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Gilroy's timely warning

'And when we have the All-Ireland some day, that's when we'll stop hearing that'

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AERIAL BATTLE: Diarmuid Connolly (centre) and Michael Darragh Macauley (right) of Dublin, in action against Cork’s Alan O’Connor during the Allianz Football League Division 1 Final at Croke Park in April 2011. Pic: Sportsfile

AERIAL BATTLE: Diarmuid Connolly (centre) and Michael Darragh Macauley (right) of Dublin, in action against Cork’s Alan O’Connor during the Allianz Football League Division 1 Final at Croke Park in April 2011. Pic: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

AERIAL BATTLE: Diarmuid Connolly (centre) and Michael Darragh Macauley (right) of Dublin, in action against Cork’s Alan O’Connor during the Allianz Football League Division 1 Final at Croke Park in April 2011. Pic: Sportsfile

When Pat Gilroy spoke in defence of his embattled Dubs, in the red-raw aftermath of the 2011 Allianz Football League final, his audience in the Croke Park media auditorium took a deep, collective breath.

This was newspaper gold - unvarnished, impassioned, post-match vernacular you only get once or twice a season.

Not that we necessarily believed that his defiant All-Ireland prediction would come so gloriously, and rapidly, true.

Dublin, after all, hadn't lifted Sam Maguire for almost 16 years. This latest Croke Park calamity, while different to the championship horror shows of Tyrone '08, Kerry '09 and Meath 2010, merely copper-fastened the county's reputation for flakiness. They had led Cork by eight points … and lost. Again.

This was the backdrop to a question (which, given the circumstances, wasn't particularly loaded) asking if there was a mental block that Dublin needed to get over.

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FACE TO FACE: Dublin manager Pat Gilroy (left) and Cork manager Conor Counihan in conversation after the 2011 Allianz Football League Division 1 Final. Pic: Sportsfile

FACE TO FACE: Dublin manager Pat Gilroy (left) and Cork manager Conor Counihan in conversation after the 2011 Allianz Football League Division 1 Final. Pic: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

FACE TO FACE: Dublin manager Pat Gilroy (left) and Cork manager Conor Counihan in conversation after the 2011 Allianz Football League Division 1 Final. Pic: Sportsfile

"Do you think I'm going to say yes to that now, in fairness?" Gilroy retorted. "If I really believed that, I should walk out the door here and never be in front of that team again.

"This team have character and guts to put up with the kind of stuff that surrounds them every day, and they get back out there and they train and they work. And I tell you, they're the most honest guys and they'll get stick for this - we had an eight-point lead and we lost.

"People will say what you just said, and we'll deal with that. And we have to deal with it because that's our job, because we are the Dublin team and we have to listen to that. And when we have the All-Ireland - someday - that's when we'll stop hearing that.

"That's the challenge because that's what everyone is going to think. But I know what's in that dressing-room and they have serious character.

Anyone who would question it … well, might get a surprise … someday. In fairness, that question is well asked and it's going to be asked every day for the next two months, but it's up to us to answer it during the summer."

Answer it they did. And how.

* * * * * * * * * *

The above speech by Gilroy - and speech it was, far more than post-match soundbite - might have appeared all rather trite and meaningless, in retrospect, if his team had carried on in the same infuriating manner that had been Dublin's noughties trademark.

A team that tantalised, teased and ultimately tormented.

But they changed, fundamentally; and when you read back those words of the manager in the context of what happened next, they take on a more profound, almost prophetic, meaning.

In truth, Dublin were already well advanced on the journey that would lead Bryan Cullen up the steps of the Hogan Stand five months later. Gilroy had set about changing the culture of their dressing-room, as much as he had sought to tinker with personnel and alter on-field strategies.

Illusion

Year Zero had come 20 months earlier, in Gilroy's maiden campaign, when Dublin entered the last-eight arena as favourites to slay Kerry … and the illusion lasted all of 38 seconds before reality intruded in the guise of a goal from 'the Gooch'.

They lost by 17 points that day. Seventeen points. The following June, Gilroy's painstaking overhaul suffered early trauma when Meath plundered five goals past his all-new full-back line.

And despite the impressive 'back door' recovery that followed, the summer of 2010 had still ended in that familiar, aching sensation of defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.

They led Cork by five points after 50 minutes of their semi-final but couldn't close the deal. And then Cork won the All-Ireland. Ouch.

This provides the context for that 2011 league final. Conor Counihan's men were not just Sam Maguire holders but defending top-flight champions. They were the benchmark for Gilroy, to see how far Dublin had progressed over that spring campaign.

And in the fifth minute of the second half, when Diarmuid Connolly pointed, they were eight up and bouncing.

Bolstered by the early confidence-booster of a Tomás Quinn goal, they had led by 1-10 to 0-10 at the break. On the restart they tagged on an unanswered 1-2, the goal coming from Bernard Brogan.

And then, for no readily predictable reason, they unravelled.

Over the last half-hour, with Pearse O'Neill providing endless energy from midfield and Paddy Kelly probing to brilliant effect on the '40', Cork overpowered them by 11 points to two.

Dublin didn't score from the 56th minute; thereafter the Rebels rattled off six on the spin, culminating in a 67th minute winner from the barnstorming Ciarán Sheehan. Meanwhile, Dublin tallied half of their ten wides in this period, including a wild Dean Kelly miscue and a fluffed Quinn free, with the sides level, from barely 25 metres.

A glib assessment of that 'collapse' would depict this as further evidence of psychological frailty. But, in fairness, Dublin were no longer the same side that had crashed to Tyrone or Kerry or Meath.

Consider their 15-month form graph: from the start of the 2010 league they had played 22 competitive NFL and SFC fixtures. They had lost just five, winning 16 times and drawing once.

In the dog-eat-dog world of Division 1, especially on previously forbidding road trips, Dublin were becoming a harder nut to crack. But back then, curiously given all that has happened since, they couldn't always be trusted in Croke Park.

Was confidence an issue? Quite possibly; an element of self-doubt will always be there until you win the big one.

But you shouldn't ignore that Gilroy's bench for that league decider wasn't the strongest. He had started 11 of the team that would line out in the 2011 All-Ireland final, as well as Philly McMahon and September super-sub hero Kevin McManamon (who was faultless in defeat here, scoring 0-5 from play).

But Bernard Brogan's enforced departure on 50 minutes was a hammer blow, literally and metaphorically, to a forward line already minus the elder Brogan, Alan.

Shooting jitters at one end, an increasingly porous defence at the other, and Rebel belief growing by the minute all conspired to produce the perfect storm.

* * * * * * * * * *

The post-mortems were predictable and painful. You've got to remember that Dublin circa April 2011 were a far less fearsome entity than today's ice-cool-under-pressure model. Little wonder that a queue of pundits were sharpening their scalpels.

"Any thoughts of this being a great Dublin side because of that barrage of scores (after half-time) soon dissolved into emptiness as amazingly Dublin only managed to score two points, one a free, in the final 32 minutes of this game. As collapses go, this was monumental," wrote the late Eugene McGee in the Irish Independent.

Yet to pigeon-hole Dublin's dilemma in terms of mental weakness was neither fair nor the full picture. That last half-hour exposed other fault lines that could still be fixed.

Former Dublin defender Coman Goggins, writing in the next day's Herald, advocated a "stern examination of their system, as despite having numbers behind the ball they still coughed up 0-21, of which 18 came from play. It appears quite clear that numbers behind the ball isn't sufficient if players aren't prepared to tag a man and take ownership for the influence he may be having on the game."

Dublin's zonal marking system still had plenty of glitches. During their predominantly upbeat eight-game league run, they had only leaked six goals (half of those in a surreal Mayo shootout) but their concession of 113 points raised eyebrows.

By summer's end, the defence would have a much sturdier look with starting berths for Cian O'Sullivan, Rory O'Carroll and James McCarthy.

That league final implosion was all part of the learning curve - for players and management alike. Noting that Dublin didn't finish with a very strong team compared to Cork, Gilroy admitted: "We learned a lot about our resources. There were guys that played and guys that came on that were maybe a little bit shy of this level."

In the same press conference, he lamented how Dublin "seem to like to learn lessons" and he would be "glad if this is the last one."

The era of Dublin dispensing lessons was about to begin.

SCORERS - Cork: D Goulding (2f), C Sheehan 0-4 each, P O'Neill, P Kelly, D O'Connor (1f) 0-3 each, J O'Sullivan, F Goold, N O'Leary, F Lynch 0-1 each. Dublin: B Brogan 1-3 (0-1f), K McManamon 0-5, T Quinn 1-2, D Connolly 0-2, B Cahill, K Nolan 0-1 each.

CORK: K O'Halloran; J O'Sullivan, R Carey, M Shields; N O'Leary, J Miskella, P Kissane; A O'Connor, P O'Neill; C Sheehan, P Kelly, F Goold; D Goulding, D O'Connor, P Kerrigan. Subs: F Lynch for Goold (inj 26), D O'Sullivan for Miskella (inj 28), D Goold for Kerrigan (35+2), N Murphy for A O'Connor (65).

DUBLIN: S Cluxton; M Fitzsimons, B Brogan, P McMahon; B Cahill, G Brennan, K Nolan; D Bastick, MD Macauley; B Cullen, K McManamon, P Flynn; B Brogan, D Connolly, T Quinn. Subs: D Daly for Cullen (inj 47), P Burke for B Brogan (inj 50), D Kelly for Connolly (54), P Andrews for Daly (62), D Lally for Cahill (72).

REF: J McQuillan (Cavan).

ATT: 36,438