Seán Moran: History will judge Dublin as exceptional
At the end of a great year, the achievements of Jim Gavin's team deserve a proper context
Winning All-Irelands, for all that it creates a positive feeling within counties and communities, is essentially a private affair for teams and players. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
“Great year or huge opportunity let slip? That’s the cold analysis of the year for our senior footballers. Truth be told, it was partly both,” – John Costello, Dublin CEO, annual report 2010.
Those are the margins. It’s easy to look back now and see in Dublin’s championship campaign of seven years ago the seeds of future harvests but at the time nobody was certain. Within 12 months the All-Ireland had been won, typically of the county by a point and less typically after coming from behind against Kerry.
There was a fair degree of good will flowing after that victory. Pat Gilroy’s journey from getting hammered by Kerry in his first season to ending Dublin’s 16-year wait for the Sam Maguire was a good news story.
The county had put in effort and raised resources to develop Gaelic games in the capital and this was the pay-off – and it wasn’t unpopular. This was partly because the rest of the country was more impressed with the comparative diffidence of the team after the years of fist-pumping and working the Hill and partly the ‘hard luck to redemption’ storyline.
Of course the fact that it was Kerry who lost the final helped. Most people prefer an underdog to a county with five All-Irelands in the previous 11 years.
Six years later that has all changed. Gilroy is now in charge of the hurlers and Jim Gavin has taken up the baton to such spectacular effect that it’s now Dublin who have five All-Irelands in seven years.
Maybe it’s not surprising given that level of success that the public at large might prefer some greater variety but, even allowing for that natural reaction, there has been a particularly grudging response to what is a team of historic achievement.
As we wind down 2017, Dublin have won their first three-in-a-row in 93 years and have completed those seasons having lost a total of three league matches from 45 played in league and championship.
It’s an astonishing record. The most recent comparators are Kerry (1984-86 and 1978-81) and they lost nine and seven respectively during their periods of dominance. It may be that labouring these sequences is to miss the point.
Dublin are accepted by many as a formidable force in the game but yet their achievements take place to a soundtrack of complaints about their population advantages, the money that has been invested in Gaelic games in the city, their demeanour when winning and even the lack of emotional engagement from manager Jim Gavin.
From a GAA perspective the money has been well spent. The association’s primary interest is in as many people as possible playing the games and if the historical imbalance of the county system creates a problem that will have to be addressed.
One reason Dublin’s success creates specific anxiety is that unlike domination by other counties, such as Kerry football or Kilkenny hurling, it reminds everyone that the huge population and commercial potential of the capital is a sleeping monster that may one day eat everyone.
History is against this view, as counties are generally unable to find a critical mass of outstanding leaders on a consistent basis. Watch Dublin in a couple of years when Stephen Cluxton has retired and Gavin has moved on.
There are also other influences.
“They’ll never be loved, this team, I don’t think,” said Eamon Dunphy (to cite just one example), referring to the protective “bubble” that surrounds the players and describing one unnamed footballer as “a big-headed prick”.
It’s true that it would have been easier to slip past the Praetorian Guard than to access Dublin when in full championship throttle but the same goes for virtually all top contenders in football and hurling.
“Sport only works because people, ordinary people, have an affinity with the game,” continued Dunphy in an RTÉ interview at the end of September. “I won’t name them but there are a few of the Dublin players who really fancy themselves. They don’t give candid interviews.”
Yikes – they don’t give candid interviews. As opposed to whom? Media engagement has been incrementally reduced to almost nothing by this stage beyond a sequence of sterile environments in which one-to-ones are rarely accommodated.
It’s at least 15 years since Kilkenny lowered the portcullis on players giving interviews and began – setting a precedent now widely followed – to release teams on Friday nights. I don’t remember any of their considerable achievements being belittled because they didn’t give interviews, let alone ‘candid’ ones.
Ultimately we have to accept that players are amateurs and under no obligation to co-operate with media on the latter’s terms.
Of course the suspicion that some wouldn’t mind doing so but are forbidden by controlling managers is probably correct but given a choice between chatting candidly to reporters and following the prescriptions of management, especially successful management, players are happy to forego the chat.
Is this peculiar to Dublin? It’s not.
On another level, is it fair that amateur players can have their character and personality superficially assessed and those assessments broadcast? They get little in material terms for what they do –and this goes for all successful players – and the big pay-off for those lucky enough to be successful is to celebrate what they’ve done either in private or in public.
They all go to their clubs, back into the communities from which they originally emerged as hopeful footballers and get involved at whatever level they do. There’s no protective bubble there. It’s part of their ordinary lives with which they get on after the events of the inter-county season have receded into fond memory.
Winning All-Irelands, for all that it creates a positive feeling within counties and communities, is essentially a private affair for teams and players. In the end all they have is their achievements.
History, the ultimate arbiter, will judge those as exceptional.