Family ties put to one side for Dolans
THEY say blood is thicker than water -- except when you're separated by the Shannon and a burning ambition to reach an All-Ireland club final.
The AIB club championship revels in its storied history of brothers in arms, doing it for family and parish. But this Saturday in Pearse Park, Longford (throw-in 2.0), we'll have a novel twist on the sibling cliché: you'll have brothers in arms alright, but could we have cousins up in arms too?
"It's a really novel thing ... I think it will be intriguing for a lot of people," says Dessie Dolan, contemplating the looming showdown of his Garrycastle club against his three cousins from across the river in Roscommon.
Prior to Christmas, there was the very real chance of a St Brigid's v St Brigid's semi-final, but this alternative plot to that commentator's nightmare contains far more potential Oscar material.
Garrycastle are a relatively new club, 31 years young, on the eastern half of Athlone. They are now Leinster SFC champions for the first time. St Brigid's of Kiltoom are only a short hop across the Shannon, their catchment area stretching towards the outskirts of Athlone's west side.
But the rivalry goes beyond geographical proximity or even similar green-and-red jerseys. In the Garrycastle camp you have former All Star Dessie, his brother Gary, plus their cousins James Dolan and Alan Fox. All four are first cousins of the three Dolan brothers on the Brigid's team -- Frankie, Garvan and Darren.
Dessie and Frankie are the most gifted forwards to emerge from this neck of the midlands in decades. Dessie, now 32, has been at the vanguard of Westmeath's groundbreaking triumphs and near-misses throughout the noughties. Frankie had a more chequered inter-county career with Roscommon but on his day -- a 2003 qualifier against Kildare springs gloriously to mind -- he was literally unplayable.
Strangely, the duo rarely crossed paths at inter-county level. And when they did play together, way back when, it was on the same underage soccer team, St Coman's.
"With soccer in Athlone there's no (provincial) divide," Dessie explains. "We always got on well; we were out in each other's houses and having the craic with your cousins, a bit of fishing and all that. That's what we did when we were younger.
"Then Frankie started playing with Roscommon; I started playing with Westmeath at the same time. But it was two totally different paths. We very rarely came across each other playing county football -- two or three times maybe."
Dessie Dolan earned his All Star in 2004, having inspired his county to its first (and still only) Leinster senior title. By his estimation, Frankie should have beaten him to the bauble by 12 months.
"He was very explosive when he started with Roscommon, he had an outrageous burst of pace, and no one could keep up with him. In 2003, I definitely think he should have got an All Star. He scored 25 points in two consecutive games (against Offaly and Kildare) ... I have never actually heard of anyone scoring 25 points in two games."
Since then, Dessie reasons, his cousin's game has evolved. The pace may have dimmed but his playmaking abilities now make Brigid's tick. When it comes to picking out a pass, he cites Mayo's Ciarán McDonald as the only one to compare: "It's out of a gun, bullet into the man's chest. That's the standard he's at, and I don't think anyone's as good in the country at the minute at passing."
The key question, however, is whether Frankie (or anyone) will have time for visionary flourishes amid the frenzy in Longford. For all the aforementioned reasons, it promises to be high-octane stuff.
"It's great for the town. It's a massive occasion," Dessie emphasises. "They're a serious club, and they have been the last good few years. We're after getting to that level now, and we're just looking forward to it.
"We've played each other in challenge matches, and there always is a small bit of niggle because we were probably envious of their success for a long time. Because we felt we had possibly underachieved all those years, not winning a Leinster title. It would have been something that bothered you."
You can see his point. Garrycastle won their first Westmeath senior title in 2001 and now have six to their name, including the last three. In latter years, Leinster had become their Holy Grail -- but a final defeat to Portlaoise in 2009, and a semi-final exit to Kilmacud a year later, created a sense that it was now or never in 2011.
They duly made it back to the final, and then found themselves 1-7 to 0-2 ahead of the pre-match favourites, St Brigid's of Blanchardstown, after 40 minutes. Some 11 minutes later, they led by just a point, a team in apparent freefall.
"I was getting very anxious," he said. "You could feel the game slipping away from you, and you're thinking: 'How could this happen after being eight points up in the second half?' ... you'd regret it for the rest of your life if you didn't stop the rot."
But stop it they did -- a testament, says Dolan, to their character and a bench that has made a difference all year, no one more so than Conor Cosgrove, who kicked the winning free at the death.
As a consequence, Dessie is just one hour away from a place that feels like his second home.
"I've always played in Croke Park, but to play in Croke Park with your club would be a whole different set-up -- it would probably be the ultimate dream," he enthuses.
"But I definitely wouldn't be looking past St Brigid's because I know they are a very strong outfit, very professional, they have a lot of experience, they have been in five Connacht finals (since 2005) and won a good few (three). It would take us an almighty effort to beat them."