somewhat – on the day of an All-Ireland," O’Neill surmises.
"When it happened, I said ‘Ah Jesus, this seems like a bit of déjà vu’ … that it can’t be true. And, of course, I got involved in the incident as well. I think I was taking the line that he had been unfairly targeted because of who he was involved with, Fergal Logan.
"He pressed the button and Charlie reacted. And he was as culpable, in my mind. And that’s the point I was making to Paddy Russell on the sideline at that time. Which, I think, maybe confused things a little bit because that’s where Charlie disappeared."
Soon after, at the second time of asking, Redmond walked. And now Dublin were walking a tightrope. But they survived. Mission accomplished.
Strictly speaking, that wasn’t O’Neill’s last game as Dublin manager: later that year, he would oversee their Division 2 league opener against Leitrim in Croke Park before officially stepping down.
"We said we’d do the match on Sunday. The decision had been made the week before. And my hope was that one of the others would stay on – either Jim Brogan or Fran Ryder; Bobby Doyle, I think, was going as well. But they decided not to, anyway."
The players had been told beforehand. There were a few calls to reconsider, but O’Neill was not for turning. Ultimately, he insists, it was a simple decision predicated on time. It was no longer feasible to juggle the demands of managing Dublin with his actual job, as a consultant in orthopaedic and sports medicine.
Did he ever miss the buzz?
"Yeah – but not regretfully," he concludes. "I never regretted it. I was delighted to have been involved."