True-blue Farrell enthusiastic as he assumes Dublin mantle
‘I love football, and I love coaching, and I’m passionate about Dublin football’
Dessie Farrell: “I’ve no doubt it’s a strong dressing room. This group, as well as being high-functioning, they’re highly evolved and I’d imagine not inclined to suffer fools gladly.” Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
They’ve hardly had time to sweep the bunting and streamers off the ground in Croke Park and here it goes again.
In the last decade, Dublin smashed the perceived limitations of possibility within Gaelic games. The five-in-a-row, the stuff of myth, was finally achieved in the replay after a thrilling draw against a young Kerry team the first day.
Then Jim Gavin left without a backwards glance, departing while the world was busy wrapping Christmas presents. Now filling his role is Dessie Farrell, the man who was always tipped to succeed Gavin – provided he wanted the role.
A few years ago, when he was head of the Gaelic Players Association, Farrell was publicly quizzed about the idea of one day managing Dublin after he finished with the GPA. At the time, he said he had no interest. Something has changed since then.
“I think it’s timing, probably,” he said on the eve of his first game against Longford this afternoon.
We can’t afford to be complacent, we can’t afford to stagnate. The competition out there is getting better and getting stronger
“That’s probably three years ago now or whatever. I think you always have to be very respectful of the incumbents at the time and they don’t need to have someone looking over their shoulder. I think that, out of respect to the group that was there and the management team, it wasn’t my place to be saying that I might want to be looking at the job in the near future or something like that.
“I love football, and I love coaching, and I’m passionate about Dublin football, obviously. It was always something that was in my head whether, with the such-ness of life, it might never have come to fruition. But, at this point of time it has and I’m very grateful.”
And that’s the thing. These opportunities come when they do. Gavin succeeded Pat Gilroy after Dublin had managed to be torn asunder by Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final of 2012. They reclaimed the All-Ireland in 2013 before being stunned by Donegal the following summer. By then, they had established themselves as the most dangerous and potent force in the country but nobody, after the All-Ireland success of 2015, when they held off Kerry by three points in a rain-soaked All-Ireland final, was predicting that they would finish the decade unbeaten.
Since then, the forecasts have been increasingly pessimistic from rival county voices fearing that Dublin’s streak could extend for another three years. That kind of expectation brings its pressure on Farrell.
Irrespective of how smoothly he handles it, the departure of Gavin represents a disruption; there will be an inevitable break this season between the replacement of Gavin’s way of doing things and the full implementation of Farrell’s own style.
That changing of the guard may represent the best chance for other teams to break Dublin’s winning streak. And when he first met the squad, that warning was contained within his opening message.
“I think it was to convey a sense of appreciation to those players for what they’ve done for Dublin football, and a sense of gratitude for their commitment and dedication. Also, to convey to them that what’s happened now is in the past and that we need to look forward. Looking forward to establish that there will need to be improvement in this squad and in our performances in 2020. We can’t afford to be complacent, we can’t afford to stagnate. The competition out there is getting better and getting stronger.
“You don’t have to look too far. Even within our own province, I think the standard will improve this season. Then, obviously, you look at Munster . . . the trajectory that Kerry are on. They’re coming with a full deck, and coming in a big way. Cork put Dublin to the pin of their collar for a long time in that game last year.
“Connacht – new management in Galway, Mayo – we know what Mayo have been doing and they’ve been knocking on the door. And, then, up north, I’m very familiar with that young Donegal side from underage football and, obviously, Tyrone are Tyrone.”
The whole idea of building character and developing men of substance was always really important to us in our management team.
All of those sides will be gunning for the Dublin over the next few weeks. Dublin open their league season against Kerry in Croke Park before visiting Mayo a week later, both Saturday night games. Tyrone will have placed an asterisk beside Dublin’s scheduled visit to Omagh on February 29th as an opportunity to get inside their heads a little bit.
But, irrespective of whether Dublin are fully firing in the league, the championship remains the litmus test. There were signs, even as they successfully held on to the All-Ireland that Dublin were beginning to fall back into the chasing pack rather than dancing ahead of them. Kerry football people will have deliberated on this all winter; they had a chance to stop history last September.
And devastating as Dublin were for that 12-minute spell against Mayo in the second half of last summer’s All-Ireland semi-final, they looked lost for ideas at times in the first half. The gap is narrowing. It will be some feat for Farrell to extend this. He had this to say when it was put to him that players can sometimes scapegoat the manager when a season doesn’t go well.
“Yeah. I’ve no doubt it’s a strong dressing room. This group as well as being high-functioning, they’re highly evolved and I’d imagine not inclined to suffer fools gladly. I’m under no illusions there, but my approach is very simple in relation to that – we’re all in this together. I’ve been appointed by the county board now, so for better or for worse, I am who they’ve got, and between us we’ve got to make this work.”
Privately, though, its unlikely he entertains the likelihood of any scapegoating. The debates about Dublin’s advantages in population and commercial revenue will continue. But the big revolution, initiated by Gilroy and advanced by Gavin, was to completely change the players’ understanding of what it meant to represent Dublin. They removed the hollow swagger and replaced it with low-key substance. If the day arrives when players are scapegoating management, then the new order will have fallen apart.
And its hard to see imagine that happening under Farrell’s watch. He coached many of the squad in their juvenile years and kept in touch with many of them after they graduated to senior level.
“In those intervening years you’re always there as a resource to them, not to pry or step beyond a certain boundary in relation to those types of conversations or discussions.”
When Farrell was in charge of Dublin minor and U-21 teams, he held strong views about player development which mirrored what Gavin would do with them as seniors.
“In some ways at that level it was more about development, not just as footballers but as individuals and people as well. The whole idea of building character and developing men of substance was always really important to us in our management team.
“And obviously the senior management team and the players themselves over the last number of years have taken that to another level and have done a fantastic job and we are very keen to see that continue. But then, they’re a wonderfully committed bunch of players. What will try to do is establish a culture of learning and curiosity. That they continue to be students of the game and want to get better, and want to improve. If we can instil that kind of hunger in the group and motivate them in that way, who knows what’s going to happen.”
It doesn’t sound like the end of anything. If and when Dublin are finally caught, it may be because of the gradual disappearance of once-in-a-generation footballers like James McCarthy, Stephen Cluxton and Diarmuid Connolly.
But the hope that Dublin will become content and vulnerable by simply standing still in the coming seasons seem fanciful. The manager is different but the task for other counties remains the same. They have to raise their game to Dublin’s level. And then they have to go and beat them.
Farrell on the Advanced Mark.
“As a group we haven’t discussed the new rules. From my personal opinion, I am just curious to see how they will work out . I am concerned about the advanced mark. I can understand the rationale behind it but then when you look at last year’s championship, particularly the business end of it, the games were fantastic and very attack-oriented games.
“And I am just concerned that what they are trying to achieve with this advance mark may end up being counter intuitive . . .that you could as a result of it end up deploying more personnel and defenders in that space to protect the goals and I don’t think that was the rationale or reasoning in the first instance. It may not work out that way.
“From what I have been hearing and reading it has been pretty inconsequential, the advanced mark, to date. But I am just concerned that if a team really goes after it and tries to exploit it as a new development in the game it could very quickly change other teams’ views as to how you defend it or try and work with this. And it could end up attracting more bodies back into defence.”
Dublin’s Five To Watch
1. Ciarán Archer
The St Maur’s man’s virtuosity during Dublin’s rampant U-21 campaign left Blues fans salivating at the thought of his joining the ranks of their heavily decorated forward line. Archer finished as Player of the Year in that competition despite Dublin falling short against Cork in the final. An athletic, rangy star with a dead-eye for goal, Archer is also an excellent free taker and will further heighten the pressure for a place in their front six.
2. Peadar Ó Cofaigh Byrne
“He’s an absolute beast but he’s mobile as well,” was Brian Fenton’s verdict last September, acknowledging their sparring sessions in training. By then, the 6ft6in Cuala midfielder had already featured in the Super 8s game against Tyrone and was listed as a substitute in the drawn All-Ireland final.
3. Darren Gavin
Another midfielder, Gavin made his debut against Galway, the county with whom his father, Fergal, won an All-Ireland in 1998. He gave a series of eye-catching performances in the early part of the league season for Dublin before an untimely injury pushed him to the periphery again.
4. Conor McHugh
Five years have slipped by since McHugh was named the U-21 footballer of the Year to go along with his All-Ireland minor title. But he featured sparingly during the Jim Gavin era, initially unable to break into a mature and slick forward line that was since supplemented by Con O’Callaghan. A stand-out attacker on the Dublin club scene with Farrell’s club Na Fianna, this could be an opportunity to impress.
5. Evan Comerford
The Ballymun man has won three All-Ireland medals in a role that demands limitless patience: understudy to Stephen Cluxton. He has impressed in the limited opportunities afforded him in the past few years but is set for a run of games in the league as Cluxton recovers from surgery.