Yesterday morning, I collected Mikey Sheehy in Tralee and pointed the car for south Kerry. We had a couple of very important jobs to do, the second of them being a lunchtime tee-time. But first, Mikey had a date to keep. He had to drop in and take tea with Mick O'Dwyer.
Micko will be 83 next month and he’s still going strong. Mikey is pushing for 65 and he’s in good working order too. In that sort of company you have to know your place so I sat back and stayed quiet and watched the two of them, chatting and ball-hopping with each other. Micko would tease Mikey about missing the penalty in the 1982 final and Mikey would only be delighted to take it on the chin from him. He mightn’t take it from too many other people but he’d take it from Micko.
The bond between these fellas is still there, unbreakable all these years later. It's the sort of thing that gets deeper over time. I guarantee you that if you asked any of the Dublin lads training away this week about the sort of bond they have with Jim Gavin, they'd look at you like you had two heads. But they're in the middle of it now. Micko's bond with his players wouldn't have been there when they were in the middle of it, or it would have been a different kind of thing anyway.
For the Dublin players, this is the time of their lives – 3½ months from now, they will either be the first team in the history of the GAA to win five All-Irelands in a row or they will go along with Micko's team and Brian Cody's Kilkenny one as another great side who just came up short. They start along that road with a game against Louth on Saturday night.
Some of them have been playing for Dublin for over a decade. Some of them only got in over the past few seasons. All of them know the rhythm of it now. You start off the summer saying all the right words and doing all the right things. You know you’re going to beat Louth by a cricket score and that the exciting stuff is going to come later.
That doesn’t mean you take them lightly – it means the opposite, if anything. Get in and get out quickly and without any messing. Don’t be complicating things. Don’t be getting in stupid rows. Do your scoring early and often and put any ideas they might have of making a name for themselves out of their heads.
The Kerry team I played on never threatened a five-in-a-row, but we did make it to six consecutive All-Ireland finals. So we got a fair notion of how to pace ourselves and what to look out for. You knew what each new year brought about and what you were facing into when you got to this point.
For the Dublin players, this part of the year isn’t enjoyable. You know who you are. You know what your standard is. You know that the thing you’re going to be remembered for – good or bad – is a long way down the road. The only interesting thing that can happen at this stage is for it to go wrong.
It’s not a matter of disrespecting Louth or anything like that. It’s a matter of getting over yourself and the fact that you nearly resent having to go through the motions in these games. Jim will be very sincere and very Jim Gavin about it all and everybody will play their part.
But the honest truth of it is that the big event in Dublin football this week was Anton O’Toole’s funeral. The game against Louth on Saturday is there to be won quickly and quietly and remembered by nobody. What will we know about the Dubs after this weekend? Not a whole lot more. What will they know? Nothing they don’t already.
At this point in the life of a team that’s been on the go for a long time, the big driver is your own personal competitiveness with those around you. Think about it – you know that as a collective, you’re in the top rank of teams in the country. There might be one crowd better than you out there somewhere but know there probably aren’t two and there definitely aren’t three.
So you’re not dismissing the teams you play early on. It’s more that you’re holding yourself to a standard above what those teams are able for. If you start getting jiggy over winning a game in May or June, then what are you saying about yourself? That this is enough? If that’s the case, then what are we here for?
The longer you’re at it, the more you compare yourself to those around you in your own circle. By the time we were in our fourth, fifth, sixth final in a row, we were looking around our own dressingroom for motivation. I knew I was playing with some of the best, most proven, most ruthless players in the country. So how was I shaping up, compared to them?
By that stage, you’re older and you’re usually a bit crankier too. And even if you’re spending loads of time with all these fellas, you’re still you at the back of it all. Even if I’m in your company for four hours in a day, I’m still in my own for the other 20. So no matter how tight we are as teammates, I spend a lot more time thinking about me than I do about you.
Everybody does. That’s how they get there in the first place. You get help, you get coaching, you get all the advice and guidance in the world from those who did it before you. But the thrust of any career is making yourself the best you can be. No matter how much of a team player you are, that’s a personal thing.
So when you get to this point, after all these years, what are you finding to light a fire under yourself? Very often, it doesn’t have to be anything more complicated than a bit of bruised pride. You’re looking around you going, “How come yer man is getting all the plaudits? I hear plenty of sweet words for the new lad – I don’t hear many for me.”
Blood is up
And so you horse the new lad out of it at training some night and if he has anything about him, he horses you back and maybe a bit of a scrap breaks out. And just like that, the blood is up and the game keeps going and the intensity rises. You come off the pitch thinking to yourself, “Mighty stuff, now we’re getting places.”
Fair enough, you can’t be at that every night. But it’s the kind of thing that gets you through the early weeks. And you need it because when it comes right down to it, part of you is tormented by the whole thing at this stage.
You’re still at it because you know there’s a serious chance of another All-Ireland and that trumps everything. But are you loving it the way you did when you’re 22? Not a hope. Are you dying to spend time around the group three times a week and all day Sunday? Christ, no. You’ve heard every fella’s go-to joke a hundred times at this stage. You know what’s coming out of everyone’s mouth before they say it.
You’re so familiar with these guys that no matter how much to like them, you’re enduring them now to a certain extent. And they’re enduring you, if you’re lucky. It’s nobody’s fault. It happens.
This is why Jim Gavin is so good. Go through his teams year by year and what jumps out at you? The freshness of the whole set-up. Every year, he has a couple of new lads in and a few older faces fall away. Paul Flynn is gone now and him only 32. I know he had injuries but to walk away on the brink of five-in-a-row? The only conclusion you can draw from that is Gavin wasn't on his knees begging him to reconsider.
Far from it, I'd say. Under Gavin, Dublin have kept refreshing. The team is getting younger as it's getting older, if that makes any sense. Gavin has very few sacred cows. Diarmuid Connolly wasn't one. Bernard Brogan isn't one. We'll find out as the summer goes along whether Philly McMahon is. Gavin knows everyone has a sell-by date and you can see he prefers to clear the shelf too early rather than too late.
So the task for Dublin's players this summer is to keep finding new ways to improve. In our time, we were lucky to have a seriously good Cork team with us in Munster. It meant we would get a test early on to tell us where we were. If we won, well and good. If we lost, well and good. One way or the other, you were coming towards the end of June and you were getting serious about getting better.
Where is that for Dublin? Being realistic about it, it won’t come until the Super 8s. So regardless of what we see on Saturday night, their summer will stay in a bit of limbo. This could be the greatest summer of their lives and if they could play an All-Ireland final tomorrow, they would. But it doesn’t work that way.
I only met Anton O’Toole twice, both times in Neary’s pub off Grafton Street. I didn’t know him overly well but what I took away from both encounters was what an easy-going, popular person he was. He was great company, someone who everyone wanted to talk to and be around. None of the older Kerry fellas I’d talk to ever had a bad word to say about him and when you saw the outpouring of good wishes for him during the week, it was easy to see why.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.