Dublin's success cultivated by the team Pillar Caffrey built

He may not have won an All-Ireland with Dublin but Caffrey’s role in their current golden era shouldn’t be forgotten, writes Kieran Shannon.
Dublin's success cultivated by the team Pillar Caffrey built

They didn’t win their All-Ireland. In fact, they never even played in an All-Ireland, though they were probably the best team never to have.

In the public memory, the team Paul ‘Pillar’ Caffrey built will be remembered for marching to the Hill, strolling through Leinster and then tripping up in August.

When they’re referenced in any discussion with Jim Gavin’s current team, they’re not portrayed particularly favourably. On the morning of this year’s All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry, Caffrey himself was in the same radio studio as Declan O’Sullivan when the former Kerry great spoke about how this current Dublin team’s massive resilience, especially when compared to past Dublin teams he’d have faced that he felt could crack under pressure.

For a man who presided over a team that pushed a great Kerry side all the way in an epic 2007 semi-final, it must have been a discomforting moment for Caffrey.

But what could and must make it more comforting for him is the knowledge the team he built has in many ways helped build the current Dublin team.

Though a lot of his players did not win All-Irelands with Dublin, a lot of them have gone on to help win All- Irelands for Dublin.

Take the captain and full-back of the team that won the 2005 Leinster final over Laois in Caffrey’s first season in charge. Paddy Christie has been coaching Ballymun underage teams ever since he started out playing for Dublin himself. A few years then after finishing up playing for the Dubs, he started coaching county development squads before taking the county minors the past two years.

On the eve of Dublin’s 2011 All-Ireland semi-final against Donegal, Christie was helping out with the north Dublin U14 squad when this column sat down with him. He explained both his philosophy and that of the Dublin underage model in general. If they saw a small skilful player, particularly one who could kick and pass off both sides, they picked him. They weren’t concerned if he was brushed off the ball by someone bigger. He’d probably grow bigger. When he’d get older they could make him bigger, bulkier. A priority was put on developing two-sided players.

“The great thing about these development squads is how it brings on the lads from Division Five or Six clubs,” Christie outlined. “Take Johnny. His club manager probably just wants his team to win so he’s telling his goalkeeper to aim his kickouts for Johnny and then telling Johnny to go as fast as he possibly can and score. Now they might win but how much is Johnny really coming on?

“Even if you were a more open-minded [club] coach telling Johnny to work on his other foot or give a long pass, Johnny’s human and is going to do what every human tends to do — stick to what he knows. ‘I’m scoring 3-5 every week; why do I need to kick off my other foot?’ But then he comes into us and he’s being marked by a kid who can keep up with him and take the ball off him.

“What you might say to him then is, ‘Johnny, what do you think you could do the next time?’ Chances are he’ll say, ‘I need to be working on my other foot to create that bit more space for myself.’” Ciaran Whelan was someone who’d come to the realisation himself the importance of being able to kick off both sides, by accident rather than by design. Shortly after he’d broken into the Dublin senior setup, he had the good fortune to injure his right groin. Good fortune, he reckons, because for the next six weeks he’d have to do everything off his left foot in the warm-up.

“That actually was the making of me,” he’d say in another interview with the Irish Examiner last year. “I think any underage coach who is not challenging their kid on their weakside is doing everyone involved a disservice.” Whelan has also chipped in coaching Dublin underage teams in recent years, coaching the U17s last year and serving as a selector to Christie with the minors.

Tomás Quinn, a columnist with this paper and a commercial manager with the Dublin County Board, kicked the winning point in that watershed 2005 Leinster final victory over Mick O’Dwyer’s Laois. He sees how his former team-mates will take U13s and set up little drills and skills tests with them soloing and kicking off both feet.

“What they’ll do then is retest kids after week five or six and be able to show them, ‘Hey, this is how far you’ve come on from week one.’ And then of course it helps so much that you’re able to give a recent example like Diarmuid Connolly and the point he could kick off his left in the last minute of the Kerry semi-final.”

Nearly all that team is helping out. If you can remember Dave Berry’s brilliant documentary of Dublin’s 2005 campaign, Stephen O’Shaughnessy was the young player stretchered off with a broken collarbone. He is now the Dublin football development officer, co-ordinating all the development squads, right up to minor and U21.

Paul Griffin, the other member of that full-back line, has taken south Dublin underage squads, getting help from the likes of Declan Lally. Darren Homan and Coman Goggins have also all helped out. Collie Moran was one of the first to help liaise with O’Shaughnessy and continues to help out. Jason Sherlock has been taking U13 teams up all the while being part of Jim Gavin’s senior coaching staff.

Dessie Farrell has coached from U13 right up to the U21 team he has helped to the last three Leinster titles in the grade as well as an All-Ireland. That’s not a case of greater resources than other counties, more so resourcefulness. Tapping into the experience and expertise of recently retired players that kids have some memory of watching and wanting to aspire to.

Those players learned the hard way. A lot of them were around in 2003 and 2004 when Laois and Westmeath were beating Dublin. In 2005 they’d establish a foothold in the province the county has never really let up but in the All Ireland quarter-final they’d encounter Tyrone.

“I remember at half-time the first day, we were five points up,” says Quinn. “I was sitting beside Alan [Brogan] and we were nearly thinking, ‘They’re not as good as we thought.’ Then in the second half you had the likes of Stephen O’Neill and [Owen] Mulligan kicking scores off either foot and you were thinking, ‘There’s another level here.’ After they beat us we realised that was the benchmark; while we could do certain things, we’d to get better. We were only four of ten at kicking off both sides and had to get to six, seven.

“Pat [Gilroy] would bring it to another level again but that mindset of continuous improvement was established in those years under Pillar. I mean, the last point Alan kicked off his left in last year’s All-Ireland final [against Kerry], he wouldn’t have been able to do that in 2005.”

He wouldn’t have had teammates who could either. But thanks to their coaching, he’d have teammates who could in 2015. In that year’s two-game saga against Mayo, five different Dublin players kicked scores off both feet; Lee Keegan was the only Mayo player to do likewise. This year again Cormac Costello was able to do something no Mayo player could do over the two All Ireland finals — point off both feet; in a way, you could argue in the structures and culture he has put in place, Dublin county board secretary John Costello has produced Cormac Costello on the double.

The younger Costello and most of his current team-mates also came through a coaching system and culture cultivated by the team Pillar built. For all the Leinsters they won, for all the times they filled Croker, that is their finest legacy.

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