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Thursday 17 August 2017

From startled earwigs to Giller killers

Frank Roche talks to former Dublin ace David Henry about a league tie in Killarney that marked a Sky Blue turning point

Dublin’s David Henry beats Kerry’s Declan O’Sullivan to the ball during their Allianz FL 1 clash in February 2010 at Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney. Pic: Sportsfile
Dublin’s David Henry beats Kerry’s Declan O’Sullivan to the ball during their Allianz FL 1 clash in February 2010 at Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney. Pic: Sportsfile

David Henry recalls a different time when Dublin didn't enjoy such statistical dominance over Kerry. A time, in 2009, when they entered an All-Ireland SFC quarter-final as favourites and exited as hapless victims of a 17-point massacre.

"Definitely that defeat sparked something. Something drastic had to change," the former Dublin skipper recounts.

It did. And the results prove it: since the infamous day of the 'startled earwigs', Dublin have met Kerry 12 times and won ten of them, including all four SFC collisions.

"Before that I don't think any of us had been involved in a Dublin team that beat Kerry, especially in the championship. So 10-2 is a little bit surprising," Henry admits.

But where did it all start? Whether by curious accident or devilish fixture-making design, Dublin's next competitive encounter post-2009 was an Allianz League opener in Killarney the following February.

If you want to locate the genesis of their incredible success this decade, this is an obvious starting point. Pat Gilroy brought a radically revamped team to Fitzgerald Stadium, including just five starters from the carnage of the previous August. One of those was Henry, an erstwhile corner-back now adjusting to a new 'sweeper' role.

Marauding

His new team-mates included a marauding Michael Darragh Macauley on the '40' and Kevin McManamon in the corner. "None of them had any real baggage," the Raheny man points out. But the upheaval extended beyond changes of personnel.

As Henry explains: "Pat Gilroy realised that something had to change, big time, because if it didn't the same thing was going to happen again. We were after getting two hammerings, against Kerry and the previous year against Tyrone.

"I think Pat knew the players were good enough and athletic enough - but definitely the mental side of it was something that needed to change a lot."

How, though, had it reached that 2009 nadir where the concession of a goal to Colm Cooper after just 38 seconds would prompt near-total collapse?

"It was one of those days where you didn't know where the answers were going to come from, which probably wasn't a good sign," Henry reflects.

"People were looking around. We were a bit shellshocked. I think Pat Gilroy used the term 'startled earwigs' … although that analogy didn't really enamour me at the time, it probably wasn't far wrong."

Gilroy's strategic riposte was both drastic and brave. Winning in Killarney (Dublin's first on Kerry soil since 1982) wasn't the be-all and end-all but it provided an early shot of confidence.

"It was a dramatic change in how we were doing things," Henry recalls.

"We were up early in the morning training - something that was unheard of anywhere, I'd say. I suppose a lot of people might have been questioning that kind of thing. The culture in the squad really started to change as well.

"When we went down playing quite defensively against Kerry, and we saw that it was effective, people gradually started buying into what we were being asked to do."

Essentially, Gilroy broke down the game to its most basic elements.

"He put huge focus on everybody understanding how we were playing the game. It was really to take our minds off the bigger picture and not to get carried away with crowds or venues," says Henry.

"I was playing as a sweeper, and the intention never really was that we'd play with a sweeper long-term. It was just a case of us knowing how we were going to play the game."

Dublin's gung-ho instincts were curbed and the mindset altered so that defence started with your corner-forward.

Players also became familiar with goal-setting within matches and with "the process".

The supporter in Henry cannot stand the term; the former player gets it.

"The most boring word that you can hear," he says, "but from a sports psychology point of view it's key at the moment. It's what all of the high-performance teams are really doing very well and Pat initiated that, I think.

"There was clarity around what people were doing, what everyone's role was. Everyone knew how many tackles you had to make; where the tackles needed to be made. Like I said, nowadays that's just normal but then it wasn't really.

"We spent a whole year, 2010 … I don't think our attacking play was mentioned. It was all about getting that part of it right, and getting the work ethic and tackle counts up. Even though we didn't play very attractive football at all, it got us very close (they were pipped by Cork in an All-Ireland semi-final) just by doing that alone.

"It took a full year to address that, and that just became normal practice and we were able to build on that from 2011."

According to Henry, Gilroy deserves "huge credit" for displaying such strong management. "It was getting people to buy into it. There were no superstars in this particular system. It was based on extremely hard work, extremely unselfish play," he stresses.

Post-2010, this work ethic was embellished by creative play from "exceptional players" like Bernard Brogan and Diarmuid Connolly. And that, Henry concludes, has made Dublin "into such a phenomenal team".

The rest is history. And now history can be made in Tralee on Saturday night, with Dublin seeking to emulate Kerry's 84-year record of going 34 NFL and SFC games unbeaten.

Against? Who else but Kerry.

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