'Holding on our biggest to Sam test'
In an exclusive interview, All-Ireland winning Dublin manager Pat Gilroy talks to Conor McKeon about his team's ambitions for 2012
IF you presumed the toughest task of Pat Gilroy's managerial reign was rebuilding from the wreckage of 2009 or transforming his 'improvers' of 2010 into All-Ireland champions in 2011, think again.
The biggest challenge, says the Dublin manager, is the one he faces currently in attempting to retain the Sam Maguire, a pursuit more historically fraught with pitfalls than an average Bear Grylls expedition.
"The challenge now is probably greater than in 2009 when it was pretty clear what needed to be done," Gilroy insisted in conversation with the Herald.
"Now, you can't really reach out and touch it as much as you could then.
"It's probably an even greater challenge for us now.
"We need to be better than we were last year, and I think we have gotten a good yardstick already in the league where we need to improve our game."
Gilroy's frankness in assessing the ultimate course of the season leads directly to one harsh conclusion: failure to bring Ireland's most iconic piece of silverware back to the capital in 2012 would constitute just that -- a failure.
"The reality for us is, we're All-Ireland champions so the only thing that can be a standard for us is to repeat that," he reasons.
"That's just a fact of life. We are champions so anything less than that won't be at the same level."
So, almost four months into the new year, and Gilroy is conscious that "it's not exactly firing for us".
However, he qualifies the statement with the explanation that Dublin are, by necessity and design, experimenting with personnel and tactics. The Down defeat last weekend, he says, was hugely beneficial because he "learned a lot about newer guys who are in there and their ability to cope with a really intensive game on a small pitch. There were different things called upon us and I thought we responded well."
Rewind though, to October 2011, and Gilroy's eventual decision to come back to the Dublin post for more.
Rumours darted about the capital as celebrations died down that he had decided his job was done. Sam Maguire was back in the city and he had plenty to be getting on with outside of football.
Subsequent news that he had decided to seek reappointment drew a Dublin-wide sigh, but the reasons for potentially walking away still seemed compelling.
Gilroy maintains now that two factors conspired to allow him to continue.
Firstly, his burgeoning professional commitments which were eventually worked out to facilitate the demands of managing the Dubs and, secondly, his inherent belief that 2011 was far from the perfect season.
"We got the All-Ireland and nobody can take that away from us," he explains, "but it was by the tightest of tight margins and I think that's the big challenge for us, to get to a level this summer where we don't leave the margins as tight as last year.
"You certainly couldn't fault our resolve or our effort or lots of aspects of it, but in terms of the way we played with the ball, none of us would have been that happy with it."
Job one upon returning was to identify the reason why so many good and great All-Ireland champions had failed to repeat the trick 12 months later, and job two was plotting against them.
Has he been able to figure out just why stitching All-Ireland titles together is such a difficult task?
"We think we do but we'll only be able to answer that in October," Gilroy states.
"Only by winning it again can we really and truly say we've dealt with it. But certainly, we are trying to do things a little differently because 2011 is over and done with.
"We can't just rely on fellas who played in the All-Ireland and hope they're going to come out and do it again and that will be good enough.
"We may need new people and we may need different ways of playing.
"We're trying that now but sometimes that can be a hard process.
"That's what we're trying to do -- build more strength in depth that we had for last year.
"I don't feel that there is that element that we are complacent or anything that goes with winning an All-Ireland.
"I see a lot of hunger within the panel.
"But that really can only be definitely answered in October."
So far, it's hard to see any major slippage from Dublin but, similarly, it's quite easy to spot an improvement in both Kerry and Tyrone -- the two teams he namechecks as "firing the best at the moment".
Gilroy is not, however, a disciple to the theory that the players who won last year's All-Ireland are automatic choices when tackling the task comes around again.
"I think there are three distinct phases to the year as you go along," he outlines.
"There is the league, where we're trying to play as much of the panel as you go along -- you have to be practical about that.
"Then you have a second phase which is the pre-championship phase where we might or might not have one or two games, depending on what happens in the league.
"But there is an awful lot that is dictated by what happens in internal matches.
"Really we do go by who is in-form going into the Leinster championship. A lot can change. There will be lads who played no part in the league and hopefully, they'll be flying by that stage and put pressure on others.
Gilroy adds: "People's form now is relevant, but they have got to maintain it through April and May.
"Then in June, it's based on who is in-form at that stage.
"But we won't be picking fellas because they did it in last year's All-Ireland.
"It's all about the here and now."