By Niall Gartland
THE Sperrin Mountains – a remote sort of place even by the standards of rural Ireland. It’s also where Michael Kennedy spent his childhood and early adult years before picking up sticks and moving to Dublin.
The Glenelly and Tyrone native probably didn’t envision at that stage that he would play his part in Dublin’s re-emergence as a footballing superpower. Eight All-Ireland titles in the course of a decade marked a stratospheric upturn in fortunes for a county that had previously failed to deliver when the heat was on against the Tyrone and Kerrys of this world.
Kennedy’s own involvement in the Blue Wave didn’t come about by accident: his input behind the scenes helped St Vincent’s to an All-Ireland Senior Club Championship in 2008. Starting members on that team included an 18-year old Diarmuid Connolly, Ger Brennan, Mossy Quinn and a certain Pat Gilroy in a full-forward berth. A few months later Gilroy was drafted in as Dublin senior intercounty manager and Kennedy was brought on board as the Head of Performance Analysis. Carry that thread through to their breakthrough 2011 success and you get the picture.
He wasn’t just a Pat Gilroy man. Kennedy was also taken under Jim Gavin’s wing. Head of Performance Analysis for their All-Ireland U21 win in 2010, Kennedy became even more embedded with his new role as coach/selector of the team that won a second U21 crown in 2012 before another senior triumph in 2013.
While the full story of Dublin’s period of almost total dominance is yet to be fully unveiled, Kennedy is keen to press home the point that the backroom team and players were the key ingredients in the overall success of the operation. Indeed, one of Mickey Harte’s trusted lieutenants – video analyst Peter Quinlivan – even gets credited as a surprisingly significant factor in Dublin’s success.
Kennedy, who recently stepped down as the long-standing Head of Gaelic Games at Dublin City University (DCU) on health grounds, said: “The people really deserving of tribute are the players and backroom teams.
“While I don’t know the current backroom team, Dublin has always had the very best in their field, equal to anybody working in any sport. Their sports scientists, the analysts, nutritionists, strength and conditioning coaches, physios, and medical doctors, which ironically includes my own consultant, professor Diarmuid Smith, are all world class in their field.
“When I came in, one of my roles was looking at best practice. Essentially that meant I looked at the software used by top level professional teams at international and club level.
“I worked with Celtic, the FAI, the AFL and the Irish and Leinster rugby team and through that Dublin became the first GAA team to install Sportscode as our software. We were replicating what all those professional teams were doing.
“Dublin’s analysis set-up was a match for anything I’ve experienced on a professional level. The level of detail that Dublin went into even as far back as 2009 and 2010 was off the charts. I’d attribute a lot of Dublin’s success to their ability to almost paralyse the opposition, they have it down to a fine art.”
He continued: “Strangely enough, the background of all this was Peter Quinlivan. He was Mickey Harte’s analyst and lives near Garvaghey. He was Mickey’s right-hand man for his entire tenure at Tyrone.
“When I was involved with St Vincents, I set about meeting Peter in Garvaghey. He went into massive detail in terms of showing me what levels we needed to reach in order to be the best club team.
“I brought it back to the likes of Diarmuid Connolly and Ger Brennan, all those top players could now see how they could go out and beat the likes of Nemo Rangers and Crossmaglen. The red and white of Tyrone filtered down to St Vincent’s and right through to the Dublin seniors. The standards Tyrone set at that time were replicated by Dublin.”
Warming to the theme, Kennedy explains that Tyrone were by far the greatest influence on the success-starved Dubliners.
“You’ve no idea. The respect they had for Tyrone was just phenomenal. They saw Tyrone as the benchmark. They knew if they couldn’t get to the same standards set by Tyrone, they were never going to be successful. The first seeds of that was meeting Peter in Kelly’s Inn on that journey to winning the All-Ireland Club title. Little did Peter know at that time the path I would take with the Dublin senior footballers. All those cultures and values of detailed analysis and standards – tackle counts, turnovers, free conceded and high-level performance indicators like that, were brought into Dublin.
“The Dublin players preferred to stay overnight when they came up to play Tyrone in certain league games. They trained at the local GAA clubs, they had kickabouts with the local kids. There was always a massive respect for Tyrone and what they had achieved. Dublin effectively had to become Tyrone in order to win All-Ireland titles.
“We referred to it as an EARN culture. I’m not going to tell you what’s in that, but it refers to the standards set by the Dublin players and managers. We also had what’s called ‘train to play’ – where we replicated what we would bring to a match-day situation and that was very important to us.
THIS Sunday, James McCarthy, Stephen Cluxton and Michael Fitzsimons go in pursuit of a record ninth All-Ireland medal. Dean Rock, Cormac Costello and Ciarán Kilkenny are on the cusp of an eighth. Most players in the country would bite your hand off for one. Below, Kennedy gives an extensive and revealing insight into some of the Dublin greats he has worked with, kicking off with their trail-blazing goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton.
“I was greatly honoured to be involved with Ireland across two International Rules Series under Anthony Tohill and Paul Earley. I remember Anthony was looking to appoint a captain and was interesting in appointing Stephen. I said ‘if you want a captain who is going to be shouting and screaming, Cluxton is not your man. If you want a captain that’s going to lead by example in terms of the work he puts in and the demands placed on other players, he’s the best captain you could choose by a country mile.’ Anthony made Stephen captain. When Jim [Gavin] came in as manager in 2013 he appointed Stephen as captain as well and look what’s happened since.
“The outside noise has never affected Stephen, his own personal values are just incredible. At every training session I ever attended with Dublin, it didn’t matter how early I turned up, whether it was an hour or an hour-and-a-half, Stephen would be there. The first car in the car park would be his.
“That’s how he went about his business, you’d have to drag him off the training pitch. He’d have a bag of footballs to kick frees with and he wouldn’t leave until he’d kicked every one of them over the bar. We often had to go and lift the footballs and say ‘that’s it, Stephen.’ That’s the standard he set and every player in the group followed him.
“Stephen wanted to make massive improvements to his game but he saw it as very much a collective issue, that the whole team had to make improvements. Everyone needed to know their role inside out.
“He would put a ball on the kicking tee and every single player had to know exactly where they were moving. Most importantly, he didn’t even have to look up, he knew instinctively where every player was going to be.
“A massive influence on his career was a goalkeeping coach called Davy Byrne. He was a former Dublin goalkeeper but never really got the plaudits as John O’Leary was there at the same time. He was phenomenal and brought Stephen onto the next level.
“Everything became centred around the team – we’d talk a lot about having 15 boxes on the pitch and everyone needed to know their role in that box. If they moved out of the box, the next player needed to know exactly what was happening. It was all row-by-row and line-by-line.
“When Cluxton went to take a restart, the ball was normally gone within six to ten seconds. People have hounded me about his kick-out, I’m friendly with Peter Canavan and even he has asked me about Stephen’s kick-out strategy and did he have any signals. As a Tyrone man I’d love to tell him about those signals! But I’d say ‘no Peter, well he does have signals but he doesn’t need them, the team doesn’t work off signals, they work off cohesive movement.’
“Finally, another thing about Stephen is that whenever a young player came into the panel, he made them feel a massive part of the group. He had a phenomenal ability to make young players feel comfortable and valued.”
“If you look at the photograph of the Dublin team that won the All-Ireland U-21 title in 2010, you’ll notice James McCarthy was lucky to be 11 stone. He was one of the lightest players on the squad.
“He was involved in DCU at the time so from a sports science perspective he was very aware that he had to develop massively in terms of his athleticism and physical strength. Through picking the brains of our athletics director Enda Fitzpatrick he developed an awful lot in those areas.
“Even now at 33 or 34 years of age, he has this phenomenal ability to get stronger and stronger in his runs throughout a game. James would have made a very successful 800m runner in terms of his strength, power and speed. He’s probably the strongest player in the country as well, and he has this unique ability to repeat, repeat, repeat what he does repeatedly throughout a game.
“I remember we were playing Wexford in a Leinster Championship match, there’s a clip that comes up quite often. James’ role at that time was to come to the half-way line but no further. I saw the clip the other night, he came up to the half-way line, got a return ball, looked to the sideline as if to say to Pat Gilroy ‘I’m going anyway’ and off we went and scored a goal. It was late on and we claimed a very narrow victory. If Dublin were beaten that day, Gilroy and the rest of the backroom, myself included, would’ve been thrown into the Liffey, we’d have had no career left.
“James just drove that team on. As I say, he was a very successful player at our university as well, he’d access to the very best facilities and the best sports scientists and he had a hunger within himself to pursue the highest standards possible.
“He also did everything he could to develop his skills acquisition, for example improving his shot to score ratio. James now has an ability to kick off both feet, he was very one-sided when he started. When we came on board, a massive weakness generally in the Dublin team was their skill levels. We did a series of skills tests and their ability was very low. The players had to work seriously hard on that. I don’t think a player would be on the squad these days if they couldn’t kick a pass with both feet. James was one of the players who put the most effort into improving their all-round game.
“If you look back at Dublin’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Mayo two years ago, James got caught in possession a few times in that game because Mayo were ravenous. James would take that extra second on the ball and Mayo definitely honed in on taking every opportunity to turn him over and deflate him. But probably through a basketball coaching influence he has developed that side of his game, moving the ball a lot quicker in possession. He’s still developing as a player which is a credit to him.”
“I know Jack’s father Noel very well. He’s a former colleague of mine at DCU and Noel walked around every day with a smile on his face, that’s just how he lives his life. Jack is no different. I was chatting to a parent the other day, his son had taken a stroke and was in the children’s unit in Dublin.
“Jack was one of his doctors and when he came in he was laughing and making faces just to get a laugh out of the kids, that’s just how he is.
“He came into the Dublin team as a raw 18-year-old, he was just a kid. When he crosses the white line, he gives absolutely everything of himself and I think that really drove on the older players, that this kid has come into the team and is driving everyone to the limit.
“He had the management team in stitches at the time but he knew when to turn it on and turn it off. There was a lot made of him having a smile on his face in the parade but that was just his natural instinct. It was about soaking up the atmosphere – that he was honoured and privileged to be involved in such big occasions.
“When he came into the senior team he worked savagely on his tackling. He was actually a natural forward and there was a big question regards where to play him in defence, the full-back or half-back line.
“The one aspect of his game that was perhaps letting him down slightly was his tackling ability. His tackle count was quite low and he was the first to put his hand up and say ‘I need to really work on my tackling technique.’ He worked and worked on it, he was willing to learn, and he ended up mastering it. He’s another really great person, all these people see them come out on the big day but the work they put in on the training ground is phenomenal. Individually they all want to be the best they can be, they all go out to their local clubs with a bag of footballs and the kids are kicking the ball back to them. Anything to get those extra millimetres, these lads are doing.”
“Michael came into the team as something of a raw diamond. He plays for Cuala and was watched very carefully in club games. He didn’t convince everybody at the start that he was going to make it. He knew there were deficiencies in the game, and he had to work particularly hard on marking opponents closely without fouling them.
“His strengths were his speed and athleticism but he had to work particularly hard on the skills of the game.
“People don’t see the telepathy he has with Cluxton, it really is phenomenal. Those two boys are talking non-stop, reading the game, telling players where to go. He reads the game so well. He’s a doctor and I suppose he brings that intelligence to matches, his ability to read a game is outstanding.
“One of the big factors in Dublin’s success was their A v B games. Whether Michael played on the A or B team in training, he just got on with it and never threw any strops. He just said to himself, ‘I’m going to do everything I can and let you as the management team decide if that’s good enough or not.’ It didn’t matter who he was marking, they knew they were in a game. There’s no player in the country who can read a game like him in terms of knowing when to stay and when to go. He’s one of the best defenders who have ever played the game.”
“When I first arrived at St Vincent’s, I remember this young kid dummying everyone off both left and right. If you asked him to do the crossbar challenge and challenged him to hit the black spot, he could do it with both feet.
“Without a shadow of a doubt Diarmuid had a talent that was almost unequalled. The only players I hold in the same category, ironically both are Ulster men.
“One was Gerry McElhinney, a former Derry player who won an All-Star when he was only 17. The other was Frank McGuigan. Those guys led the way in skill acquisition without realising how important it would become in the last decade. It has become a phenomenon in the coaching of gaelic football. Diarmuid looked at the best players who went before him. He worked so hard to replicate every aspect of both their games in terms of skill acquisition. He also looked at the top intercounty players of his own era and wanted to be even better than them.
“The other thing about Diarmuid is that he’s the kindest guy you could meet. People have preconceptions about him but they’re completely off base, he’s a really genuine guy.
“He was a natural talent and somehow probably an even better hurler. He won an All-Ireland Club medal when he was only 18 if you can imagine that.
“He was unbelievable and at training he was unmarkable. Nobody could mark him and the only player that would even try was Philly McMahon.
“People would’ve paid a fortune to get into Dublin A v B games to witness that battle in terms of what went on, talk about two guys who drove each other on to be the best they can be.
“The attention that Diarmuid got from the opposition off the ball was incredible. From an analysis perspective, when we looked at the game microscopically, we could see he was a target for every team, and that was something he just had to live with.
“Even before the ball was thrown in, he was a target, and it wasn’t just one player, they were lining up to have a go at him. He rose above that and demanded even more of himself in terms of discipline. Diarmuid is human too and he maybe overreacted at times but what some people didn’t appreciate is that 99 per cent of the time he kept his cool. Diarmuid got a lot of attention and he never understood it as all he wanted to be was an entertainer on the pitch.
“He trained and performed to his absolute max and skill-wise, like I said, there was no-one to touch him in that era. He put himself up there with the likes of Stephen O’Neill, that he wanted to be even better. As I said, the respect those lads had for Tyrone was massive, they were the benchmark, they looked in microscopic detail as to how they could achieve the same success by implementing what Tyrone were doing.”
“I would say Kevin changed the face of Dublin football for eternity. If you think about it, Kevin was a very average club player. He has a brother called Brendan who was probably a better footballer but didn’t have the same work-rate.
“When Kevin sniffed the opportunity of getting onto the Dublin squad, he took it with both arms. He was the hardest working member of the squad. He drove everyone on in training and I heard him say hundreds of times ‘guys, the onus is on us as players who may not make the 26 this weekend, to push those other fellas to the ultimate’ so they could perform against whoever they were playing against.
“I genuinely believe Kevin drove everyone else onto the highest peaks with the standards he set in training. He would drive the overall performance levels individually and collectively in A v B games – that if a player was going to get selected that weekend, they’re going to have to earn it.”
“Ciaran epitomises everything that is good about this Dublin team. He’s such a disciplined player and in all the analysis we ever did, Ciaran came out on top in terms of touches on the ball.
“While he’s not getting a starting position at present, I imagine at training, and I know nothing about what goes on at training now, that he’s still unmarkable in terms of his ability to roam around the pitch making link runs and his overall distribution of the ball. He very seldom gives a bad pass.
“He was the conductor of the team that won the six in-a-row. Teams miscalculated his importance and rarely set out to mark him. But Ciaran’s ability to set up plays is just incredible and that’s where many teams found themselves beaten.
“He’s right up there with the best. When I coached him in 2010, he was pursued relentlessly by the AFL. He did take a contract at that stage but his love of Gaelic games brought him back and the rest of history. He’s another of the Dublin lads who came through the DCU-St Pat’s structure at the time. Thirteen of the current squad have come through the DCU system which is a massive thing.”
“Dean found it difficult when he first came on board and didn’t get into the Dublin team initially. While he was one of the highest scorers at club level, he wasn’t getting a look in with the county. One of the main reasons for that was his physique. He’s from the same club as James McCarthy, they were university colleagues as well, and he knew if he became as strong as James nobody would be able to push him off the ball.
“He set about achieving that over a two-year programme and we collectively gave him a lot of help in that respect.He did a lot of individual work and became such a strong player, he’s unrecognisable from the lad who won an All-Ireland U-21 in 2010. Dean replicated everything Stephen Cluxton did in terms of practice and has become Dublin’s all-time highest scorer. He is also brilliant with kids and goes out of his way to make everyone feel included. He has a word for everyone on the street, he’s someone I have massive respect for. On the pitch he’s coolness personsified and off it he’s a gentleman.”
“I’d also have to mention Paul Mannion, he’s an absolutely phenomenal player. He’s come through a very rough patch in terms of injury but his ability to win his own ball, to kick points off left and right, and to read the game is top class.
“Paul is a unique player like David Clifford and Darragh Canavan but he has become a more defensively orientated player in recent years. In his early days in the panel he didn’t know anything other than to attack.
“If Paul could throw off the shackles on Sunday and go back to his instinctive attacking game, it would ask serious questions of the Kerry defence and would go a long way to bringing Sam back to Dublin.”
SO there you have it, a glimpse behind the curtain of a footballing juggernaut. And they’re not done yet. Dublin have reasserted themselves this year (you’ll have seen the phrase that they’ve ‘got the band back together’ popping up in various articles by now). Michael Kennedy mightn’t be a Dub by birth but he’s certainly got a massive affinity with the place and has his fingers firmly crossed that they do the job this Sunday.
“While I’m a Tyrone man through and through, Dublin as a capital city has been very good to me and I’ve never felt unwelcome.
“I’ve always felt a big part of that group, it’s something I’ll always be able to cherish and look back on – that I, a Tyrone man from the hills of the Sperrin Mountains, was involved in that great Dublin team.
“I’ll always be extremely proud of that and grateful for the opportunity to work with those players, and to be able to call some of them friends.
“When both my parents sadly passed away over the last few years I received messages from all those players I worked with and what stands out to me first and foremost is their humility. If any team can topple Kerry, it’s going to be Dublin. They won’t fear Kerry, they never did, and I wish them all the best.”