Monday 25 March 2019

'I didn't handle it properly' - Craig Dias was racially abused on the pitch but insists he's 'one of the lucky ones'

Craig Dias posing for a portrait ahead of tomorrow’s Leinster club final
Craig Dias posing for a portrait ahead of tomorrow’s Leinster club final
Craig Dias in action for Kilmacud Crokes. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Craig Dias? Now there's a name from Dublin's past. A not too distant past, mind. A time when Dublin bubbled with potential under Pat Gilroy but never the certainty that exists now.

Dias felt like a Gilroy project in the last two years of the manager's tenure, lots of raw potential but someone who the boss would need more time with if he was to get the best out of him.

Having collected an All-Ireland SFC medal as a non-playing sub in the 2011 final, he scored two points on his Dublin championship debut against Louth in 2012 and he was a regular inhabitant of the 'ones to watch' columns.

But life with Dublin under Jim Gavin lasted just six months before he was cut loose. Looking back now, with the benefit of hindsight and the number of footballers that come in "ready", as he puts it, he brooks no argument, has no regrets.

Kilmacud's surge to a first Dublin title and subsequent Leinster final in eight years has prominently featured Dias doing the things that first drew Gilroy to him, end-to-end runs, relentless energy, good decisions on the ball. But ultimately it was a slight lack of pace, he feels, that was his undoing. Hard to believe as it would have been then, it's a measure of the direction Dublin have taken that he was left behind.

"I've never felt hard done by. Maybe I could have worked on my pace, gone to a speed coach, it was the main area that let me down," he reflects.

Craig Dias lifting the Sam Maguire back in 2011. Photo: Sportsfile
Craig Dias lifting the Sam Maguire back in 2011. Photo: Sportsfile

"Everyone on that Dublin team is a flyer, that's where I fell short. I'm not the slowest but Andy McGowan (his Kilmacud colleague) coming out from our full-back line, always has that extra gear. Just looking at him and you're thinking, 'you're not going to keep up that way'.

Competition

"There was competition when I was there, nothing like what's there now. It must be difficult for lads sitting on the bench and not getting game time but Jim Gavin has them thinking the right way."

He didn't always appreciate Crokes' importance or status in his younger days. Nine years ago he played in a league final against St Brigid's in O'Toole Park, coming off the bench as a sub while still a Leaving Cert student in St Benildus College.

Crokes were All-Ireland champions at the time and his appearance warranted a call-out on the school intercom by then vice-principal Martin Johnson. "He said it was a massive thing, worth highlighting. I hadn't thought of it that way but it got me thinking."

By the following summer, he was making firm progress but a chance to go to Boston for the summer to play football left him in a dilemma.

"I remember having a conversation with Paddy Carr (then manager) and he was saying to me 'don't go' because I was that close to the starting team. But Paul Griffin took me aside and said go. I did and I came back loving football.

"Over there it's 13-a-side, it's flowing football. I came back fit. The majority of people do come back fit if they come straight back after the championship. Within the space of a month, I was coming on as a sub against Brigid's in a championship final."

By then AFL scouts had shown an interest but after watching him in a schools match, took his older brother Karl, currently a Crokes squad member, for trials instead!

There was further interest and the offer of a part-time contract in the Victorian Football League but Gilroy's interest had served to fully convert him.

He sees the involvement of Griffin now, the man who told him to go to Boston, in the backroom team as hugely significant in their return to the top in Dublin this year.

With joint-managers Robbie Brennan and Johnny Magee, the emphasis has been on expression and expansion.

"The way we play is different to the way we played for the last few years. Football is gone so risk-free, so you're trying to counteract that," he observes.

"To concede only one goal in Dublin playing the way we played is incredible. Four goals conceded in the whole run, scoring an average of 1.8 goals per game, the only day we didn't score a goal was against Raheny.

"It's nothing against previous managers but it's a credit to Johnny and Robbie getting us to go out and play that way."

He sees no coincidence that the same players who were leaders in his first senior dressing-room are the same people fronting this revival now.

"A lot of the time when our backs were to the wall, they would actually be the ones to pull us out and get us collectively together and stress to us what we had to do. Paul was always so articulate and concise in what he said. He's doing wonders with us now."

After so many false starts in recent years Dias is satisfied that they are finally delivering on their potential.

"The longer this championship has gone on the more composed we've been. Maybe the change in championship structures has relaxed us. We could actually perform.

"It was tough when you only had one chance. We were knocked out in the first round to Plunketts, Ballyboden another year, Jude's took us to the cleaners. We're more mature now," says the 28-year-old, now an account manager with Grand Canal Dock-based tech company LogMeIn.

The sporting gene, he detects, came from his father's side. Leon Dias was a former Angolan soccer international at underage level who once had trials for FC Porto and later immersed himself in bodybuilding while living in Dublin.

"When he was here, he'd be three or four nights up in the gym in Crokes giving advice," he recalled.

"There was a contract offer from Porto to go playing football in his younger days but his parents were of the belief that they wanted him to make a difference for Angola," says Dias, explaining the intricacies of a country torn by civil war for so long.

"They said to him that they'd prefer if he continued his studies. So he studied in Lisbon, Grenoble, Glasgow and Belfast, he set up in Dublin (as an engineer) but continued working with Unita (Angolan political party) trying to raise awareness here for the struggle that is still going on."

His father's passion for his native country has taken him back to Angola where he has been based for the past few years as a communications engineer.

"It's difficult to see your Dad go back but that is his passion, he wants to see Angola prosper. It's one of the largest economies in the world but it's drained of resources. You have these ghost cities popping up and no one can afford to live in them. Luanda (capital) has one of the highest inflation rates. He's trying to make it a better place, you need people like that to see that there is a problem."

A culture of inclusiveness and respect in Crokes has always appealed to him, never more so than in the last year when the support he got from his fellow players during a disciplinary case when he was racially abused.

"I've rarely got abuse, I can count it on one hand what I've got on and off the field, count me as one of the lucky ones.

"Maybe the area I'm from is sheltered but I've always been protected by my friends, family and club, any organisation I've been involved in. But it is there," he acknowledges.

Twice as an adult footballer he has come across it, the first time a few years ago he wasn't happy with his reaction.

"It wasn't me who reacted to it. I was just in shock and I didn't handle it properly afterwards. I was kicking myself not just for myself but kids growing up, (with) globalisation, free trade and travel, there are going to be mixed-race children playing, minorities. I felt I isolated myself.

"The support was handed to me by Dublin county board, John Costello (chief executive) phoned to see what I wanted and we said, 'no, we'll just handle it ourselves.' It wasn't the right move.

"I wanted to see what the actual support system was in place if it ever happened again. So the second (more recent) time it happened I went through the right course of action. The mechanism and support from the club, from the county board and team-mates amazed me. We were called back a number of times for hearings and they were there with me, backing me.

"If you turn a blind eye you're just as bad so you need to speak up about these things, even if you hear it on the street," he cautions.

That unity has manifested all year. They might be one of the country's biggest clubs this weekend taking on one of the smallest, Mullinalaghta, tomorrow but it's where Dias has always felt most comfortable.

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