This month marks the 25th anniversary of a significant day in the life of Declan Darcy. Having captained Leitrim to their historic Connacht title in the summer of 1994, he led the team out at Croke Park for the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin.
This Saturday, he'll be glimpsed in the Croke Park background, the familiar if not terribly well-known 49-year-old consigliere to Dublin manager Jim Gavin, with whom he has collaborated to bring the county footballers to the brink of five-in-a-row.
After his team had lost in 1994, Leitrim manager John O’Mahony hurried to the Dublin dressing-room for the ritual post-match visit, “to get it over with quickly,” but on arrival back in his own quarters, found Darcy coming out determined to visit the opposition himself.
“He just said he wanted to go in and wish them all the best for the final,” says O’Mahony, “so I accompanied him back down the corridor.” Darcy quipped that it was, “the only way I’ll get see the inside of a Dublin dressing-room”. How wrong he was.
By then the tale of the Dublin 4 son of a Leitrim man, who had played for his father Frank’s club Aughawillan and also his county was well-known.
Proud of his Leitrim heritage, he was a significant figure in the county's history, as symbolised by the iconic picture of him and 95-year-old Tom Gannon in Hyde Park, Roscommon in 24th July 1994 – the men who captained Leitrim to their only two Connacht titles, the first in 1927 but Declan had never made any secret of his own identity.
“There’s been people saying I only did it to win a medal,” he said in an interview in 1998, having declared for his home county after nearly 10 years of long-distance travel and carrying the Leitrim colours.
“I came to Dublin to play for Dublin, not to win anything – better again if we do win, but that’s not why I came. Even in 1994, I kept saying that I’m a Dublin-born person and very proud of the fact.”
Life with Dublin wasn't a rush of silverware but he was around to win a Leinster medal in 2002, days when – to borrow the Kerry metaphor – you didn't get such things in the shops with your change.
On his return to the city he decided to join St Brigid's in Blanchardstown because of a friendship with Jason Ward, like him a second-generation Leitrim footballer.
Former Dublin player Barry Cahill remembers Darcy’s arrival at the club, which would go on to win a Leinster title in 2003.
"He had a phenomenal impact. It could be compared to a modern-day, top-level European soccer player coming into the Premier League. He just completely lifted the concept of what we should be doing. He set himself ridiculously high standards as an inter-county player and they wouldn't drop for club football. He'd prepare as well for a club league match as for an All-Ireland semi-final.
“He was the perfect fit for a club with young players coming through – his stature and approachability. I came on to the Dublin team when I was 19 and Declan was still there in 2001 and ’02. He brought me training and was a great guy to bounce things off and give advice.
“I think he was involved in coming up with the more defensive system Dublin had to find after 2014 and that semi-final defeat by Donegal. He’s excellent at identifying areas of improvement, using video analysis and finding solutions.
“During my senior career I would have spoken to him numerous times, just to bounce things off him. Even though he wasn’t involved with Dublin at that stage he had a really good eye for aspects of your game and a very direct approach. He never tried to dress up things.”
The partnership with Jim Gavin began with the Dublin under-21s in 2002, just as their playing careers were ending. All-Irelands followed and they were an obvious choice when Pat Gilroy moved on in 2012.
Described as “an obsessive football brain,” he loves coaching and not just at county level, having re-engaged with his childhood club, Clanna Gael/Fontenoy in more recent years. There he runs the club’s under-16 girls and boys’ under-12s (both atop their respective tables!).
“He is, according to club PRO Felix O’Regan, “the perfect example of someone who combines the responsibility of inter-county commitments while not forgetting their club.”
In recognition, he was made Club Person of the Year for 2018.
Darcy Brothers, the award-winning family construction firm, specialising in house building and renovation, means that life is otherwise busy as well and it is known that only the close relationship with Jim Gavin has persuaded him not to wind up his commitments with the county before now.
It’s an impressive journey from somewhere on the periphery of Dublin football to one of the biggest influences on the most successful team in the county’s history.