Dublin looking to make history, just as history has made Dublin
Fears of one-team domination have echoed down through the generations
Money or no money, Dublin are blessed with players. Players who have improved year on year, whose standards rarely drop, whose athleticism is off the charts. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Dublin are in the All-Ireland final. They’re going for three-in-a-row. They’ve long since turned Leinster into a ghost town and nobody doubts they have it in them to do the same to the championship as a whole. And as the final draws close and the country looks on covetously at the built-in advantages of Dublin being Dublin, one issue rises to the surface, sure as the sunrise. Money.
No, this isn’t about paying €3,500 for Breakfast With Whelo. Nor is it about clubs in Mayo having to pony up an extra grand for the kitty for the right to buy extra All-Ireland tickets. Well, it is, sort of, but not directly.
Because we’re not talking 2017 here. We’re talking 1923. A fortnight before the final between Dublin and Kerry all of 94 years ago, a written plea was carried in all the Kerry local papers, sent in by the county board. It read:
“Kerry meets Dublin in the All-Ireland final on next Sunday fortnight, September 28th. If the Kerry team are to be seen at their best, some steps must be taken to train them. We must again appeal to the public to provide funds, believing there will be a wholehearted response from the Gaels of the county.
“The undersigned will be greatly obliged if all intending subscribers communicate with them before the weekend, as they will then be in a position to know if they can start the training of the team on Monday week.
“PJ O’Connell – Chairman, County Board; DJ Baily – Secretary, County Board; JJ Sheehy – Tralee Athletic Club.”
It’s like they used to say in Battlestar Gallactica – all of this has happened before and all of it will happen again.
If Stephen Cluxton has Sam Maguire over his head tomorrow at around 5.15, Dublin will be the tenth team in the history of the GAA to put three football All-Irelands together back to back.
They are the 25th team to attempt it – of the 24 who have gone before, nine succeeded, six got beaten in the final in Year Three and eight had to watch on from the sidelines as their title slid from view with nothing to be done about it.
Teams come and teams go and all eras wash out to sea eventually. Of the nine teams who’ve done a three-in-a-row, seven have been from either Dublin or Kerry. Wexford’s four-in-a-row a century ago and Galway’s three-in-a-row in the mid-1960s are anomalies, quirky glitches in the system, more or less universally hailed and welcomed.
It’s always different when it’s Dublin or Kerry. Throughout the history of the game, when one or other of them is on the way to three-in-a-row, you don’t have to look too hard to find all manner of misgivings given airtime.
Maybe it’s finance. Maybe it’s playing style. Maybe it’s championship structures or the timing of the All-Ireland or anything else you’re having yourself. When it’s Dublin and when it’s Kerry, it’s never just about the football.
Let’s take Seán Cavanagh’s hypothesis in the wake of the semi-final, that the Dubs are out in front because they don’t have the same work demands as players from other counties.
“Obviously, Dublin are way ahead and I have no idea how they are able to do it,” Cavanagh said. “To try and do a 40-hour-a-week job and just be blown away from another team who . . . and maybe they aren’t doing 40-hour-a-week jobs similar to what other counties are, maybe that’s one of the reasons they’re so far ahead.”
Well, let’s see. Of the likely starting 15 tomorrow, the Dubs field five students, two bank officials, a stockbroker, a tax consultant, a physio, a teacher, a company director, a business owner, a college recruiter and a leisure centre manager. Nothing too out of the ordinary there. Of the five college-goers, Jack McCaffrey and Mick Fitzsimons are medical students. The teacher is Cluxton, who famously had to be persuaded by his boss, the incoming GAA president John Horan, to take the Monday off after the 2011 All-Ireland final.
But whatever about the substance of the claim, the thrust of it is nothing new. The last time Dublin were going for three-in-a-row, Kerry were coming to Croke Park in 1978. At the pre-All-Ireland press night in Parnell Park, then county chairman Jimmy Grey rounded on the frequently-aired notion that the Dubs were blessed by their location, blessed beyond all others.
“One reason constantly given for Dublin’s continued success by people living outside the Pale,” wrote The Cork Examiner, “is the advantage they enjoy in having most of their players resident within the city and within comparatively easy reach of their training headquarters in Parnell Park.
“Jimmy Grey was quick to reply: ‘Many people tend to forget that a lot of our lads are company representatives and have to make long journeys back from the country to make training sessions.’ Then pointing out the window of the reception room of Parnell Park, sited in a northern suburb on the perimeter of Dublin city, Mr Grey said: ‘Look out there and you will see David Hickey and Pat O’Neill. Both are doctors at Dr Stevens Hospital and they have just snatched a couple of hours off before resuming their duties.’”
Which brings us to another familiar theme. The backlash against the backlash. Dublin selector Declan Darcy was in tiger-mother mode at the press day last week, taking a stand for the development of his players over a time period of a decade and more.
“They haven’t just turned into good footballers in the last year or two,” Darcy said. “There’s been a lot of work gone into the players and it’s reflected now. I don’t think Dublin should be punished for that – they should be congratulated for that. And maybe it’s up to other counties to look in to see how did they do that and maybe bring it back to their own county and try bring in that blueprint.”
In attitude, theme and delivery, this doesn’t vary a whole pile from a 1978 interview with Brian Mullins, written up by Raymond Smith in the Sunday Independent. “One of the reasons Dublin were such a dominant force today was because of the way the County Board looked after the players, he [Mullins] declared. The team approach and good management were vital ingredients to success. Other counties could achieve the same level of success if they modelled themselves on the way the Dublin team was run.”
Easy for them to say, of course. But again, whatever about the merits, the arguments are as old as the Sam Maguire. The umbrella, always, is fear. A fear for the future, a fear for the domination that at times like this can seem inevitable.
Go back to 1932 and Kerry’s win over Mayo to wrap up the county’s first four-in-a-row. Not alone was there a harbinger of times to come for the losers – The Western People’s report carried the opening line, “Croke Park once again proved the sepulchre of Mayo hopes and ambitions…” – but the whiff of something-must-be-done hung in the air too.
No less a voice than The Daily Express was righteous in its verdict after Kerry’s 2-7 to 2-4 victory.
“Now that the great event of the year has been decided,” wrote correspondent ‘Seán’, “the same old problem remains: the superiority of Kerry as a football county is a serious problem for the Gaelic administrators. I outlined last week that their continued supremacy was giving the powers-that-be a lot of worry. It was obvious to any observer that the Mayo material was not good enough to gain the victory.”
Indeed, that 1932 victory caused widespread renting of garments. In The Irish Press a few days later, their correspondent ‘Celt’ could barely contain his sorrow at the rag order in which the rest of the country was apparently conducting its affairs. Taking the football and hurling championships as a single transferable problem, he pondered how things had come to this unpretty pass.
“When Leinster and Munster have just added another scroll to their escutcheons; when Kerry has just added their eleventh football and Kilkenny its seventh hurling title, we are prompted to ask: Is there something wrong – something lax in the practice of games elsewhere?
“We know there is no inherent disability in the men of any county to face a fair contest with the best. Must it not, therefore, arise from defects of provincial competitions or ill-advised selections or preparation?
“A national outlook and the interest of the games prompts a desire to see the prestige and encouragement the successful counties have created for themselves equalled and shared in remoter parts of the country. No envy underlines this wish, only a sincere appreciation of the thrilling finals we should see when this advance stakes place. Can someone explain why this is not so, and when and how it will come to pass?”
All of this is fine and well. These fears were sincerely held in 1932 and they are no less pertinent or tangible 85 years on. Dublin stand on the brink of a three-in-a-row and if they win tomorrow, you won’t find many to bet against them making it four in 2018.
For all the dreary message-board posturing, only the most one-eyed Dub can fail to see there is a genuine possibility here that the game will belong to the city team for as long as they want. Much like our man from the Express back in ’32, it’s no outrage to declare that this is Not A Good Thing.
What is interesting though is the extent to which it annoys the Dublin set-up, players and staff alike. The level of rumour-mongering that goes on around them is, at least to some extent, their own fault. You can’t be as secretive as Dublin are without leading people to draw their own conclusions.
For the record, according to Dublin County Board chairman John Costello, they don’t get their meals delivered to their home. Nor do their families get travel expenses to go to matches or free tickets to get into them. Their backroom team has 22 members, which is about par for the course in any inter-county set-up.
It clearly grates with them that people keep talking about money. In his 2015 All-Ireland winning speech, Cluxton jabbed his finger only once, in the making of a point about county board support. You rarely hear the county board get the biggest cheer of the acceptance speech but the forcefulness of Cluxton’s delivery demanded it.
“I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the county board for the amount of work they do in promoting the game,” he said, his voice rising. “It’s very easy for people to turn around and tell us that we’ve money to spend but if you don’t have the players to put it in, then it’s no use to you. So thanks a million to the county board!”
All of this has happened before and all of it will happen again. There have always been big beasts, there has always been fear, there has always been money and there has never been enough of it to go around.
Dublin may well eat the game whole over the coming decade or this might all be cyclical, just like the smuggest of smug Dubs like to assure us all. Sitting here ahead of the 2017 final, nobody knows.
But there, in the jab of Cluxton’s finger, right there is a reminder. Money or no money, Dublin are blessed with players. Players who have improved year on year, whose standards rarely drop, whose athleticism is off the charts, whose accuracy is consistent and whose tactical coherence is pushing the game forward.
The game is about the players. Always was, always will be.
Three (or four) in a row
Dublin – 1897-99
Dublin – 1906-08
Wexford – 1915-18
Dublin – 1921-23
Kerry – 1929-32
Kerry – 1939-41
Galway – 1964-66
Kerry – 1978-81
Kerry – 1984-86