Wednesday 18 September 2019

Whelan in the years: Ciarán's decade year by year

Heartache outweighed joy during noughties

17 July 2005; Dublin's Ciaran Whelan lifts the Delaney cup. Bank of Ireland Leinster Senior Football Championship Final, Dublin v Laois, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE
17 July 2005; Dublin's Ciaran Whelan lifts the Delaney cup. Bank of Ireland Leinster Senior Football Championship Final, Dublin v Laois, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE

Ciarán Whelan

Joining the panel in 1996 when Dublin were All-Ireland Champions, Whelan's battle for that elusive Celtic Cross was the personification of Dublin's decade.

2000

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12 August 2000; Ciaran Whelan, Dublin. Football. Picture credit; Damien Eagers/SPORTSFILE
 

AFTER 1999 as a group we felt we were progressing under Tommy Carr. The camp was united and we felt a breakthrough was on the horizon.

After a mixed league campaign, we cruised past Wexford in the Leinster SFC quarter-final. Struggling with an ankle injury, I missed the Westmeath semi-final but returned for the Leinster final against Kildare.

Micko O'Dwyer was still looking after the Lilywhites and a lot of their Leinster-winning team of 1998 were still going strong. A drawn Leinster final in front of a packed house meant we had to do it all again.

There was a serious edge to both games. These were the days before cameras picked up a lot of the off the ball stuff.

I remember exchanging pleasantries many times with Martin Lynch during the game. It was a case of an eye for an eye. Deliver a belt when the referee's back was turned but expect to receive it back once the opportunity arose.

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In the replay we tore out of the blocks and played exhilarating football in the first half to lead 0-10 to 0-5 at half-time. We were all over Kildare and the half-time whistle was probably their saviour at the time.

Two early second-half goals for Kildare rocked us and the momentum swung their way. We struggled to get any sort of foothold back and another Leinster title slipped away.

This one hurt badly and it's one I felt we left behind. We drowned our sorrows after the replay but that defeat damaged any progress we had made. A tough winter lay ahead.

2001

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11 August 2001; Ciaran Whelan, Dublin, is tackled by Kerry's Tomas O'Se. Kerry v Dublin, Bank of Ireland All-Ireland Football Championship Quarter Final replay, Semple Stadium, Thurles, Co. Tipperary. Picture credit; Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE *EDI*
 

TOMMY CARR came under a bit of pressure in the off season but the players were fully supportive. We felt we had the components of a team to make the breakthrough in 2001.

In a tough Leinster semi-final a win against Offaly by two points (1-12 to 0-13) put us back in a Leinster decider. This time it was our old rivals Meath who stood in our way once again.

Unlike the previous year, we did not reach the pitch of the game in the first-half and left ourselves chasing the contest.

I remember being on the end of the hairdryer treatment from Tommy at half-time and, whilst we got some momentum in the second half, we had too much to do.

Meath proved the better team and for me it was a fourth Leinster final loss.

This was certainly not what I envisaged when I came into the dressing room of All-Ireland champions in early 1996.

It was strange in 2001 in that the qualifiers had been introduced so there was a second chance. Never before had we to regroup in Parnell Park on the Tuesday after a championship loss.

The challenge was not a physical one but more a mental one as we got our heads around another game the following weekend against Sligo in Croke Park.

A victory opened up the opportunity for a trip to Tipp to play Kerry, then the All-Ireland champions.

This was to be my first championship game out of Croke Park. The buzz and the excitement around Thurles was unreal.

We travelled down the night before and stayed in Horse and Jockey. I'll always remember the sea of blue as we passed through the square in Thurles that day on the bus.

In truth we left it behind us the first day in Thurles. Kerry were always the much better team and, from being eight points down, we got two goals from Vinnie Murphy and Darren Homan which set up the perfect smash and grab for us.

It was not to be as Maurice Fitzgerald created a moment of history with the outside of the boot to bring the game to a replay.

We replicated everything we had done for the rematch and once again gave Kerry a good start. This time there was no coming back and 2001 was brought to a close.

However, there were more talking points to come off the field.

After the replay then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern came into the dressing room to commiserate with us. Bertie usually joined us after games but this was the first time he came directly to the dressing room which maybe was more to do with the hype of the Dubs on the road and the two great games that had unfolded.

Tommy Carr was in 'year four' of his management reign and Bertie delivered a motivating speech about how the county was behind us.

The late John Bailey, who was chairman, and also a man who had strong political ambitions, jumped on the bandwagon and gave a rousing speech backing Tommy Carr and the team.

It was not until the next county board meeting that the players realised there was a problem. County Board delegates had the knives out of Tommy Carr and the extension of his management reign was put to a vote.

You could not write the script in that the vote was split exactly 50-50 and the casting vote fell to the chairman John Bailey.

Tommy was duly stabbed in the back and it brought the curtain down on his Dublin management career. Dublin were about to get their fourth manager in just seven years.

2002

FINALLY a Leinster SFC title. After seven years and four Leinster final defeats, there was silverware in the Dublin dressing room.

The kids of today would hardly believe it but the barren years were finally at an end. When I made my debut in 1996, I remember Trevor Giles being interviewed after Meath had beaten us in the Leinster final.

He made reference to the fact that he had suffered four Leinster final defeats to Dublin and finally he was glad to have got over the line. I always remembered that interview and how the cycle had changed so radically.

Tommy Lyons had been appointed manager in the winter of 2001 following the sacking of Tommy Carr.

Tommy had a good reputation coming from Kilmacud Crokes and he had delivered a Leinster title against all odds for Offaly in 1997.

He arrived with a swagger and was determined to put his imprint on Dublin.

He told me I was not a midfielder and I spent a lot of the 2002 NFL playing at 10 or 11 where I struggled for a number of games.

As the ground hardened I had convinced him, for the time being anyway, that the number 8 jersey was for me. To put 2002 into context, we had not beaten either Meath or Kildare since 1995 so the semi-final victory over Meath (2-11 to 0-10) in front of a packed Croke Park was massively significant for the group.

I will always remember the hug from my father that night when I went back to Raheny GAA club.

Years of pain were released and the sing-song went late into the night.

We now had confidence and momentum but we also had the impetus of youth. Alan Brogan and Barry Cahill were making a huge impact and Ray Cosgrove was hitting top form.

Micko and Kildare awaited in a Leinster final but we were a different animal than 2000 and Dublin were back on top in Leinster. Finally!

After spending the week of the All-Ireland quarter-final replay against Donegal in bed sick thinking I was not going to play, I hit the ground running as we took one step closer to the final with Armagh our obstacle in the semi-final.

Armagh were seasoned campaigners at that stage, winning Ulster titles for fun but they were stumbling when they got to Croker.

It was a chance missed for us in a game that went point-for-point and was played with serious intensity.

 

A dodgy Paddy McKeever goal (Joe Sheridan-esque) gave them a platform early in the second half until Alan Brogan teed up a pass to me on the run. An optimistic left-foot shot hit the roof of the net and we were quids in coming down the stretch.

Many will remember the game for Ray Cosgrove's free hitting the upright with almost the last kick of the game when a point would've brought the game to replay.

It is one of few games I have watched in recent years, as it has been shown on various channels. I watched it one night in a hotel a couple of years ago and went to bed that night as thick as can be. Why?

When Ray kicked that ball and it came off the post there was a lone Dublin figure and six Armagh men within 20 metres of the rebound – Dessie Farrell. Inches make the difference and we never gave ourselves that extra chance.

2003

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28 June 2003; Dublin captain Ciaran Whelan leads his team during the pre match parade. Bank of Ireland Senior Football Championship qualifier, Derry v Dublin, St. Tighernach's Park, Clones, Co. Monaghan. Picture credit; Damien Eagers / SPORTSFILE *EDI*

IN truth the hype from 2002 probably got to the squad in 2003.

Tommy Lyons was a one-man PR machine and he said himself the swagger had returned to the team. Was that healthy? Probably not, because it was not controlled.

We began the 2003 Championship year with a win against Louth (1-19 to 0-9) and Laois awaited in the provincial semi-final.

Micko had taken charge in Laois and, after a gruelling winter's training, he had them flying throughout the league.

They were a dangerous opponent in Leinster. Tommy Lyons and his management had made five changes to the team after the Louth victory and it backfired.

Everything that could go wrong, went wrong. I kicked four wides and every minute that passed Laois began to believe more.

We were handed our arses on a plate and dumped out of the Leinster Championship.

Morale hit the floor and there was a lot of disquiet in the background. We got Derry in the qualifiers and I recall Tommy only naming the team on the day of the match which further added fuel to the fire.

Beating Derry in Clones, we drew Armagh in Round 3 of the qualifiers – the defending All-Ireland champions.

We were like boxers on the ropes that day waiting to be knocked out. After the championship there was an appetite from some within the group to oust Tommy.

On the back of this, our U21s had just won their first All-Ireland title and young players such as Barry Cahill, Alan Brogan and Paul Griffin had given serious impetus to the team.

A stand-off developed within the squad and it was agreed that myself and Paddy Christie would meet with Tommy to discuss our concerns. It proved to be a case of putting a plaster on a cut that needed stitches.

2004

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14 August 2004; Ciaran Whelan, Dublin, in action against Eamon Fitzmaurice, Kerry. Bank of Ireland Senior Football Championship Quarter-Final, Dublin v Kerry, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
 

MY toughest year in the blue jersey. The scars from 2003 remained open and harmony within the group was absent.

This all fed into negative personal and team performances. Wing forward was the new position for myself as I tried, once again, to prove myself as a midfielder.

We drew Westmeath in the first round of Leinster. Páidí O Sé had taken up the role after exiting the Kerry job.

The many trips by chopper paid off for Páidí. We arrived in Croke Park low on confidence and allowed Westmeath to stay with us, their confidence grew as the game wore on.

The final whistle was horrible.

Some of the crowd turned on us and the atmosphere around the capital was awful.

London, Leitrim and Longford were games we would have expected to win and it gave us a small bit of resolve as we entered the final stages of the championship. Centre-forward was my new home and, to be honest, I hated it. A win against Roscommon set up a quarter-final against Kerry who were hurting after the defeat against Tyrone in 2003. A gutsy first-half performance by us meant the score was 0-5 to 0-5 at half-time.

I distinctly remember the dressing room that day during the interval.

We had put serious energy into the first half in trying to contain Kerry and I could see the lads were out on their feet. This was a great Kerry team who still had to enjoy a purple patch and it duly arrived in that second half.

We could not stay with them and they ran out easy seven-point (1-15 to 1-8) winners.

It was not surprising that it was the end of Tommy Lyons' reign. The swagger from 2002 was gone. It was obvious to us that his time was up. We needed a change of direction.

2005

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17 July 2005; Dublin's Ciaran Whelan, left, celebrates with team-mate Jason Sherlock after the match. Bank of Ireland Leinster Senior Football Championship Final, Dublin v Laois, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE
 

PROBABLY the lowest point of my career but also the turning point.

My confidence was low and I spent a lot of time that winter wondering whether the Dublin team was the right place for me.

'Pillar' Caffrey was appointed manager and the general mood was sceptical.

Change was needed badly and as Pillar was involved the previous three years many wondered was it the right appointment? We were to be proved wrong.

Paul Clarke was part of Pillar's backroom team and I knew Paul from playing with him back in 1996/1997.

We both lived in Swords and through that winter we became very good friends.

Knowing I was struggling with my game, he took me under his wing. We hit the gym and I probably trained harder than I ever had done throughout November and December.

When we returned in January, I was fit, strong and the early season gave me the momentum to get my confidence back throughout the league.

The camp under Pillar so different.

There was a new vibe and energy with a lot more attention to the detail of each game and what our key objectives were.

Confidence was high going into the championship but it was nearly all over for me at an early stage.

As the ball was being thrown up for our Leinster semi-final against Meath, I clashed with Nigel Crawford.

In hindsight, it worked out as I got away with it and went on to play well but it could have been so different. If I had been shown an early red, it could have been a disaster.

I received two yellow cards against Wexford in the provincial semi-final as we progressed to a Leinster decider.

Whilst the victory over Laois in the final may not have been as significant as 2002, it was still a huge win after the turmoil of both the summers of 2003 and 2004.

It rekindled my love and we had been re-energised by the management.

The two All-Ireland quarter-finals against Tyrone were fantastic but we probably left it behind us the first day.

After a brilliant first half, Tyrone made eight changes to their team structure and altered the flow of the game.

It was left to Mossy Quinn to bail us out and bring the game to a replay.

Tyrone were a top team and they did not let us out of the blocks in the rematch.

A second-half comeback from us was enough to shake the stadium in terms of noise but was not enough to dethrone Tyrone who went on to win the All-Ireland. We left ourselves something to build on in 2006.

2006

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25 June 2006; Ciaran Whelan, Dublin, celebrates after scoring a late point. Bank of Ireland Leinster Senior Football Championship, Semi-Final, Dublin v Laois, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Ray Lohan / SPORTSFILE
 

THE confidence was high entering the season and as a group we felt we could improve on our performances of the previous season.

The year started in controversy – 'The Battle of Omagh'. Tyrone were All-Ireland champions and we set off up the road to lay down a marker.

The verbal exchanges from some of their players in the 2005 quarter-final had not gone down well in our dressing room.

As a group we were not going to lie down in Omagh and we felt it was a must-win game.

The fallout was massive at the time and the 'Omagh 10' spent many days on the front and back pages of national newspapers.

We used the fall-out in a positive way as it bonded the group going forward. 

A narrow escape against Longford in the first round of Leinster was followed by a convincing performance against Laois who we had beaten by only a point in 2005. We controlled the Leinster final against Offaly from start to finish.

We drew Westmeath in the All-Ireland quarter-final and we were easily motivated to beat them after the 2004 loss.

We felt as a group we were really progressing and we believed we had the ability to reach the Promised Land. We were collectively playing great football and there was a great buzz of anticipation around the county.

Mayo were next up and what a day it proved. The 'Mill at the Hill' set the scene for an explosive game. I remember being in the dressing room when we heard they had gone down the Hill end and there was no hesitation about what we were going to do.

Many reflect on that day and are of the opinion that the pre-game fiasco had an impact on the result.

Could you imagine if we had gone to the Canal End for our warm-up and Mayo still won the game? We would have been slated.

We can only blame ourselves for the loss. Seven points up with 20 minutes to go but we lost momentum at a crucial point after the Andy Moran goal and we never got it back as Mayo kicked points from all angles.

From a personal perspective the game was chaotic. A late hit on Ronan McGarrity may have ended in a red card but I got off the hook with a yellow.

Twice I had to leave the field as a blood sub after picking up a facial injury but never at any point did I think we would lose the game.

It was a horrible defeat to stomach and it was a few days before I left the house in late August 2006.

2007

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17 June 2007; Referee Pat McEnaney reaches for his yellow card to book Dublin's Ciaran Whelan who had clashed with Meath's Graham Geraghty. Bank of Ireland Leinster Senior Football Championship Quarter-Final Replay, Dublin v Meath, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
 

I WAS now 31 and the gruelling training each winter was getting tougher. No longer was I leading the way in runs or sprints and I knew I was running out of time.

'Pillar' rested me for much of the league campaign and it certainly worked.

By the time the summer was on the horizon and the ground was getting harder, I was fresh and I was really enjoying my football.

We drew Meath in the first round of Leinster. Nothing was easy against the Royals.

They took us to replay when Mark Vaughan came into the team to convert some crucial frees as we progressed by four points.

Our Leinster final victory against Laois set up another opportunity through the All-Ireland series. Having beaten a good Derry side it was the All-Ireland champions, Kerry, waiting in the semi-final.

Surely our time was due? Well that's what we thought. We could not have prepared any better and on the day there was nothing in the game with Kerry emerging winners, 1-15 to 0-16.

For me it was the first real time as a group we had put it up to Kerry, who with Tyrone, were dominating the decade.

As a group we were flying with Alan Brogan and Conal Keaney going very well up front and I was probably playing the best football of my career, having formed a partnership with the brilliant Shane Ryan. We were a resilient bunch and knew we were getting the most from ourselves. We had no choice but to regroup and go again.

2008

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20 July 2008; Ciaran Whelan, Dublin, celebrates with his son Jamie at the end of the game. GAA Football Leinster Senior Championship Final, Dublin v Wexford, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
 

PILLAR'S plan was the same for 2008. He left me off the panel through January and February and I came into the equation for the second half of the league.

Things did not go to plan though.

The 'Dust-up in Donnycarney' during a league game against Meath resulted in me picking up a two-month suspension which included the first round of championship.

While the suspensions had an impact on preparations, it did not affect our performance.

We cruised through a Leinster final against Wexford and then awaited the draw for the quarter-final. We drew Tyrone. Confidence was high but maybe that confidence became complacency.

Tyrone had stumbled through the qualifiers while they are struggling against the lower-ranked teams, we were waiting for four weeks as provincial champions.

We were ambushed and if ever there was a lesson that the value of games outweighs rest then this was the perfect example.

That afternoon was tough going. Leaving the pitch I felt I was done and dusted. The body and mind could not take much more.

Pillar's years in charge had been fantastic but when he announced that his time was up, I felt the end of the road was in sight for me.

I decided to wait until the new manager was appointed before I would make a call on my future.

2009

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3 August 2009; A dejected Ciaran Whelan, Dublin, after the match. GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final, Dublin v Kerry, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
 

I REMEMBER flying to Spain for a few days of golf in October of 2008. When I landed I got a call to say Pat Gilroy had got the job. I was shocked.

I knew Pat from having played with him in 1996 but he had no real experience in football management. Within 24 hours the phone rang and it was Pat.

We had a long conversation about my future and Pat wanted me as part of his plans.

My heart strings for that blue jersey were easily pulled at and I agreed I would go another year. I knew it was going to be tough and I knew my pace was slipping a bit.

Pat's first idea was a training camp in La Manga in January – wives and kids were all invited.

I anticipated that we would train but we would also get some family time.

My wife Fiona was pregnant with our second child at the time but we hadn't told anybody yet. We trained twice-a-day every day and hardly saw our families. The weather was also brutal so it certainly did not work out like many of us thought it would!

We started the league and, unlike in 2007 and 2008, I played every game and struggled badly at times with my form.

A hamstring injury pre-championship meant I missed a lot of training and for the first time in 14 years, I found myself on the bench for our championship opener.

I accepted my status and knew my performances in training needed to improve.

The strategy around goalkeeping was also changing with Pat and Mickey Whelan radically altering the role of the goalkeeper with short kickouts and retention of possession becoming the priority.

While it was understandable and made sense, it also changed the role of a midfielder.

Throughout that summer I never felt I could build my confidence around the 50/50 midfield battles. Going toe-to-toe with Darren Magee or Darren Homan in previous years was sometimes more challenging than actual championship.

Aerial contests were my bread and butter. I needed those games to sharpen up but it was not happening. Pat had other ideas for me.

He felt I could play a role at full-forward and that's where I spent most of the summer in training. Playing on the 'Killer Bs' with Dean Rock and Mossy Quinn either side, we ran amok in some training games!

However, I still wanted the number 8 jersey.  A good performance off the bench in the Leinster final against Kildare gave me hope that I was returning to form.

Pat informed me on the Tuesday after at training that if we drew Kerry I'd start.

Still playing at full-forward in training, low and behold we drew Kerry. The reality of the situation is that Pat was never going to start me and he took a flyer on us not being pitted against Kerry in the draw.

He strung me along right up to that game telling me that I was most likely still starting in place of Jason Sherlock.

It disappointed and annoyed me because all I wanted was honesty. However, it is not something I hold a grudge against Pat for. Life is too short for that nonsense.

We have had that chat face-to-face and it's all 'water under the bridge'.

Despite what was going on personally behind the scenes, as a team we felt we had a great chance of taking out Kerry who, like Tyrone in 2008, had struggled in the qualifiers.

Once again the house came crumbling down as I sat and watched from the Hogan Stand subs area.

Plan B may have been to introduce me at full-forward that day but Plan C was initiated after just 15 minutes when Pat asked me to go on in midfield, we were eight points down.

I knew it was to be my final hour in the Dublin jersey. My daughter was born that same weekend and I knew it was the end of the road.

Kerry beat us out the gate and the 'Startled Earwigs' expression was coined by Pat Gilroy.

Little did we know what lay ahead for the county in the years to come following that defeat!

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