IT was the year that Mickey Harte finally landed his dream job, Dublin won six in-a-row and Donald Trump lost the presidency.
Trump is finishing up as he started. A sociopath, after all, cannot change his spots. Yesterday, he was attacking Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensberger, tweeting that Brad’s brother “works for China. So disgusting!” When it was pointed out to him that Brad does not have a brother, Trump called it “fake news.”
Speaking of fake news, Mayo were happy to turn up in yet another All-Ireland final, without having the slightest intention of winning it. They remind me of the burly blonde chap with the terrific looking CV who claims he is “unbeatable” before being fired in the first round of The Apprentice.
At least Mayo were happy to be there, which is more than be said for Waterford, the critters. They arrived into the hurling final by accident, having accidentally beaten Kilkenny in the semi-final, thwarting a repeat of last year’s heavyweight classic for the ages, an immortal semi-final where Kilkenny had the brawn, power and downright Kilkennyness to humble Limerick’s young pretenders and leave them questioning their very existence.
This year, Cody mystifyingly didn’t select Walter Walsh or Colm Fennelly, Kilkenny went well ahead, then stopped and suddenly we were left without a hurling final, poor Waterford looking like a minor team against Limerick’s universal soldiers.
On the Ulster football front, Louth’s loss is Tyrone’s gain. My prediction for the next few years is that Tyrone will now be THE serious threat to Dublin.
Pat Gilroy said to me on the night of the final “Tyrone are the one team that can beat us.” With Feargal Logan in charge, the culture will be very different. People will be chosen strictly on merit. Attacking play will be restored. Tyrone will play like, well, Tyrone.
After Dublin, they have the best group of forwards in the country. If potential can become reality, then they will not have to wait long for a fourth All-Ireland. A happy, cohesive Tyrone team spells danger for everybody. And everybody loves Feargal Logan. What’s not to love?
Only three teams have won an All-Ireland in the last 10 years. Donegal, Dublin and Kerry. The backbone of those victories is good culture.
By 2010, Donegal were a flash team who played boom and bust football. World class socialisers, they trained hard and partied hard and could give anyone a game for 60 minutes. They had enormous potential, but no one had been able to get to the bottom of the problem.
Until Jimmy McGuinness met the group in the Rosapenna Hotel at the end of 2010. Rory Kavanagh recalls that in the course of a blistering five-hour encounter, McGuinness constantly used the words honesty and culture.
Me: What did he mean?
Rory: He must have said honesty 100 times. At that time, we didn’t really know what he meant to be honest. The whole thing sounded a bit crazy. He was telling us we would be Ulster and All-Ireland champions but only if we could trust each other and if we were happy to serve a purpose bigger than ourselves. But after a few months we could feel it. It is something you can’t see or explain, but every member of the group felt it deep down. When the penny dropped, we could feel the real joy of it. We were part of a movement.
Me: Tell me more.
Rory: It’s very hard to explain. For example, Jimmy was very keen that we immerse ourselves in the people and traditions of the county. We must have trained in 20 different clubs. We would meet and spend time with under privileged children. We would go to the schools. After training we would eat in the local cafés and spend an hour chatting with the people. All very down to earth stuff but it gave us an appreciation of what ordinary people in the county were going through and how important the game was to them. Eventually, we had unbreakable bonds and there was a strong sense that nothing could stop us. We were a group famous for throwing in the towel when it really mattered. The throwing in the towel stopped. We were no longer playing for ourselves. We were fanatics in a cause.
In 2009, Cork had obliterated them in the All-Ireland quarter-final, running in 1-27 in a 14-point thrashing. The following year, Armagh whacked them in Crossmaglen in the Qualifiers by nine points, running in 2-14.
Within seven months of Jim’s arrival, they were Ulster champions and lost the All-Ireland semi-final by two points. Their best two players in 2011 were Michael Murphy and Kevin Cassidy. During the winter break, Kevin contributed to a book by journalist Declan Bogue, telling a few relatively trivial anecdotes, including the story about Jimmy confiscating the mobile phones the morning of the 2011 semi-final against Dublin to make sure the game-plan wasn’t leaked. McGuinness dropped him.
It was ruthless, unflinching and unreversible. It was shocking. Cassidy was a pig in training, a team leader, a winner. He has gone on since then to lead his club Gaoth Dobhair to a magnificent Ulster Club title. He would never have been dropped under any of the previous Donegal management teams. But in 2011, the group fully accepted the decision. He had put himself above the group. He had betrayed the greater good. End of. They moved on, in unison. Nine months later, they were All-Ireland champions, fanatical and impenetrable.
Pat Gilroy, had a simple mission statement when he took over Dublin.
“If you are not completely happy to sacrifice yourself for the team, find another pastime.”
By then, Dublin had played extremely entertaining football for over a decade and got nowhere. Their most recent All-Ireland was 1995, a full 15 years earlier. In the noughties, they had played a lot of highly enjoyable football, but always wilted on the biggest days.
“We would have won a couple of All-Irelands at least if we hadn’t come up against such brilliant Kerry and Tyrone teams” was the constant refrain. “We just needed a bit of luck.” In the last quarter of those big games, when they had looked as though they might go on and win, they failed. Yet they were “heroes” in Dublin and around the country. Their culture of victimhood (“Poor me”) made them the plucky losers everyone loved.
When Pat was asked to take over the team, he was initially reluctant, and only did so having got assurances from Dublin’s chairman John Costello that he had his full backing for what Pat had promised would be a painful transformation of the culture.
So, Gilroy ruthlessly set about culling those players who set themselves above the group. He left Bernard Brogan on the bench for four successive league games. He dropped Diarmuid Connolly altogether in 2010. Meath had beaten them in Leinster. Connolly, who was on the starting XV, missed the next training session. Pat met him that night and describes the conversation.
Pat: You’re out Dermo. You can stay on as number 40 on the panel with no chance of playing or you can fuck off.
Diarmuid: I’ll fuck off so.
Pat: good choice.
They were club mates. They were team mates. They were close friends. They had played together in the St Vincent’s team that won the All-Ireland Club final against Nemo in 2008. Connolly was a star. That didn’t matter. The group was the only thing that did.
On the morning of the 2010 quarter-final, the Dublin bus drove past Connolly, sitting outside Gaffney’s in Fairview, having a pint. Later that afternoon, the team made their first serious statement, beating Tyrone in the All-Ireland quarter final.
At the start of 2011, Diarmuid met Pat, apologised and asked to be taken back. Pat said he would have to ask the group.
The group said yes, on condition he got himself properly fit. For two months, Diarmuid trained alone, fanatically, until he was in the shape of his life. When he came back in, no one trained harder.
It is a curiously overlooked fact that Gilroy dropped Dean Rock for the entire 2011 season. After the Meath defeat the previous year, Dean had chosen to go to America for the summer. That was the end of that. “He was the best free-taker in Dublin, but what could I do?” said Gilroy. After 2011, Dean had his hand up. He had seen the error of his ways and was ready to atone.
He dropped Jayo, a Hill 16 icon. One night, Gilroy went into a bar in the city and bumped into Mark Vaughan, the bleached blonde full forward from Kilmacud Crokes with the sensational skills and flamoboyant on field persona. The next morning he dropped him from the panel. Permanently. The cull was, Pat says, nothing personal. “They just weren’t suited to serving a cause. It was not their fault. But they could not be accommodated. Otherwise, it is like a cancer. Leave even a little bit of it in and it will spread and eventually kill the culture.”
Gilroy’s assistant Paddy O’Donoghue went around the team training HQ at DCU ripping the sports sections out of the newspapers. Celebrity appearances were banned. From now on, sponsorship money would go into a shared players’ pool. By 2011 they were ready to play serious football. In September that year, they were All-Ireland champions, beating the same Kerry team that had beaten them by 17 points in the quarter final two years earlier.
It was, Gilroy recalls, a very painful transition. In particular, dropping Connolly caused Gilroy great personal angst and ructions at St Vincents. They were friends, club mates and team mates. But there was no other way.
In 2014, Jimmy’s fanatics dismantled Dublin in the semi-final. Both teams were proven winners by then and it was the most extraordinary heavyweight clash of the decade. Two completely honest groups putting it all on the line and an outcome that proved Dublin are beatable.
It is worth noting that this Dublin group have been taken to two replays in finals – 2016 and 2019, a replay in a semi-final – 2015 and that in their eight victories in finals since 2011, they have won by a single point four times (2011, 2013, 2016, 2017).
Which brings me to Kerry in 2014. By 2014, Donegal had mercilessly won the 2012 All-Ireland, decapitating Mayo in the first 10 minutes, taken a year out in 2013, then advanced remorselessly to the 2014 final, having walloped the unbeatable Dubs in the semi-final, making their heads light in the process. They were heavy favourites to grind Kerry down in the final, but they were instead ground down by a Kerry team spearheaded by Kieran Donaghy.
I spoke to Donaghy during the week.
Me: What was the key to that 2014 victory?
Kieran: The culture was always excellent with Eamonn. Behaviour, tradition, togetherness and the group being all-important. No one better than anyone else. Total honesty. Complete commitment to the cause. Savage training.
Me: What do you mean by the group being all-important?
Kieran: I’ll give you a good example. Austin Stacks won the Kerry championship in 2014. It was our first Kerry title since 1994. Slaughtneil then beat us by a point in the All-Ireland semi-final. I was made captain of the Kerry team for 2015. A few days before the All-Ireland final, Eamonn rang me and asked me to meet him in a local hotel. I assumed we were going to talk about tactics. He said “The news isn’t good Kieran. You are not starting on Sunday. We are going with Paul Geaney.” I was stunned. I just said “I respect your decision. I will be ready if I am called upon.” I walked out of that hotel gutted. Me and Eamonn were very close friends. It was hard for me to take but I was a Kerry man first and in Kerry, it was always about the good of the team. So I had to set aside my ego.
You may recall that in 2014, Kieran, as he had done on his stupendous arrival into full-forward in 2006, electrified the championship, rescuing his men then destroying Mayo over the course of two immortal semi-final games, before going on to put in an MVP performance in the 2014 final, scoring 1-2 from play including the winning goal.
By the time of the 2015 final, he had four All-Ireland medals, a Player of the Year award, multiple All-Stars and was the Kerry team captain. The group was more important than his feelings. In 2009, when Kerry were at a very low ebb, Jack O’Connor dropped Colm Cooper and Tomás O’Sé for a vital Qualifier for a breach of discipline. Eight weeks later Kerry were All-Ireland champions.
There is no room for untouchables, who will never be taken off regardless of performance. This is corrosive to the culture because the others feel they are dispensable and become aggrieved. Without honesty, the bonds of togetherness essential for serious success are not forged and the project is doomed.
As Rory Kavanagh said to me this week “When the culture in the group is right, it is a great, unforgettable place. But it is a totally unforgiving place. I still haven’t figured it out.”
I want to wish you all some joy and peace. Many of us have lost loved ones this year. This is part of life. Do not despair. It is love that is important. And Gaelic football.