Fenton, Rock and Small have never looked back from the last time Dublin lost to Cork in 2015
Legend has it that Brian Fenton arrived on the inter-county scene up in Clones, announced his arrival with a goal inside 3mins 15secs . . . and Dublin duly sauntered through the next two years unbeaten.
All of which is true, up to a point. But like all legends, it’s important to separate fact from fiction.
What is true is that Fenton never lost a game from April 2015 (when he made his full NFL debut away to Monaghan) to April 2017 (when Kerry ended Dublin’s record-shredding 36-game unbeaten streak in that year’s Allianz Football League final).
But he had previously featured four times as a sub in that maiden Division 1 campaign, and his first two cameo appearances in Cork and Kerry both ended empty-handed.
In other words, Fenton knew what it was like to lose for Dublin before he made winning such a recurring habit.
The midfield colossus would venture deep into his seventh season before he tasted the acrid pang of championship defeat, against Mayo last August, so it’s easy to forget that Dublin were in a different place on the first day of February 2015, as the team bus headed for Páirc Uí Rinn.
In many respects they were still the team to beat; but their All-Ireland semi-final implosion against Donegal the previous summer had placed all manner of doubts over their strategic direction under Jim Gavin.
Mick Deegan, then a Dublin selector, recalls: “We just had a look and said we definitely need someone to marshal in front of the square. Someone who can read the game and can link the play as well.
“We learned a lot from the Donegal defeat. It was one of those games where we could have been out of sight at half-time, but you get caught (with) everybody going forward.
“It was a learning process and we changed the style a little bit then. It wasn’t all ‘go, go, go’ – we always said, ‘Look, we need someone sitting at six, who’s going to protect us if we’re playing against these so-called more defensive teams who were dropping everybody back and breaking?’”
Viewed through the prism of the All-Ireland six-in-a-row to come, Gavin’s match-day squad in Cork is fascinating on several levels.
Just five players who started against Donegal were listed: Rory O’Carroll, Jonny Cooper, Jack McCaffrey, Eoghan O’Gara and Cormac Costello.
The changes were a mix of squad regulars and rookies. Among the latter, John Small started at centre-back; the pivotal decision to reinvent Cian O’Sullivan as a holding/sweeping No 6 had yet to be unveiled.
Dean Rock started on the ‘40’ but, of even more significance, was entrusted with the frees, assuming a mantle previously shared by Bernard Brogan and Stephen Cluxton.
Rock had put his hand up in the O’Byrne Cup, shooting 0-38 (0-10 from play) in five games. ‘Son of Barney’ had regularly featured during Gavin’s first two seasons and was involved in Pat Gilroy’s squad before being dropped in 2012, but this was actually his first league start . . . and he maintained his pre-season form by scoring 0-8 (4f) even as the visitors were pipped by 1-15 to 0-16.
On that same afternoon, a rangy rookie from Raheny entered the fray after 47 minutes, with Dublin one point ahead. It won’t be remembered as Fenton’s finest 25 minutes, with no headline moments as Cork hit five of the last six points.
But it was still the start of something quite remarkable.
The year ended with Dublin back at the All-Ireland summit and Fenton named as man of the match against Kerry. Rock also started the final, albeit confined to a brace of first-half frees before being substituted – a brief stumble on his ascent to become Dublin’s all-time top scorer.
Meanwhile, Small made his All-Ireland bow that year, coming off the bench at the three-quarter mark – but by 2016 he was firmly established on the left flank of Dublin’s half-back line.
Deegan recalls how his own son, Michael, was another Dublin sub in Cork for that 2015 league clash and actually scored their last point. At the time he knew Rock better than Fenton or Small but he soon came to appreciate how important all three would be to the Dublin cause.
And still remain. This decorated trio, according to Deegan, are “going to be huge” in Dublin’s quest to recapture Sam, starting with Saturday’s quarter-final against Cork.
“You ask John to do a job, and he can put the majority of the best forwards out of a game. And Brian is just what a midfielder is. Box-to-box, can score, can pass the ball,” he enthuses.
“Then you have Dean inside . . . he’s developed into a fantastic all-round player. People used to say he’s only there for his frees, but over the years he’s proven he can link up the play and he can score from play as well.
“But to win All-Irelands, you need to have one if not two really good free-takers.”
As for Rebel chances of repeating that 2015 victory on Saturday, the mood is not so much sceptical as realistic. These once-fierce rivals have been operating in different galaxies for most of the seven years since then.
Through the first half of the last decade, they were constantly banging off each other: between 2010 and ’14 they met nine times in league and championship, Cork winning five.
That record stood at 6-4 after Páirc Uí Rinn . . . but already Brian Cuthbert’s team were almost unrecognisable from Conor Counihan’s All-Ireland champions of 2010.
When battle resumed in the 2015 league final, Gavin’s men ran riot, winning 1-21 to 2-7. As Cork proceeded to meander through the divisions – they have only met twice since with both Dublin victories, in the 2016 league and the championship three years ago.
Cork won’t need reminding who roofed the last of Dublin’s five goals in that 2019 Super 8s scorefest. A gloriously gliding midfielder by the name of . . . Brian Fenton.