Just one kick turned Croker into our field of dreams
Dublin's Paul Casey reflects on glory of 2011 and how all the training and sacrifice ultimately paid off
IT was a free we'd seen him kick a hundred times over the course of that summer... but there'll never be one like it again. Our goalkeeper had just scored the winning point to end Dublin's 16-year wait to bring Sam Maguire back to the capital.
Every evening arriving to training, Stephen Cluxton was out on the pitch. Every evening as we all left the field, he remained.
As he made his way up from the Davin Stand end, we knew this was it. This was a fairytale unravelling in front of our very eyes, and to have been part of it is something that will always be very special to me.
Over the previous 10 years that I had been involved with Dublin, we suffered many disappointments. However, throughout that time there were also lots and lots of good days. The big one had always escaped us, though.
Ultimately for any Gaelic footballer, whether they play one championship season or are lucky enough to play 15, the goal is to win an All-Ireland.
For some this will only ever remain a dream but, rightly or wrongly, when you're part of a Dublin team you always believe there's a chance.
Throughout the 2000s we had come close, but now finally, after reaching our first final since 1995, the dream had come true. For me, it was the culmination of an unforgettable decade. Special times, special people.
For some of us, the end was getting near. It was now or never. We had gone full circle. In the early 2000s, many of us came onto the Dublin football scene out of nowhere, an influx of youth.
We had time on our side, we were full of energy, full of enthusiasm.
Now in 2011, we found ourselves watching from the sideline again. While we were older, and with many miles on the clock by now, there was still a final kick there; we were always willing to play our part if and when required to reach the Promised Land.
Reaching that Promised Land was going to take an almighty effort, and it was going to take the effort of a squad of 32 or more players – each and every man playing a part.
Reaching for the alarm clock at 5.15 on the morning of Tuesday, January 4, 2011, I'd be lying if I said the thought of 'what am I doing?' didn't cross my mind. I'm sure I wasn't the only one.
The disappointment of the previous summer and a defeat in another All-Ireland semi-final, this time at the hands of Cork, was still raw. I suppose getting out of bed at that time would act as some sort of reconciliation for it.
The answer to my question was very soon apparent – this wasn't about individuals, it was about the team. Here we were again, another pre-season, the same goal, and looking for another way to approach the challenge that lay ahead. The early starts continued, Tuesday morning, Tuesday evening, Thursday morning, Thursday evening, then throw in the odd Monday or Wednesday and that was our January and February.
As Mickey Whelan always said, it was "money in the bank". Did they ever get easier? I don't think so. Were they worth it? Fast-forward to 5.15 on the evening of September 18 and you'll get the answer.
The league campaign brought a welcome break from the heavy training, and the benefits were already beginning to bear fruit. Our most successful campaign in 10 years meant we ended up in a league final in April against Cork.
This was a chance to pit ourselves against the reigning All-Ireland champions, our benchmark. They had what we wanted. It would give us an indication of where we were on our journey.
Unfortunately, or perhaps in the grand scheme of things fortunately, we came up short. A match we should have won, but we didn't. The script was all too familiar – should have, could have. There was still something missing.
What happened the following night was probably the pivotal point of that season. For many of us it was the pivotal point of our careers, the difference between finishing a career with a Celtic Cross or not.
Pat Gilroy wasn't happy with the game against Cork. Indeed, he wasn't the only one – and not just from a performance point of view.
The same frailties were raising their heads again. There was something lacking, and something had to change within the group. And it needed to happen quick. Questions were asked.
The problem was that we wouldn't get the answers until the business end of the season. So a meeting was called in St Clare's in DCU. What the meeting was about need never go beyond the group.
Like everyone else present, I know it won't. But as a team we matured that night. A change was imminent.
This was reflected in the training sessions that took place throughout that summer. When the work had to be done, it was done. And, of course, there were the now infamous A v B training games.
It's easy to say in hindsight that those games were ferocious, but they were all that and more. For some of us, they were our championship Sundays.
We knew that the likelihood of starting the following Sunday was going to be slim, so we owed it to the fellas who would play to prepare them as best we could. Whether you were on the A team or the B team, winning those games mattered a lot.
It showed that there was a winning mentality amongst the group. A change in mindset. And more often than not it was the B team who held the bragging rights heading into Croke Park the following Sunday.
Sixty-three minutes on the clock, four points down against Kerry in the All-Ireland final, now we had to answer that question.
Of course, what happened in those final nine minutes is history now. Heroes were born, maturity shown and questions were answered. It was fairytale stuff. I often wish now I could rewind the clock, be there again. David Henry grabbing me as 'Clucko' made his way back from that famous kick.
"We've won it, we've won it".
Seeing David Hickey run across that Croke Park pitch faster than he ever did before. But I suppose that's what makes it so special.
It was one moment in time. History in the making. For some of us it will never be experienced again. The final chapter of our very own fairytale. Special times, special people.