St Vincent’s emerge to threaten holders Ballymun’s crown

Northside giants set for a showdown in an intriguing Dublin senior football final at Parnell Park

There is a sentimental view that it is fitting St Vincent's have made it to the Dublin senior final to distinguish the year in which Kevin Heffernan passed away. No one would scoff at that suggestion as much as the man himself.

Tomorrow’s city showpiece pairs two clubs as different as old money and new.

Ballymun Kickhams, formed in 1969, are the younger club and reflective of the resurgent talent and confidence in Dublin football.

The custodians of the famed Marino club are involved in the trickier business of moving with the lightning progression of the city game without losing sight of the club's dauntingly illustrious past.

Great team
Even when St Vincent's stopped winning, the club name continued to resonate across the country, much like Dunmore McHales did for decades after their great team paled or similar to the war Nemo Rangers' or Crossmaglen's name resonate s today.


The trajectory of St Vincent’s’ senior football honours is a fascinating story in its own right: 24 Dublin titles and one All-Ireland title (1976) between 1949 and 1984, then nothing until the Dublin championship win of 2007, an All-Ireland title of the following March and nothing since.

So it is understandable that, in a year when Marino and all of Dublin said goodbye to Heffernan on a brisk January day, there is a sense of symmetry about the fact that the club is still standing on county final day.

"Yeah, well. Kevin would expect us to win the championship every year," Neil Curran points out. "It would have been better if won it last year! Look, we are delighted to be back in a final. All we can do is put in our best performance on Sunday."

Took over
Curran became involved with the senior team in January of 2012 when Tommy Conroy, a blue chip member of Heffernan's Dublin teams, took over. Sean Brady, who was the undisputed star of the Vincent's teams of Pat Gilroy's generation, became involved too.

All three were children when St Vincent’s sat on an untouchable perch. If the assumption was that Vincent’s winning titles was the natural order of things, it was understandable.

The club won six county minor titles from 1978-1983. There was every reason to believe that the success would continue right through the 1980s. There are probably a hundred different theories as to why it stopped so abruptly and why Vincent’s struggled to make a mark in the capital for over 20 years.

“To be honest, I don’t know,” Curran says. “It is hard for me to compare two eras. What I do think happened is that the creation and development of super clubs like Ballyboden and Kilmacud Crokes occurred. They have become huge forces to be reckoned with in a way that probably wasn’t the case in the earlier decades.

"You also have to say that Vincent's were blessed with exceptional people – Kevin Heffernan, Brian Mullins, Bobby Doyle, Jimmy Keaveney, Mickey Whelan – who really drove success and when their era came to an end it was going to be difficult to fill that gap."

When Curran sat down with Conroy and Brady at the beginning of their term, they didn’t set out any grand strategy.

Every year, the goal of the St Vincent’s senior team is to win the Dublin championship.

“More often than not, we fall short. But that is the aspiration,” Curran says. Reaching the final this year has been pleasing and the management is not thinking beyond it.

“We always try to manage our expectations but we learned a lot last year. We tried to take it game by game this season. We are not thinking of anything but Sunday because this Ballymun opposition is so impressive. But I don’t think we ever sat down and said: ‘we are going to win a county championship in two years.’ We didn’t have that conversation.”

There are still 12 of the 2008 All-Ireland winning side on the panel and six on the starting 15. Maybe the Vincent’s lustre played a part in that run: it is seldom that a club side has the poise and wherewithal to win a county title out of the blue and then just keep going to win the All-Ireland for good measure.

It helped, of course, that they had one of the great coaches in Mickey Whelan and excellent local lads reaching maturation: a consummate forward in Tomás Quinn, a proven central defender in Ger Brennan and one of the most creative attackers of the modern game in Diarmuid Connolly.

Nonetheless, it is a different team from five years ago, with an average age of 23. They looked impressive in their 4-12 to 0-15 win over Ballyboden but Curran is not just paying lip service when he says Sunday's opponents are the benchmark.

Fitness levels
"If I was really honest I would say that Ballymun have set the standard for Dublin football in so far as their fitness levels and strength and conditioning, they have really been not just top in Dublin but in the country.

“They were probably unlucky not to come out of the right side of the All-Ireland final last March and they seemed to be well in control of every game in this year’s Dublin championship whereas if we had another couple of minutes to play in the Sylvester’s game, I’m not sure I would be talking [about Vincent’s] right now.”

Curran has been coaching most of the panel since their juvenile days. The heritage of St Vincent’s is a valuable tool for coaches. But there is a fine line between inspiring youngsters with the notion of these invincible teams that went before them and intimidating them with the weight of past achievement.

It was something that Tomás Quinn touched on when St Vincent’s became champions on St Patrick’s Day five years ago.

“All the pictures up there are black and white or not very good colour so it will be nice to move them down the wall. I don’t think they’ll have to go – we’ll just bump them to the side a bit and it will be a good feeling.”

When speaking with youngsters about the history of the club, Curran has always been respectful of it without belabouring the point.

“You would explain it to them and a lot would have fathers who are well aware of it also. At the same time, you don’t want to put that much pressure on them to emulate that level of greatness because it is not realistic.

"You kind of give them a flavour of it. It is there all the time. Brian Mullins is the adult games director. Kevin was in the club every day of his life, practically. There was rarely a time I went down to Vincent's and didn't see Kevin. People like Jack Gilroy, too, had a huge influence on the club. They are the ones who have been leading and influencing the club. So it is about respecting what has been done in the past."

In the present day, Dublin football is riding high. Tomorrow’s match programme will feature over half a dozen players who won All-Ireland medals with the county senior team in September. Ballymun have responded to the crushing disappointment of their All-Ireland defeat last March by looking just as impressive this season.

The return of Vincent's adds a traditional note to an exciting time for football in the city and the expectation will be that whichever club wins tomorrow will have the ambition to seek further honours.

That level
"It is great to see," Curran says."I often wondered why Dublin teams hadn't secured more club All-Irelands until recently. Some teams have seven, eight inter-county players on them so it always amazed me that they didn't achieve that level of success.

“But it seems as if in recent years from St Brigid’s, Na Fianna, ourselves and Ballymun that it has turned a corner and that Dublin teams are to be feared when they come out of Dublin and have a reasonable chance of going a long distance.

“The confidence has come from the county squad. Dublin GAA is thriving. Participation is up six per cent on last year and that is what it is about. There are six senior clubs within a few square miles of ourselves and it is about getting as many kids as we can out there on a Saturday morning.”

And then into Parnell Park for Dublin final Sundays.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times