Thursday 26 April 2018

Learning to love the Blues

Eamonn Sweeney

Do you remember Michael McCarthy hopping the ball on his head? You should, it was only two years ago. Kerry were slaughtering Dublin and their centre half-back, just back from retirement, was soloing the ball out of defence when he hopped it on his head. Just for the crack like.

That clip got replayed again and again. Or, if you were a Dublin fan, ad nauseam. And I suspect in the run-up to the All-Ireland final there were nine Dubs in particular who'd have thought of McCarthy's little party trick. Because Stephen Cluxton, Denis Bastick, Bryan Cullen, Barry Cahill, Paul Flynn, Diarmuid Connolly, Bernard Brogan, Alan Brogan and Cian O'Sullivan were all playing in that 2009 quarter-final. O'Sullivan came on for Cullen after 24 minutes. The game was already over. Pat Gilroy was manager but it wasn't really his team yet.

The previous year Tyrone had done a similar quarter-final number on the Dubs. Cluxton, Cullen, Cahill, Connolly and the Brogans were playing that day. And when last year Meath rubbed their noses in the mire with a 5-9 to 0-13 victory, which was the Royals' biggest ever win over their old rivals in Croke Park, it seemed clear that Dublin's fate was to be the butt of the joke. Look at the state of them, the poor deluded saps. Ho ho ho Pat. Ha ha ha Joe.

Perhaps there is a Dublin supporter out there somewhere who, on the night of June 27, 2010, told his friends that the next time the county won an All-Ireland they would do it with 11 of the players who had just been massacred by Meath, including five members of the back-line which everyone thought just wasn't good enough and a manager who seemed to be floundering. If there is he should be easy enough to find. There aren't that many Nostradamuses in the city phone book.

We think of Mayo as the ultimate Croke Park whipping boys but those three Dublin defeats were as bad as anything they ever suffered. They were games when the Dublin players must have wished the ground would swallow them up when it ended.

And that's why there was something heart-warming about Dublin's victory this day last week. It was the ultimate proof of the virtues of taking a licking and keeping on ticking. Like Wile E Coyote, Dublin's best laid plans seemed forever destined to end in disaster, the stick of dynamite blowing up in their hand, the boulder falling on their head, the robot they'd hired from Acme Industries attacking them by mistake. But like Wile E, Dublin kept picking themselves up off the floor of the canyon and going back for another go. And unlike Wile E, they finally caught the Roadrunner. This time when Kerry went 'beep beep' and prepared to zoom off into the wilderness, Dublin were ready for them.

So, if there was ever a team who were entitled to greet the moment of victory with a bravura chorus of that old GAA anthem, 'A lot of people out there wrote us off so they did, we answered a lot of ye boys out there today,' it was Pat Gilroy's Dublin. But they did not. Instead they greeted victory with remarkable dignity, decency and understatement. They did that because they are Pat Gilroy's Dublin. And Pat Gilroy not only built a team which can win on the big day, he has also accomplished the miracle of removing the Swagger from Dublin.

You must remember Swagger. Shortly after the commencement of every Dublin Leinster championship campaign the team would move a few points ahead and a commentator would say, 'The Swagger is back.' It was as much a cliché as the one about the 'great oul' banter' on Hill 16. And there was an unquestioned assumption that 'Swagger' was a good thing. It was part of what made the Dubs the Dubs.

Yet not everyone is a fan of Swagger. Sir Frederick Treves, the great surgeon who helped Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man, live some semblance of a normal life, once advised, "Don't swagger. The boy who swaggers -- like the man who swaggers -- has little else he can do. He is a cheapjack crying his own paltry wares. It is the empty tin that rattles most."

You could see Swagger in action when Dublin were running up a huge score against Wexford in the 2008 Leinster final and when they taunted the Laois players in the 2007 decider. But you could see the other side of Swagger when the white flag went up against Tyrone and Kerry. When the going gets tough, it's not Swagger you need.

Pat Gilroy's team don't do Swagger. They do Grit. And all year they played like underdogs, like the representatives of some small county starved of success. Other recent Dublin teams would probably have got past both Wexford in the Leinster final and Donegal in the All-Ireland semi with more ease. But they wouldn't have been able to produce the stunning comeback which gave us one of the most remarkable finishes in football final history.

I think they're popular champions. And that's also remarkable. Because even though we're always being told that the game needs Dublin to win the All-Ireland most people would think that what the game really needs is an All-Ireland victory for Fermanagh or Sligo or Longford, something to encourage football's minnows. The main reason we hear so much about how desirable a Dublin win would be for the game is because most national media journalists live in the city.

Outside the city you find a more begrudging attitude towards Dublin. Partly this is because, whatever county you come from, country fans always want the town team to lose. That's part of what we are. And the Dubs are the biggest town team of all.

They can't help that. But this unfair animus against Dublin was given further fuel during the Paul Caffrey era when the team seemed the ultimate example of the corporate Celtic Tiger paintball towel-slapping bullshit mentality which was rife in the GAA. The special 'Blue Book' full of self-help mottos given to players who were told to keep its existence top secret? The bloated support staff who were far too visible on the sideline on big days? When the man who's counting the wides starts squaring up to opposition players, it's time to call a halt to the nonsense.

And Pat Gilroy did call a halt. He is old school. So is Mickey Whelan who, given that he actually is old, probably doesn't have much choice in the matter. The support staff is still there but they know their place. Dublin stopped pointing at the jerseys and waving at the crowd and knuckled under instead. They accepted their standing in the game as a good team which hadn't actually won a major trophy yet and set about changing it.

Dublin's game is based around physicality, athleticism and honest effort because it has to be. Take the two Brogans out of it and the team isn't exactly blessed with natural footballers. There is, for example, no comparison between the Ciarán Whelan-Shane Ryan All-Star midfield partnership of the Caffrey years and the current duo of Michael Darragh Macauley and Denis Bastick. Between them, Macauley and Bastick don't have the footballing ability of Whelan or the explosiveness of Ryan. They'd have been completely cleaned out if they played against their predecessors. But they have been more consistently effective when it matters.

Early in the second half last Sunday, when you'd have expected Kerry to launch a comeback, Macauley set off on a driving run at the Kerry defence. You could see the effort it cost him but he kept going remorselessly until Bryan Sheehan took him down with a rugby tackle. That lapse into an unKingdom like crudity was in some measure a gesture of surrender from Sheehan, an acknowledgement that on this occasion Macauley had just had too much for him. Bernard Brogan pointed the free.

A couple of minutes later, Bastick found himself in an advanced position. Not one of life's marksmen, he nevertheless popped over a neat point. Once again you had the sense of a player getting the very best out of what he has. It's the kind of attitude which enabled Kevin Nolan, a hard-working, unspectacular wing-back, to find it in himself to kick a wonderful equalising point. And it's why it's fitting that Stephen Cluxton, a man whose media profile is so low he makes JD Salinger look like a publicity hound, was the player who applied the finishing touch.

In many ways Dublin are the perfect team for the recession era, a team who show that there is nothing you can't bounce back from if you have sufficient will and character. In winning the Sam Maguire they squeezed every last drop out of themselves. And they have pointed the way for other counties.

In the middle of the last decade All-Ireland-winning teams were of such a high standard that other counties were lapsing into despair. The 2005 championship, to my mind the best ever, had Tyrone, Kerry and Armagh teams which would have been good enough to easily win the 2009, 2010 and 2011 championships.

Dublin show that a team doesn't have to be perfect. It just needs to be willing and to produce a big performance on the biggest day. There are at least half a dozen other counties, maybe even more, who have players with as much natural talent as those on Pat Gilroy's team. But some of them are inclined to think that unless they get everything dead right there's no point competing at all. So the grandiose schemes for having a squad of 150 under 12s playing 'the same style of football all the way up' are drawn up, the big-name managers are parachuted in from outside the county, the pointless debates about administrative reform are engaged in, and the fact that it's all about what the actual senior team do is forgotten.

Meanwhile, Dublin just went ahead and did it. There is no doubt a lot to be said for tactics and psychology and nutrition and all the rest of it. But none of it will matter if you don't have guts. And we've seen few gutsier teams than Gilroy's Dubs. There's a lesson there for much smaller counties whose players can look at Michael Darragh Macauley ploughing his way towards the Kerry goal, breaking the pain barrier and keeping going, and see what can be done by a man and a team and a county with character.

So maybe it is good for the game after all. Damn, I seem to have become fond of the Dubs. I better put me wellies on and go out and look at a few cows in a field until it passes.

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