The days the Dubs were fully marooned by Westmeath
Memories of 2004 shock still vivid for dynamic Dub
IT'S always the same with elite athletes: your memory of painful defeat tends to be crystal clear when measured against the fuzzy recollections of a cakewalk victory.
Ask Shane Ryan to reminisce about his days in the Sky Blue jersey playing against the footballers of Westmeath, and it's no surprise that far more of the conversation is spent dissecting 2004 than '06, '08 or '09.
In those last three summers, Dublin won an All-Ireland quarter-final by ten points, a Leinster semi-final by just two points, and then another provincial quarter-final by ... calculators at the ready ... 27 points.
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Longford, you see, aren't the only Dublin-demolished, footballing equivalent of the '27 Club'.
But 2004 was a different story. A two-point Leinster quarter-final that has gone down in maroon folklore and metropolitan infamy. Westmeath 0-14, Dublin 0-12. This was long before the aforementioned trilogy of victories "and yet I probably remember it the best," admits Ryan.
"I would have been confident going in," he expands, "but knowing it wasn't going to be easy because they were getting closer and closer to winning Leinster.
"So we knew it was going to be a tough task and we'd have to play well. And then it came to the game and we didn't."
How was the dressing-room afterwards?
"Disgusted with ourselves" is Ryan's recollection. "Not only that we didn't play well, but I remember that we would have been outfought by Westmeath - they definitely had the edge on us in desire, which would have made it all the more disappointing. I remember being particularly tired in that match. I don't know whether it was the heat of the day or was it that Westmeath were just so fast to the ball - and just fighting so hard for everything.
"We were not just trying to get our own performance here, we were trying to fight against this onslaught that Westmeath were bringing. They made it very hard for us on the day - for myself in particular.
"Because they were never giving up. They fought for everything."
The summer before, Dublin had suffered another shock Leinster exit to Mick O'Dwyer's Laois. Now it was the turn of another Kerry icon, Páidí Ó Sé, to repeat the dose. Afterwards, the mood of a Dublin minority in Croke Park bordered on mutinous.
"I remember certain sections of the crowd were pretty angry," says Ryan, citing in particular the abuse dished out to Tommy Lyons by "so-called supporters going back into the tunnel … like, no one wants to go out and lose so you don't really deserve that. That was a disgrace, just to add insult to injury.
"But, in saying that, compared to the '03 match (against Laois) which I felt we should have won - Westmeath probably would have deserved that victory. They fought harder, and as it turned out they went on to become champions."
What followed in 2006 was far less painful, yet far less memorable too. Westmeath had regrouped impressively through the 'back door' to make it into August but fell totally flat against Paul Caffrey's Dubs, who were now back-to-back Leinster champions with loftier ambitions stretching all the way to September. So they thought.
"We felt we had a really good thing going that year," says the Naomh Mearnóg man, "but it all came apart in the semi-final (against Mayo). We would have been full of confidence going into that (Westmeath game), knowing we could beat anybody on our day."
As it transpired, Dublin eased to a prosaic 1-12 to 0-5 victory even while shooting a glut of wides.
Their next summer date with Westmeath was a more fraught affair. As in '06, the same two managers - Caffrey and Tomás Ó Flatharta - were still in charge but Westmeath had only recently beaten a suspension-ravaged Dublin in the Division Two league final. Their defence had become Scrooge reincarnate that spring.
And when it came to the June crunch, nothing came easy either. Dublin were trailing by the 45th minute but eventually edged through by 0-13 to 1-8.
"I've a couple of memories," says Ryan. "It was no secret what we used to do with kickouts to (Stephen) Cluxton; he's so good at picking people out.
"But Westmeath were the first team I really noticed who stopped that because they put men in front - to counteract the short and quick kickouts to our half-backs and midfielders.
"Obviously it was another tight game … two points. I remember having a collision with Ross McConnell, I had to come off as a blood sub (shortly before half-time).
"I was itching to get back on the pitch, and Pillar Caffrey says to me at half-time: 'Are you ready to come back on?' 'Absolutely'. And as I was talking to him, the thing was bleeding again down my nose!
"One of those games where, again, we weren't having things our own way … Westmeath would never make it easy for anybody."
Except, of course, in 2009. By now Pillar was gone and Ó Flatharta's reign was on its last legs. Ryan, an All Star midfielder just the previous season, had also fallen out of favour with the new Dublin boss, Pat Gilroy.
"I came on towards the end that day. We were well in control," he says, with just a degree of understatement about a match that finished 4-26 to 0-11.
"Confidence would have been good in the camp that year. Probably there might not have been the same push from Westmeath - like say in '04.
"We knew, with the team that we had, all we had to do was worry about our own performance and we could take them."
That's exactly how most observers are viewing this Sunday's Leinster final. Anything else would constitute an even bigger earthquake than 2004.
Disgusted with ourselves. I remember that we would have been outfought by Westmeath.