Tuesday 21 January 2020

Dessie and class of '93

McCaffrey, Fenton, Kilkenny, Mannion and Small have key role in next Dubs era

18 September 2011; Dublin manager Dessie Farrell comforts Cormac Costello after the game. GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final, Kerry v Dublin, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
18 September 2011; Dublin manager Dessie Farrell comforts Cormac Costello after the game. GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final, Kerry v Dublin, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

Jack McCaffrey was due to meet the media at a promotional event in the capital this morning but, for understandable reasons, the interview was postponed on Saturday evening.

The prospect of facing a million and one questions about the departure of Jim Gavin was doubtless the last thing wanted by a Dublin player still digesting the shock news - even such an accomplished interviewee as the Clontarf defender.

However, something he said during a previous interview, on the morning after the 2018 All-Ireland final against Tyrone, comes to mind as Dublin fans ponder what the future holds in that strange and unfamiliar world where Gavin is not their manager.

"There were five lads who started yesterday that were born in '93 and played football together growing up," McCaffrey reminded his audience.


"Myself, Paul Mannion, John Small, Brian Fenton and Ciarán Kilkenny. That's something that I take immense pride in, because we were coached by Dessie Farrell coming up. My father (Noel) was involved as well.

"When you take a little step back, it's kind of great to be able to see his fingerprints on a lot of what has gone on. It's something that is really special for all of us."

Fifteen months on, that generation of players find themselves without a Dublin manager. It may well be the case that the aforementioned Farrell steps into the breach: at this juncture he looks the most logical choice given his underage CV and close links with many of the current senior team.

But whoever is appointed, this much is clear: the Class of '93 are absolutely central to Dublin dreams of replicating the unprecedented success they have enjoyed under Gavin over the past seven seasons.

For all the vexed debate about the capital's bountiful resources - be it playing numbers or funding - their dependence on one singular year for much of their latter-day success is quite remarkable.

These are no ordinary players, even if Small has endured more than his fair share of All-Ireland red card woes and is the only one not to receive All Star recognition.

The other four have amassed 14 All Stars between them: McCaffrey and Fenton with four apiece, Kilkenny and Mannion with three each. McCaffrey has been Young Footballer of the Year (2013) and overall Football of the Year (2015); Fenton won the latter in 2018.

Pat Gilroy gave Kilkenny his first championship start, against Mayo in the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final; McCaffrey got his first SFC taste, albeit more fleeting, in the same summer.

But it was under Gavin that they matured and flourished while Mannion (who debuted in 2013), Fenton and Small (both 2015) have only known one senior supremo.

All that is about to change; what won't alter is the incoming manager's heavy reliance on the same core group of 26-year-olds.

Another of that generation, Robbie McDaid, was recalled to the Dublin panel this year and won his second Celtic Cross, having made his SFC debut in the Super 8s 'dead rubber' against Tyrone.

The great irony, of course, is that this group failed to get over the line at minor level. The 2011 team, skippered by McDaid, lost to Tipperary in the All-Ireland final - a result that was far more of a shock than the Dublin seniors' famine-ending breakthrough against Kerry later that same afternoon.

It would take Farrell another year to bring minor glory back to the city for the first time since 1984, this time making no mistake against Meath in the final.

That 2012 team also included a handful of future seniors, most notably captain David Byrne and Niall Scully (who became established summer starters under Gavin), Cormac Costello (who played more often this year than any previously), Eric Lowndes and Conor McHugh.

Four of those - Lowndes and Costello as starters, Byrne and Scully off the bench - had also seen game-time in the 2011 minor final.

All of the above players would go on to win All-Ireland U21 medals with Farrell as their manager. McCaffrey, Kilkenny and Mannion (off the bench) featured in the 2012 success against Roscommon.

Kilkenny missed the 2014 All-Ireland decider against the same county after tearing his cruciate that spring, but that U21 team of all talents included McDaid, Byrne, Small, McCaffrey, Fenton, Lowndes, Scully, Mannion, Costello and McHugh. Not to mention Conor Mullally and Emmet Ó Conghaile, who were both part of the senior set-up at different stages under Gavin.

All of this goes to emphasise the key developmental role played by Farrell in the evolution of this current Dublin team.

That becomes even more apparent when you add in the next wave of rookie stars who, in 2017, won another U21 title with Farrell as manager: that team included Evan Comerford, Eoin Murchan, Brian Howard and Con O'Callaghan.

Suffice to say, if the bookmakers are on the money about the former Dublin captain and erstwhile CEO of the Gaelic Players Association, he will be coming into a very familiar dressing-room.

There will be no "getting to know you" period. He will be able to hit the ground running.

But whereas Farrell's Class of '94 were the ones to finally get over the minor line, it is the Class of '93 who hold Dublin's future in their hands.

Back in that September 2018 interview, McCaffrey may not specifically have meant his own age group as he waxed lyrical about this Dublin generation - but others will have reached that very conclusion.

"Nobody is labouring under the illusion that this is something to continue indefinitely," he mused. "This is a really special group of people and we're going to make hay while the sun is shining."

With Gavin. And also, they hope, without him.

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