Darragh Ó Sé: Hunger is a cliche but it’s the key to retaining All-Ireland
Loss of Jack McCaffrey and Rory O’Carroll may just be the jolt Dublin need
Kerry’s Declan O’Sullivan lifts the Sam Maguire as Kerry retain the All-Ireland title in 2007. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
I don’t really like the word hunger when it comes to football. It’s just another buzz word most of the time – before we had transition and set-ups and systems, we had hunger. To me, it’s a catch-all term that hides a lot of what’s really going on. Every losing team wasn’t hungry enough, every winning team was starving. It’s all blabber really.
There is one area in which it is particularly relevant, though. When we try to come up with reasons for why teams find it so hard to win back-to-back All-Irelands, I think then we can start talking about hunger and the role it plays. The problem with hunger is that you think you have enough of it right up until the point when you run short. By then, it’s too late.
The Kerry teams I played on won six All-Irelands. And I can say, hand on heart, that every year following an All-Ireland title, we came back thinking we had the hunger to win it again. But we only managed it once.
Looking at Dublin starting out on their campaign to retain the title this weekend, whether they can maintain the hunger has to be one of the key questions. And the best thing about it is they can’t answer it. Not in the first week of June. They can look you in the eye and swear to you they are hungrier than ever and they could even be telling you the truth. But they don’t know. And they won’t know.
We won our first All-Ireland in 1997. Were we hungry in 1998? Sure we were! Hungry for everything that went with it. We played Cavan in a league game in New York that winter to mark 50 years since the Polo Grounds final and if you think Maurice Fitzgerald won us the All-Ireland, you should have seen him in this game.
The rest of us – let’s just say we had taken well to the bright lights and the bit of celebrity status that went with being All-Ireland champions so that by the time we reached Randalls Island, were barely even sure which way we were supposed to be playing. But Maurice decided he wasn’t coming all the way to New York to lose to Cavan so he just went and did what he had to do.
By the end of that year, all the celebrating caught up with us. No doubt about it. We thought we were great, we thought we were going to keep on being great but Kildare beat us in the All-Ireland semi-final. Looking back, it was probably inevitable. Kerry hadn’t won an All-Ireland in 11 years so we were ravenous for one in ’97. We presumed we were just as hungry the next year but we got found out.
It happens to everyone. It’s human nature. You don’t realise it at the time but it manifests itself in small ways that you don’t pay any heed to. When you’re hungry, properly hungry, you’ll do anything. Whatever it takes. A challenge match above in Sligo? No problem, I’m on the bus.
But when you have your All-Ireland won, there’s a small, subtle change. You still say you’ll do anything. You still say you’ll do whatever it takes. But will you? Or when that challenge match above in Sligo is mentioned, will you start calculating?
I definitely did that. Those challenge matches are no picnic sometimes. Especially when you’re going up there as All-Ireland champions. Straight away, you’re a target for some lad who wants to make a hero of himself. The referee isn’t going to extend himself with no assessors sitting in the stand to get on his case afterwards so he’s liable to go a bit see-no-evil, hear-no-evil on it. So damn right you start calculating.
Is it really that important for me to suit up here? It’s a long way to go to get the head pucked off me for nothing. Is that one for Darragh or is that one for some of the lads on the fringes of the panel? Might Darragh have a bit of tightness in his back for that one? I think he might, you know.
And the thing is, it won’t seem to matter a damn at the time because whenever the next game comes around, be it in the league or in the Munster championship, I’d have made sure I was focused and ready. I’d be going out to show that missing the challenge match did me no harm. We’d win and move on and all would seem hunky dory.
But the problem with hunger is that it’s always an underlying thing. It wouldn’t just have been me that was calculating. Everybody else would have had their own little arrangement to make with themselves. Add it all up, a small thing here and a small thing there, and all of a sudden you’re standing in the middle of Croke Park wondering why the other crowd are first to every ball.
It happened to us in 2001. We had settled ourselves after 1998 – there’s nothing like watching an All-Ireland final that you’re not playing in to get the blood flowing – and come back to beat Galway after a replay in the 2000 final. We fully presumed we were in great shape to retain our title when we met Meath in the semi-final. And then we got hosed, an unmerciful hiding. For whatever reason, we were stuck to the ground.
It happens to everyone. Why did that Armagh team not win a second All-Ireland the year after? Because when it came down right to it, Conor Gormley stopped at nothing to get across Stevie McDonnell and block the goal that would have won it for them. Why didn’t Cork follow up their win in 2010? Because they ran into a Mayo team that was at the start of the James Horan era, not yet anywhere near good enough to win an All-Ireland but mad to get taking a scalp.
Two things are key to winning back-to-back All-Irelands. One of them is obvious to everyone, the second maybe not. The first is that you have to have the right players at the right stage of their career. In 2007, I was 32. Paul Galvin was 28, Colm Cooper was 25, Declan O’Sullivan was 23. Just about everybody else was somewhere in between. Nobody was too young, nobody was too old. No passengers. Nobody that had to be minded. The perfect age profile.
The second one is that I think you have to get a jolt somewhere along the way. Something that applies the jump-leads to get the hunger going again. If you turn up in the same shape as you were the year before, that’s not going to be good enough. You need something to surprise you or unsettle you or in some way make you hell-bent on reaching a new height.
For us, it was a change of manager. Jack O’Connor left, Pat O’Shea came in. That was perfect – someone new to impress, someone to get to know, to test out and to be tested by. Challenge match up the country? Fair enough, so. A new kick-out strategy? Let’s do it. You need that something to make you hungry again.
For the Dubs, I think the loss of Jack McCaffrey and Rory O’Carroll could be that jolt. They have three All-Irelands in five years but no back-to-back titles. In 2012, they were the same as us in 1998. They celebrated their All-Ireland long and hard and by the time the summer came around, they were convincing nobody that they might back it up.
In 2014, they looked the part but once Donegal ran in a couple of goals against them, they found themselves where we were in 2001. Looking around Croke Park for answers that weren’t coming their way. The jolt came too late for them to do anything about it.
This time around, they’ve lost two of their best players. It could be a killer, no question. They’re not going to be tested between here and the All-Ireland semi-final so they won’t know until then if they’ve managed to plug the gaps.
But look at what they have left. Look at the age profile. Stephen Cluxton 34. Bernard Brogan 32. Paul Flynn 29. Diarmuid Connolly 28, Philly McMahon 28. Ciarán Kilkenny 22. If any team is going to do a back-to-back, this Dublin team will.
And now’s the time to do it. If they don’t manage it, I wouldn’t have much confidence in them doing it two years from now when the age profile will have just tipped over the edge.
Losing McCaffrey and O’Carroll could be a disaster or it could be the thing that prevents them sleepwalking into another Donegal situation. My own feeling is that it will be what sets them up for the year.
We could easily be sitting here in September saying it’s the best thing that could have happened them.