The three (in-a-row) wise men counsel Dublin

This September, Stephen Cluxton will aim to become only the second man in GAA history to lift the Sam Maguire Cup on three consecutive occasions, the first being Wexford football captain Seán O’Kennedy between 1915 and ’17.

Kilkenny captain James "Cha" Fitzpatrick lifts the Liam MacCarthy Cup after victory over Waterford in 2008.

Cluxton has lifted the silverware on three occasions already, emulating O’Kennedy and fellow Dubliner John Kennedy (1891, ’92, ’94) in football and Mikey Maher (Tipperary – 1895, ’96, ’98), Dick Walsh (Kilkenny – 1907, ’09, ’13) and Christy Ring (Cork – 1946, ’53, ’54). But no man has ever skippered more than three All-Ireland winning teams.

Three-in-a-rows have been achieved on 18 occasions. In football, Kerry (4), Dublin (3), Galway (1) Wexford (1).

In hurling, Cork (5), Kilkenny (2) and Tipperary (2).

The last three men to captain three-in-a-row winning teams discuss how it was done and pointers for a Dublin team on the edge of history.

Tommy Doyle (Kerry, 1986)

I’ve good time for this Dublin team. They’ve taken the bar up to a different level. I’m not one for advocating payment for players but they have taken their commitment to professional levels. You watch The Sunday Game now and you might as well be watching United and Liverpool.

Kerry captain Tommy Doyle lifts the Sam Maguire Cup in 1986.

Dublin have made the game glamorous. They should be looked after in the best possible way because what they’re doing is brilliant for the sport. They’re setting the standards now just as Heffo did in ’74, ’75. They’ve done the two-in-a-row and that’s rough, but the three-in-a-row is obviously rougher and you really, really have to deserve it.

Our time was different but to come back and do three-in-a-row four years after we had done the four-in-a-row did take some doing. There’s a lot of pressure. People talking about pushing backs in ’82. I don’t go into it, I’ve never talked about it. The Offaly team were the better team on the day.

We were beaten by Cork in a Munster final in ’83 and what spurred us on later that year was a call from Mick O’Dwyer after Dublin beat Galway in the All-Ireland final. We were all summoned to meet in the Cliff House Hotel in Ballybunion, which is still owned by the O’Callaghan family – Bernie O’Callaghan, a great player with Kerry, God rest him. He was a selector with Micko at the time. This was October time, it was pouring rain and we hadn’t really seen each other much since the Munster final. Micko stood up and said, “It’s as simple as this lads – Dublin have just after winning an All-Ireland with 12 men. I’m convinced with 15 or more of ye lads in front of me that we can win it.”

He also underlined how much he wanted to win the centenary All-Ireland. No disrespect to anybody else, we felt being Kerry we should win the 1984 centenary All- Ireland. That’s our tradition. So we went back to training the following Tuesday night and never stopped until the day of the 1984 All-Ireland final. We trained as hard as I ever remember for a league and we beat Galway in the final in Limerick. (Pat) Spillane had been out with injury but he came back during that league, his first time since ’82.

It was an unbelievable year. I never saw focus like it in my life and we won the All- Ireland. Winning the centenary was very special to us in Kerry. The so-called process was then set up for that team. Micko had us wanting it just as badly as we had done before.

We had another great year in ’85 but we were all getting that bit older in ’86. We were slowing down. John Egan wasn’t playing. We had a lot of mileage on the dial and keeping that focus was more difficult.

The morning of the All- Ireland final against Tyrone, Jack O’Shea woke up dying with a virus. Ambrose O’Donovan hurt his ankle in the first five minutes and I was taking injections for my Achilles tendon. Páidí was injured, Seán Walsh was in trouble and Mike Sheehy’s knee still wasn’t great. Fair play to Spillane, he was back, good as ever and he was our trump card. Himself, (Ger) Power and Sheehy really pulled us out of it. It was most certainly the hardest of the three for us.

We had the leaders but it asked more questions of our hunger than the other two. Would we have done it had we beaten Offaly in ’82? If the five-in-a-row was achieved, I have a funny feeling come ’83 there was no way we would have won six-in-a-row. You just couldn’t do it. We certainly wouldn’t have done ’84, ’85, ’86. But because we weren’t around in ’83, it gave us the impetus and the hunger to come back.

James “Cha” Fitzpatrick (Kilkenny, 2008)

The three-in-a-row was a by-product of the great team we had and it was just the roll we got on. We were just in the zone. I remember at half-time in the All-Ireland final against Waterford in 2008 and we hadn’t even looked at the scoreboard. We just pretended it was back to zero-zero and kept pushing.

That day against Waterford was as close to as complete a performance as we could give. Gorta (Martin Comerford) and myself were the only ones on the team not to score that day – we had a wide ball each. A good bit before the end, we had it in the bag and you could nearly sit back and enjoy it. We weren’t really going into the unknown because it had been done by teams before but when it was completed we realised it was a great achievement.

With Brian (Cody), he’s very straightforward and he took every year separately so there had been no talk about three-in-a-row. We were just trying to win every game. Obviously, the players knew in their minds what another All-Ireland would have meant but it was in the background. You have to try and keep motivating yourself, though, and that was extremely important having won the previous two All-Irelands.

We had Gerry McEntee in with us a few times and he was excellent. He gave a number of speeches and he just gave us some very good advice. He had a reputation as being a really tough guy, there was no bullshit about him and when he spoke, we listened. But that year we were as pushed by ourselves than anybody else. If you looked at our bench, you saw just serious it was.

Our second team was as good as our first and lads were always on your toes. You couldn’t say you were ever guaranteed a spot. If your form dipped for even an evening the chances were you were going to be replaced.

After winning in 2006 and beating Cork, the monkey was off the back. At that stage, I was glad to have won one but we were hurling on adrenalin after that and we were enjoying it a bit more. We were able to hurl with a lot of freedom and players’ natural ability came to the fore. As captain, the three-in-a-row didn’t affect me at all and I wouldn’t have said an awful lot but then I didn’t have to because we had some great players. If I had any advice for Dublin now it would be just to worry about themselves and leave it to others to get up to their level. I suppose the only team that will beat them is themselves. They’re dominating Gaelic football possibly more if not as much as any team in sport at the moment. They just have to keep it simple.

Charlie McCarthy (Cork, 1978)

Our only objective was to win the Munster Championship and then try and go on and win the All- Ireland but three-in-a-row was never brought up. We won it ’76 and then we went straight into the National League in October and it was a case of starting all over again.

Captain Charlie McCarthy after Cork’s victory over Kilkenny in 1978.

Obviously, we didn’t have a good league campaign and the following year in the Munster semi-final against Waterford for 50 minutes it didn’t look good for us but we pulled through and it took off again from there. We got a few breaks along the way and won it again and you could say the same for ’78 as well. We were actually relegated (from Division 1A) in ’78 but we were able to right ourselves for the championship. Everything comes to an end then and in ’79 we won the Munster championship and felt we had a good chance against Galway but it didn’t work out well for us.

With each All-Ireland, the defence became more difficult but when it came down to it in ’78 we said among ourselves that “we’re here, we have a great chance to do the three-in-a-row so let’s knuckle down and do it”.

That it came against Kilkenny in the final made it an even tougher assignment. Every year, we brought in a couple of players that strengthened the team and freshened things up. The likes of Tom Cashman, Tim Crowley and Dermot MacCurtain came in for ’77 and they really bolstered the team in different areas of the field. There was a great bond in the team. It built up, obviously, because of how we won those games in ’76 and ’77. There wasn’t much pressure or if there was we didn’t feel it because most of us were mature players.


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