Dublin’s provincial roadshow invigorates Leinster championship

There was All-Ireland-like atmosphere final when city boys went to Longford 10 years ago

The Dublin panel, led by Bryan Cullen, come off the field in Pearse Park 10 years ago after warming-up for their match against Longford. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

The Dublin panel, led by Bryan Cullen, come off the field in Pearse Park 10 years ago after warming-up for their match against Longford. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

 

It has been a fast decade since the Dublin football team last played outside Croke Park and that experience confirms the county has moved ahead light years during that period.

Still, their visit to Longford town on this weekend 10 years ago also substantiates the argument that asking the Dubs to tour the interior a little bit more would add some intrigue to the spectacle.

When Longford assistant coach Declan Rowley thinks back to that weekend, he remembers the sense of anticipation as much as the actual match. The county board had arranged for extensions to the ground to increase the capacity to 18,000.

“Even the bank on the back of the goals was gravelled out and opened to spectators,” he recalls.

As it happened, it was a tar-melter of a weekend. Arriving trains brought hundreds of blue-shirted city supporters in carnival mood. What would have been a match in Dublin became an event in Longford.

The hosts had little reason to expect a good result. The previous year, the teams had met in Croke Park and it finished 2-23 to 0-10. “It was just all-powerful and they walked through us,” reflects Rowley.

The one-sided nature of that game possibly persuaded the Dubs to agree to the request that they travel to Pearse Park the following year. What could be the harm? As it turned out, the mere arrival of Dublin enlivened Longford.

Eleven summers had passed since Dublin were All-Ireland champions: the notion of the blues as a superpower was wishful thinking. But the allure of the Dubs was still strong.

Thronged with people

“We did our warm-up in the school here in St Mel’s,” Rowley says. He is principal of the school now. “And we were travelling up to the ground on the bus and the place was thronged with people. And it felt like an All-Ireland final.

“We had a very young team at the time. We had lost the Under-21 Leinster final to Laois and had guys like Brian Kavanagh and Diarmuid Masterson coming through. We played David Bardon and Brian Kavanagh inside, bringing Paddy Dowd out. Pádraig Berry and Trevor Smullen were at wing forward.

“At midfield we had Liam Keenan and Bernard McElvaney, who was very young at the time. They were marking Ciarán Whelan and Shane Ryan and both of those guys were taken off after half-time because we were beginning to get a real stranglehold in that area.”

In short, Dublin got a terrific scare, banking a fortunate goal finished by Mark Vaughan just before half-time and surviving an all-Longford patch in the second half before winning by 1-12 to 0-13. Over 15,000 people paid in to a venue that is criminally underrated in GAA lore. It was sun-baked and it thrilled with the prospect of upset.

“I’ve never experienced an atmosphere like it,” Brian Kavanagh told the Longford Leader last year. Rowley was on a management ticket along with Luke Dempsey and Eugene McCormack. As it happened, he had managed Leitrim two years previously when the Dubs, dumped out of the Leinster championship, ended up in Carrick-on-Shannon for a qualifying game.

Again, the town enjoyed a blue invasion and Leitrim had a rare chance to pit themselves against a glamour team. That match ended 1-13 to 0-4; a comfortable Dublin win. But it was 0-3 to 0-2 after 20 minutes and Dublin only broke Leitrim’s resistance when Alan Brogan pointed on 44 minutes to leave it 0-8 to 0-3. It was no cakewalk.

“We worked awful hard in that game,” Rowley says. “Tommy Lyons was over Dublin and it was a wet day. We always felt we could make life difficult for teams in Carrick-on-Shannon. We had Tyrone there on another awful day and we were leading 1-1 to 0-2 when it was called off because of water on the pitch. We had the fire brigade in trying to get the water off. We knew we wouldn’t be bullied and that we would make them uncomfortable.

“So the venue can level the playing field. Dublin in Croke Park, particularly now – a match can be all over after 10 minutes. It is a wide open pitch and Dublin are so comfortable there and it is very unfamiliar for a team like Longford. I think it is worth seven or eight points to them.”

And that is the abiding feeling about the Leinster championship this year. With the exception of 2010, Dublin have retained the title every year since that close shave in Longford.

Blithe indifference

Jim Gavin’s version of Dublin will travel to Nowlan Park today with the intention of demonstrating to Laois and the country at large their blithe indifference to venue or geographical post code.

Oddly, the last time Dublin were beaten outside Croke Park in the Leinster championship they also played a at neutral venue, when Louth advanced to the quarter-final after a 1-8 to 0-9 win in Navan in 1973.

That win registered little surprise: GAA fans in the city, in so far as they existed then, were accustomed to seeing their team go out early. They hadn’t won a provincial title since 1965. Cullen, Kelleher, Doyle and Hickey were among the names on the time sheet that day but there was nothing to suggest that the Dubs were on the verge of defining Gaelic football’s most riveting era.

If that defeat was symbolic of anything, it was that it indirectly led to the appointment of Kevin Heffernan. Nobody is expecting a similar shock on the neutral ground in Kilkenny this weekend.

“I honestly believe if you picked the best squad from all the other teams, they still wouldn’t beat Dublin just now,” admits Rowley. “They are a fantastic team with a big team playing most of their football in Croke Park. They are probably one of the best Gaelic football teams ever and they have a strong management and incredible hunger. They don’t get sloppy. They are like a machine. And I can’t see anyone challenging them in Leinster at all.”

It is a grim forecast that offers little room for argument. Dublin have become a different entity in the last decade. When you tick off the usual list of population and commercial advantages, you are left with the fact that the Dubs have a developed an exceptional football team .

Stephen Cluxton is the only player on this year’s team who played in Longford a decade ago. Then, he was a merely a very good goalkeeper. Nowadays, he is the player who has done most to recalibrate the thinking that goes into Gaelic football through the speed and pinpoint accuracy of his restarts.

No doubt

“There is no doubt,” says Rowley. “He has developed his game and goalkeeping so much since then. The fact Whelan and Ryan were taken off that day: if Cluxton was as good then as he is now he would have been pinpointing them with kick-outs. He doesn’t allow midfield battles to happen in that old 50-50 way.”

Even though they lost on the scoreboard, pushing Dublin gave Longford the impetus to beat Waterford, Tipperary and Derry in the qualifying series before falling to Kerry in Killarney in the last 12. It was their best football summer in 30 years and they still remember it.

Making Dublin a travelling act probably won’t change the course of the Leinster championship for the next few seasons but it may restore hope to the challenging counties.

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