I can remember a time, in the not-too-distant past, when the Dublin football team were a curiosity. They had turned into something of a novelty act, whose supporters would fill Croke Park a few times each year, but more for the craic than out of any serious expectations of winning.
They had a lost generation. The perception of them, at least from the outside, was of a group of footballers who all had fancy haircuts and bright shiny boots, and were more
interested in flashing their Coppers gold card than collecting titles and silverware.
They seemed flaky, and almost casual.
In what seemed like the blink of an eye, everything changed.
Their county board found a new direction, money poured in from Croke Park, the structures and coaching personnel grew, and, eventually, the footballers and senior success followed.
That overwhelming disparity of games-development funding distribution must be urgently addressed.
But I’ve made the point, repeatedly, on these pages, that money alone will do
nothing to bring about the success that other counties crave, unless you have the right people making the right decisions. Otherwise, it’s a wasted exercise.
Dublin had people with the strategic vision to rebuild their brand and have turned themselves into a monster that cannot be tamed.
Through successive management cycles — ‘Pillar’ Caffrey, Pat Gilroy, and now Jim Gavin — Dublin GAA has transformed its culture across the board.
Layer by layer, they have put value and meaning back into representing their jersey, and Gavin will admit it didn’t all start with him.
After their breakthrough All Ireland win, in 2011, I distinctly remember Dublin players crowding around their former manager, Paul Caffrey, who was on garda duty at pitch-side, in Croke Park, for the match.
Bernard Brogan, and others, were passing around his garda cap and posing for the cameras, wanting to include him and share their special moment with someone who had laid the foundation on which their new-found walls of success were being built.
We knew it long before last Sunday, but what they’ve created within their group is something very special and something we haven’t seen since the 1980s.
Now, they are going for their fourth All-Ireland title in a row and are short odds to do so. This is a squad that has only lost two championship games since 2011, which displays an incredible consistency and appetite for success.
They swatted away a young and inexperienced Kerry challenge, last Sunday, like you’d crush a fly with a rolled-up newspaper in the height of summer.
And they did it without a host of their blue-chip talent — Diarmuid Connolly, Jack McCaffrey, Paul Mannion, Con O’Callaghan, Paul Flynn, and James McCarthy, to name a few.
They just seem to keep rejuvenating their playing group, to keep pushing guys to evolve and improve.
And if you don’t have that appetite, then thank you and goodbye. Take Michael Darragh MacAuley, as a case in point. For the past couple of years, he looked done-and-dusted.
His body was breaking down and his form suffered, as a result. At his peak, he was as dynamic and aggressive a player as you could hope to have on your team.
He appeared to be one of those very rare footballers who actually know their limitations, but maximises every ounce of what they have in their locker.
His game was all about powerful running, ball-carrying, tackling, and bullying the opposition.
He was their enforcer — that really annoying bit of nasty that every great team needs a streak of. He was the footballer of the year, back in 2013, and they don’t tend to hand that title out to average foot soldiers.
After five games of this league campaign, and particularly last weekend, he looks ominously close to recapturing that type of form.
He was a wrecking ball all through Sunday, providing the rough to Brian Fenton’s understated smooth in the Dublin engine room.
His desire to fight to stay inside that Dublin bubble, despite what he’s won, is being rewarded by this sustained run in the team, and with him going so well, both he and Fenton are, without doubt, the most formidable partnership we’ve seen during the league campaign, across any division.
Fenton is the modern epitome of an ‘everything midfielder’.
He can get off the ground and catch it high over his head, or he can run like a gazelle and beat you to the ball on the turf.
His football always seemed well-rounded, but it’s as if it is more refined this season.
Fenton looks smoother in possession, and from the outside, at least, it looks like there is an increased onus to contribute more scores, as well.
But his newfound offensive refinement hasn’t blunted the edge off his desire to graft defensively for his team, either.
It seems, as with the rest of his colleagues, that he takes as much joy from helping a teammate out defensively and causing a turnover, as he does when he scores a point at the other end.
His performances have gone to another level, with a fit and healthy Michael Darragh by his side.
And with the accuracy of Stephen Cluxton unwavering from the tee, it looks as though Dublin have found yet another few degrees of improvement, because of that culture of hard work that shapes everything they do.
You can talk, all you want, about the unquestionable impact of the games-development funding on Dublin GAA. It is a very legitimate argument.
But when we look back on where they have come from, over the past decade, it would be grossly unfair not to apportion a huge chunk of the credit to the people involved in reshaping this Dublin juggernaut.
And while Jim Gavin will rightly get the bulk of the praise, it would be foolishly short-sighted not to acknowledge the impact of both Paul Caffrey and Pat Gilroy to this rebranding of Dublin football.
After Sunday’s game, I got a text: “let them have the four in a row, but by f**k we can’t let them get five!”.
It kind of summed up how Kerry people are feeling right now.
Patience wasn’t long turning to pessimism.
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