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DUBLIN V CAVAN 'Dual' star Gareth Smith... the former Dublin under-21 All-Ireland winner who played senior football for Cavan

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 Gareth Smith, in action for his club St Oliver Plunkett/Eoghan Ruadh, has played senior football for Dublin and Cavan

Gareth Smith, in action for his club St Oliver Plunkett/Eoghan Ruadh, has played senior football for Dublin and Cavan

Gareth Smith (left) playing for Cavan against Barry Mulrone of Fermanagh in the Ulster quarter-final of 2010

Gareth Smith (left) playing for Cavan against Barry Mulrone of Fermanagh in the Ulster quarter-final of 2010

Gareth Smith (back row, far left) lining out for the Dubs for an O'Byrne Cup game in 2009, the team also included further multiple All-Ireland winners Philly McMahon (back row, fifth from left) and Darren Daly (front row, fourth from left)

Gareth Smith (back row, far left) lining out for the Dubs for an O'Byrne Cup game in 2009, the team also included further multiple All-Ireland winners Philly McMahon (back row, fifth from left) and Darren Daly (front row, fourth from left)

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Gareth Smith, in action for his club St Oliver Plunkett/Eoghan Ruadh, has played senior football for Dublin and Cavan

GARETH SMITH won’t get to Croke Park on Saturday, there to witness his all-conquering home county extend their All-Ireland odyssey against the county that gave him his senior chance.

The absence of fans is something to which we have all grown accustomed by now, strangely disconcerting as it may seem. Smith is even more reconciled to the fact that he never got to fulfil his Dublin dream and become a senior championship panellist; that ship has long since sailed for the 38-year-old.

But, right up to the end of the noughties, he still hoped and believed that it might happen. The 2003 All-Ireland U-21 medallist had started for Dublin against Offaly in their opening O’Byrne Cup fixture of 2009, Pat Gilroy’s maiden campaign.

As the team photo confirms, Gilroy’s line-up that day also included Philly McMahon and Darren Daly, players who would go on to become multiple Celtic Cross winners.

Instead, 12 months later Smith was lining out for Cavan in the McKenna Cup, the St Oliver Plunkett/Eoghan Ruadh clubman scoring 0-7 on his debut even as they lost to Donegal.

And just a couple of seasons later, his Cavan odyssey was also over.

Looking back, the man known to everyone around the Navan Road in Dublin northside as ‘Nesty’ has no regrets about his Breffni adventure, even if results confirm it was a bleak enough time and newspaper reports remind you that there was no shortage of managerial upheaval too.

By the strangest of quirks, his two Cavan managers were both from Dublin: Tom Carr in 2010 and Val Andrews, as joint-boss with Terry Hyland, the following year. But this was anything but a ‘Seanie Johnston in reverse’ scenario: Smith’s mother Marion and his late father Norbert were both Cavan natives, from Virginia and Mountnugent.

And because a relaxation of the parentage rule meant he didn’t have to transfer clubs, this made it easier.

“Pat Gilroy did a series of trials,” he recalls. “Come the end, I was left out of the (training) panel . . . I felt that I was good enough to be on that squad. He gave me a courtesy call, to give me a bit of feedback. I thought it was more of an excuse to me more than anything else.

“The call came from Tommy Carr then, as all this was happening. I was thinking, ‘OK, I’m playing the best football of my life, he’s not bringing me into the panel – it’s time to get off the fence here.’

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Gareth Smith (left) playing for Cavan against Barry Mulrone of Fermanagh in the Ulster quarter-final of 2010

Gareth Smith (left) playing for Cavan against Barry Mulrone of Fermanagh in the Ulster quarter-final of 2010

Gareth Smith (left) playing for Cavan against Barry Mulrone of Fermanagh in the Ulster quarter-final of 2010

“I had a strong connection with Cavan; my parents were living down here at the time. So, I got Alan (Brogan) just to give Pat a call really, to see was there a chance? The feedback I got was more or less no, there wasn’t.”

In that scenario, “it was a no-brainer for me really”. Yet in the same breath he admits: “It wasn’t a straightforward answer. Deep down I wanted to stay and fight for my position on the (Dublin) panel, but when word came back that wasn’t going to happen, that sort of made my mind up.”

In 2010, Smith started all three of Cavan’s SFC fixtures from centre-forward – but Carr’s reign ended after a crushing qualifier defeat to eventual All-Ireland champions Cork. He was first sub in for their two summer outings of 2011 but Andrews didn’t call him back in 2012 and, by that April the manager was gone too.

Any regrets over his Cavan switch?

“I wanted to see where I stood at that level,” Smith explains. “I felt I was comfortable at that level. I took the opportunity and I don’t regret it, I really don’t.”

Strong friendships forged with the likes of Cian Mackey and Thomas ‘Mossy’ Corr persist to this day. As for the inter-county step-up, Smith makes the intriguing observation that “I just didn’t feel the same levels” were in the Cavan squad compared to a Plunkett’s camp then pushing tantalisingly close to a breakthrough Dublin title.

A decade on, Cavan have created history against the odds with a spectacular Ulster triumph that paves the way for the most daunting date in football: a semi-final with the Dubs in Croke Park this Saturday.

“I’d love to see them challenging them in some way, shape or form,” he says, with no need to clarify that ‘them’ applies to Cavan. “But I’m looking at the match-ups there and I just can’t see how it’s happening.”

Mind you, he thought the same before Cavan faced Donegal and was “pleasantly surprised” to be wrong. “I hope they’re not happy with that. I hope they’ll go out and, as they’ve said, they’re going to give Dublin a cut. I really hope they do.”

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Gareth Smith (back row, far left) lining out for the Dubs for an O'Byrne Cup game in 2009, the team also included further multiple All-Ireland winners Philly McMahon (back row, fifth from left) and Darren Daly (front row, fourth from left)

Gareth Smith (back row, far left) lining out for the Dubs for an O'Byrne Cup game in 2009, the team also included further multiple All-Ireland winners Philly McMahon (back row, fifth from left) and Darren Daly (front row, fourth from left)

Gareth Smith (back row, far left) lining out for the Dubs for an O'Byrne Cup game in 2009, the team also included further multiple All-Ireland winners Philly McMahon (back row, fifth from left) and Darren Daly (front row, fourth from left)

At different stages before his Cavan move, Smith had been on the Dublin senior fringes under Tommy Lyons and Paul Caffrey; a broken collarbone had scuppered his chances of making a senior championship squad under the former. And prior to that, with the Dublin U-21s, Lyons had brought Jim Gavin and Declan Darcy on board in a coaching capacity.

Smith isn’t overly surprised by what Dublin’s seniors went on to achieve under Gavin and his coaching sidekick Darcy. “You won’t meet lads more passionate in football,” he points out.

But Dublin’s current success has as much to do with “the whole attitude within the camp”. Harking back to that infamous Dublin squad manual whose existence percolated into the public domain in 2008, Smith recalls: “Back then, if there was something happening in the Dublin camp, it would probably get out in a leak or you’d hear a story somewhere. Even though we had these little ‘Blue Books’ – I was part of that thing.

“But the whole thing is so tight now. Even if you’re talking to clubmates, you still won’t hear a little rumour.

“With the transition under Dessie (Farrell), I just thought there might be a little blip there – but they get better and better.

“Again, they haven’t been tested; but when you sit down and watch The Sunday Game analysis, and you see stuff that you mightn’t have seen just watching on TV yourself . . . they just are an absolute machine.”

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