‘The little village’ team Thomas Davis back in the big time
Manager Paul Kelly sees his Tallaght team head to Parnell Park as massive underdogs
Thomas Davis players celebrating their victory over Kilmacud Crokes in their Dublin senior football championship semi-final in Parnell Park. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
As if there wasn’t already enough in the week for Paul Kelly to be grappling with, Tuesday morning came at him like a bull through a misty field.
Prepping his Thomas Davis side for their first county final in 28 years was what the week was supposed to be about, an underdog story finding its way to be told in the big-beast club environment of the Dublin championship. Didn’t quite work out that way though.
Instead he’s spent a lot of the week in hospital. His 17-year-old daughter Alannah was involved in an eventing accident on her mid-term break and had to be brought to Naas and later to James’s. Thankfully she is recovering well, and is hoping to make it to Parnell Park on Sunday . But it was a bracing few days for the family. You can plan for anything. You can’t plan for everything.
“She came off the horse and she got a kick in the head,” says Kelly. “We had to rush her to Naas hospital in the back of the car, and she had to get a few scans and things like that. She’s only 17. I might be putting her back to playing ladies’ football yet!
“Ah no, she’s been riding since she was a baby. She loves it, always has. It was one of these freak accidents, goes with the territory a bit. Ah, like, we got a fright. A little bit higher and it could have been more serious and a different discussion. You wouldn’t even want to think about it. But we can move on now a bit thankfully, everything can be fixed in time.”
Though Kelly has been over Thomas Davis for six years he is based in Eadestown in Kildare. He grew up in Tallaght -–he grew up with Davis – but moved away after getting married in the early 1990s, first to Wicklow and later to Kildare.
While he played football here and there in both counties, the link to his origin club was never really broken, and when his son Oisin got going it was back to Tallaght they took him.
Oisin is 21 now, and started at wing-forward against Kilmacud last week, chipping in with a point. If for no other reason than to see her brother play in a county final, Alannah will be straining at the bit to get across the city on Sunday. It wouldn’t be quite the same on TV.
So, yeah, it’s been a bit of a week. For starters Thomas Davis weren’t supposed to take Kilmacud out at the knees last Saturday. The Tallaght club have nobody involved in the Dublin panel, nobody even around the fringes of it. Relative to the likes of Kilmacud, Ballyboden, Vincent’s and the rest, they’re by no means a massive club. Toppling the Dublin champions was a stunner of a result.
They are not without their history, of course. Spearheaded by the likes of Paul Curran and Dave Foran, they won three Dublin titles in a row between 1989 and 1991. The latter two of those titles were parlayed into Leinster crowns, and they went all the way to St Patrick’s Day in 1992, only to be pipped in the All-Ireland final by a point by Dr Crokes.
Heading back to Tallaght from Croke Park that day it would have been unfathomable to them that they would have to wait the best part of three decades to so much as make it back to a county final.
Yet here they are, in one against the head, and long before anyone had them pencilled in for one. Massive underdogs for the second weekend in a row.
What happened? Life happened. In Tallaght life happens hard and fast if it gets a chance. Kelly saw the area balloon from a village to a town to a city in its own right, with all the good and bad that implies. The sports clubs in the area did their best to keep pace, Thomas Davis to the fore among them. But it was never easy.
“The club went through a few years of struggles,” says Kelly. “It was well documented that there was the issue with the Dublin County Board and the council and Shamrock Rovers, etc. It was a bit sour in the area for a while. But also then the economic environment and the downturn left us with a huge debt, which was very much an anchor around the neck.
“Then if that wasn’t bad enough we had a very substantial fire which left huge damage to the facilities in the club which have now been replaced. So look, we’ve been through a lot of adversity. The focus on the juveniles section across all the different disciplines is reaping rewards. Anyone who visits the club now would have to admire the facilities that we can make available to the area and to the people in around us.
“Our numbers aren’t nearly as big as Boden or Kilmacud or these clubs. But a huge amount of effort has gone in across each of the codes, male and female, boys and girls.
“When I was growing up hurling barely existed in the club. But they’ve had huge success now at their level – nine or 10 of our lads are dual players. That’s obviously going to be harder for them the older they get, but they have it and it’s great. Davis’s have provided a huge service in the area.”
Like most kids in Tallaght, Kelly played plenty of soccer growing up. He is as far from a GAA fundamentalist as you can get, encouraging any young people he comes across to play all the sports they can get their hands on.
“The greater goal in a place like Tallaght has to be to keep kids playing any sport, keep the participation high, regardless of the sport. You might think when you look at our infrastructure that we’re a big club but we’re actually quite a small one in the scheme of things. You’ve got a lot of pressures there in Tallaght – the economic environment, etc. You’re trying to provide a valuable social service for kids growing up in the area.
“When my mam and dad moved to Tallaght originally, the likes of Davis’s provided a huge infrastructure that otherwise wasn’t there. I think Davis’s were obviously a well-established country club at that time but they stood up to the mark, along with other GAA clubs like St Mark’s and St Anne’s to provide that outlet. It’s important that these clubs do their best to be part of the social fabric in the area. All sports are good if they keep the kids away from other things.”
You only need to look at the make-up of Kelly’s playing panel to see the fruits of that effort and to get a sense of the changes over the years. Back when Kelly was playing Davis’s were seen as a fine spot for non-Dubs to land. It was part of the DNA of the club, one that started life in the Dublin countryside before the city sprawl gobbled it up. It’s a different world now.
“When I was playing we had lads from Mayo, Cavan, Kerry, Sligo and lot of places,” says Kelly. “You always had four or five or half a dozen lads from the country playing, and it was great. My view was always that this thing is about diversity of people and different points of view and experiences.
“So, look, you could argue now that we’re at the other end of the spectrum. We have a lad called Peter Quinn from Derry, from Magherafelt. He joined us this year through a marriage connection. And we have Darragh Smith from Louth, but he’s been injured for most of the year. Those are the only two of the 30 who aren’t local. Everybody else has come up through the ranks.
“When I got back involved six years ago there was a desire in the club to have a transition period. I knew from Oisin being there and we all knew from looking around us that there was a couple of good minor teams coming through. And as long as we were prepared to wait for them and handle them and nurture them, we would get there eventually.
“We’re starting to reap the benefits of that transition period now. We have about 12 or 14 of the current panel who have come through the last three or four minor teams.”
Through it all Thomas Davis have managed to carve out something that should be counter-intuitive. By itself Tallaght is the fifth-biggest population centre in Ireland. It has more residents than Navan, Ennis and Tralee combined. Yet the club have managed to harness a local identity in the midst of the urban grid that whirrs and hums around them, meaning that a county final is a real thing out there this week.
“If you’re at the match on Sunday you’ll hear people going, ‘come on the little village!” There is that mentality in the area. There are a lot of close-knit families and a lot of people with years given to the club. Despite the vastness of Tallaght town/city, that mentality is still there. There’s a great buzz on the back of that.
“When we were growing up the main pitch was supplied by the Molloy family up at the graveyard up in the old village area. The one thing I would have noticed originally coming from a soccer background was that when you hit Davis’s there was a huge village mentality attached to the place. People can lack identity in a big city or a densely populated place like Tallaght or they can lose identity easily enough. It’s a precious thing that has to be looked after.”
A task for which sport is ideally suited. And to which a county final appearance can contribute in spades.
WHEN THOMAS DAVIS WERE KING
Across the 132-year history of the Dublin championship there have been 10 three-in-a-row champions. Actually, that should read “three-in-a-row-or-better” since the O’Toole’s club put a string of five together in the 1990s and St Vincent’s have done a five-, a four- and not one but two three-in-a-rows. Significantly, however, only one club has put a necklace of three titles together in the past 40 years. That club is Thomas Davis.
Led by then Dublin stars Dave Foran and Paul Curran, Thomas Davis owned the Dublin championship as the 1980s morphed into the 1990s. They were managed at the time by Andrew O’Donnell, who sadly passed away only last month after a lifetime of service to the club. O’Donnell was at various times the club chairman, mentor to countless teams and was club secretary at the time of his death. It was apt that when they were at their pinnacle, he was the man in the middle of it all.
Going unbeaten in the Dublin championship for three years on the bounce was some achievement. It wasn’t as though the competition was a soft touch at the time – going into the 1989 championship Parnells were the reigning Leinster champions. The two sides would go on to contest two of the next three county finals, with Thomas Davis coming out by a single score both times.
Thomas Davis’s other great rivals in that period were Wicklow side Baltinglass, who they faced off against all three years in Leinster. Between draws and replays, they faced off five times in three winters, and when it was all counted up at the end the aggregate score was Thomas Davis 2-40 (46) Baltinglass 3-34 (45).
Thomas Davis came out ahead in the end in terms of provincial title (2-1) but the Wicklow side did parlay theirs into an All-Ireland, the one medal that eluded that great Davis’s side.