How Pat Gilroy put the financial plans in place to begin Dublin's football revolution
It's impossible to talk about Dublin in the chaotic years between 1995 and 2011 without talking about something that GAA people have sometimes preferred to pretend doesn't exist: money. The hiring of Pat Gilroy coincided almost exactly with the global crash that began in 2008 - a crash that hit Ireland especially hard.
The Dubs were effective fundraisers in the boom years. They were also great at putting bums on seats, filling Croke Park for Leinster turkey shoots. The Merry Ploughboy pub in Rathfarnham, formerly owned by 1970s Dubs icon Seán Doherty, was steeped in GAA. In 2006, new owners Liam and Eoghan Heneghan took over and in time began arranging buses to take its fanatical customers to Croker for championship games.
But where once they packed two buses for the short trip north, by 2011 they struggled to fill one. "People couldn't spend the money on a ticket for themselves and the family, the numbers fell way down," says Eoghan Heneghan. "They were still there," Liam explains. "But there was a difference between going yourself and with the kids. Or having a few drinks and not having any. When the economy hit, you couldn't but notice. I remember that great GAA pub, Hill 16, being very grateful for our bus stopping by. Times were tough."
In the Sunnybank Hotel, regulars would skip a month of ordinary Saturday night pints in order to save for the Dublin days, which remained the highlights of many people's lives. The crowds kept piling into Croke Park, but wallets were emptier, sacrifices taken to get there far greater.
In a time of suffering, the Dubs should never have been immune. Yet somehow, they were. Dublin GAA was always better funded than other counties. When brands appeared on county jerseys for the first time in 1991, Dublin were ahead of the pack. Former Dubs star Bill Kelly, an Executive Director of department store Arnotts, agreed a two-year £50,000 deal with the county board. In comparison, Seán Boylan's Meath made do with £30,000 over the same period from meat suppliers Kepak.
The partnership lasted for 18 years, Seamus Deignan picking up where Kelly left off, with the Henry Street retailer acting as a de facto Dublin superstore - and a tailor to the players on big All-Ireland days.
In 2002, the company even stepped in to help fund Dublin's end‑of‑year holiday to South Africa when the Leinster Council declined the opportunity to do so- despite the boost made to its coffers by the county's provincial championship run. By 2009, Arnotts were paying around €600,000 a year to the Dubs, partly from the proceeds of merchandise sales.
Yet Gilroy wasn't impressed with the financial situation he inherited. In 2010, Dublin were third, behind Tipperary and Cork, on the amount spent on the county teams, shelling out €1.2 million, with rivals Kerry spending €1.1 million.
Gilroy felt Dublin were woefully underfunded if they were to effectively challenge for an All-Ireland, and he set about overhauling the commercial structure. He asked the county board to hire a full-time commercial manager. When he was told they didn't yet have the funds to do so, Gilroy decided to do the job himself.
Vodafone won the contract to sponsor the Dubs from 2010, Gilroy's second season as boss, on an initial three-year deal at €800,000 per year, with the option for a further three if both parties were satisfied with how the arrangement was going.
Dublin were in demand, and they opted for Vodafone over another communications behemoth, Meteor, which was also in the running. (There was also interest from the banking sector, despite its own obvious difficulties.)
Already sponsors of the GAA All-Stars and the football championship (and long-time sponsors of Manchester United and the McLaren Formula 1 team), Vodafone saw an opportunity in Gaelic games' most famous underperformers. With Vodafone on board, the Dubs were out on their own financially. By comparison, Cork's sponsors at that time, O2, paid about €200,000 per year. The Dublin County Board spent in excess of €1.7 million in 2011, while the vast majority of other counties were forced to rein in their expenditure in light of the economic collapse. Kerry's outgoings were reduced to less than €800,000. Dublin splashed out more than Fermanagh, Louth, Longford, Sligo, Derry and Monaghan combined.
The Vodafone deal was worth a lot more than the Arnotts one, but Dublin would have to work harder for the money. Player appearances were extremely rare during the Arnotts years, meaning stars from Keith Barr's day all the way up to Ciarán Whelan were unlikely to be seen in the newspapers holding models on their arms in front of the season's brightest fashion range. Vodafone, which had run ad campaigns in the recent past for David Beckham, not unreasonably wanted their brand stamped in the psyche of the average Dublin fan, and not just on the jersey.
Vodafone were initially bemused at Dublin's lack of commercial management. The player-appearances culture was only slowly being introduced, and on more than one occasion players failed to show up for appointments. The game may have been amateur in ethos, but the big brands shelling out millions of euro demanded professionalism. Dublin were competing not just with the other major counties but also with other sports, Leinster Rugby (who won their first of three European Cups in 2009) being the most obvious case in point.
To address this, Gilroy launched Project Blue, a commercial vision for Dublin. He hired a full-time fundraiser for the county board, and wooed a new wave of secondary commercial partners. He envisaged a new website dedicated to flogging merchandise, and even a mascot - Bud the Dub - but neither materialised. He was forced to shelve the website under the sponsorship deal, as Vodafone had paid to rebuild the official site and were unhappy with the idea of a competing site. County board officials were both stunned by his ideas and curious to see where having a coach-cum-general manager would lead them.
Bertie Ahern knew Gilroy's dad, and was in Croke Park when Jackie crossed for Eamon Breslin to head the ball into the net against Laois in 1964. Now, he was bowled over by the novice manager, immediately recognising him as a cut above the rest, and willing to help in any way he could.
"We were just trying to get contacts," he says. "Pat wanted more doctors, more physios, and that required a few quid. They had Arnotts, but they needed more to fund what Pat was trying to do. The money wasn't there, so he had to do it himself.
"If Pat didn't do that, he wouldn't have built the team of 2011. In fairness to Pat, it was all done very formally and correctly with John Costello, but we were out just trying to get people to help. Then of course we got the big deal [with Vodafone]. Pat built up a very professional thing but it didn't happen overnight. He took it to a new level. He came in with a plan."
Commercial sponsorship would be the main revenue-generator for Dublin, but they also had the Parnell Park pass scheme - limited season tickets for supporters - which continued to provide a significant six-figure sum per annum.
Gilroy also wanted wealthier Dublin patrons to dig a little deeper into their pockets and help put the Dubs back on the map. Friends of Dublin football were fundraising around the clock. Past players were often called on to use their connections, and Tommy Lyons was always happy to lend a supporting hand.
Dublin had been moving from training ground to training ground for years without ever having a full-time home. Gilroy was done roaming, and under his management the Dubs moved to a DCU training facility at St Clare's in Glasnevin.
It consisted simply of a pitch and a pre-existing building - dubbed 'the Bunker' - which he had renovated to suit the team's needs. Attached to a nursing home and tucked away up a small avenue, the set‑up was a symbol of Gilroy's Dublin - low-key, functional, and effective. The pitch itself was overlooked by homes, but the off-field work was done away from prying eyes against a backdrop of bare concrete-block walls.
On arrival, the players walked into a classroom, where they would pore over video analysis. An attached kitchenette was basic. That fed through to a warren of changing and training rooms, decked out with equipment for monitoring fluid loss and recovery - common now but not in 2009.
Drawing on an extensive list of business contacts who were happy to help with alterations and facilities for less than the going rate, Gilroy secured a decent deal for his employers. With a revolutionised commercial structure in place, targeted fundraising and modern training facilities to go along with its large playing population, Dublin had the potential to be unrivalled.
Once they overcame the inevitable teething problems associated with change, they were primed to match off-pitch ambitions with success on it.
- Dublin: The Chaos Years - How the Dubs Made a Mess of Things For So Long – and How They Turned It Around by Neil Cotter. Published by Penguin Ireland on October 4 at €18.00