New-look Dublin have wiped the smile off the coun­try’s face

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Keith Dug­gan

Fif­teen years ago, when there was heady talk of us­ing the River Lif­fey to split Dublin into two North and South Dublin fortresses, among the voices ex­press­ing con­cern and out­rage came a thought­ful ob­ser­va­tion by Tommy Lyons, who had the head-wreck­ing task of man­ag­ing the Dubs at the time.

“The coun­try by and large loves Dublin to be there or there­abouts but don’t want them win­ning any­thing. They like to keep them in iso­la­tion and that is what’s hap­pened. That’s our tribal war­fare and that’s what keeps the as­so­ci­a­tion thriv­ing.”

He hit the nail on the head. In 2002, ev­ery­one agreed that the Dubs were in­deed ‘box of­fice’; guar­an­teed to pack Croke Park in the dog days of Au­gust and il­lu­mi­nat­ing Dorset St with a blus­tery lo­calised ex­pec­ta­tion. To na­tional de­light, they could usu­ally be re­lied upon to crash and burn at some stage, al­low­ing their flintier brethren from down the coun­try to do the ac­tual win­ning and speechi­fy­ing.

In 2002, Dublin had been All-Ire­land cham­pi­ons just once since Kevin Hef­fer­nan’s swan­song All-Ire­land of 1983. The main point of the re­view com­mit­tee was to make the cap­i­tal’s bur­geon­ing pop­u­la­tion more man­age­able for the GAA; the think­ing was that han­dling a mil­lion-plus peo­ple was sim­ply too many sand­wiches for any one county board to make.

Us­ing the dirty old river as a clean di­vide, it was pos­si­ble to dream up a sce­nario in which there were two city teams. “Peo­ple must re­mem­ber that even if Dublin is split it will still be the two big­gest coun­ties in terms of its pop­u­la­tion” said Pe­ter Quinn, chair of the re­view.

Diar­muid Con­nolly was 15-years-old when that re­view came out. James McCarthy was 12. Nei­ther teenager could have had much of a liv­ing mem­ory ref­er­ence to the no­tion of Dublin win­ning All-Ire­lands. The GAA and gov­ern­ment rush to fund Dublin GAA had al­ready be­gun. But you have to as­sume that by then, hun­dreds of vol­un­teer coach­ing hours had gone into the train­ing of both Con­nolly and McCarthy and their peers.

Time-trap

In 2002, Con­nolly’s club, St Vin­cent’s, was locked in a time-trap. The club hadn’t won a Dublin se­nior ti­tle since 1984. What­ever money was go­ing into the de­vel­op­ment and fu­ture wel­fare of Dublin foot­ball didn’t re­ally mat­ter to who­ever it was in Vin­cent’s that worked with the ten-year-old Con­nolly on de­vel­op­ing the un­blem­ished kick­ing tech­nique that fea­tured in Sun­day’s fi­nal.

And it is well doc­u­mented that Paddy Christie, who was Dublin’s full back in 2002, saw that noth­ing was hap­pen­ing to bring kids through in Bal­ly­mun so he took it on him­self to or­gan­ise un­der­age train­ing. Among the play­ers that wan­dered along were Dean Rock, Philly McMa­hon and James McCarthy. It’s im­pos­si­ble to prove this, but there is a de­cent ar­gu­ment to be made that if those three play­ers – just those three – de­cided Gaelic foot­ball wasn’t for them, then Dublin would not have won any of their re­cent All-Ire­lands.

In 2002, Dublin beat Done­gal in the All-Ire­land quar­ter-fi­nal af­ter a re­play. There was a sense that the Dubs were go­ing some­where; that they were a com­ing force. But then they went and fell apart against Joe Ker­nan’s fab­u­lous Ar­magh side in the All-Ire­land semi-fi­nal. That game was a vivid man­i­fes­ta­tion of the point that Lyons had made in Jan­uary. Ar­magh had come along and made a bon­fire of Dublin van­i­ties and around the coun­try, every­body loved it.

The Dubs were like this lav­ish the­atre, pro­vid­ing the sta­dium, the pubs, the shady car-park­ing ar­range­ments and the Greek cho­rus on the Hill. But when the pres­sure came, they cracked up.

They looked scared of Ar­magh; scared of their mus­cles and scared of their am­bi­tion. Ar­magh won and that segued into the Ty­rone-Ar­magh era and in the sub­se­quent years, the Dublin North and South idea was qui­etly shelved as a suc­ces­sion of coun­ties de­lighted in giv­ing the city boys from both sides of the river their come­up­pance. And the coun­try was just fine with this ar­range­ment. It could go on for­ever. They can’t re­ally say this in Kerry but deep down, there must be a feel­ing in the Kingdom that they let the ge­nie out of the bot­tle in that All-Ire­land fi­nal of 2011. Dublin’s enor­mous po­ten­tial as an All-Ire­land se­rial win­ner was there for ev­ery­one to see. But the more they failed, the more de­fined their role as glam­orous losers seemed to be. Kerry didn’t close out that game and the Dubs caught them with a late bril­liant rush through the gates and since then, every­thing has changed.

The dom­i­nance of Dublin un­der Jim Gavin has led to a na­tion­wide con­clu­sion that the beast has fi­nally been stirred. The pop­u­la­tion and heavy fi­nan­cial back­ing and cor­po­rate ap­peal have led to the math­e­mat­i­cal equa­tion of lim­it­less All-Ire­lands in their fu­ture.

The big mon­ster

But that pos­si­ble fu­ture di­min­ishes the achieve­ment of this year’s team. Also, there is a nag­ging sense that if you take out just a hand­ful of peo­ple from the Dublin GAA scene just now – Jim Gavin, Pat Gil­roy, John Costello, Stephen Clux­ton, McCarthy and Con­nolly – they sim­ply won’t be re­placed.

Not ‘take out’ in a Tony So­prano sense but just imag­ine Dublin with­out their on-field and off-field in­flu­ences and maybe the big mon­ster doesn’t look quite as scary; maybe the com­po­sure piece doesn’t look quite as com­posed.

It could well be that Dublin will go on to com­plete a five-in-a-row. And it stands to rea­son that if such a densely pop­u­lated county im­proves its city coach­ing struc­ture so that the best 30 kids every year are iden­ti­fied and given the best train­ing and fun­nelled through so that two or maybe three progress to the Dublin se­nior squad, then they should be a per­pet­ual force; should quickly catch Kerry’s all-time horde of All-Ire­lands and re­alise their po­ten­tial as the most dom­i­nant team in the coun­try.

The fear that the GAA has cre­ated some­thing beyond its con­trol may well be proven true. And in the fu­ture years, it could be borne out that no other county can live with the best that Dublin of­fer.

But right now, in 2017, this Dublin team has emerged from a cul­ture of fall­ing short to na­tional de­light. They have turned it around. There are name­less peo­ple all over the city who will be­lieve that the un­paid hours they gave to Cian O’Sul­li­van or to Clux­ton or to Eoghan O’Gara have, in a small in­tan­gi­ble way, con­trib­uted to this dy­nas­tic run.

So Dublin are no longer there or there­abouts. Dublin are there to stay. No­body seems sure how to re­spond. Split­ting the county should no more be an op­tion in Dublin than it is for Kerry. The lure of the GAA is play­ing for your county, not play­ing for half of it.

So now, the GAA needs a strate­gic re­view to of­fer so­lu­tions as to how to at least keep the il­lu­sion of a na­tional com­pe­ti­tion alive. A quick glance at the pro­vin­cial and na­tional win­ners scroll shows that noth­ing has re­ally changed. Laois have won a sin­gle Le­in­ster se­nior cham­pi­onship since 1945. Louth have not won in Le­in­ster since 1957, Wex­ford since 1945 and Of­faly since 1997.

Their for­tunes have not been af­fected by Dublin’s surge. It was al­ways Dublin’s world: they just didn’t know it.

Split­ting the county should no more be an op­tion in Dublin than it is for Kerry. The lure of the GAA is play­ing for your county, not play­ing for half of it

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