Wednesday 21 February 2018

Foundations for Dubs’ current success can be traced back to ‘startled earwigs'

Pat Gilroy celebrates at the final whistle after Dublin defeated Kerry in the 2011 All-Ireland final. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Pat Gilroy celebrates at the final whistle after Dublin defeated Kerry in the 2011 All-Ireland final. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

In the midst of this golden age for Dublin football, it might be worth rewinding all the way back to the summer of 2008 as a reminder of where they have come from.

It's coming down to the business end of things with four teams left in the championship. But when it comes to this stage of competition, Dublin aren't really mapped. This year, they have fallen flat at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage once more.

This time Tyrone came to Croke Park and in the process Dublin suffered their biggest championship defeat in 30 years. It's a result that signals the end of the Paul 'Pillar' Caffrey era, while the Red Hands go on to claim a third All-Ireland title.

To compound Dublin's woes, a few weeks later details of the squad's secret 'Blue Book' are published. It revealed more about the mindset of Dublin football at the time than they would ever have liked to make public. It declared that Dublin were essentially trying to beat an entire country - "31 against one" - in their pursuit of Sam Maguire.

Message

Ironically, it also stated that no one was to acknowledge the existence of the 'Blue Book', let alone leak it to this newspaper.

Ciaran Whelan. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Ciaran Whelan. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

The message in the book fell in line with the image of the team at the time, who marched chest-out towards Hill 16, as if it somehow held the key to their success. Dublin were kings of Leinster, regularly putting teams down in spectacular fashion. But they were way off the pace nationally. The big boys sensed they had a soft underbelly.

Pat Gilroy was a surprise appointment as Caffrey's successor given that there were much bigger names than his linked with the process. His first year in charge, 2009, saw more of the same.

This time it was Kerry who dished out he punishment in a quarter-final, prompting Gilroy's famous "startled earwigs" comment. At that point, an All-Ireland title must have felt as far away as ever but, inadvertently, that result sparked a renaissance in the capital.

On the back of that game, Gilroy made some big decisions and essentially tore up the script for how Dublin would play under his reign. He decided they would be hard to beat first and go from there. Function would take priority over form.

There were teething problems as witnessed when they conceded five goals to Meath in 2010. We also know now that Gilroy was handed some brilliant players who were in the infancy of their career - none of whom were around for Caffrey's reign. But nonetheless, he made some big calls in terms of personnel.

Ciarán Whelan - a mainstay of the side - didn't play in 2010. Shane Ryan, who won an All-Star in 2008, was quickly moved on. Bernard Brogan was made serve a long apprenticeship. Conal Keaney went back hurling. Instead, Gilroy picked lesser-known players who would fulfil a very specific type of role.

Niall Corkery had a rugby background but he was the ideal fit for the type of half-forward his manager wanted and he played all of Dublin's championship games in 2010 as they reached the semi-final. Mick Fitzsimons hadn't pulled up trees for Cuala at underage level but won a junior All-Ireland in 2008 and he was given his first taste too.

He brought in renowned sports psychologist Caroline Currid and called early-morning training sessions. No one hid from the fact that the move was made in a bid to make them more durable when the heat came on. There was a also the removal of pre-game rituals such as walking towards the Hill.

Nonsense

"He has taken away a lot of the nonsense that was there," former Dublin footballer Robbie Kelleher noted back in 2011. "This nonsense of paying tribute to the Hill and kissing the badge, that kind of carry-on."

A little over two years on from their capitulation against Kerry, they were the 2011 All-Ireland champions, beating the Kingdom in the final.

Kevin Nolan had a front-row seat for Gilroy's revolution and he sees the seeds of what he sowed in today's side..

"I would have seen a shift in mentality and attitude in and around the squad," says Crokes man Nolan.

"I was there with 'Pillar' as well so I'm not saying that anyone was in any way bad but there were changes that happened even in individuals that were on both squads. The nucleus is there and lads are learning from that."

Nolan kicked the point - his first in championship football - that levelled the game up against Kerry as they came from behind in the 2011 final. And while he admits it went a long way towards giving Dublin the confidence they needed to progress, he's convinced Dublin would go on to be a force even had they not won that game.

"I just think the belief that Pat would have instilled in the squad and in the players and even how he went about breaking up the dressing room (was great). There would have been cliques within the Dublin set-up, just the way they form. Other counties may experienced it now, club-mates stick together in the squad and Pat tried his best to get rid of that and he did.

"The only way to get into the squad was to buy into what management had to say and that's what Jim (Gavin) has done and taken to the next level.

"2011 was massive for us but the learning from 2009 and the loss against Kerry and the loss against Cork the following year all built up to 2011. That was one of the step to getting where the lads are now and there are improvements they can still make. Best of luck to the rest of the teams trying to catch Dublin ... because the way they are looking they are somewhat unstoppable." 

We didn't know it, but in 2011 Gilroy created a monster.

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