False modesty may be something Jim Gavin can occasionally leave himself open to being accused of, but no such thing is at play when he insists that Kevin Heffernan’s team of the 70s will always hold pride of place in the Dublin football pantheon.
They mobilised a people, galvanised a city, transformed a sport.
The scale of their achievement was brought home again at the weekend in a terrific interview David Hickey gave Paul Kimmage. The same day Heffernan’s unfancied side faced reigning All-Ireland champions Cork in the 1974 All-Ireland semi-final, the match was competing with the Royal Dublin Horse Show for the live outside broadcast on RTÉ — and it lost. Instead of showing Jimmy Keaveney popping frees over the bar in Croker, the national broadcaster opted to show Lady Montgomery hopping over hurdles in Ballsbridge.
But 42,000 people were at that semi-final. And Dublin won it. And a month later, the All-Ireland itself. The phenomenon could no longer be ignored.
Suffice to say, the cameras have been at every All-Ireland football semi-final since.
Heffo’s Army will always be the most important Dublin football team ever. But the greatest, at least of the last 100 years? That’s within the grasp of this current crop.
In fact Diarmuid Connolly and Co could well finish the decade as possibly the second-best football team since Hitler ended it all in a bunker in Berlin.
You look at who they’ve elevated themselves above with a third All-Ireland to go with a third league.
Boylan’s first great Meath team only won two All-Irelands, ditto his second. Morgan’s Cork only won two. Likewise O’Mahony’s Galway. The great Armagh team won only one.
Dublin are now tied with Mickey Harte’s Tyrone, the Galway team of the mid-60s, the Down side from the same decade and the Cavan side that pulled off a hat-trick of All-Irelands between 1947 and 1952.
It’s virtually impossible not seeing the core of this Dublin side winning at least a fourth Celtic Cross in the coming years, and thus definitively surpassing those sides.
Which would leave them within touching distance of the great Kerry team of the noughties — some of the survivors of which they defeated last Sunday — and chasing only the great Micko team of all talents.
This is where the usual heckles and wisecracks intervene. Eh, didn’t Donegal show last year they’re not invincible? Call for the county to be split into two while you’re at it, why don’t you.
First, nobody since the SRC report of 2001 has seriously called for Dublin to be split — at senior level. The case for it at underage level though remains a valid one worthy of debate. It could be good for Dublin and good for Leinster.
As for at senior, nobody is saying Dublin are invincible — at least outside of Leinster. The three All-Ireland finals they’ve won were all by just a kick of a ball. They’re unlikely to hoover up every All-Ireland over the next four years. But at least two out of the next four? Yeah, it’s more likely than not. Dominance is not assured, but greatness already is.
Some aspects and achievements of this side are still hugely under-appreciated.
Take their consistency and the Cody-like integrity with which they treat the league. For sure conceiving of the Spring Series in 2011 and bringing all subsequent home league games into Croker has given them a familiarity with the venue that is now overly-cosy to the point of being possibly an unhealthy and unfair advantage. But they’ve also won on the road regularly since the turn of the decade and especially under Gavin: up in Omagh, thanks to Diarmuid Connolly’s clutch point with the outside of the right boot; in Tralee and Killarney; blitzing Mayo in Castlebar this year, and Monaghan in Clones too a couple of weeks later.
All summer we heard commentators talking about “all season” and “all year”. Ahead of their All-Ireland semi-final the narrative was that Dublin hadn’t been tested “all year”. But they had. In the league.
Take their four games against Ulster teams in Croker alone. It took Jack McCaffrey coming off the bench and scoring a goal to turn their game against Donegal. It took a last-minute Dean Rock goal to scrape a draw against Tyrone. They’d encounter 14 men behind the ball in the infamous Death of Football game against Derry. Then in the league semi-final they’d just about get past Monaghan by a point.
None of those quite steeled them like the games against Mayo would, but knowing they were the next best thing with Leinster as it is, Dublin displayed grit in the spring that oozed and told again in the September monsoon.
Then there’s the James McCarthy factor. He’s not a household name. He won’t win an All Star this year. Yet other than Lee Keegan, has there been a better and more consistent half-back in football this decade? He’s played midfield in an All-Ireland club final. Won Sigerson and at U21. Dublin win because nobody else has a back that typifies the athleticism, football, consistency and mindset of his team as the Ballymun man does.
Mention of Ballymun. On Saturday week they face St Vincent’s in Parnell Park in the second round of the county championship. It’s a game that TG4 should go all out to try and televise, a fixture that would be fitting of an All-Ireland club final; indeed the pair have played on St Paddy’s Day in Croker over the last couple of years. For the past five years no other county championship in the country has been better or more competitive than Dublin. Probably five of the best 12 club teams in the country operate in the capital.
We’ll return another day to what other counties could be doing to try and close the gap between them and the Dubs.
But all the time Gavin’s side will be all out looking to narrow the gap between them and the other great teams, suitably honouring the Heffernan legacy.
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