Sustained organic growth the secret of Kilmacud’s rise to prominence

Many hands have helped lay the foundations for club chasing a third All-Ireland title

John Sheridan died on the morning of the All-Ireland club semi-final between Kilmacud Crokes and Pádraig Pearses. He had played a hugely influential role in the establishment and development of the Dublin champions.

It is reasonably well known that the club is a 1966 amalgamation of Kilmacud GAA, founded in 1959, and the older Crokes hurling club but there was a third tributary. Fifty years ago Benburbs, the venerable Clonskeagh-based club (whose grounds were used for the first All-Ireland final) also joined.

Benburb is in Tyrone and the club reflected an Ulster tradition. To this day the Kilmacud crest features a red hand. John Sheridan was of that tradition and a major contributor to his club's new association in 1972 and a vital figure in one of its most significant contemporary achievements.

The club’s director of coaching, Páraic McDonald, points out the poignant timing.

“He passed away the morning of the semi-final in Breffni and as a proud Cavan man, he would have loved to see that. He was instrumental in setting up the women’s section in 1996. Camogie had been there but not football and it’s exploded over the last 20-30 years, with well over 1,000 females playing.”

There are of course stereotypes. Kilmacud Crokes are one of Dublin’s – particularly south Dublin’s – ‘super clubs,’ a slightly charged designation of areas with large populations serviced by clubs established before that growth and expansion happened and that consequently find themselves administering catchments the size of small counties.

GAA historian and writer Mark Duncan is irritated by the stereotype and the label.

“I really dislike the term ‘super clubs’ because it has a pejorative connotation and is almost always used to suggest that these clubs, large urban clubs, are less authentic than traditional clubs. I’m surprised that kind of narrative still exists. It’s nearly 50 or 60 years since the GAA decided they had to adapt and change for a changing Ireland, a country that was becoming more urbanised.

“We needed to establish ourselves in big urban areas if we were to have any relevance in this society. Kilmacud were born out of all of that in the 1960s when change was happening in Dublin. In some ways we were lucky. We weren’t chasing development. We were early movers and able to grow as the area around us grew.”

Duncan is a link between Kilmacud’s first All-Ireland in 1995 – he scored the goal when they beat Castlehaven in the semi-final – and the most recent win in 2009 when he was a selector.

He points out that the area didn't even have a church until three years later in 1969 although what would become the modern secular religion did establish its first temple when the Stillorgan Shopping Centre opened the same year as the club.

Important reality

“Our growth has been organic. The decision to deepen our relationship with schools came in the 1990s. What we have been doing during all of this growth and development is positioning ourselves at the heart of a growing community.”

He also draws attention to an important reality for the GAA: that the vast bulk of the 2,500 playing members participate in Gaelic games on a recreational basis and keep the sports alive and vibrant, regardless of silverware and titles.

It has though been some year for the club, which won its first double in Dublin. The hurlers didn't make it out of Leinster but the footballers have been slowly edging their way to a third All-Ireland final with a variety of hard-won matches apart from their season's signature performance of walloping former All-Ireland winners Ballyboden in Dublin.

There is virtually no crossover between the two teams although Duncan is quick to dismiss the idea that this parallel existence is tantamount to the codes being alienated from each other.

"They're not really. This has been an outstanding year because we've won the football and hurling, the first time we've done the double at senior level. All these lads are mates. Shane Cunningham and Caolán Conway share a house. They're captains of the football and the hurling team and very good friends.

“All of them grew up together and most played both games up until a certain point and then typically chose one or the other. Some continued to do both, not necessarily at senior level but at junior or playing with the hurlers and togging out with the footballers during the summer. I don’t think that perception is accurate.”

If the club had early mover advantage in the Dublin suburbs, the same is true of games promotion and development, which has been driven for over 20 years by Monaghan man Páraic McDonald, who has been full-time director of coaching since 2000.

From Castleblayney, McDonald – who has played football and hurling for his county – was one of the original development officers, recruited to work in Dublin.

His original contact with the club had been playing in the famous sevens competition on All-Ireland weekends, for a long time Crokes’ most conspicuous hold on national attention.

"There were seven or eight of us working under Cyril Duggan [he former Laois hurler, who pioneered Dublin's games development programme] and we each had about a dozen clubs.

Private schools

"Because of their size, Kilmacud were interested in having their own officer. At the start Conor Deegan [former Down All-Ireland winner] was in the role for about a year. Then I started in 2000."

There are 10 primary schools in the catchment area but 30 or 40 schools are represented in the membership because of residence and family ties. Secondary schools pose a challenge because the region has one of the biggest concentration of private schools in the country.

"There's no arguing that the ethos in these schools is geared towards rugby," says McDonald, "but we've maintained good relationships with them. Blackrock invited me, Michael Darragh [Macauley, from Ballyboden] and Cian [O'Sullivan, Crokes] – both past pupils – to bring the Sam Maguire to the school."

Even the fact that the school, rugby’s most successful, had alumni on an All-Ireland-winning Dublin team was an indication of the growing profile of Gaelic games on the southside of the city.

"Ian Madigan [the rugby international and another Blackrock alumnus] played with Rory O'Carroll on the first team from the club that won Féile in 2003," says McDonald. "We were three years into the full-time development and coaching in the club. That was the first tangible sign that the work was paying off."

It also paid off at a higher level. When Pat Gilroy's Dublin broke through in 2011 to win a first All-Ireland in 16 years, half of the defence was from Kilmacud – O'Carroll, O'Sullivan and Kevin Nolan.

Two years previously they had won the club All-Ireland but the team had scarcely believable misfortune with injuries. O’Sullivan had a fulfilling career but was constantly managing hamstring problems, which have kept him out this season. There would possibly have been a fourth defender involved in 2011 but for Paul Griffin’s injury woes.

Up front Mark Davoren made an immediate impact on Gilroy's team in 2009 but two successive cruciate injuries destroyed a promising career. Niall Corkery moved overseas having been a starter for the Dublin team that reached the All-Ireland semi-final in 2010.

For added adversity this weekend, Paul Mannion, whose superlative form dominated much of the campaign, got injured and has missed the matches from the Leinster final on. It's a tough break for the player, who gave up a glittering intercounty career to concentrate on the club.

Too young for 2009, he will be too old for the next one if it comes at the established rate of once every 13 or 14 years.

Standout performer

This afternoon, Rory O’Carroll becomes the first player to represent the club in two All-Ireland finals, having been around 13 years ago as a teenager.

“Rory has been crucial for us,” says Duncan. “His physicality and game intelligence have been outstanding – and his influence with younger players.

“He brings a huge amount of experience and a lot of physicality as well as an ability to read a match and what is needed at the right time. To me he has consistently been the standout performer.”

If the original All-Ireland winners from 1995 featured a number of players from outside of Dublin, they weren’t marquee captures but men who had jobs in the locality.

“No-one came to Kilmacud in the 1990s to win an All-Ireland,” as Duncan puts it about his team-mates from 27 years ago.

These days there is no questioning the self-reliance, as McDonald emphasises.

“The whole current panel of 30-whatever have come through the underage system here. The ’09 team, 33 of the 36 came through the club.”

Kilcoo will be the third Ulster champions to contest a final with Kilmacud, whose victories came against Bellaghy and Crossmaglen Rangers – the Armagh club's first defeat in a final since 1982.

It’s promotional gold, according to McDonald.

“There’s no doubt the ’09 team would say that they were influenced by the team winning in ’95 and the cup being brought around the local schools or that some of the players on this current team were influenced by the cup being brought around in ’09.

“That’s the benefit of this team getting to an All-Ireland final. There was a great turnout of young players, particularly the last day in Breffni. Hopefully there’ll be another at the weekend. That’s the benefit a successful team brings.”

In a nutshell: success breeds success. Now all they have to do is make sure they have a cup to bring back across the river.

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