You don't go on a two-and-a-half-year unbeaten run without squeaking through a tight spot or two so maybe it's perversely apt that the last time St Vincent's lost a championship game they absolutely, definitely should have won it.
It was against Ballymun Kickhams in the Dublin championship on October 12th 2012 and they still aren’t particularly sure how they threw it away.
Neither, for that matter, are Ballymun.
"I'll be perfectly honest about it," says then Ballymun manager Paul Curran. "They totally should have beaten us that night. They bombarded us and we needed Seán Currie to make a couple of great saves to keep them out and we ended up getting an injury-time free that Dean Rock put over from about 45 yards. It was a difficult free but Dean was on fire around then and we held out.
“We played them three times when I was there. We drew one, lost one, won one. We should have lost the one that we won. We certainly should have won the one that we drew and we deserved probably to lose the replay in fairness. But after the game where we beat them, they watched us go and win Dublin, win Leinster, go all the way to St Patrick’s Day. That definitely gave them motivation.”
St Vincent’s streak now runs to 19 games – 18 wins and that draw against Ballymun in the 2013 Dublin final. They have a bit to go yet before they find themselves in Crossmaglen territory but they’re meeting the horizon with every step.
Throughout the period in which Cross have been the natural party of government in Armagh, that storied club has twice gone over 25 games unbeaten – 26 between September 1998 and October 2000 and 28 between October 2010 and February 2013. Nobody else comes close.
Dessie Dolan’s Garrycastle side thought they had a decent chance of putting a kink in the hose in the Leinster semi-final in Parnell Park last November.
Though Vincent's eased into a hefty early lead – it was 2-6 to 0-2 after 20 minutes – the Westmeath champions chipped away either side of half-time and would have gone ahead but for a great save from Michael Savage. From that point on, the only Vincent's scorers were Ger Brennan, Diarmuid Connolly and Mossie Quinn and the Dubliners won by five points.
“They have serious leaders,” says Dolan. “From Ger Brennan marshalling their defence to the midfield where they’re strong. And then, in the forwards, any of them are capable on any given day of going and winning the game for them.
“Obviously a lot of attention goes to Diarmuid but if he’s having a quiet day, they have a load of lads who will step up.
“Ger is absolutely outstanding for them. I’ve seen him at times with county football, like with the Gooch and that and he’s struggled. But he is an exceptional player for Vincent’s and he’s the one person I would say that makes them tick.”
Yet Brennan’s name is rarely the first that springs to mind when it comes to Vincent’s. This is not surprising when arguably the most shimmering talent in the country is playing at centre-forward. For Curran though, this is where most teams fall down against them. They go too far down the rabbit hole of trying to work out how to curb Connolly and leave the door open to others.
“We approached it differently,” he says. “We decided to make it a series of one-on-one battles. We said to the guys who were going to be playing on Connolly and Quinn, ‘Look, this is your job. You’ll get a bit of cover but primarily they’re your responsibility’.
“We just decided that teams were making the same mistake against them over and over. They were doubling up and leaving space for the rest of the team, basically saying, ‘Come on and beat us with the other guys if you think you can.’ But you get caught out doing that.
“Connolly is quite happy to be out of a game if it takes two or three of the opposition out with him. He’ll head out to the wing and take players with him, leaving space through the middle for the rest of them. They often look dominant in games with Ger Brennan or the two midfielders bombing through the centre – more often than not it’s because Connolly has made a run out to the wing and drawn a couple of defenders with him. They have other guys to do the damage.”
For Dolan, this is what separates them from the pack. They’re more than just their best two forwards.
“The point is, that’s unusual for club football,” he says. “If you’re playing intercounty, then fair enough, you’re expecting all six forwards to be able to take a score. But at club level, you’re normally fairly sure that if you shut down the other team’s two best forwards, you’re a good bit of the way there. Vincent’s just have too many reliable forwards for you to deal with them all.
“But the other thing about them is they’re good communicators on the pitch. I haven’t come across a better club team for solving problems on the pitch as the game is going on. That comes from Ger, who sees the whole game in front of him from centre-back and organises everyone around him.
“They’re always talking to each other and if they see someone becoming a threat, they shift across, maybe pull a forward back for five minutes, whatever it takes. Usually with club football, everything is happening a bit too fast for some of the players so you have to wait till half-time to be able to sort a problem out and get everyone on the same wavelength. They do it on the pitch.”
Curran’s Ballymun played three games plus extra-time against them and in the final reckoning, the aggregate score between the sides was 2-39 to 2-39. Yet it’s the Marino side that have won back-to-back Dublin and Leinster titles and who are going for their fourth All-Ireland. No accident, Curran reckons.
“Tradition is a huge thing in our sport. In every county, there’s a club who just feel that they have tradition on their side. In Dublin, that’s Vincent’s. No doubt about it. Whether it’s semi-finals, finals, whatever – once they have a sniff of a title, those young lads absolutely believe that they’re better than the rest. They could be down for five or 10 years, they could be down for 20. But when they get an opportunity to get into that space again, they handle it better than clubs who have never been there.
“Like, if we go back to 2013, I honestly thought that we were a better team than them. We were five points up in the final with a minute and a half to go and we really should have held on.
“But I’ll be completely honest here – if Vincent’s were five points up on us in that situation, there’d be no coming back. None. That’s the truth.
Even though we were defending champions, even though we were defending Leinster champions, even though we’d been to the All-Ireland final just a few months beforehand, we just wouldn’t have had the belief that the Vincent’s boys did.
“Against team with a lesser mentality, we’d have been out of sight. But five points was nothing to them because they believed that they were Vincent’s and they would come back.”
None of this is to say that Corofin won’t nab them. Dolan points out that Vincent’s often hit a flat spot in games and that one of these days they’ll switch off for too long to survive when they eventually switch back on. Indeed, he fancies the Galway side to take them.
And maybe he’ll even be proved right. But teams have similarly fancied themselves to varying degrees for two-and-a-half years now.
Time ticks on and St Vincent’s stay standing.