Pre-match formalities in Kingspan Breffni. Photo: Adrian Donohoe.

OPINION: Dubs are a team to be proud of

Paul Fitzpatrick

We stood in the tunnel and waited and out he came, the man with the Midas touch. 

Jim Gavin has led Dublin to four All-Irelands in a row and, if he and they can make it five this year, he will be regarded in many quarters as the greatest GAA manager of all time.

And yet, here he was outside the dressing-rooms, happily answering questions from another journalist and I after the match on Sunday. No airs and graces, no awkwardness or - for all Dublin’s professionalism - no lingering PR person or anything of the sort.

It’s one of the most affirming things about the GAA, I find, that the biggest names are generally so grounded. Those who have achieved the most, whose exploits have made them household names and generated thousands of column inches, are generally just ordinary, decent men, happy to give up their time.

In professional soccer, they have a mixed zone, which is like a waiting room between the dressing rooms and the team bus. The players walk through it and the journalists cajole and beg and barter for a moment of the millionaire’s time. Often, they are blanked. In Gaelic games, it’s not like that. The staid press launch formula is not ideal but footballers and hurlers are generally still approachable.

Mingling with the crowd on the pitch afterwards, I had a brief chat with my colleague Kevin Óg Carney. As we were speaking, Michael Daragh Macauley walked past and Kevin asked him could we have a few words.

“No bother,” Macauley - the holder of six All-Ireland senior medals, a Player of the Year award, two All-Stars and whatever you’re having yourself - said immediately.

And he stood and answered the questions a few strangers, from a different county, asked him.

Were Dublin low on motivation coming down the M3 for this game? Nah.

“There are lads dying for positions on the team and it’s that competition which has always driven this team and as soon we lose that, we’re no use to anyone,” said Macauley.

What about some recent suggestions that Dublin are still in pre-season mode and haven’t yet hit their stride?

“I never bought into that. It’s ridiculous, we’re going full tilt. All the Dublin fans can make excuses for us but we just weren’t good enough in this league campaign, that’s the facts of it. We have been going 100 per cent so no excuses.”

Humble and honest, as you would expect from this Dublin group. The greatest team of recent decades stood around for a long time on the pitch after the game, signing autographs and posing for selfies by the swarms of young fans.

And this wasn’t for show, either, it was just common decency and a respect for the people who follow them in rain and shine.

I saw one Dublin fan approach a player, I think it might have been James McCarthy, with a photo of the player and the man’s children, bedecked head to toe in Dublin gear. The fan brandished a marker and asked him to sign the picture, which had been taken after an earlier game.

“What game was that taken after?” the player asked, genuinely interested. “Was it the Tyrone game last year?” The kids were delighted.

Anyway, in the bowels of the stand, we waited for Gavin. As we did, the Dublin players filed past and some fans leaned over the railings to get close to them. I saw two teenage girls excitedly waiting for Bernard Brogan and shrieking with delight when he shook their hands and posed for a photo.

As someone who usually doesn't cover them, two things struck me about the Dubs. One was how relaxed and modest they were, sound as a pound as they wandered off the field, taking their time, happy to shoot the breeze.

And the other was the sheer physique of them. McCarthy is a beast and even Dean Rock, who doesn’t look the most physically imposing footballer, is a big man by any measure.

After our interview with Gavin, I made my way back up to the press box. On the way, I was accosted by a belligerent Dublin follower who had something to get off her chest.

“I hope you’re not gonna write in the paper that Jim Gavin never talks to the media,” this middle-aged lady in full attire growled in my general direction.

“Who, me?” I asked innocently.

“Yeah,” she said, “you!”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” I told her innocently. 

“Good,” she said, satisfied she had done her job.

It was bad manners, I felt, and a bit bizarre but it was only, afterwards, thinking about it, that I kind of got where she was coming from. 

There is a sort of siege mentality among Dublin fans, who feel that their team doesn’t get the credit they deserve.

And, yes, they have advantages - a huge population and most of their championship matches at home - and have been over-funded by the powers-that-be. Those facts are undeniable.

But money cannot buy All-Irelands, nor can it create a culture. It takes skill and hard work and, most of all, a humility to make it big at the elite end of any sport.

It’s easy to see why their fans, as Macauley alluded to, can become defensive. This current Dublin group are a team to be proud of.

Anyone who saw the Dubs and their manager in action at Kingspan Breffni on Sunday, on and off the field, could not but be impressed by the way they carried themselves; champions to their fingertips and the benchmark for the rest of the country.

Will they win that fifth All-Ireland? I am not so sure. They have become a little risk-averse and may just be caught by some hungrier side with nothing to lose and everything to gain.

But I certainly wouldn’t begrudge them another.

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