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'The big change for this year is they are so fresh'

Kickhams' Dubs stars are well rested for final battle

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Ballymun Kickhams will look to James McCarthy for drive and leadership in tomorrow’s Dublin SFC1 final against Ballyboden St Enda’s

Ballymun Kickhams will look to James McCarthy for drive and leadership in tomorrow’s Dublin SFC1 final against Ballyboden St Enda’s

SPORTSFILE

Ballymun Kickhams will look to James McCarthy for drive and leadership in tomorrow’s Dublin SFC1 final against Ballyboden St Enda’s

It was 2012, a time when Dublin were still in the foothills of greatness, before James McCarthy et al had carved their faces into the GAA's Mount Rushmore. For the first time in 27 years, Ballymun Kickhams were crowned kings of Dublin.

By Christmas, they were toasting a first Leinster title - and by St Patrick's Day, with just 10 minutes played, they had one hand on the Andy Merrigan Cup.

From eight up, they would lose that roller coaster All-Ireland decider to St Brigid's of Roscommon, the fatal blow delivered by Frankie Dolan at the death.

Still, given their age profile and the rich seam of talent in their ranks, they looked well positioned to be a major player in the capital for the remainder of the decade.

Eight years on, the wait continues. Tomorrow, at an eerily deserted Parnell Park, Ballymun will seek to topple the champions from Ballyboden St Enda's… and perhaps bury some of their own demons in the process.

Most observers have long questioned why this northside reservoir of Rolls Royce footballers has failed to back up that lonesome success of 2012. Various factors - an All-Ireland hangover, the double whammy deflation of losing a county final replay to St Vincent's in 2013, poor discipline, poorer form - can be cited.

However, one explanation rings loudest. Long before Boris Johnson had coined it, Ballymun knew all about the Rule of Six. It decreed that when Dublin returned from another long and invariably successful All-Ireland campaign, the double-edged sword of having too many county stars - six by the latest count - would debilitate the club more than any of their rivals.

Veteran

Last year Jim Gavin masterminded the five-in-a-row with a replay side featuring John Small, McCarthy and Dean Rock, while introducing Philly McMahon off a bench that also included Evan Comerford and Paddy Small.

McCarthy is the only outfield Dub to start all nine All-Ireland finals - seven victories and two draws - in the last decade. McMahon, another veteran with seven Celtic Crosses, was a defensive mainstay for many of those years.

Rock, a six-time All-Ireland winner, is on the cusp of becoming Dublin's record scorer. The elder Small may not have finished every final - for reasons of red mist - but, from 2016 on Gavin always trusted this flintiest of half-backs to start them.

"If Dublin weren't doing so well, I think Ballymun would have another championship or two added to 2012," says Paul Curran, their manager that year.

"The fact that Dublin have done so well, they're coming back absolutely flogged - tired mentally, heads in a different space. But it's all changed this year…"

All changed because of the flipped season. For the first time, this generation of players don't have the alibi of mental and physical exhaustions. Now their club manager doesn't have the excuse of too little time to reintegrate his Dubs.

Since clubs emerged from lockdown to resume training in late June, Brendan Hackett has enjoyed unfettered access to his squad. Curran, whose four-year reign ended in 2014, views the benefits as twofold.

"You can pick your best team, you can work on stuff with your best players, week-in, week-out. But also you're not dropping five or six players who have played all during the summer and all the league matches, and then are dumped aside when the six boys come back," the former Footballer of the Year explains.

"It can't help. And this thing has been going on now for a few years with Ballymun. The same fellas are probably the ones that are asked to sit on the bench when the boys come back. I don't think it helps morale, and I don't think it's a surprise they haven't won a title, with so many involved and Dublin doing so well."

And the 2020 flip side?

"I don't think it's any surprise Ballymun have made their way to the final ... and I wouldn't be surprised either if they won it, because of that fact."

In truth, Ballymun were never likely to be imperilled in a round-robin group that contained Skerries Harps, Round Towers Lusk and last year's surprise finalists Thomas Davis. As it happened, they won all three in a canter, amassing 9-59 along the way.

The first litmus test came against Na Fianna. A year previously their northside neighbours - managed then by Dessie Farrell - had ambushed Ballymun in a win-or-bust round-robin finale, coming just 13 days after the All-Ireland replay against Kerry.

Na Fianna prevailed by 0-13 to 0-8.

"It was a shock to everybody," former Dublin player Anto McCaul told the Herald ahead of this year's rematch.

But McCaul, who managed the club in 2015, clarified: "It wasn't a shock to me, because I knew well with the guys coming back from Dublin that we'd be in trouble."

11 months later Ballymun appeared in just as much trouble at the interval, trailing 1-10 to 0-8.

With a quarter-final gun to their heads, with excuses running thin, Ballymun reeled off the next six points inside 11 minutes. It was no coincidence that McCarthy kick-started that run; or that John Small and Rock would play key roles in the comeback.

They won by two and afterwards their manager reflected on the key difference between 2019 and 2020.

"Ten days after the biggest event in GAA history, the five-in-a-row, you're asking six players to come in and try and give their best. It's impossible - I don't care who you are," said Hackett.

"This year the difference is they're there all the time. They're fresh, part of the team, driving the standards."

So it proved a fortnight later against Kilmacud: another white-knuckle ride but when it mattered, the leaders delivered in a 1-18 to 2-12 thriller.

This is Hackett's third season - last year's disappointment was eased by a league title silver lining. Early in his tenure he was advised that "the players you see in June will not be the same players in September and October". In time, the veteran manager would realise that.

Marquee

Hackett succeeded Paddy Carr, an All-Ireland winner with Kilmacud, who led Ballymun to a 2017 county decider against St Vincent's: they lost a forgettable final by 1-8 to 0-8.

Carr touches on Ballymun's legacy of bequeathing marquee footballers to Dublin. "From the Kevin Heffernan era on, there always has been a cluster of Ballymun players on those successful teams," he says. "And yet there always has been that little regret in the club that it probably hampered Ballymun."

The first storied Ballymun team was also backboned by a clutch of county men - Gerry Hargan, Barney Rock, sub John Kearns and panellist Anto McCaul all won All-Ireland medals for Dublin in 1983, a year after helping the club to their maiden Dublin SFC title. Dublin league titles (1983 and '84) and a second senior championship (1985) would follow.

But those were different times; end-of-season fatigue was scarcely an issue given that the 1982 county final was played on July 11, and the 1985 decider on May 5.

By 2014, Curran's swansong season, the Dublin treadmill was "becoming an issue" as Ballymun made a tame last-eight exit to Plunkett's.

"These fellas were on the go, picking up leagues and Leinsters and All-Irelands," he says. "It's just very hard to get their heads back where they should be, with so little time… you just don't have that luxury."

For once, thanks to Covid, time is no issue. That luxury, of itself, won't beat 'Boden - but it's a start.