Saturday 19 October 2019

Work at ground level is real reason for Dubs scaling new heights

John Costello. Photo: Sportsfile
John Costello. Photo: Sportsfile

Alan Brogan

Every player or official associated with any team will generally try to play down their team's chances of success to dampen expectation and stop hype building. Jim Gavin and his players are certainly well versed in this; part of this is out of respect for slightly inferior opposition. At times people may view this as a bit disingenuous when the sound-bites come from the Dublin camp but Jim - and Pat Gilroy before him -relentlessly instilled that virtue of showing respect for every opposition no matter what the expectation outside of the camp was.

But even Jim would find it difficult to quell the talk of the strength in depth Dublin enjoy at the moment. I think the evidence of this will really come to the fore during the Super 8. With an increased game load, we will no doubt see more injuries and fatigue to first-team players, so the teams that sustain performance while having to dig deep into their resources will rise to the top. I expect Dublin to be one of these.

It's only when you list what a 'next best' Dublin team, after the one named to start today, looks like that you can see the embarrassment of riches at Jim's disposal. It's actually frightening when you see it.

Some use it as a stick to beat Dublin with. 'Sure, look at the players they have, the pick they have, the money they have.' Instead, people should look more closely at how this exceptional group of players has come about.

In my early years playing with Dublin, we had the money, we had the pick, but had nowhere near the quality of players in the current squad. I believe there are a number of elements that have led Dublin to their current position at the top.

Back in 2004 I was one of the first batch of full-time games promotion officers (GPOs) employed in Dublin. Half of each GPO's wage was covered by the county board and half by the club. I was lucky enough to be able to fulfil this role in my own club, St Oliver Plunkett's. Yes, the county board received financial support to roll out this programme but I'm sure it wasn't handed out easily by the relevant bodies, the GAA and the Irish Sports Council. The county board, led by John Costello, had a detailed plan in place and they stuck to it. Most clubs in Dublin now have dedicated GPOs working hard on the grassroots through the schools and the clubs.

In 2004 Ciaran Kilkenny was 10. For sure he and many others benefited from this structured approach to coaching and games development throughout the capital. To this day, it keeps Dublin GAA to the fore in many schools around the county.

This development in primary schools was part of an investment in a player development pathway, and the next step was the development squads. Yet the role of the club at this young age is probably the most important, which is why it's crucial that county boards ensure clubs are being coached properly. This can only happen with the implementation of a structured coach education programme. Again, as far back as 2004, the Dublin board were leading the way here. GPOs were trained and tasked with pushing these coach education programmes back down through the grassroots coaches in their clubs.

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I was involved in development squads from under 15 and they too played an important role in my progression. My former Dublin colleague Stephen O'Shaughnessy was tasked with rolling out the development squads, to begin at the under 13 grade. At this stage squads only meet a few times a year and the function is to begin the formation of this pathway from club to inter-county football.

Development squads have their detractors, of which Tomás Ó Sé is one. He feels they create an elitism and sucks young players away from their clubs. At 13, players can develop notions of themselves as they begin to see themselves as 'Dublin players' before their time. I can understand where Tomás is coming from. It's very important it doesn't detract from club football as this is the most important area at this stage.

I believe the strength and the real value Dublin GAA get from their development squads is due in a large part to how Stephen has selected the coaches who look after the squads. As much as possible he has sought to bring ex-Dublin footballers and hurlers back to take charge and instil their values and share the knowledge they have gathered from years of exposure to the inter-county game.

I'm open to correction, but show me a county where ex-players have reinvested in development squads to the level Dublin have. I'm sure I'll miss a few but here's a list of ex-Dublin footballers who Stephen has persuaded to get back involved at different stages over the last number of years: Ciaran Whelan, Jason Sherlock, Dessie Farrell, Declan Lally, Paul Griffin, Paul Casey, Brendan O'Brien, Coman Goggins, Darren Homan, Paddy Christie, David Henry, Ray Cosgrove and Collie Moran.

These are men who have represented Dublin in Croke Park and have no doubt inspired our next generation of footballers. The work they have done with development squads is far away from the limelight of Croke Park and has no doubt helped and will continue to help to shape the future of Dublin football.

Jim Gavin and Declan Darcy both went straight from playing senior football with Dublin to coaching the under 21 team which won an All-Ireland in 2003. Both had played senior inter-county football for 10 or 12 years and would have been more than entitled to step away for a few years. Instead, at Tommy Lyons's request, they chose to give time to the Dublin cause. Tommy managed the seniors and under 21s that year but I think Tommy would agree that Jim and Declan's role with the team was a huge factor in winning what was Dublin's first All-Ireland title at that grade.

The county board must be commended for the leadership, organisation and vision shown to take Dublin GAA from where it was in the 1980s and '90s to where it is now. They have provided a template for other counties to follow. Yes, others may not have the financial resources but I believe that with a proper plan and the correct leadership there's no reason every club and school in the country can't have access to high-quality coaching and coach education programmes like we have in Dublin.

Indeed, the 'Blue Wave' strategy document released by the county board in 2011 sets out in very simple terms how Dublin GAA have improved Gaelic games in the capital. The strategy had some detractors but all in all it is a very impressive document which would give any club or county a strong template to work from. Some of the targets outlined are very ambitious and may never be achieved, but it has given Dublin GAA goals to improve our game and ultimately lead to more success on the playing field.

Of course, none of this guarantees All-Irelands and the Dublin footballers still need a manager and backroom team who can make the most of the great work being done at underage level to turn it into medals.

Since 2013, bar a blip against Donegal in 2014, Jim has managed to develop a group of players that has consistently delivered superior performances. He has managed to bring young talent through and develop these young guys - like Con O'Callaghan, Eric Lowndes, Niall Scully and Brian Howard - into top-class inter-county footballers without it affecting the performance of the team. He has done this through mixing youth and experience and developing a culture of no matter who you are or what you've done, your sole job is to play your part for the betterment of the Dublin team.

With team selection, if there is a close call between youth and experience, he generally goes with youth, and this keeps the conveyor belt moving in the right direction.

Jim is doing a phenomenal job and while everything he does is meticulously planned, I don't think even he would have envisioned the level of success he has achieved since he took over from Pat Gilroy in 2012. Being the humble leader he is, I think he would even agree that Dublin are now bearing the fruit of that vision set out in the early 2000s. For now, Dublin fans can be thankful, and enjoy the good times.

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