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comment Why Dessie Farrell understands that many believe the baton he accepted from Jim Gavin must have an unpinned grenade attached

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Dublin manager Dessie Farrell knows he has big boots to fill in the Dublin hot-seat

Dublin manager Dessie Farrell knows he has big boots to fill in the Dublin hot-seat

Dublin manager Dessie Farrell knows he has big boots to fill in the Dublin hot-seat

IT requires uncommon moxie and a trace of madness to accept a commission as Sistine Chapel artist-in-residence before the paint has dried on Michelangelo’s defining work.

Dessie Farrell saw the sweeping outlines and elaborate decorations of Jim Gavin’s immense, eternal, miraculous five-in-a-row fresco and felt a little shudder of terror.

In that very moment, even as the tremor tickled his spine, he was reassured. He’d found what he was looking for.

Farrell, bright, introspective and emotionally intelligent, understands that many believe the baton he accepts from Gavin must have an unpinned grenade attached.

If Dublin win a sixth All-Ireland, the nation will shrug its shoulders; if they lose, well, the blame will attach to the figure who stepped into the airspace of an immortal. Fair? Probably not, but that’s the way the world works.

Dessie knows all of this.

Yet, as with so many high-achievers, those who live to measure themselves against the very best, the scale of the interrogation is the bait. The job is made irresistible by the very degree of difficulty that might scare others away.

The danger is the juice.

If Farrell opened a window to his soul at his January unveiling, the philosophical guiding lights he revealed then continue to blaze ahead of Saturday’s stepping into the unknown of a Covid-mangled, mid-winter dash for Sam.

“I’ve always taken the approach that there’s two ways to live your life, maybe.”

“One, as a timid soul. Sort of year by year, month by month, week by week, possibly even hour by hour as a timid soul. Or the other is to perhaps do the things that frighten you at times.

“This thing stimulates me. It challenges me. I love football, working with footballers. And, ultimately, now is the time that, if I didn’t do it now, it would probably never come around again.”

Farrell walks into City Hall with his eyes wide open.

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Yes, there is an abundance of upside to engaging with titans who belong at the top of any GAA roll-call of greatness.

Stephen Cluxton, Brian Fenton, James McCarthy and Ciaran Kilkenny combine generational talent with the selflessness, self-motivation and competitive integrity of natural-born leaders.

Dean Rock has arrived at another level of poise; Paul Mannion is the nation’s only current three-in-a-row Allstar; Brian Howard has advanced upward along the steep gradient to football’s penthouse like a young man immune to gravity’s pull.

If Gavin described his defining managerial feature as “relentlessness”, the departed Caesar’s insatiable drive and fierce, end-justifies-the-means will are personified by John Small and Johnny Cooper.

Of those staking a claim to join the party, Small’s younger sibling, Paddy, has a left foot he wields with the menace of a lightsaber; Sean Bugler makes his case for a championship role as eloquently as any senior counsel. Robbie McDaid is another who makes easier the vital task of refreshing and replenishing the furniture in the Sky Blue house.

And yet still, Farrell understands the road to Christmas week is paved with landmines.

His late appointment, the abbreviated spring season, Covid’s thieving of the normal preparation manual, all of these things work against a first season manager.

The retirements of Diarmuid Connolly, Bernard Brogan, Eoghan O’Gara thieve the dressing-room of so much aura and big-day know-how, though Farrell swiftly added another retiree, Darren Daly, a hugely influential figure even if it was not as a starting player, to his backroom team.

The step-back/sabbatical, maybe even the final goodbye of Jack McCaffrey, denies Farrell a unique game-breaker, a speedball blur at the very peak of his best-in-the-nation powers.

As Alan Brogan put it on these pages.

“There’s probably no easy way to take over as manager of a five-in-a-row winning team, but, by God, Dessie Farrell has had to do it the hard way.

“The late appointment. The shutdown. The big retirements.

“Some first-year managers might be unlucky enough to have to think their way through one of those scenarios while also figuring out the nuts and bolts of their new job.

“[But] all three?”

Concerns that the defence has not reseeded as rapidly as other areas were brought into sharp focus a fortnight ago as Meath breached the blue fortifications with ease, creating a succession of goal chances.

That the Royals lacked the quality to fire the killshot doesn’t mean the eyes of David Clifford, Sean O’Shea, Paul Geaney, Tony Brosnan and James O’Donoghue will not have lit-up at evidence that Achilles just might have a vulnerable heel.

And, even if Gavin’s Dublin composed some of the most soaring hymns football has known, they are human.

Sustaining the impulse to strain for the heavens when you already inhabit the brightest star in football’s cosmos requires superhuman levels of drive and a willingness to sacrifice that cannot afford even the tiniest percentile fall.

As Farrell, stellar centre-forward in the 1995 All-Ireland winning team that crashed and burned the following year, reflects in an autobiography that remains a brutally honest template for an athlete stripping themselves bare:

“Losing an edge as a player is often impossible to detect until tested on match day.”

Dublin remain favourites and the team to beat, but Kerry’s impressive progress calls to mind the ominous opening lines of Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues.

“I hear a train a-comin’/it’s rollin’ around the bend…”

If they fall behind in an All-Ireland semi-final or final, if and are faced with the kind of existential threat posed by Mayo and Kerry last summer, can players who have won it all summon the will to go to the well one more time?

The team Dessie inherits advanced into another world of wonder last September.

Farrell is a wise and compassionate figure, a leader of the deepest integrity, the very opposite of the narcissistic type who struggle to keep their ego on any kind of leash.

Especially given the time constraints of this crazy year, he is unlikely to tinker wildly with what is not broken.

Those of us who have known Farrell for decades, who are privileged to consider him a friend, who encountered him the day after his minors were ambushed by Tipp in the last act of the 2011 All-Ireland final – a broken, inconsolable figure even as the city celebrated Stephen Cluxton’s gifting of a first senior title in 16 years – can testify to how deeply he cares.

He is bold, enterprising and fiercely competitive, the minor and two U-21 All-Ireland winning teams he coached offering powerful evidence of his ability to coax the best from any group of players he is charged to direct.

Critically, he can ladle from a deep reservoir an essential quality in the pursuit of success: He is unafraid to fail.

As Farrell steps into the artist’s studio, prepares to measure himself against his immortal predecessor, the words of the artist whose godlike Sistine Chapel frescoes earned him his “Il Divino” nickname roll across the centuries.

“Faith in oneself,” said Michelangelo, “is the best and safest course.”



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