'We had great times together. It just wasn't to be' - Pillar Caffrey looks back on his memorable time with Dublin
It came to an end in the Croke Park tunnel on a rotten, wet day in August 2008, with Paul ‘Pillar’ Caffrey and his family booking a premature holiday.
They had hoped to be strolling through the bowels of Headquarters accompanied by Gaelic football’s preeminent canister six weeks later, but instead, the countdown had started into what was roughly Caffrey’s final ten minutes as Dublin manager.
He was soaked to the skin after a particularly horrid afternoon – both weather-wise and for Dublin football – that saw his team suffer a 12-point devouring against a Tyrone side who had arrived for the All-Ireland quarter-final having ripped the hinges off the back door with a rediscovered ferocity.
25 years earlier, Caffrey stood on the Hill with his girlfriend Yvonne – now his wife – for one of those moments that glisten in your memory whenever you have the good fortune to recall it, as his brother John, along with 11 other apostles, held out for an All-Ireland title with Kevin Heffernan.
Caffrey’s meeting with his wife on this occasion was every bit as sombre as that 1983 occasion was joyous. After four seasons, he and his squad had ultimately brushed past Sam Maguire like a stranger in a crowd, and it was time to move on.
“Yvonne came down to the tunnel area and there were tears in her eyes and my youngest, Eric, there were tears in his eyes,” Caffrey says.
“She asked me if I was okay and I said I was. She asked me what I wanted to do and I said, ‘give me a hug and book a flight to Spain. Try to get us out tomorrow.’
“The management team knew that there had to be continuous improvement to keep going. Being beaten in a quarter-final wasn’t an improvement. There was a genuine feeling of regret that we left something behind us. We had great times together but it was time for someone else to pick up the baton.”
Four seasons, four Leinster titles, four defeats and no All-Ireland crowns – that is the quick summation of Caffrey’s four seasons in charge.
With Dublin on the verge of a fifth All-Ireland title in seven seasons, that record might not seem illustrious, but considering the county had won one Leinster title in the nine years before his appointment, Caffrey’s achievements are worth noting.
Funnily enough, his initial goal upon taking over Dublin was fulfilled, although by the end of his reign, expectations had skyrocketed and the strangulation of an entire province no longer sated expecting fans – even if it did kick-start a local dominance that shows no sign of abating.
“I remember distinctly having a conversation with Dublin County Board CEO John Costello and saying ‘John, if this doesn’t go well in the first year, I need some guarantees that I’m going to get a second year and there won’t be a knee-jerk reaction’ – that was the mindset,” Caffrey says.
“Our mantra from early on was that we were going to try and dominate Leinster. We felt that was achievable with the group of players we had.
“People looking back now with rose-tinted glasses can say that Pat Gilroy was the man to get us over the line a couple of years later and Jim is turning out to be the greatest Dublin manager ever, in my eyes, but I would like to think some people think that there was a foundation laid with that first win in 2002 and a couple of more layers added by setting the standard in Leinster.
“That was one of the flags we put on our tenure – we had four attempts at Leinster and we won it four times, albeit the story became a little bit different when we faced Kerry and Tyrone and that famous day against Mayo.”
Ah, Mayo. The county, who are not only responsible for Caffrey’s most sickening defeat in the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final – ‘that game has brought many a tear to my eye’ – but are also his side’s spiritual successor.
When you look at this Sunday’s All-Ireland final, it is definitely the men from the west who are comparable to Caffrey’s side.
Mayo’s heretofore unending pilgrimage to All-Ireland glory this decade has lasted a few years longer, but the 2005-2008 Dubs shared a similar penchant for being involved in excruciatingly dramatic encounters.
Caffrey is naturally disappointed that he couldn’t lead Dublin to the ultimate prize, but is also clear-eyed enough to admit that they were edged out by superior sides. Well, maybe every year but one.
“It was an extraordinary era for Tyrone and Kerry had a fantastic team. On any of those days I can’t say that we were the better team. The one game where we played well enough to win was that Mayo semi-final.
“I remember watching Mayo play Kerry in that final and thinking, ‘could we have done better?’ because after 15 minutes, the game was over. Who knows what our fate would have been had we got there.”
2008 was always going to be Caffrey’s final year with Dublin, regardless of the outcome. His three-year term had ended in 2007 following a narrow semi-final defeat to Kerry in an underrated classic, but after running the back-to-back champions so close, a final season felt like an endeavour worth undertaking.
“I felt the guys were close,” he says.
“When you take on another year in 2008, you are saying that you have to get over the semi-final hurdle. I was very much of the view in 2008 that it was s**t or bust.”
If you ask Caffrey what he would do if he could change one decision made during his tenure, his conscience is clear.
In addition to his selectors, he brought in statisticians and specialist coaches for defence (Ski Wade), attack (Kieran Duff) and goalkeeping (Gary Matthews), ultimately building up a large backroom team to cater for almost every need - although he does look enviably at Jim Gavin’s bench as something he could have benefited from.
“I remember David Henry saying to me in Coppers after Tyrone beat us in 2008 that we left no stone unturned,” Caffrey says.
“It just wasn’t to be. There was no one decision that I regret. I think if you look at the richness of the personnel that is involved at the moment – I think five of the forwards who will be subs on Sunday would have started on my team. The quality that has come through is phenomenal.”
The quality may be phenomenal, but Caffrey also marvels at how Jim Gavin has his team primed for excellence, and thinks Dublin are well set to add to their haul of silverware on Sunday. He remembers Gavin in his final season as an inter-county player, which was Caffrey’s first as a selector under Tommy Lyons in 2002.
“Jim Gavin ticked all the boxes,” Caffrey says.
“He was a very inquisitive guy, a very astute guy. You could see in team meetings that he was always going to be a leader of men.
“A lot of people think there is a second personality out there that people haven’t seen. Every Dublin manager has to be true to themselves and I assure people that Jim is the same away from the dressing room as he is in the dressing room or post-match interviews.”
When he finally did return from that impromptu holiday after the Tyrone defeat, there was an adjustment period for Caffrey. Watching his old team summoned mixed feelings, as his replacement Pat Gilroy tried to implement a new style.
“I remember standing watching Dublin play Derry in Parnell Park with Dave Billings [former selector] and shaking my head,” he says.
“It was an awful game and Dublin were playing a very defensive style of football and Pat had changed things around quite a bit, even personnel-wise. And I’m there thinking that this is tough to watch. Pat put his stamp on it eventually and got them over the line, and I went back to Na Fianna and I got involved training there again. You get on with life. I was always Paul Caffrey, juvenile officer in Store Street and I’ve been there 35 years.”
Caffrey’s story with Dublin might not have enjoyed the classic happy ending, but the epilogue certainly warmed the heart.
When Dublin finally did end their All-Ireland drought in 2011, Caffrey was on the touchline - even if it was Gilroy overseeing many of the players he brought through.
Amidst all the jubilant scenes in Croke Park following Stephen Cluxton’s dramatic winner, there was one particularly poignant moment, as the Brogan brothers embraced an on-duty Garda who had given so much to Dublin GAA.
“It was very emotional,” Caffrey says.
“My official function was minding the referee that day. The moment Stephen Cluxton struck that free, I knew from the flight of the ball that it was going over the bar. It was a magnificent feeling.
“I was long enough gone at that stage to understand that we did our best during our era. I have no regret and was as thrilled as any Dublin supporter.
“For some of the lads to come over and acknowledge that I was there was a nice touch.
“It was one of those moments where words weren’t needed.”