Seán Moran: Big bang of 2009 created Dublin’s new football universe

Kerry may have been the measure of Dublin's new world but Mayo won't leave it

Pat Gilroy: saw Dublin swept aside by a rampant Kerry in 2009 quarter-final but within two years led his county to victory over Kerry in the final. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Pat Gilroy: saw Dublin swept aside by a rampant Kerry in 2009 quarter-final but within two years led his county to victory over Kerry in the final. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

In retrospect it all appeared a bit daft, like people fleeing through the streets because they thought the radio performance by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre of The War of the Worlds was actual live coverage of a Martian invasion.

Obviously it was less distressing (except presumably in places like Tralee) but equally improbable when back in 2009 Dublin went into an All-Ireland quarter-final against Kerry as favourites. Remember at that point, the counties had met on eight occasions since the venerated 1977 semi-final and none of them had resulted in Dublin winning.

The view eight years ago was essentially that Kerry’s race was run. They had struggled through the qualifiers, diced with the deathly prospect of a 66th-minute penalty, which would have given Sligo the lead – in Austin Stack Park – and generally crabbed into Croke Park on the August bank holiday.

There was to be far more focus on Kerry’s deficiencies at that stage than on Dublin’s proven virtues but the consensus was clear: if Dublin, under the new management of Pat Gilroy, couldn’t beat Kerry then they’d never beat them.

That tepid endorsement didn’t take long to evaporate. Within 40 seconds the supposedly obsolescent opposition had torn through to set up a goal for Colm Cooper, his Croke Park calling card after a difficult qualifier series. It was downhill from that.

Dublin fell apart. Their final score of 1-7 was equalled by Cooper on his own.

There were familiar names on the team even if eight years later in the recent semi-final against Tyrone, just two of the line-up were still starting; inevitably, Stephen Cluxton and more surprisingly Paddy Andrews, who had evolved from an experimental corner back in 2009 back into a forward.

Pat Gilroy faced the cameras afterwards and straining to come to terms with what had befallen his team, memorably described them as ‘startled earwigs’. Niall Moyna, who had been part of Gilroy’s back-room team, said Dublin coach Mickey Whelan had remarked beforehand that he’d never seen a team as physically prepared for the job in hand.

 It was clear though that the issues had been more mental than physical. There were question marks over whether Dublin players even thought that they could beat Kerry, let alone would beat them.

 “It seems quite clear to me Dublin won’t win an All-Ireland if they keep going about things the way they are,” said a downbeat John O’Keeffe in these pages.

Yet within little more than two years, the same management and most of the players were back and playing Kerry in championship for the first time since 2009. Transformed psychologically, they kept pace with their opponents and were able to avail of a last-minute free to win a first All-Ireland in 16 years.

So what had happened?

Extensive debrief

Gilroy and his management conducted an extensive debrief of all the players and set about building a defensive structure that would make the team at least hard to beat. There would be an emphasis on work rate and responsibility and discouragement of the flashier aspects of being a Dub: no fist pumping and razzing up the Hill.

There was personnel change. For the next championship match, against Wexford in June 2010, there were five new starters – including the entire full-back line of Michael Fitzsimons, Rory O’Carroll and Philip McMahon – and both Eoghan O’Gara and Michael Darragh Macauley came off the bench.

That Leinster championship was the last time Dublin lost in the province, famously when the team’s new defensive system malfunctioned against Meath in the semi-final although it hadn’t exactly lit up the Wexford match either.

Significantly, Dublin had that spring enjoyed the county’s best league campaign in more than a decade and had been just kept out of the final on scoring difference. The most impressive statement of intent had come in Omagh where the team had defeated a Tyrone side who needed a win to stay in Division One and who would win the Ulster title later in the year.

Accepting the defensive meltdown against Meath as teething problems, Dublin motored on through the qualifiers and in the All-Ireland quarter-final they repeated the league win over Tyrone – the first time the county had beaten provincial champions outside of Leinster in 15 years.

 If the semi-final ended in a frustrating one-point defeat by Cork, the message of the season was clear: Dublin were again contenders. They had held their nerve after losing in Leinster, taken a significant scalp and run the eventual 2010 champions very close.

The following year’s win over Kerry – and Donegal in the semi-final – proved the team’s mettle. Bizarrely, Kerry hadn’t been beaten in the championship for 34 years and it re-established the old Heffernan era conviction that if you could beat Kerry you could beat anyone.

Ironically as the seasons have unfolded, Kerry have ceased to be the most troublesome opposition and the old rivals haven’t beaten Dublin in the last four meetings.

Mayo’s emergence isn’t unprecedented. During the Heffernan years, the Connacht county proved difficult for Dublin, once when he was a player in 1955 and again 30 years later in his last championship as manager. Both times, All-Ireland semi-finals ended in draws with Dublin winning the replay.

By striking coincidence this happened once again 30 years afterwards when the 2015 semi-final went to two matches.

Dublin’s touchstone might be Kerry but down the years they never quite seem ready for Mayo. The last 11 championship matches between the counties going back to 1955 feature four draws and replays. Dublin have won them all but the five most recent meetings split 3-2.

If Dublin’s new universe was created in the Big Bang of 2009, it’s equally true that Mayo don’t appear inclined to leave it. 

email: smoran@irishtimes.com

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