At the start of 2009, a few of us had the idea of getting a house together: Myself, Ross McConnell, and Éamon Fennell.
But we still needed someone else to complete our Fab Four and eventually we identified our man: Clucko.
He had played with Ross and myself in DCU and we got on well so we broached it with him one night at training and he said yeah, he was up for that; in fact his sister actually had a spot in Ongar that she was looking to rent out. And so before we knew it, the four of us were in my parents’ back garden with our screwdrivers, dismantling the old gym myself and Da had built. Then we loaded it into Éamo’s van and moved it into our new gaff.
What way can I describe that place the year we were there? It was a lads’ pad, a high-performance hub, and a party house all rolled in one.
Downstairs we had a room that we converted into a gym. All the equipment from Dad’s shed was in there. We used it every day. And yet that same room was the one that boasted the infamous graffiti wall. If you visited our house, you had to sign your name on it. The first person to do so was Da when he moved the old gym gear over. By the end of the year it was virtually covered, we had so many people over after games.
It was a similar story with the attic room. We turned it into an exercise studio. Twice a day Clucko religiously did his core work up there. Éamo used to wear this body suit while on the bike and when he’d pull his arm out of the thing, almost a litre of water would spill out. But that same room also had a fridge. And the day before every championship game we stocked it with what we’d be necking down after the match: Most of us had this cider called Kiss you could get in all kinds of different flavours, and we grabbed Clucko a couple of bottles of Blue WKD. That’s where our heads were at! Planning what we’d be drinking the following night!
The way we saw it though, we had been cooped up for three or four weeks since our last game and blowout. Most lads our age were out every weekend. We had trained really hard for this game, so we were bloody well going to party hard after it.
Back then it was common for two-day drinking sessions after championship games, and if you were a Dublin footballer in 2009, it was common for each of those nights to roll into the next day out in Ongar. We prided ourselves on it, coming up with our own little motto: In Ongar We Go Longer!
A few times alright Clucko had to sit us down and tell us that his sister had received a complaint about the noise from some of the neighbours, especially after we had the Donegal boys over, but we’ll come back to that later. Generally we were all models of restraint and good behaviour that year.
Everyone took their turn with the cooking. It maybe wasn’t as diet perfect as we’d have it now but we made plenty of pasta, lumping in some meat or fish to go with it. The Friday before a championship game then, we’d treat ourselves to a big box of popcorn each and some jellies in front of the telly. At the time Stephen was the only one of us going steady, he was already seeing Joanne, now his wife, so she’d join us, and a couple of us would go down to the UCI cinema in Blanchardstown to get our treats to bring back to our crib.
And what would typically be the feature film?
Something by David Attenborough. One of his nature documentaries. Actually, not just one of them — volumes of them.
Clucko had invested in the 24-disc boxset, The Life Collection, as well as the Planet Earth series and wasn’t going to let them go to waste. So it became part of our routine, watching The Hunters and the Hunted, Jungles and Deserts, munching on our popcorn while Sir David spoke in that awestruck hush as lions closed in on zebras and cheetahs stalked wildebeest.
Maybe all that power imagery worked because for a lot of that year some of us were playing the best football of our careers. Clucko cemented his status as the best goalkeeper in the country, keeping a clean sheet all through the Leinster Championship. After two years being stuck at full-back as our supposed Donaghy Stopper, Ross was playing in his natural home of midfield, keeping All-Stars like Whelo and Shane Ryan off the starting 15. And I had finally found my groove in a Dublin shirt.
In our opening game we played the reigning All-Ireland champions Tyrone under lights in a packed Croker after which the GAA put on a fireworks exhibition to celebrate its 125th anniversary. Stephen O’Neill kicked a couple of late points for Tyrone to edge it but there were encouraging signs from us too. Our new manager Pat Gilroy had blooded some new faces, while I scored 1-5, 1-3 from play, the most I had scored in a single game for Dublin up to then.
I picked up a knee injury near the end of the league but I was back to kick 2-8 in the Leinster semi-final when we blitzed Westmeath. And then in the Leinster final against Kildare in front of a full house, we pulled through even though we played with 14 men for the last three-quarters of the game. I ended up scoring five points in the final 10 minutes, including the last three points of the game, which ultimately proved the difference between the teams.
It was one of those wins you get in the championship that suggests there’s something different about this lot this year.
Kildare themselves were becoming a proper team under Kieran McGeeney and yet we had found a way to deny them. We were no longer leaking goals the way we had against Tyrone the year before. The consensus was that we had more steel to us. Everything seemed in place heading into the August bank holiday weekend. The Dubs for Sam, and the party going longer in Ongar.
Everything was in place alright — for an ambush. While we were stocking our fridge with Kiss cider and Blue WKD, Kerry were on the train up: Proud, wounded animals after all the barbs that had been fired their way after losing well to Cork and just about getting over Sligo and Antrim in the backdoor.
Only by then, they’d finished licking their wounds. They were licking their lips, hiding in the long grass, eyeing up a big blue unsuspecting wildebeest. Out in Ongar we had no idea we were now the hunted, not the hunters. They had their jaws clamped in our throats before we knew it. After 35 seconds Gooch had put the ball past Clucko. By the time Alan kicked our second point, Kerry had racked up 1-10.
In his post-match interviews, Pat famously compared us to startled earwigs and he was right. Once Kerry had lifted the rock and the intensity, we were scrambling, clueless, lost. Only it was bloodier than that. We had been torn to pieces, just like 12 months earlier against Tyrone. Pat’s first year had gone exactly the same way as Pillar’s last.
There was only one bit of any process we stuck to that day — win or lose, we booze. We went into the Dandelion bar in town and after only a couple of pints fellas were dancing on the tables with their shirts off.
Then we headed to Coppers where we met some of the Donegal lads: Rory Kavanagh, who had played with me and Lally in Maynooth, their goalkeeper Michael Boyle, who we knew from DCU, and Eamon McGee. The previous day they had also been demolished in their All-Ireland quarter-final, by Cork, and they were still wearing the same tee-shirts as the night before. There was only one place to invite men who could last the pace that long.
A little while after they had signed the graffiti wall, we were all out the back garden, along with some other guests floating around — literally: We had a little paddling pool and there were people sitting in it with their bottles and cans. There was a ball somewhere around too, and Lally and Kavanagh started messing around with it, until next thing Lally hit him a shoulder, sending him crashing through the wooden fence and into the neighbours’ garden.
The next day, probably around the time those neighbours were putting in a call to Clucko’s sister, we were in another bar with the Donegal boys: There was still a two-day drinking session ritual to maintain in our case, while our guests obviously prided themselves on going longer than the boys in Ongar.
Both parties were still reeling from what had just happened in Croke Park; between us we had been beaten by a combined 31 points. Eamon McGee was trying to describe the power and size of that Cork team: Canty, O’Leary, Miskella, and Kissane bombing up from the back; Alan O’Connor and Nicholas Murphy at midfield; Pearse O’Neill tearing through the middle: not men but giants. It was like... it was like... being trampled by a herd of elephants! McGee spluttered. And Donegal had been mere mosquitoes caught in the stampede.
So there in the Grasshopper Bar you had the startled earwigs along with the mosquitoes that had been trampled by elephants; there were so many wildlife analogies going around, we could have asked Eamon if he wanted to watch one of Clucko’s Planet Earth DVDs with us.
You’d have got some odds back then that after our respective tormentors that weekend had shared the following two All-Irelands, ourselves and Donegal would carve up the next two. And that every subsequent year, one of us has featured in the All-Ireland final.
Everything changed for them with the appointment of Jim McGuinness.
Things changed for us too, though it didn’t take a change of manager for it to happen. At least nominally there wasn’t one.
But after the startled earwigs debacle Pat Gilroy was a changed man and change was something he was fearless about implementing across the board. The partying culture was one of the biggest casualties.
Looking back now on my first five years on the panel, we had the greatest craic. Heading back as a unit to the Sunnybank after a big game in Croker and meeting our family and partners; heading into town and being treated like celebrities wherever we rocked up in our O’Neill’s team tee-shirts, usually Coppers; they were great nights, great times.
And the Mondays were even better — less hectic, less noisy, just the lads. We’d golf in Hollystown, then maybe go to this lovely quiet pub called the Strawberry Hall and play credit card roulette; all cards thrown into the pot and the last one pulled out had to buy a round of shots. Or we might go into town and the Quay’s in Temple Bar where Jayo could swing a keg to be dropped off and we’d drink Becks for free for the evening. And then we could well end up in Coppers again — and then Ongar.
Even on the Tuesday we were still easing ourselves into next-match mode. The management alright would run the shite — and alcohol — out of us that evening and you’d have lads puking up. But then straight after training a gang of us would go to a fast-food spot. Alan and Mossy loved their McDonald’s, while Clucko and Mark Vaughan loved their bacon and cheese fries in Eddie Rocket’s. So the rest of us would tag along with them for our last little guilty pleasure before the next championship game and the two-day drinking session that followed.
But it was as if we were caught in this perpetual cycle. We were still heading out after a Leinster semi-final as if we had finally won an All-Ireland semi-final. Then we’d get beaten in August and booze for days. And that was just in Dublin.
A gang of us would head off to Marbella before coming back and sobering up to play for the club. We became almost accustomed to it, this routine, this identity. We’re the Dubs: Win all round us in Leinster and booze for two days, then lose in the All-Ireland series and booze for longer, home or abroad.
When Keira and I got back together in 2013 she couldn’t believe how different the Dublin set-up was. In Pillar’s time she’d meet my mam and da in the Sunnybank after games, then join me and the rest of the team in the VIP area in the back where there were baskets of fried food — wedges, chips, chicken wings.
The scene in the Gibson Hotel under Jim was like a whole other world. A plush, international hotel, not an old-school boozer; no fried food, only what would meet the approval of our nutritionist. Everything was more sedate. If anyone did go out, it was for just the one night. The Monday Club had long been disbanded, and with it Tuesdays in Eddie Rocket’s.
The startled earwigs moment was the turning point. In the autumn of 2009 we each had to go out to St Clare’s and sit across from Pat and Mickey Whelan. And one of the things they asked us was how did we spend our Mondays after championship games? And do you think that is helping with your recovery? What do you think other counties might be doing on the Monday?
They weren’t telling us explicitly what to do but the inference was obvious. Not only were the likes of Kerry and Tyrone still well ahead of us but Cork had clearly overtaken us. The likes of Graham Canty weren’t still drinking the day after a championship game. Football had gone to another level of preparation, so we would have to as well.
Ahead of the 2010 championship we had a camp in the Cooley Peninsula and in a team meeting in the Ballymascanlon Hotel, Pat once more floated the topic. Again, he let us do most of the talking but after an hour and a half it had come round to where he had wanted it to go all along: The two-day drinking sessions were over.
By then the Fab Four were no longer in Ongar either. We had already painted over the graffiti wall and laughed about the names that had been up on it. All these years later the memories from that place still bring a smile to my face.
- The Hill: My Autobiography, by Bernard Brogan with Kieran Shannon and published by Reach Sport, is available in all good bookstores now