Team that Pat built
From earwig to earwig-o thanks to gilroy
TWENTY-FIVE months ago, a group of Dublin footballers who had become accustomed to August heartbreak took to the field against Kerry in an All-Ireland quarter-final.
They were the in-form favourites. Kerry were supposedly the once-great team on the slippery slope, mired knee-deep in a crisis of form and confidence.
It ended in a 17-point massacre ... and Dublin were on the receiving end.
Pat Gilroy had just seen his debut season as Sky Blue supremo -- a year that yielded the rich promise of a thrilling Leinster final victory over Kildare -- mutate into a nightmarish tale of the macabre.
The game was long over at half-time. In truth, it was over after 10 minutes. Maybe it was even over after 38 seconds, which was exactly how long it took for Colm Cooper to pick his spot beyond Stephen Cluxton in the Dublin goal.
Afterwards, a shell-shocked Gilroy admitted that his players had resembled "startled earwigs" for the first 15 minutes.
A memorable quote with headline-making consequences, for the media now had a wonderfully evocative description to encapsulate the malaise that was Dublin football when the knockout action turns deadly serious ...
The startled earwigs are no more. For the past two summers, these worker ants have toiled harder than any other group of players.
Now they've crystallised into a team of All-Ireland champions.
You wonder how it has happened, this stunning transformation, because it's not as if Dublin's Kerry collapse was a shocking once-off.
The year before, Tyrone had hammered them by 12 points at the same last-eight stage.
It's not as if they were a bad team under Paul Caffrey (2008) or Pat Gilroy (2009).
They were merciless in the '08 Leinster decider against Wexford; they were brilliant when it mattered with 14 men against Kildare in the '09 final.
In summary, they were the undisputed kings of Leinster, but possessed of a fatal August kink.
They were far too defensively open, and far too prone to these boom-to-bust fluctuations in form.
It couldn't go on that way.
Pat Gilroy knew it.
His players knew it too.
Cue a drastic transformation in personnel, tactical alignment, and maybe even the team's mindset.
None of the six backs who started against Kerry in '09 started yesterday's All-Ireland final against the same county. The fact that three of them were playing elsewhere on the team -- skipper Bryan Cullen, Barry Cahill and Denis Bastick -- underlines that Gilroy was willing to give players a second chance.
But first they would have to buy into the ethos of his remodelled Dublin. Hard work was the starting point. Then more hard work.
Even the marquee men like Bernard Brogan would have to run their legs to stumps in between scoring points. Turnover was the new buzzword. Training sessions at dawn became de rigeur -- an exercise in steeling Dublin minds as much as strengthening bodies, you suspected.
Allied to this voracious work ethic was a new defensive system which placed a huge emphasis on pushing opponents to the periphery of the scoring zone and closing off the central channel in front of Cluxton's goal. Essentially, it was designed to prevent the type of concerted scoring bursts that had been Dublin's downfall against the likes of Kerry, Tyrone, even Mayo, in the past.
The new system endured a few serious malfunctions along the way -- most notably when leaking five goals to Meath in a Leinster semi-final last year.
But crucially, in the face of massive pressure to abandon his new team and game-plan, Gilroy persevered. His vindication came in the shape of an uplifting 'back door' run to last year's All-Ireland semi-final.
Now his reward has come in the guise of a first All-Ireland senior title for Dublin since Gilroy, the player, was part of the '95 panel that went all the way under Dr Pat O'Neill.
After yesterday's heroic comeback from the brink of defeat by Kerry, players queued up in praise of Gilroy and what he has done.
They included centre-back Ger Brennan, who was suspended for the '09 calamity against Kerry.
Asked what has made the difference, Brennan replied: "A lot of humility among the panel. I think in years past, we had a lot of lads probably in the paper quite a bit, and maybe lost sight of what Dublin are here to do -- which is to win football games. I think that might have impacted on us.
"But I think lads have come back down to earth and concentrated on the basics, working hard in training," he added. "It's all about the team. Personal performances and losing are no use any more."
And the role of his St Vincent's clubmate, Gilroy? "Massive," Brennan confirmed. "He led by example in us coming back down to earth and focusing on the basics ... he's a leader.
"He's a humble guy himself."
His defensive colleague, Cian O'Sullivan, actually made his championship debut against the Kingdom two years ago -- coming off the bench before half-time into a scenario of utter hopelessness.
Two years on, O'Sullivan has put behind him a nightmare run of hamstring trouble to establish himself as a key cog in Dublin's increasingly hard-to-penetrate defence.
Again, you ask about the transformation from 2009 and he replies: "A lot of it has to go to the management. They have been absolutely fantastic. They've instilled a lot of trust and belief in us, and without that we definitely wouldn't be here today.
"Dublin have struggled over the last decade or so to make the break, and I think the management team created a crucial part -- if not the crucial part -- in assisting us in that today. It's been a massive turnaround in terms of intensity and belief. Even the personnel and positions and stuff."
Yesterday evening, Gilroy revealed that Dublin addressed that watershed Kerry defeat when playing a development squad game in Corduff, Monaghan, in November that year. "It was dealt with, there and then," he declared.
Expanding on that same theme of moving on, O'Sullivan explained: "It was a place we said to ourselves we're never going to be again.
"We kind of got carried away with how we were playing in the Leinster campaign (of 2009); we thought we were one of the best teams in the country, and then Kerry put us back in our place.
"It was a humiliating experience, but probably one that we needed, and it just taught us that skill and craft aren't necessarily going to win you an All-Ireland -- it's hard work and intensity and being fit enough.
"That's what you need to do, and we've done that. We've trained extremely hard over the last two years. Lads have sacrificed a lot of their social and professional lives to be a part of this team, and thank God it paid off today," O'Sullivan concluded.