Saturday 21 September 2019

Martin Breheny: 'From 'startled earwigs' to one win away from immortality'

A decade ago, Dublin were recovering from a 17-point defeat by Kerry in a quarter-final. Now only the Kingdom can stop their drive for five. What changed the landscape?

Pat Gilroy celebrates at the final whistle after Dublin defeated Kerry in the 2011 All-Ireland final. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Pat Gilroy celebrates at the final whistle after Dublin defeated Kerry in the 2011 All-Ireland final. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Pat Gilroy made up his mind quickly that the time for radical reform had arrived. A 17-point defeat by Kerry in the 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final was such an awful humiliation that he had to act.

Dublin had started as favourites following a fifth successive Leinster title success, only to be ripped apart after being sucked into the eye of a Kerry hurricane.

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Eight points behind after 15 minutes and 14 adrift at half-time, the anguish continued for Dublin, who eventually lost by 1-24 to 1-7. It prompted Gilroy, who was then in his first season as manager, to coin a famous description of his side's efforts.

"We were like startled earwigs in the first 15 minutes. There were so many changes we could have made because we were getting killed everywhere," he said,

If anyone had suggested back then that by August 2019, Dublin would have won six All-Ireland titles and be one victory away from making history as the first five-in-a-row winners, it would have been assumed that they were beyond delusional. Yet, that's exactly the scenario which now exists.

The transformation of Dublin from a team that dominated a mediocre Leinster Championship, while failing to match the best from the other provinces, to an all-conquering outfit now within touching distance of becoming the most successful side ever, has been quite remarkable.

Having presided over five of the six All-Ireland wins, Jim Gavin is getting all the plaudits, which is understandable. It's an amazing achievement with a high probability of more to come.

Revolution

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However, Gilroy's input into the blue revolution deserves to be recognised, since it started under his watch.

With so much success pouring in over the last eight years, a league game in February 2010 has long since been forgotten, but it was a day of profound change for Dublin.

They beat Kerry by two points in Killarney, their first 'away' win over the Kingdom for 28 years, with a team which showed several changes from the quarter-final debacle six months earlier.

Rory O'Carroll, Cian O'Sullivan, Philly McMahon, James McCarthy, Michel Darragh Macauley and Kevin McManamon, men who would play such an influential role in moving Dublin to the next level, brought fresh energy and enterprise on that cold February day in Fitzgerald Stadium.

By the end of the 2010 championship, Mick Fitzsimons and Eoghan O'Gara were also aboard.

Despite suffering a defensive calamity in the Leinster semi-final where they conceded five goals to Meath, Dublin were probably unlucky not to win the All-Ireland. Unlike the wipe-out against Kerry a year earlier, there was something freakish about their 5-9 to 0-13 defeat by Meath, who scored four goals in the second half.

Whereas Gilroy knew the serious implications of the defeat by Kerry a year earlier, he maintained this was a one-off aberration and would be followed by a positive response. He was right quite quickly. Dublin reached the All-Ireland semi-final, via the qualifiers, and ran a much more experienced Cork side to a point. Had they won, it's highly likely they would have beaten a modestly-talented Down team in the final.

Away from the senior scene, things were moving nicely for Dublin too. They won the 2010 All-Ireland U-21 title, beating a Jim McGuinness-managed Donegal team by two points in a game where the Dublin boss described his team as having 'ice in their brains'.

The boss? Jim Gavin. O'Carroll and McCarthy were leading influences on the pitch, while Jonny Cooper and Dean Rock, two more who would go on to become part of the glorious decade, also did well. The future was taking shape.

Dublin repeated the U-21 success in May 2012, at which stage they were also senior champions, having beaten Kerry in the previous year's final.

For many Dublin fans, the riches of recent years may have overshadowed the significance of the 2011 win, but those with a deeper insight know exactly what it did for the county.

Beating Kerry in the final was one thing, but the dramatic way in which it was achieved, with a brave recovery from a four-point deficit after 63 minutes, brought added value.

Liberation had arrived in the form of McManamon's goal, which resurrected Dublin's hopes, and later with Stephen Cluxton's match-winning point from a free.

So apart from the introduction of new players, what had changed to make Dublin such a powerful force?

"Defence and our mindset. We've done an awful lot of work on our mindset. We've got huge benefit from doing things a certain way," said Gilroy.

"Some people who know a lot about the mind have been really helpful. They've done exceptional stuff."

Winning an All-Ireland after such a long wait took its toll on Dublin in 2012. They never looked all that assured and their bid for the two-in-a-row ended against Mayo in the semi-final. It was the last time they suffered a loss to the westerners in league or championship.

Surprise

Gilroy resigned at the end of the season, and while it came as a surprise, there was no need for a lengthy process to find a replacement. Gavin was ready-made, slotting easily into a set-up which had been further strengthened by the arrival of three star finds, Ciarán Kilkenny, Paul Mannion and Jack McCaffrey, from the U-21 team of 2012.

The U-21s, who worked with Gavin in 2010 and 2012, knew exactly what to expect from him, while the more established players found out quickly.

Gary Sweeney, who had featured on both U-21 teams, outlined the manager's strengths after the 2012 win over Roscommon in the final.

"Being an Army man, Jim is very regimented. He knows exactly what he wants and he gets exactly what he wants from his players," said Sweeney.

Seven years later, Dublin's title haul under Gavin backs up Sweeney's assessment to the letter. His task has, of course, been made easier by the huge talent flow coming his way.

Cooper, Rock and Cormac Costello all made championship debuts in 2013, followed by Brian Fenton, John Small, David Byrne and Eric Lowndes in 2015.

Con O'Callaghan arrived in 2016 and a year later the squad was further strengthened by the promotion of Brian Howard and Niall Scully. Eoin Murchan, Colm Basquel and Paddy Small came aboard last year while Seán Bugler forced his way into contention this season.

Amid all the seamless progression, one issue arose for Gavin. The Diarmuid Connolly saga has been running in various forms for a few seasons, the latest instalment seeing him recalled to the squad shortly after plans to summer in the US were allegedly scuppered by an administrative hitch involving travel arrangements.

Promoted to the starting 15 for the final round-robin clash with Tyrone, he was one of the six subs brought on against Mayo in the semi-final. It sent out a clear statement that he was top 21 rather than a panel tailender.

There's rarely a grumble out of winning camps and that will certainly apply in Connolly's case if Dublin clinch the five-timer. However, if they lose to Kerry, players who believe they lost out because of Connolly's return may well feel that their loyalty wasn't rewarded.

Gavin knows that, but has obviously deemed it a risk worth taking. And after all he has achieved, who could question his judgment?

Irish Independent

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