A lot has happened since the first weekend of April in 1992. Croke Park has been entirely redeveloped, the last of the GAA bans was struck down, and the association’s life-blood in terms of promotion and revenues, the intercounty championships, have been overhauled beyond recognition.
This weekend arguably the most radical of those format changes begins its three-year trial. On Saturday, Croke Park will host the first double bill of the round-robin quarter-finals – or, to use the vernacular, Super 8s.
Back on that weekend just over 26 years ago the GAA was staging an annual congress at which it was possible to hear arguments that the stadium development was too ambitious and costly, and could bring the association to financial ruin.
The late Pat Fanning, then a former president of the GAA, brought some welcome context to the debate by pointing out that he had heard the same arguments when the old Cusack Stand was being built in 1937, and 22 years later when the Hogan Stand was added to the Croke Park landscape.
That same weekend the National Football League quarter-finals saw two of them played together in Breffni Park, Cavan. Curiously the same pairings, Dublin-Donegal and Roscommon-Tyrone, also form the double bill in Croke Park this Saturday.
Neither is this simply some random coincidence because those contests in 1992 had their own significance.
Football was changing. The previous summer Down had won the All-Ireland, bridging a gap of 23 years since any team from outside Leinster or Munster had done so, and Ulster football was about to dominate the championship.
In the queue of contenders, Derry, who would win the 1992 league, were seen as leaders, and Tyrone were in the middle of back-to-back under-21 All-Irelands but would find Derry a roadblock: losing to their neighbours in both the league final (having been in the opinion of Paddy Downey in these pages, ". . . the better football team, more skilful and composed,") thanks to a misfortunate goal two minutes from time, and two weeks later in the championship when their opponents were simply superior.
Not as fancied were Brian McEniff’s Donegal even though they had won Ulster in 1990 and pushed Meath in the subsequent All-Ireland semi-final. Yet little more than four months later it was they who would land the All-Ireland title and become the first new champions in more than 20 years.
If Tyrone laid down a marker in Cavan on that April weekend by defeating the then Connacht champions Roscommon, it would be three years before the county reached an All-Ireland final.
For Donegal, though, defeat in Breffni Park was to prove, counter-intuitively, extremely influential in winning a first All-Ireland.
It was a match dominated by Donegal and in which Dublin played poorly and yet won. Central to the outcome was the arrival of Vinnie Murphy off the bench. He caught a stack of high ball in the closing minutes, setting up Paul Clarke for a goal and shortly afterwards adding one for himself after a Dessie Farrell kick had been blocked and deflected up into the air, in a 3-6 to 1-10 victory.
The result had two effects: Donegal believed they had Dublin’s measure whereas Dublin believed that no matter how badly they performed there were some teams they would always beat. These were crucial attitudes leading up to that year’s All-Ireland final.
In team terms the success of Murphy led to a revival of his career. During the 1991-92 league, he had started just one of seven matches up until his late impact in Breffni Park. From then on he lined out in all of Dublin’s remaining fixtures, including the entire championship campaign of six matches, averaging 3.5 points a match from play, and ending the year with what would be the only All-Star award of a lengthy career.
There would, however, be no All-Ireland medal, as Paddy Cullen’s team were beaten in one of the great September coups by Donegal.
Having not alone identified Murphy as central to Dublin’s attack – an obvious enough observation – but having actually been present at the birth of his new-found influence, McEniff planned to isolate the Dublin full forward and greatly disrupt his supply lines.
At free kicks centre-fielders Brian Murray and Anthony Molloy would drop back in front of their square to deny clean catches, and although Murphy did very well with whatever came his way, he was all too often swarmed by Donegal defenders. His team-mates failed either to make the best of the possession he generated or to vary the approach.
Never kicked the ball
Donegal full back Matt Gallagher policed Murphy closely, and tidied up when his outnumbered opponent couldn't get clear. Famously Gallagher never kicked the ball once during the final, but played a key role in hand-passing possession out from the back.
By the time Dublin won the All-Ireland three years later – beating Tyrone in the final – Murphy was no longer starting.
Saturday will be the fifth championship meeting of the counties since the 1992 final, and Donegal have won just one more, another tactical coup in 2014, which remains Dublin’s last defeat in the championship.