Dublin's league dominance partly built on move to Croke Park
Since moving to HQ for home games, Jim Gavin’s template is there for others to follow
Jack McCaffery of Dublin with John O’Rourke of Cork during Dublin’s last home league loss in March 2014. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
From this vantage point, it seems comical now to recall that the idea to move Dublin’s home league games to Croke Park wasn’t exactly greeted with overwhelming enthusiasm. Brainchild of the late county chairman Andy Kettle, it was presented as an experiment that may or may not work – and if it didn’t, so be it. This was February 2011 and it was the depths of bailout Ireland. Nobody knew what lay ahead, on the grass or off it.
Of the 35,028 crowd who turned up for a double-header of the Dublin hurlers v Tipp and the footballers v Cork, it was hard to gauge how many were there for the interval turn of Jedward, by then newly-appointed carriers of Ireland’s Eurovision hopes for the year. Certainly the sight of the peripatetic hairdos from Lucan cartwheeling out to midfield between games assured everyone that this was a new departure. Saturday night in Donnycarney, it wasn’t.
Whatever about the commercial experiment needing time to prove itself worth the punt, there was plenty for the Dublin team to find out about itself once David Coldrick’s whistle blew to start the game. They were facing All-Ireland champions Cork, the team that had pipped them in an epic All-Ireland semi-final the previous September.
Younger readers may need reminding that even as recently as the beginning of the decade, Dublin weren’t always the brutalising force of nature they are today. Indeed, if anything, they were considered generally a little too flighty for their own good, a little too prone to throwing away a close game here and there. You only need to read Seán Moran’s match report from the following Monday to get a flavour of the thinking of the time.
“Like Saturday night’s musical support,” he wrote, “they may too easily attract hype and be essentially unproven, and unlike Jedward they have yet to win a national title, but Dublin’s encouraging start to the Allianz Football League was maintained at Croke Park with a lively win against the All-Ireland champions.”
Nobody knew it then but the switch to playing Dublin’s home league matches to Croke Park was to become a key driver of the era of plenty they would go on to enjoy. Since that night in 2011, Dublin have played 35 league games at Croke Park, with a record of Won 28, Lost 5, Drew 2. Confine it to group games only, stripping out league finals and semi-finals, and the record reads Played 25 Won 20 Lost 3 Drew 2. No one else’s home record across that span of time comes remotely close.
Nor, for that matter, does their own home record in the seasons pre-2011 compare overly well. In the five league campaigns from 2006 to 2010, their home record was Played 17, Won 10, Lost 5, Drew 2. As it happens, two of those defeats were actually in Croke Park, with the Dubs losing to Tyrone in 2007 and 2009. But they were liable to leak a game here and there in Parnell Park too, with defeats to Kerry, Monaghan and Galway dotted through their record.
Under Jim Gavin, Dublin’s habit in the league has been to get their business done early, especially at home. It’s close to four years since they lost a regulation league game at headquarters, a 1-17 to 0-18 defeat to Cork in early March 2014.
Kerry’s win in last year’s league final was the first knockout league defeat for the Dubs since Cork took the 2011 final – a game, as it happens, that Dublin threw away in what was then customary fashion.
These are different times. It used to be an article of faith that Dublin were the sort of side that could be got at early in a league campaign, who might not quite have their ducks in a row early on. Indeed for three years out for four between 2006 and 2009, they lost their first home game of the league. Since the move to Croke Park, that has only happened once – against Kerry in 2012. Under Gavin, they’re unbeaten in their home opener, with four wins and one draw.
Home form has been the backbone of Dublin’s league success these past five years and for myriad reasons, the rest of the league hasn’t been able to keep pace. Most obviously and tellingly, Dublin’s playing resources are clearly deeper than everyone else’s and competition for places is fiercer.
To that end, Gavin hasn’t generally been in habit of blooding rafts of untested rookies in the league – go back to their home opener against Tyrone last February and 12 of the starting team that day also started the All-Ireland final seven months later. Only Cian O’Sullivan, Con O’Callaghan and Paddy Andrews were missing. As Diarmuid Connolly would find out later in the year, it’s the toughest team in the country to force your way onto.
Significantly, though, they have made their home ground a fortress in a way that other counties haven’t either managed or even really tried to. Much as Dublin would argue – surely ironically at this point – that Croker isn’t their home ground, its de facto status as the place everyone has to go to play them is something they’ve made sure to develop to their advantage.
Oddly enough, it hasn’t really been replicated around the country. Mindful of local sensitivities, some counties move their games around from town to town and from ground to ground. Kerry play in Tralee and Killarney. Donegal host games in Letterkenny, Ballybofey and Ballyshannon. Monaghan go to Clones, Castleblayney and Inniskeen. Galway will flit between Tuam and Salthill. Kildare have even played a home game in Croke Park in the recent past. And the less said about Roscommon’s travails with the Hyde, the better.
It feels somehow like counties might be missing a trick here. Granted, there’s only one Croke Park and you can’t just click your fingers and pretend to transplant the aura of the big house to a provincial venue. But you’d imagine the likes of Tyrone ought to be making Healy Park a much more difficult place to go than it has been in recent years. Ditto, Mayo with MacHale Park.
In better times for Cork football, you’d imagine it would be an absolute no-brainer for them, what with the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh. As it is, two of their upcoming home games in the 2018 league will be in Páirc Uí Rinn; the other two will be curtain-raisers to hurling encounters in the new bowl by the Lee. The road back for Ronan McCarthy’s side is long but it has to start somewhere.
It’s obviously foolish to blithely declare that counties can learn a thing or two from the Dubs. That said, neither is everything is a vast galaxy away in the distance. Dublin’s move to Croke Park in 2011 coincided with the flourishing of a brilliant crop of players under two inspirational management teams and that’s the main reason they are who they are today. But having a home patch to defend and be proud of was a part of it too.
You don’t necessarily need to have a Croke Park to achieve that.