Saturday 26 May 2018

Martin Breheny: Dubs train sights on Heffo's heroes

This Dublin team needs All-Ireland two-in-a-row to move ahead of trail-blazing 1970s side and seal their status as one of the greatest teams of all time

Tomorrow, Jim Gavin’s men will attempt to become the seventh Dublin team to land the double. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Tomorrow, Jim Gavin’s men will attempt to become the seventh Dublin team to land the double. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

They will always be recalled with respect and devotion in Dublin as the group that effectively re-launched the GAA in the capital, but 'Heffo's Heroes' are now on the verge of losing their status as the most successful squad the county has ever produced.

It could be argued that they already have. The '70s side won three All-Ireland and two National League titles in five years, compared to three All-Irelands and four leagues accumulated by the current group in the same period.

However, Heffo's team still holds a hugely prestigious advantage, having won the All-Ireland two in a row in 1976 and '77.

Tomorrow, Jim Gavin's men will attempt to emulate that feat and, in the process, become the seventh Dublin team to land the double.

Five were achieved pre-1925 at a time when it was much easier to win All-Ireland titles than it is now.

There has always been something magical about the double, taking teams to another level in the public estimation and validating their credentials as being something different.

Dublin's last double was especially sweet, having been won at a time when they were engaged in a fiercely intense war with Kerry.

It brought their All-Ireland haul to three in four seasons, a domination that looked way beyond the bounds of possibility during the dismal pre-1974 days when they regularly tumbled out of the Leinster championship in the early rounds.

Dublin's modern generation have no idea of what it was like back then. Small crowds and a general sense of apathy formed the depressing backdrop to Dublin football, which had spun into a downward spiral in the second half of the '60s and into the '70s.

There were serious concerns at national level too, since it was - and still is - important for the GAA to have a major imprint in the capital.

It was especially relevant in the '70s at a time when the influence of 'Match of the Day' on BBC was broadening soccer's base in most Irish cities and towns.

In the 'Book of the Dubs' - a chronicle of the revival, written by John O'Shea in '76 - Robbie Kelleher, one of the best corner-backs in history, painted a grim picture of the pre-1974 years.

"Before the emergence of this Dublin team, the youth of the city treated Gaelic football as an ignorant game; they felt it was something to be played by what they would term 'culchies'," he wrote.

"We gave respectability back to Gaelic football in Dublin and also brought a certain degree of glamour, which the city youth associated only with cross-channel soccer."

Jimmy Keaveney, who had retired, thinking that Dublin football was going nowhere, talked of his experiences prior to being persuaded to return by Kevin Heffernan in '74, a masterstroke which proved so productive on all fronts.

"I had coached juvenile teams in St Vincent's for a number of years prior my comeback. In those years, the young lads raved at the very mention of Norman Hunter, George Best or Bobby Moore and other famous soccer names," he said.

"You can imagine how I felt when the focus of their attention turned to the Dublin team, with names such as Paddy Cullen, Bobby Doyle and Brian Mullins replacing those of their soccer idols.

"Without question, that provided me with my biggest thrill. It gave me a sense of having achieved something worthwhile.

"I knew, perhaps for the first time when these kids sought the autograph of Dublin players, what effect winning the All-Ireland had on the youngsters growing up in the city."

The legacy from that era enriched Dublin football to a degree that can never be fully quantified.

It certainly needs to be recognised on a weekend when the current squad is hoping to move to another level in the supporters' affections.

They could argue that if it weren't from an inexplicable collapse in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final against Donegal, they would now be on the verge of four in a row, a feat achieved only three times before (Wexford 1915-18; Kerry 1929-32 and 1978-81).

Of course, the Dublin team of the '70s have an equally compelling case on how they would probably have won six in a row (1974-79) if they hadn't been up against Kerry at a time when Mick O'Dwyer was winding them up for a period of control never previously witnessed in the championship.

Dublin reached six successive All-Ireland finals from 1974-79, winning three and losing three, with all the defeats inflicted by Kerry.

One significant difference between that Dublin team and the current one rests in the quality of opposition in Leinster.

It was quite strong in the '70s, whereas it's possibly at an all-time low nowadays, leaving Dublin to rack up provincial titles without ever being stretched.

Incredibly, they won their last 10 Leinster games by an average of 16 points and haven't been restricted to a single-figure success since the 2013 final when they beat Meath 2-15 to 0-14.

They matched the '70s team in Leinster terms this year when winning the title for a sixth successive year and, unless there's a rapid change, Dublin's provincial dominance will continue for quite some time yet.

Winning tomorrow is hugely important for Dublin, not only to remain on the peak but also to move to the next stage in establishing themselves as one of the best teams of all time.

Critics will argue that their empire is being built at a time when the quality of opposition is very poor in Leinster and moderate elsewhere.

It's a valid point, since Kerry, Cork, Tyrone, Galway, Meath, Armagh and Donegal are, to varying degrees, some way short of where they used to be.

Still, a team can only react to what's put in front of them, something Dublin have done with commendable efficiency, apart from the setback against Donegal two years ago.

How Dublin's previous two-in-a-row bids faired

They have failed in four attempts to retain the All-Ireland title since last achieving the feat 39 years ago.

1984: Dublin reached the All-Ireland final and were clear favourites to beat Kerry, who had the lost the 1982 decider to Offaly and the 1983 Munster final to Cork.

However, Dublin were well beaten (0-14 to 1-6). Kerry claimed that they were hugely motivated by an article in the RTE Guide where they were described as "a cowardly blend of experienced players, has-beens and a few newcomers."

1996: Dublin's two-in-a-row ambitions ended in the Leinster final where they lost to Meath (0-10 to 0-8) .

"I could see it coming. The build-up all season wasn't quite right," wrote John O'Leary afterwards. Dublin didn't win another Leinster title until 2002.

2012: Dublin retained the Leinster title but looked listless when beating Laois in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Mayo, with 10 of tomorrow's team aboard, downed the champions (0-19 to 0-16) in the semi-final.

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