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Dean is forced to wait a little longer for glory

Dubs ace Rock still lying two points off football immortality

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GOOD CAUSE: Dublin footballer Dean Rock at Stewarts Care Campus in Dublin, where staff members will run 150km in a day in a Race against the Sun. Each participant will complete a 5km run six times in a bid to franchise much needed funds for the support of Stewarts Service users. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

GOOD CAUSE: Dublin footballer Dean Rock at Stewarts Care Campus in Dublin, where staff members will run 150km in a day in a Race against the Sun. Each participant will complete a 5km run six times in a bid to franchise much needed funds for the support of Stewarts Service users. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

GOOD CAUSE: Dublin footballer Dean Rock at Stewarts Care Campus in Dublin, where staff members will run 150km in a day in a Race against the Sun. Each participant will complete a 5km run six times in a bid to franchise much needed funds for the support of Stewarts Service users. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

He didn't sound like a man in any rush to get back playing after putting down all those miles last Friday, vowing breathlessly not to don a pair of runners again for at least a month.

But there must be part of Dean Rock that yearns for another game, just a single match even, an opportunity to quietly pick off a modest bunch of points - maybe a couple of tap-over frees - and just be done with it all.

It might only be a question of 'when?', but never before has that question been so tortured by uncertainty.

When Gerry Callan's impeccably researched 'Dubs To The Four: The Complete Record Of Dublin Football - 1887-2018' was published in late '18, Rock was in fifth place in the all-time Dublin football scoring chart.

He had just inched ahead of Kevin Heffernan, no less.

And though he stood among immortals, perched beneath a sort of Dublin scoring Mount Rushmore, the summit was still somewhere in the cloudy yonder.

On March 12th, when the GAA announced a formal cessation of activity, Rock was not only in second position, heir-in-waiting to Keaveney, he required just two further points to equal the 70s legend's tally.

That was three days before a League game in Croke Park against Meath.

Only the apocalypse could prevent him from becoming the most prolific Dublin footballer in history…

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Last year's drawn All-Ireland final might not rank as one of the big picture days in the story of Dublin's five-in-a-row but contained within it were a couple of seminal moments for Rock.

As of his third point that day - a '45 - Dean had scored more for Dublin in League and Championship matches than his famous footballing father, Barney.

Freudian interpretations aside, the significance of that landmark was enormous.

Though Dean had long eclipsed his father's medal-count, silver alone could never define how he measured up against Barney, an iconic, era-defining forward of the late Heffernan/early post-Heffernan years.

Few put their shoulder to the wheel in the name of Dublin football as hard or as often in that comparatively lean decade as Barney.

And even as a teenager, Rock Jr. was fully aware that if and when he played for Dublin, comparisons would be a constant feature.

"I don't want to be known simply as the son of Barney Rock," he said when interviewed, still a Leaving Cert student.

The second personal milestone reached by Rock in the draw came with his fifth point, arguably the most impressive of the ten he scored that day.

It was Rock's career 411th point for Dublin and when added to his then 14-goal haul, it took him into second position on the esteemed list, beyond Bernard Brogan, still a team-mate and a de facto scoring superstar.

A former Footballer of the Year. A four-time All Star. A feature on every subsequent Team of the Decade selection.

Perhaps the most marketable and marketed player in GAA history.

A man, unlike Rock, whose legendary status in the game and in his own county had long since been accepted.

Maybe that was due to Rock having had to wait until he was 24 to make a first Championship start.

Maybe it was the interpretation, at least initially, of Rock as 'just a freetaker'.

Or maybe it was the fact that Pat Gilroy didn't really fancy Rock in his first, albeit brief, incarnation as a Dublin senior.

But it has taken time for full appreciation of Rock's talents to ferment in the mind of Dublin's footballing public.

The stats tell a compelling story.

Over the past eight years, Rock has averaged 5.2 points per match for Dublin compared to Keaveney's 4.8, Barney's 4.5 or Brogan's 3.9.

He sits two points shy of Keaveney's tally, having played ten fewer games. He matched Brogan's score with almost 30 matches to spare.

Unbeaten

On the one hand, it cannot be underestimated how his five-year run as a fixture in Jim Gavin's attack has overlapped an unbeaten period in the championship, a time in which their scoring rose stealthily from 24.6 points per game in 2015 to 27 in 2019.

On the other, Rock's free-taking has contributed a heavy, consistent flow of scores to that rise.

Seán O'Shea's place-kicking performance in last year's drawn final suggests Rock now has competition as the game's best free-taker but there is no contradicting that the Dublin man elevated the craft to another plane in recent seasons.

Despite coming late to last year's championship due to injury, he finished with 29 from 32 placed balls, a conversion rate of just over 90 per cent.

Yet almost criminally under-appreciated among Rock's game is his contribution from play.

Particularly in All-Ireland finals.

In that drawn game last year, his 0-3 from play equalled the combined tallies of Con O'Callaghan and Paul Mannion.

In the 2018 final, he also hit 0-3 from open play. In 2017, on the day he iced the winner despite having a GPS flung at him, it was 0-4.

In all, Rock has played in eight All-Ireland finals: seven starts and one late appearance off the bench in 2013.

He has scored 0-42 - 37 points from placed balls, 15 from play.

Taken as a collective, it's difficult to identify a Dublin player who contributed more to those finals and their results than Rock.

Perhaps then, it was better that it didn't happen in Omagh, on Rock's and Dublin's last collective public appearance.

Anyone in Healy Park that night will testify that the match should have been postponed, such was the unceasing violence of the wind and rain in which it was played. But on it went.

Rock's 0-3 was probably all the conditions allowed, when only marginal improvement on his career per game average would have seen him equal Keaveney's tally.

And given the incident in the tunnel at half-time for which the game will be remembered, maybe it wasn't the right sort of night to achieve such a distinction.

Still, Rock must wonder whether someone of great, unseen influence is a big Jimmy Keaveney fan, perhaps making reparations for the time the Pope forced him to miss the 1979 All-Ireland final.

Apocalyptic conditions one week. A global pandemic the next.

One game away from scoring immortality -with no idea when a game will be played again.

Since he last played one, Rock has turned 30. Neither time nor the snaking queue of talented young Dublin forwards wait for any man.

It took him just one season to travel from fifth on the list of the county's biggest scorers to second, devouring the ground on Dublin's footballing gods.

Feasibly, it could be another year now before he overcomes the smallest of deficits to make the grandest of jumps. Like so many unresolved sporting issues, the wait now will be tedious and frustrating.

But surely, Rock's comfort during this brutally-timed hiatus is knowing that there is no longer a question of 'if', only 'when?'.