The Kieran Shannon Interview: The real jackanory behind Dublin’s perfect storm

The Kieran Shannon Interview: The real jackanory behind Dublin’s perfect storm
A young Dublin supporter celebrates after the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin in 2018. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

You won’t find them on the Hill today. They don’t chant You Boys in Blue – though some of their children will. They don’t enquire ‘what’s the jackanory’, and they don’t tweet vitriol any time whenever Dublin’s funding is mentioned in the media. Because they’re not Dubs. They’re culchies, nordies, blow-ins.

Yet Dublin made them, and they’ve helped make Dublin, the dominant force in both the men’s and women’s game. Which probably makes them best placed to explain the phenomenon that is Dublin football. Because they’re not one of the natives, they’ll more readily acknowledge any inherent advantages unique to the capital, just as they can spot and appreciate something Dublin are doing that the rest of the country aren’t.

Paraic McDonald gives both a smile and a name to the faceless acronym you keep hearing about: the GDO.

A native of Castleblaney reared on the heroics of Nudie Hughes and Eamonn McEneaney, he helped the Faughs to a further seven county championships and an Ulster club title before falling in with Kilmacud Crokes upon arriving in the big smoke in 1997 as one of the first batch of games development officers recruited from the country.

Over the decades he has served on multiple county underage coaching tickets, as well as operating out in Crokes where he is now their full-time coaching director.

Gregory McGonigle is someone else well versed in both Monaghan and Dublin football. Although he hails from Dungiven, he emerged as one of the leading coaches in the women’s game by steering Monaghan to a couple of All-Ireland finals and a national league title.

He then took over a Dublin team that for three consecutive years had failed to get beyond the All-Ireland quarter-final round and duly led them to three straight finals, albeit all single-score defeats to Cork. Since passing the baton on to Mick Bohan, he has coached the Dublin minor ladies as well as a men’s club team, St Maurs, featuring U20 starlet Ciaran Archer.

Kilmacud Crokes coaching director Paraic McDonald
Kilmacud Crokes coaching director Paraic McDonald

Philip McElwee is another Derry man who knows the quiet fields of north county Dublin. He’s been based there 40 years now, ever since coming straight out of the Ranch training college in Belfast. For six years he’d continuously traverse the border to keep playing county football for Derry before the hassle of it wore him down.

As he was living in Drumcondra, he and his kids would gravitate to Na Fianna where he’d manage the club to minor county titles, piquing the interest and respect of one of the club’s most famous sons. After a 15-year senior inter-county career, Dessie Farrell was looking to give something back to the blue jersey and for someone to help him coaching a Dublin U14 development squad featuring the likes of Ciaran Kilkenny and Jack McCaffrey.

Over the years they’d win All Ireland minor and U21 finals together, Farrell as manager and McElwee as one of his trusted selectors. McElwee then managed the Na Fianna seniors for two years before stepping aside last autumn due to a restrictive hip, allowing Farrell to take the reins. “My time has now passed,” he smiles, nearly peering over his glasses. “I’ve given it my shot.”

He’s seen it all in that time. He can remember Dublin in the rare auld losing days and he got to see how the perpetual winning blue machine was assembled, having been part of the pit crew himself.

So how was it put together? How has a sleeping, dormant giant awaken to terrorise and dominate all around them? Any chance they’ll dose off again? We’ll hand it over to our three friends from the country to tell you the real jackanory.

***

‘A PERFECT STORM’: THE COACHING OF THE COACHES

McELWEE: I think what happened was something of a perfect storm, if you will. A lot of clubs started to get their act together and put in a big shift in their nurseries and juvenile sections. They began to coach the coaches so the skills were being coached correctly and that there’d be a unity of purpose running right throughout the club. Then you had the GPOs coming and helping that.

Which happened first? The GPOs or the clubs upping their game? It was nearly the two of them coming together.

McDONALD: The summer of ’95, I was playing football in Chicago for St Brendan’s. Kieran McGeeney and Niall Buckley would have been playing with us as well. It was my first introduction to weight training – lugging timber all around the sites. Pat McEnaney was out there refereeing and had said to someone at home, ‘This boy is flying.’ ’Blaney hadn’t won a championship in four years so I was flown home. We ended up winning the county and having a run in Ulster by which time Chicago was shutting down for the winter, so I was stuck at home, looking for something to do.

I started coaching in the local primary school, then got involved with the Monaghan county board through a FÁS scheme, and signed up to study Applied Sports Management in UCD. Near the end of the course a job as a games development officer came up with the Dublin county board.

There were eight or nine of us starting out. You’d have had the likes of [former Dublin ladies player] Christina McGinty, Niamh Leahy. Vinny Murphy and Paul Curran were just finishing up.

The job was to increase the numbers and improve the quality of players. I was based on the southside, covering nine clubs, the likes of St Jude’s, Ballyboden, Thomas Davis, St Mark’s, St Killian’s, St Kevin’s. It would have been difficult, trying to work the club-school relationship when you were trying to cover that many clubs. I’d say 65 percent of my time back then would have been in the schools whereas now it would be 75 percent with the club [Kilmacud].

Philip McElwee during his spell as Na Fianna manager
Philip McElwee during his spell as Na Fianna manager

The big change came when the funding came through in 2004, 2005. All of a sudden you had 40-45 coaches. Instead of having to go around to 10 clubs, you only had to focus on one or two. These days I’d be employed by the club, not the county board, while Niall [Corcoran, Kilmacud’s hurling officer] is funded through the GDO scheme, which is half-funded by the board and half-funded by the club.

McGONIGLE: To say the [games development] funding hasn’t been a contributing factor would be wrong. But the population base is the big advantage. For every good GDO like a Paraic McDonald, you can have a bad GDO. For me, it’s a numbers game. I remember once hearing that Russian boxing only needs one in 10,000 to become a world contender whereas Ireland needs one in every five. For a Derry or Monaghan to have a good county team, you need every club to produce a county player. In Dublin it only has to be one in every three clubs.

Maurs to me are more like a rural club. Yet they’ve brought through a Ciaran Reddin. If Conor Maguire was in Monaghan he’d be on their county panel. And now you have a Ciaran Archer.

My two years with Maurs, he was the first man there and last man to leave, all the time with a bag of footballs. The weekend Conor McManus kicked that wonder point up in Omagh out by the sideline, Ciaran kicked a better point for us against St Brigid’s in a league match out in Rush. Our video analyst had it clipped and everything but we decided not to put it up on social media, that he didn’t need to be put on a pedestal at that stage.

That score wasn’t the product of a GDO or an AIG or any culture I created. He just has a work ethic, a willingness to learn and a love of the game.

And having good management teams at the top like Jim Gavin’s or Pat Gilroy’s helps. When you have success, everyone aspires. In the late ’90s, early ’00s, did everyone want to play for Dublin?

McDONALD: The development squads would have started in ’98. I remember sitting around the same table as Kevin Heffernan who was chairing the steering group to help get them up and running. At the time we would have been well behind the likes of Laois who would have had Sean Dempsey bringing through the Beano [McDonald] teams.

The first U14 squad, [former Dublin senior manager] Gerry McCaul was the manager, Mick Bohan was involved, as was myself and a guy called John Nolan. Bryan Cullen would have been one of the 50 players on that panel. At [U]17 Gerry stepped away and Mick was manager for their last year at minor. Longford knocked us out in a Leinster semi-final.

I went back the following year to an U15 development squad. And if you were to compare the quality of player coming through then to the U13s now, the difference is night and day. Kids were coming into us without the basic skills. They were kick-passing a five-yard pass instead of hand-passing it but their instinct was to kick it along the ground. So they obviously hadn’t been exposed to any level of coaching.

I look now at U14 football in Dublin and the standard of football in the county is phenomenal. The level of individual skill the players have, the level of coaching teams, it’s incomparable to the late ’90s, early ’00s. And a big reason why is obviously the GDO system going into Dublin.

McGONIGLE: It should be available to everybody. There’s enough money in the GAA to make it happen and self-sustainable. You could give other counties more and if needs be give Dublin a bit less.

McDONALD: A huge emphasis went on in Dublin into the club nurseries. In Kilmacud we could have 100 kids coming into the nursery every year. And we are lucky that it’s very parent-led. It’s not like a Castleblaney where you are relying on ex-players to come back down and take teams. In Kilmacud if we get 100 kids coming in, we get about 50 parents willing to help out.

And of those 50 parents, typically only 10 of them will have had previous GAA experience. If five of them have played hurling to any decent level, that would be doing well. The vast majority are coming from different sports or non-sporting backgrounds or different countries.

At nursery level it’s all about fun and introducing general sports skills and fundamental movements. Let them throw the ball! Don’t worry if it’s not a [proper] handpass. We would play a lot of Olympic handball with our underage groups. It’s [embedding] pass and move. Hand-and-eye coordination. Catching skills. Footwork. It’s non-contact. And it’s fun!

Our aim is to bring as many through to the adult section as possible. People think Kilmacud is just about winning senior championships or All-Irelands but one of the things I’m proudest of is that recently we had the first U15 D team in Dublin. So we had four teams at U15 level; 80 or 90 of the kids that came into the nursery nearly 10 years earlier were still there.

My own role is to coach them rather than coach teams; the role of a GDO is to facilitate the volunteer, not replace the volunteer. The current chairman of the club’s coaching committee would have come through the system here and I work with him.

Last month we had a meeting with the U13-18 football coaches and I’d say there was 20 people in the room. We had every age group produce a plan and so they presented it to the whole room. We’d hold regular meetings, workshops, bring in guest coaches maybe once a month. Over the years we’ve had the likes of the late John Morrison, Mick Bohan. Last month we had Christy O’Connor in working on hurling goalkeeping.

So, yeah, it’s a lot of meetings outside training but it goes back to the Abraham Lincoln quote: ‘Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe’. Without thinking about what we’re going to do and discussing what’s worked best in the past and what are the variables in our environment and adding best practice, we’re not going to make the most of the time we have with the players.

McGONIGLE: In fairness, the standard of coaching in Dublin club football is excellent. The standard of volunteer coaching.

McDONALD: There’s a real coaching culture in Dublin now, similar to what Ulster had when I was coming through, playing football. It comes back down to the quality of people you have involved.

The Dublin development squads aren’t better resourced than any other in the country but I know the people involved in their current U15 and U16 squads and the level of coaching those kids are getting exposed to is phenomenal. Just the level of attention to detail, the level of individual development they’re getting.

Ger Lyons is overlooking them. Again, he’s a volunteer, a teacher out in Lucan, but who has coached teams out in UCD with John Divilly and won Sigersons. I would have had him out in Crokes, taking a couple of the award level-one courses. It’s the environment he creates, how he makes you feel.

It was the same with the likes of Dessie Farrell before that. Pat Gilroy has to be given huge credit for taking that side of the late noughties and turning them into All-Ireland winners. What Jim Gavin has done is clearly phenomenal. But you also had someone like Dessie at underage who brought on a lot of those lads.

‘CIARAN’S BALL!’: DESSIE AND THE BOYS

McELWEE: As a young lad, I’d have gone to St Pat’s, Maghera. Adrian McGuckin would have coached us. The work he did was phenomenal. He went beyond the call of duty. He made you believe you could do anything. And you could see that in the [Derry] team that won the ’93 All-Ireland. He’d engendered this belief and this loyalty to one another that is needed to get to the top.

Dessie did something similar with a lot of the current Dublin team. Traditionally in Dublin underage football, there would have been no great unity. It would have been very individualistic, with lads coming from different schools. Dessie broke that down over time.

But even going back to when those lads were 13, 14, you could see the likes of Jack [McCaffrey] and Ciaran [Kilkenny] were serious players. They had the skills. Both feet. Both hands. And they wanted to learn.

A lot of it was about empowering them to take responsibility. They’d all call ‘My ball’. As in, if Davy Byrne was going for a ball, he’d be calling, ‘Davy’s ball!’ You’d put your name to it. So everyone knew you were going for that ball. ‘Ciaran’s ball!’ ‘Jack’s ball!’ Everybody was responsible in their own line. And it meant we had less to correct. They’d be directing things themselves on the field, directing each other.

So, say, I’d track somebody. I would shout, ‘Ciaran, I’ve [number] 14!’ So you’d trust me. ‘He’s looking after him so I’ll look after the man coming here now.’ They came to trust one another to do the deed that was required at that moment. I might have come out of defence to create an overlap but I would trust that you were going to stay and drop into my position and not hang me out. ‘Scully, come on, cover, cover!’ And if you look at them, they all play with their head up. You get the ball, the head is up. [Niall] Scully, he’ll knock a 45-metre ball off his foot on a plate for you. The unselfishness of him.

McDONALD: When I first came down here, it would always have been said that the most talented kids in Dublin were primarily playing soccer. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. People can now see a pathway with Dublin GAA.

Paul Mannion could have been a top-class soccer player, playing League of Ireland or even across the water. At 15, 16, he was heading across to the northside two or three times a week to play with Belvedere, a big commitment. He made an Irish schools team. But at the same time Dessie Farrell got him involved with a development squad and clearly Paul responded to that.

McELWEE: Dessie would be very much into listening to the players. And he always got them to challenge themselves. He’d set it up where they’d come in for a huddle and we’d leave them for two minutes. ‘Right, sort that out, lads.’ They would have come up with the keywords and phrases. It wouldn’t have been from management.

There would have been very little shouting or roaring. It was about them developing so they’d be able to execute under pressure. We’d have very intense internal games where whenever you’d be absolutely exhausted, you had be able to make a decision and execute the skill. So it became second nature in matches because you would have already done it in internal games.

Say if you lost the cumulative score of three internal games. You’d have to stay back for five minutes to do some exercises or just to reflect. It wasn’t so much a punishment but reflection time. ‘Right, why are we here when the other boys are getting showered? We had as good a chance as they had and we made wrong decisions. The next night, let’s make sure we’re not the group kept behind.’

I don’t know if in other counties the coaches stay that long. We were with that group right from U14 up to U21. That’s a long time of consistent development. And we worked so well together. Different people would come in alright at different stages. Noel McCaffrey would have been involved with north U14 development squads right up to the first minor All-Ireland final [2011] team. Same with [Alan] ‘Nipper’ McNally. Mick Galvin came in at U21, straight from the same school as Dessie. So there was a unity of purpose, no mixed messages.

In other counties there tends to be a greater turnover of mentors. Fellas go in for two years and then they’re gone. There’s not the same level of continuity or connection.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

McGONIGLE: From a county team point of view, for me the two biggest advantages Dublin have are a) they get to play most of their games in Croke Park; even at 21 Con O’Callaghan must know his way around the dressing rooms like he does his own bathroom and kitchen. And B) if you’re a Dublin footballer, you’re living and working in Dublin.

I did the commute down from Belfast [where he lives] or Monaghan [where he works] for the guts of five years; three years coaching the Dublin ladies, two coaching Maurs. It might have been motorway most of the way but you’d still be tired by the end of it and I wouldn’t even have been physically training.

I’d often see Ryan Wylie in service stations along that road, coming the other way. By the time a boy like him or Tiernan McCann would be back in bed, it would be near midnight. For the Mayo boys it would be later again. Whereas if Jim Gavin starts training at 6.30, most of their players are back home by 9.30. To me that would be a big, big factor, that edge they have in terms of rest and recovery.

McELWEE: Everyone thinks ‘Oh, they’re only half an hour away from training.’ It takes an hour to get across the M50!

25 September 2016; Dublin manager Gregory McGonigle during the Ladies Football All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final match between Cork and Dublin at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
25 September 2016; Dublin manager Gregory McGonigle during the Ladies Football All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final match between Cork and Dublin at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

When I finished my time with the Dublin U21s [the 2017 All-Ireland], we were still always begging for places to train, borrowing pitches off clubs. You could end up not training until nine o’clock, waiting for a club team to finish training, so you could borrow the use of their lights. So not everything was straightforward.

Should Dublin have a centre of excellence? Of course they should. Almost every other county in Ireland has. But at the same time that was part of building the grit. When you could be out in St Anne’s in the snow and sleet on the side of a mountain because their club was kind enough to facilitate you. You mightn’t get back home until 11.30 yet you’d see the boys out there and there wouldn’t be a complaint.

McGONIGLE: I’d love to see a breakdown of what each county is having to spend on travelling expenses of players and management. I’d say compared to a Mayo, Donegal and Galway, Dublin’s are minimal because all their players are living local.

Even, say, with a Cork where most players are based in the county, there was a video the other day on social media of the commute Niamh Cotter, Áine O’Sullivan and Clare O’Shea have to make from the Beara peninsula for county training. That’s near a five-hour round-trip. Whereas for James McCarthy to breeze in from Ballymun into DCU, that’s no distance.

To be fair to Dublin, they’d also be paying minimal expenses on their management teams, whereas a county like Wicklow, bringing in a John Evans from Killorglin, it wouldn’t.

***

GAMES, GAMES, GAMES

McDONALD: When I first came to Dublin in the ‘90s, one of the big criticisms was that you didn’t know from week to week when you had a game. And games were being called off willy-nilly. So people would always point to soccer where they had a programme of games laid out at the start of the year and by and large they stuck to it. So around then they [Dublin GAA] put in a full-time person to look at games programme.

The result is now that teams are guaranteed a minimum of 16 to 18 games. In football alone. This is a dual county, so it’s football one week, hurling the next. I think that’s been a huge factor in the improvement in Dublin football. It’s very difficult to get a game called off.

Even without the county players, the league is still competitive. They aren’t meaningless games. You don’t want to get relegated. You’re out to get quality games to develop the next generation of player.

***

SUCCESS BREEDS SUCCESS: IF YOU CAN SEE IT, YOU CAN BE IT

McGONIGLE: Ten years ago when the Dublin ladies lost an All-Ireland final to Cork by a point, Dublin LGFA had just 6,000 registered members. By 2018 it had 17,000. So that’s more than a growth of 1,000 members a year. That’s phenomenal. And that comes from visibility. There’s a picture of Lauren Magee and Aoife Kane at the 2010 final [when Dublin beat Tyrone]. And the main driver has been Dublin being in every final since 2014. Like, if Dublin aren’t in the final, there’s not a chance of the attendance record being broken.

Now every young girl and guy wants to play for Dublin. Girls can see Noelle [Healy] and Lyndsey [Davey] with the cup on the AIG billboard out by Citywest. You have management, players and county board pointing in the same direction. You’ve stability.

In Monaghan, Caoimhe Mohan was the poster girl, an All-Star in 2013 at just 20. Left foot, right foot, she had it all. She’s not playing county football anymore. Since I left in 2013, they’ve had five different managers. Whereas in that time Dublin have had just two.

People don’t like to admit it but other counties are being mismanaged. The financial mismanagement in Galway has been widely reported. Derry have appointed three treasurers in four years. Kerry ladies football has loads of good players but the structures aren’t right at the top and there’s a lot of internal fighting. Dublin are an example of good governance.

THE FUTURE: A LOT DONE, MORE TO DO

McELWEE: It’s not Dublin’s fault that they are where they are. That’s the challenge for all other counties, to come up to that level. And that level is achievable because of the talent in other counties. The work Kerry have been doing at underage is phenomenal; they’re going to win All-Irelands again. Galway have loads of good footballers. Mayo, Tyrone, those counties aren’t going to go away. Cork are going to come back strong. Dublin’s dominance will end.

McGONIGLE: You go through the Dublin team of the last decade, most of those players would have been playing GAA anyway with their family backgrounds. The funding factor might only be kicking in now. So it has to be rolled out to more counties. But it’s up to clubs and counties to be proactive. In Dungiven we’ve appointed a full-time coaching officer. Instead of spending thousands on an outsider to take the senior team, invest in a coaching officer to produce your next Ciaran Archer.

McDONALD: Dublin has shown that investing in people works. It gets the numbers in, the quality up, builds strong clubs. And from strong clubs you build strong county teams. You can’t just build strong county teams and neglect the clubs. I was working out in Cuala when Tony Bass secured some funding to develop the game out there back in the late ‘90s. Those two All-Ireland wins weren’t an overnight success.

So if you start now, you’ve to remember it is going to take 10, 15 years for it to really show.

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