But by the time you’re halfway through Neil Cotter’s engrossing examination of Dublin football in the Sam-less period of 1996 to 2010, you realise the title of his new book, published by Penguin Ireland, is apt, bordering on being even a slight understatement.
At that juncture, he’s describing a training camp in Tenerife ahead of what would be the last championship of Tommy Lyon’s rollercoaster of a tenure which would leave everyone feeling queasy.
Lyons had been unable to fly out with the squad, but had issued strict instructions that in his absence, they were there to solely train, not have pints.
“It wasn’t a problem having no pints,” Shane Ryan recalls to Cotter, “but when you don’t let fellas do anything, they’ll amuse themselves.”
And so one afternoon, “bored out of our tits”, they all convened in the swimming pool, trying to make the highest human pyramid possible, when who walked out of the main hotel but a livid Lyons, the cue to send hair flying and bodies crashing and splashing everywhere.
While the image is comical now, there was nothing funny about the rest of the trip. Some panellists felt like they were being spied upon as they sat around playing cards on their balconies. The mood on and in the camp just wasn’t right.
In truth, it rarely was from the time Dr Pat O’Neill stepped down as manager after winning the 1995 All-Ireland final.
By Cotter’s account, his successor Mickey Whelan opted to do a bit of a Brian Clough at Leeds; while he stopped short of declaring their All-Ireland medals as worthless, he deemed them highly fortuitous, with Ciaran Walsh getting the Eddie Gray treatment, being told he was the worst player to ever win a Celtic Cross.
But it wasn’t just players and management that antagonised one another. Young new players found veterans distrusting and unwelcoming because veterans viewed young players as unproven and thus untrustworthy.
It naturally led to a huge self-fulfilling prophesy – usually the intimidated younger players didn’t flourish – which was something that wasn’t lost on future managers like Jim Gavin, Pat Gilroy, and even Lyons who to his credit promoted young players. As Cotter astutely observes, “It was not a fertile environment for personal or professional growth.”
A player like Kevin McManamon, who has spoken openly about his confidence and competitive anxiety issues, would most certainly have been lost and discarded in such a climate.
Keith Barr, one such grouchy veteran, is unapologetic about not extending a welcoming hand to newcomers in the way the more empathetic and fondly-remembered Eamon Heery would.
“I had three big mates in the squad: Keith Barr, Keith Barr, and Keith Barr. And not one of those put their arms around my shoulder!”
Barr’s bluntness is one of the treasures of the book. He didn’t just have his suspicions about young players, he openly confesses he had his issues with senior teammates as well.
Well before Tommy Carr would drop him from the panel after the 1998 first-round loss to Kildare, he and Barr didn’t even see eye-to-eye when they played on the same half-back line. Barr qualifies that he had a certain respect for Carr as a teammate – “Tommy was strong, he was dogged, he would genuinely die for you” – but only a certain respect.
“I wouldn’t buy into his dictatorship. Tommy bought into his army credentials; that ‘Because I’m an army officer, I’m a natural leader of men.’ But I can tell you this, if Tommy Carr was my officer and we went to war, we’d all be fucking dead!”
So there you have it: Carr might die for you but you’d all get killed in the end. You can say Barr wasn’t the greatest teammate – a product of the archetypal machismo that was pervasive in sports dressing rooms – not just Dublin ones – in those days, but he certainly makes great copy.
Carr emerges with considerable credit as a manager by the end of his four-year stint, but just because he provided Cotter with an interview for the book doesn’t mean the author sugar-coats some of the failings of his tenure.
Mick O’Keeffe and Ray Cosgrove, two in-but-usually-out players during his time, speak about how the dressing room was full of cliques, with there being a particular suspicion among management and players towards “the more thoughtful, soft [Kilmacud] Crokes lads”.
Similarly Lyons isn’t spared despite cooperating for the book; the treatment of him here is a rigorous if rounded one. After reading this it’s easy to see why he was great for Offaly and very good for young Dublin players like Cosgrove but ultimately bad for the Dubs as a whole.
“Everyone older [than 22] got a whole lot of shit from him,” says Shane Ryan.
“I used to think if he only treated everybody the way he treated the younger lads we’d be a better team.”
There are some particularly interesting tit-bits here from the botched player coup after the team’s exit from the 2003 championship. Tired of his “It was good enough for Kerry in the ’70s!” justifications, a few veterans called for a players-only meeting in the Burlington Hotel. Only five – all named by Cotter – attended; six others remained in their cars, fearful of a media stitch-up.
Later the two groups met up and voted. Only Paddy Christie wasn’t in favour of ousting the manager and he reveals to Cotter that the other 10 never looked at him as fondly afterwards and that the feeling was mutual.
It’s only when you get to Paul Caffrey’s tenure that the latter part of the book’s subtitle – ‘And How They Turned It Around’ – reveals itself.
Ryan describes Caffrey’s reign as an amazing time in all their lives, with Paul Clarke, a member of both Caffreys’ staff and this year, Jim Gavin’s, also identifying how advanced a set-up it was. The camaraderie he engendered, the detailed planning and reviews, the link-up with DCU.
But still there were dubious aspects to the programme. While Ray Cosgrove claims all the players initially “loved” marching to the Hill before games, others reveal that it became an “in-house joke the longer it went on”.
The goading and trash-talking of the last three years of the Caffrey era – a response to Tyrone and Ryan McMenamin’s antics in the 2005 All-Ireland quarter-final – is also scrutinised by the vigilant Cotter. Clarke feels Dublin’s in-your-face gesticulations under Caffrey can be overplayed, especially by Laois – Billy Sheehan he pinpoints as a player unafraid to get under an opponent’s skin.
Collie Moran personally didn’t resort to them but admits that after he was told at an end-of-season review that his yellow-card count of just one was far too low, he subsequently engaged in much more cynical and tactical fouling.
How Dublin reorganised and increased their coaching structures and financial clout is also looked at by Cotter, though perhaps not to the extent a Ewan MacKenna might desire. The haphazardness of how underage Dublin players were coached and selected in the dreadful doldrums that were the ‘90s is perceptively recalled by Mick O’Keeffe.
Bertie Ahern reveals that the decision to fund and link coaches with the schools and clubs was floated as a pilot that could later be rolled out elsewhere in the country; nearly 20 years on, we’re still waiting for such an expansion. And Pat Gilroy’s financial as well as football acumen is also recognised.
The book doesn’t have a standout hero but if it had, Gilroy is probably it, even though he’s not interviewed. He abhorred the sledging of the late Caffrey era.
When James McCarthy made his debut in a league game below in Killarney, he suffered a bit of a chastening from Paul Galvin, yet Gilroy left him on for the full 70 minutes, a world away from the do-it-or-fuck-off ethos that Barr and the old dressing room of the late ‘90s championed.
The book touches on how Jim Gavin’s managerial approach would also contrast sharply to what he witnessed as a player in the late ‘90s, even if Cotter only delves into how Dublin became eventual, not perennial, champions.
“There was definitely a divide then,” says Ray Cosgrove.
“That wouldn’t happen today, with Jim Gavin. It would be equal and open.”
From unwelcoming veterans to arseboxing and collapsing human pyramids to marching to the Hill to startled earwigs to champs, Cotter has it all covered in a very well-written and insightful read.