Vincent Hogan: Heffo's legacy - Alive-alive-oh...
Gavin's brand of fearless football continues Dublin dynasty
SOMEWHERE behind that waxy, marionette smile, Jim Gavin is tapping into an old curmudgeon's gospel. Fear, he believes, has no place in Dublin football. So the very certainties that Kevin Heffernan invoked 40 years ago for what looked, at the time, an assembly of tired and damaged footballers have been returning this year, breathing September brazenness into the city.
After the epic All-Ireland semi-final defeat of Kerry last month, Gavin spoke of a Dublin way, of a particular Dublin style of execution.
His words flew in the face of popular fashion, yet carried an unmistakable stamp.
From an environment of analysis-overload, in which football threatens to be lost in a numbing wash of systemic spoiling, Gavin steps forward as a kind of modern-day PT Barnum. With so many drawn to diagraming every opposition play, analysing every nuance of shape and rhythm, Gavin's way is to challenge his men to out-shoot the team before them rather than fixate on how they might hurt you.
This is founded on a faith of believing that a surging Dublin team, with the city drinking deep from the chalice of their optimism, becomes irresistible.
So he doesn't hold opposition formations up to the light, searching for tiny solutions. To Gavin, that kind of rigidity begets only weakness and limitation.
Heffernan, who died this year, was imbued with that very faith as the marquee figure on a so-called 'scientific' Dublin team that took on Kerry's traditional 'catch and kick' in the 1955 All-Ireland final.
It was an epic contest that sent the Sam Maguire south, yet filled city children with giddiness and hope. He would captain the team that won in '58, then watch in vexation as Dublin reached just a single final over the next 15 summers, beating Derry in '63.
By the time he took charge of the, by-now, invisible Dubs in late '73, Heffernan felt that the city's football community had simply forgotten themselves. To him, the building of a Dublin team amounted to the cranking of a great fairground ride. With intelligent preparation, they should always be programmed with the self-belief to soar.
That Dublin team changed the personality of the GAA. They were the first to declare ownership of a part of Croke Park that, face it, wasn't theirs to own. It was as if Hill 16 became strangely animate under their shoes, a stern ramp of staircased concrete suddenly lent personality by the guttural sounds rolling off it towards the rest of the old stadium, as if in mocking disdain for the staidness.
With their urban confidence, Dublin supporters were different. They made fun of the world, particularly of what they saw as straight-laced country folk who were less drawn to colour and boisterous expressions of confidence.
City people seemed shocked to have been catapulted, virtually without warning, back to the epicentre of a game they had come to associate with rural number plates pouring up through Newlands Cross for another 'foreign' September pilgrimage.
They sang soccer anthems and made inky banners of worship to their new-found heroes. They had fishwife tongues, humour with a serrated edge and a connection to their team that felt as if it flew beyond the conventions of vocal support.
Their arrival on the GAA scene felt like the founding of a new movement. Heffo's Dubs were adopted by neutrals who, maybe, didn't come from strong football counties themselves and saw in the new, blue army something attractively subversive.
It could be argued that they, thus, had a more profound impact on GAA life than the young Kerry team with whom they would share top billing for half a decade. A Kerry team that became the greatest ever seen.
History attests that they were better than Dublin and the arithmetic doesn't lie. Kerry had a name for knocking the wind out of the sails of Dublin teams with notions (and would do so again in '84 and '85, Heffo having constructed a new All-Ireland winning side in '83), but this specific mis-match had much to do with timing.
When they first reached Croke Park in '75, Mick O'Dwyer's Kerry were essentially an under-21 team still being hardwired for the meaner world of senior.
They had an aversion to the direct game so coveted by their predecessors, preferring instead short, incisive deliveries and lightning, unorthodox movement in the forwards.
One year earlier, when Heffernan stirred Dublin to such dramatic action, the spine of his team was constructed of men whose football lives seemed to congeal into one, long, dim-lit story of low expectation and habitual disappointment. Actually, between '66 and '73, Dublin barely won a Championship game, let alone a trophy.
Maybe that was their charm. The Kellehers, Hanahoes and Hickeys had that worldly-wise air of men who had seen grim things and been to bad places that sucked any innocent romance out of their football DNA. This made them vaguely indifferent to any relationship with the outside world. They could be coldly impassive in either victory or defeat. If Dublin were glamorous, many of their key men seemed impervious to the condition.
Dublin carried themselves, largely, without affectation then. A new madness might have been splashing around them, but the core of that group was hard-nosed and educated against fickle worship. They didn't play the fame game so much as disregard it.
Sean Doherty and Jimmy Keaveney had been match-day stewards for the '73 All-Ireland final between Cork and Galway, Hickey had all but abandoned gaelic football to play rugby in the AIL.
They were just native Dubs then, who would be cajoled and badgered and – routinely – bullied by Heffo, that great pillar of St Vincent's in Marino. In the end, they won just three All-Irelands to Kerry's eight, yet left behind a profound footprint on the GAA. From virtually nowhere, they acquired enormous visibility. The city became besotted, Heffernan himself recalling feeling "a bit of a buzz" one weekend morning in the summer of '74.
For a man so resolutely careful with his words, that was the equivalence of an earthquake being reported in Donnycarney.
Yet, somewhere along the way, Dublin lost their confidence again. The '95 All-Ireland win over Tyrone, in which Gavin played at wing-forward, would register as a kind of nervy deliverance for a team that had looked good enough to win any of the previous four.
But Dublin became neurotic under pressure. The four-game epic with Meath in '91 seemed to deposit all manner of demons in the collective mind.
They were favourites for the '92 final against Donegal, the '93 semi-final against Derry and the '94 final against Down, yet lost each one. By '95, they were an old team, almost spooked by their own shadow.
Pat O'Neill, their manager, could all but see their worries flutter in the autumn air, knowable to all, touchable to opponents. They fell over the line.
That win pre-empted a shocking meltdown, Dublin failing to win even a Leinster Championship for the next seven years. When they did triumph next, Tommy Lyons was at the helm, a confident, swash-buckling figure whose personality appeared somehow at odds with the threadbare faith of those around him. The players seemed to be craving shelter from expectation, Lyons sought them to wear broader chests.
Swagger and reticence in the same room became a ticking bomb.
Caught by Laois in the '03 Leinster Championship, they were dumped from the qualifiers by Armagh. One year later, their name was on a Westmeath bullet, before Kerry then laid them to rest at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage. Lyons found himself removed almost on a tumbril, his personality just too big for the team.
In his place, came 'Pillar' Caffrey, one of Lyons's selectors, a good man who would become increasingly solemn and careworn with the job. Four years brought four Leinster titles, but little sense of the city Mardi Gras now craved by Dublin's supporters.
It was as if in roping down all public utterances and, thus, removing any potential virus of over-confidence from their system, Dublin simply acquired a new one.
Because, under Pillar, they tried things. Their infamous 'Blue Book' came to light in '08, a missive quoting the likes of Confucius, Isaac Newton, Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee and Vince Lombardi and, accordingly, taking sports psychology to a mortifyingly clunking extreme. The book, meant to remain top secret, was emblazoned with the slogan, 'Dublin – All-Ireland Champions 2008'.
By now, they had abandoned their contrived, militaristic pre-game march to the Hill, hands on shoulders as if some kind of magical osmosis might carry them safely through enemy territory. Mayo had belittled all such gimmickry in '06. A county with not a single Championship victory over Dublin to their name, they incensed Caffrey and his men by warming up at the Hill-end goal before their All-Ireland semi-final meeting, the Dubs manager at one point "dunting" into Mayo's assistant, John Morrison, as pre-game chaos reigned.
From a position of apparent control in that contest, Dublin would lose their nerve and fall to a last-minute score. They were many things in football now, but hard-nosed was not among them.
Two years later, the 'Blue Book' premonition of victory proved wishful thinking too. When Dublin lost their quarter-final to Tyrone by 12 points, Caffrey stepped away.
Pat Gilroy, his replacement, immediately targeted the innocence. He was a Vincent's man, whose father, Jackie, had soldiered with Heffernan across the years. Gilroy's gift to Dublin would be the elimination of fickle defence, but it took him time. He recognised that, once out of Leinster, Dublin could not cope with the smarter forward lines. They were too open, too guileless.
Kerry would dine on them without salt in the '09 quarter-final and Meath then blew five goals past Stephen Cluxton nine months later in a Leinster semi-final. But, by 2011, Gilroy had the gate padlocked.
At times, Dublin weren't especially pretty, their football never quite lighting flares across the city sky. But when they came from behind to beat Kerry in that year's final, the outpouring of emotion rekindled memories of those grey, gauzy shadows of Heffo's '74 rebellion.
Gavin's mission is, palpably, to take things further now. The 2011 win made football feel indispensable again in Dublin, removing all press of self-doubt. The magical cadence of that semi-final win over Kerry – three first-half goals leaked, yet not a single eye-blink conceded – captured perfectly Gavin's vision for the city. He seeks Dublin to win in what he calls the Dublin way.
So they play football that is utterly fearless now. They push their lineage towards the sky like the Sword of Excalibur.
They are Dublin, they say. They are ready to light those flares.