Lost years the spark for Vin's to thrive again
The last decade has seen Marino outfit restored as kingpins of Dublin club football but they had to change their ways to put themselves in a position to seek a third Leinster title in four years tomorrow. Colm Keys traces the road to recovery
A balloon, Tony Diamond's father often told him, can be a difficult thing to blow up but so much easier to let down.
He draws on this simple analogy to best encapsulate the story of St Vincent's and how they had to strip down the engine that once almost exclusively powered Dublin football and recondition it again to make it compatible with modern infrastructure.
Tomorrow Vincent's are 1/5 favourites to win a third Leinster club title in four years. Should they do so they will draw level on seven titles each with Portlaoise at the top of the roll of honour. They've been to the last four Dublin finals, winning three at a time when the competitiveness of club football in the capital has, arguably, never been stronger.
For a club that won its first Dublin title in 1949 and followed up with six more in the next six years, it feels like they've never been away. But for more than two decades no amount of air could refloat a balloon that soared higher than any other over the city for so long.
The lost years, 23 years without a county title, forced Dublin's most storied club to take a long, hard look at itself in the mirror before undertaking a most extensive makeover that has made the current run of success possible. Big decisions were made and change visited every nuance of a club that had become accustomed to doing things its own way.
Ask Diamond - club stalwart, underage supremo, father to Cameron, Cormac and Tiernan who are all team/squad members tomorrow - to pinpoint the main source of the reboot and he resists the obvious menu of names from Heffernan to Mullins and Whelan to Gilroy.
There's no shortage of stellar quality around Marino to embellish a story of their rise from the ashes but, while acknowledging the contribution of those mentioned, Diamond doesn't hesitate instead to attribute the turnaround to Brendan McGrath, chairman for a decade from 1995 and, until recently, chief executive of Gaelectric, the renewable energy company he founded in 2004.
"He became very profitable by leaving Vincent's," laughs Diamond, the club's secretary during that period.
"Brendan was the man. How would you describe him? You know that awful film 'Alexander' when you see them in the Hindu Kush mountains, that's a long way from Greece or Macedonia, and you wonder how did any one man manage to keep control of his own troops and get them to go that far, much less fight opposition?
"When I reflected on it I thought 'yeah, the type of guy like that is Brendan McGrath'. It's that type of individual who can keep people together, can deal with questions and problems as they arise. They're not really happy unless they've got them to solve and bring ferocious attention to detail and determination to see things."
For so long Vincent's had relied on the enthusiasm for GAA that the Christian Brothers who taught in the schools in Fairview and Marino had brought. When that began to recede in the late 1960s and early '70s market share began to recede too and it took a long time to acknowledge that.
The natural supply line of Marino with its 3,000 or so houses built in the 1920s and '30s, allied to the Brothers' input in the schools was the perfect mix to create the 1950s surge. "The set-up, the infrastructure of Marino itself in two circles was ideal; no cars in those days, small places off it," Diamond recalls.
"Then you'd Brothers from strong GAA backgrounds in the schools. It's like something that if Ajax of Amsterdam produced everyone would say 'ah no one could compete with that.'
"That's effectively what happened. And you had these thousands of kids arriving in the northside of the city and suburbs and with nothing to do but play football and hurl."
By the 1970s they were still being nourished by the 'Marino effect', and picking off county titles with regularity though not with the same dominance as the '50s. "When we came through in the '70s the only teams we got beaten by were UCD, Civil Service or Pat's College," says Diamond. "They were all teams with non-Dublin players. It was unheard of to be beaten by a Dublin team."
But with the influence of the Brothers waning Vincent's grip loosened. "The idea of having a whole dose of teachers looking after your kids both during and after school, that went," he reflects. "And that was effectively where Vincent's were finishing from. We didn't spot it quick enough. We were depending on the jersey to handle things and that's not the way it works."
Brendan McGrath organised a think-tank of sorts outside the club in 1997 and they took themselves to the Marine Hotel one Saturday in 1997, only breaking to watch the first Lions test in South Africa that year.
Everyone was asked to bring a blueprint of how they saw the slump being arrested. Effectively they had to start thinking like a new club again."It was a case where there was always going to be a transition from the older guard, Jackie Gilroy, Kevin Heffernan, that type of group, to the next age group coming behind at administrative and coaching level," explains Diarmond. "Because they had held it together for years."
They employed a coach, Brian Ladden, who was seconded from St David's, Artane to work with the coaches internally. They secured sponsorship from Beamish and Crawford brewery, the first club to engage a drinks company in the wake of the Guinness sponsorship of the All-Ireland hurling championship. Champions Sports was brought on board. They ripped up the old pitches and laid Prunty pitches instead. Floodlights were added, the first club to do so in the city.
The attitude to outside players also changed during this time. After the relative storm over Antrim hurler Ciaran Barr in the late 1980s the policy became more relaxed and Tralee native Anthony Gleeson was a regular fixture in the 1990s. Tomorrow, Brendan Egan of Sligo and Mayo's Enda Varley will feature against Rhode, one of many 'outsiders' to do so over the last decade.
By 2000, Tony Diamond had put together a formidable U-14 to win a Feile title and by 2004 there were four Vincent's players on the Dublin minor team. One of them was Diarmuid Connolly who also won an U-21 club title that year as a 17-year-old.
Mickey Whelan was brought in as manager in 2005 and, after losing the 2006 final, they bridged a 22-year gap the following year and have never been too far away since.
They've benefited generously from transfers, like Eamon Fennell, into the club and have reached beyond their natural hinterland for players. But they've re-engaged with Marino again.
The fruits of regeneration can be clearly seen. "Anyone who tells me that they'll have this done in two or three years? If you start something like this, you better get ready for 10-year project," said Diamond.
"Look at Castleknock, I would say any successful young club in the country has done pretty much the same as we did.
"The only difference we would have had is that we'd have a certain level of expertise built up with an ingrained knowledge of the games than if you were starting with less experienced people.
"It requires constant vigilance. Even with numbers that won't do it. What numbers will get you is a good intermediate team and several junior teams all competitive. But unless you do the real work you won't polish off your top players sufficiently to be able to get the benefit at senior level."