Thursday 17 October 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'Blitzed, humiliated, embarrassed. This was a watershed game for that Dublin team'

Cluxton, McMahon, Fitzsimons and O'Carroll all started in 2010 when Meath hit five goals on their way to being the last team to win a Leinster title other than Dublin. Tomorrow, the four could well be involved as Jim Gavin's men hope to win their ninth consecutive provincial title and take another step towards five in a row

Rory O’Carroll can’t get close enough as Stephen Bray scores the first of Meath’s five goals in their 2010 Leinster semi-final victory. Photo: Sportsfile
Rory O’Carroll can’t get close enough as Stephen Bray scores the first of Meath’s five goals in their 2010 Leinster semi-final victory. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Ward holds off the challenge of Mick Fitzsimons on his way to scoring Meath’s second goal. Photo: Sportsfile
Stephen Cluxton can’t prevent Bray scoring his second and Meath’s third goal. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Sheridan escapes the attentions of Philly McMahon. Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Eamonn O'Brien wasn't much of a mind this week to sentimentalise the last great Leinster football ambush.

If anything, his Meath team's five-goal destruction of Dublin in the 2010 semi-final carries only murmured weight in history now. It amounted to an abstract revolution. Meath subsequently won a particularly contentious provincial final against Louth and were still gone from the championship before Pat Gilroy's Dubs.

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Worse, that September, clubs in the county voted O'Brien out as Meath manager and, within a year, Dublin had cantered away over the horizon, claiming Sam Maguire for the first time in 16 seasons.

So how exactly should we remember the events of Sunday, June 27, 2010?

O'Brien's view now doesn't deviate much from what he communicated that evening. "It was a little bit surreal the way things happened," he reflected on Thursday. "That day, I remember so much space in their full-back line. I mean I can still see Stephen Bray running 40 yards to score a goal.

"You won't get that ever again."

The 11-point defeat would be Dublin's third double-digit hammering in three championships. They'd suffered a 12-point loss to Tyrone in 'Pillar' Caffrey's final game as manager in '08 and then endured that "startled earwigs" meltdown against Kerry in '09, losing by 17.


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Gilroy wasn't blind to the conceits dragging Dublin away from reality. On his appointment, he'd made clear a distaste for their peacock leanings, the infamous 'Blue Book' mantras; the clumsily staged 'brothers-in-arms' marches towards the Hill; the crest-kissing or - as his own selector, David Hickey, would put it - "the showboating".

One of his first acts was to take Dublin to a training camp at La Manga in January '09, much of that week's focus bearing down heavily on a collective need for humility. The players were shown a video of their Tyrone meltdown, specific focus placed on a fundamental lack of tracking back and working selflessly.

Yet, the Kerry collapse still followed and now, one year later, Meath became the first team to hit Dublin for five goals in championship since Kerry ripped them asunder in the 1978 All-Ireland final.

Their narrow forward rotation - the likes of Bray, Joe Sheridan, Shane O'Rourke and Cian Ward moving constantly - completely undressed a defence, inexplicably, choosing to go man-for-man after previous deployment of a sweeper. That defence included Stephen Cluxton, Mick Fitzsimons, Rory O'Carroll and Philly McMahon - winners of 21 Celtic Crosses between them since and all still involved today.

Gilroy was excoriated afterwards, Ciarán Whelan - who'd retired from inter-county after the Kerry collapse in '09 - suggesting in a newspaper column that, "Management will need to ask themselves the hard question: Have they actually improved this group of players in any way."

For Whelan, the move away from use of a sweeper seemed unforgivable.

"Dublin have spent the last 9/10 months perfecting a defensive system which protected the full-back line," he wrote. "For the first time yesterday, questions were asked of this new full-back line and the three Dublin rookies (Fitzsimons, O'Carroll and McMahon) were left horribly exposed."

Another former player, Paul Curran, described Dublin's predicament as "just one disaster after another".

But, for Gilroy, the issues of defensive structure were secondary to what he suspected to be a weak culture within the group. In his video reviews, he questioned their understanding of the work ethic required to be successful at this level. One player had even gone on Facebook, deriding Gilroy's often twice-daily training sessions, routinely involving a 6.30am start, as evidence of some kind of mad zealotry.

The Meath collapse now gave management licence to direct the group towards a giant mirror. Alan Brogan recalled subsequently: "I had plenty of bad days as a Dublin footballer, some probably worse or more soul-crushing than that Leinster semi-final. But there's few enough I can say I was embarrassed about. That was one. We were blitzed. Destroyed. Humiliated. Take your pick. It was a watershed game for that Dublin team."

In training the following week, Gilroy targeted largely senior players - Brogan among them - with his fury, subsequently dropping Bryan Cullen, Barry Cahill, Mossy Quinn and Conal Keaney for Dublin's first venture into the All-Ireland qualifiers since 2004.

Brogan admits he was surprised to escape management's blade himself, but recalls something absolutely fundamental established in that week too.

"After that match, we were under strict orders to keep six men at the back at all times" he reflected in 2016. "Never again would we concede goals so easily or frequently. From then until 2011, our half-backs never really attacked. Our full-backs stayed put.

"Six at the back. Always. It took a crisis to make us realise we were like any other team if we didn't work for one another. As it happened, it was Meath who had shown us the folly of our ways."

The arithmetic doesn't lie. Dublin played five more games in the 2010 championship with the concession of just two goals. In fact, they would win 17 of their next 19 competitive games en route to being crowned 2011 All-Ireland champions.

The defensive discipline Gilroy craved was written all over their final defeat of Kerry, Dublin's first concession of a scoreable free that day occurring in the 34th minute.

And Dublin's dominance of Leinster has been pitiless since. It would take three years and an accumulation of nine games for them to concede their next five goals in the province and they have leaked a total of just 11 in the nine years (and 26 games) since that day Meath put five past Cluxton.

Intriguingly, after Cork defeated Dublin in the 2010 All-Ireland semi-final (Meath already gone after a heavy quarter-final loss to Kildare), the Rebels' manager Conor Counihan suggested that Gilroy - there and then - be named 'Manager of the Year'.

"In fairness, he's revolutionised them in a matter of months" said Counihan, whose team would subsequently lift Sam Maguire.

What Gilroy actually did was open Dublin eyes to an unpopular truth. He recognised that their best hope was to be dry and disciplined and maybe a little militaristic even about their football, decommissioning any notion that Sam Maguire might be accessible through wall mottos and proverbs.

For Dublin to win, Gilroy understood they first had to learn how not to lose.

By the time Jim Gavin replaced him in the autumn of 2012, that education was complete, the new manager presented with a core group keyed into the ruthlessness now required to be competitive at the sharp end of the football pyramid.

That Meath collapse was, thus, the last great watershed for Dublin.

They came out of the day humiliated in a way that's never once been countenanced since. Gavin has developed the aesthetics of their play, favouring a broader, more innovative commitment to attack without sacrificing that core prudent, defensive philosophy.

As Alan Brogan put it: "Six at the back. Always."

And, for Eamonn O'Brien, that's what feeds his reluctance now to engage in any romanticising of what was, effectively, a 35-minute aberration in 2010.

Dublin and Meath were, after all, level at half-time in that semi-final. True, Meath won the second half 4-4 to 0-5, but O'Brien is quick to remember Paul Flynn hitting the Meath woodwork with a 46th-minute shot when Dublin trailed by just three and, five minutes later, Bernard Brogan having a goal whistled back for a Dublin free. And that June Sunday of nine years ago (excepting the bizarre 2014 meltdown against Donegal) was probably the last championship day Dublin went to battle with an unprotected full-back line.

Coming away from Croke Park that evening, the idea that they would win a minimum of six All-Irelands (and potentially five-in-a-row) through the next decade would, undeniably, have seemed far-fetched.

As O'Brien puts it: "You certainly wouldn't have been thinking it. But, to be honest, we were just thinking about ourselves that evening. But we had a bit of a disaster afterwards."

And now?

From O'Brien's perspective, everything is different in football now. Bar, maybe, one resilient truth. A team with a winning aura still carries an ungovernable advantage.

"It's a bit like when Meath were strong in the late '80s" he says.

"People were nearly waiting for them to come in the last ten or 15 minutes. With the Meath of old, it happened because it was nearly self-fulfilling.

"And the players believed it themselves. It's like in any sport, even in life itself, if you expect something good to happen, chances are it will."

And tomorrow?

"I'd be slow to suggest a way of beating Dublin because I'm out of it now," he says. "But, on paper, Meath shouldn't be in it. On paper!"

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