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true blue The Pat Gilroy interview: ‘I don’t see Dublin winning eight of the next 10 All-Irelands’

It’s 10 years since Pat Gilroy kick-started the Dublin football revolution but success didn’t come quickly and it took some tough love to get the best out of future superstars like Brogan, Connolly and Macauley

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Pat Gilroy celebrates on the final whistle after managing Dublin to a dramatic victory over Kerry in the 2011 All-Ireland SFC final. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

Pat Gilroy celebrates on the final whistle after managing Dublin to a dramatic victory over Kerry in the 2011 All-Ireland SFC final. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

Pat Gilroy celebrates on the final whistle after managing Dublin to a dramatic victory over Kerry in the 2011 All-Ireland SFC final. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

It's 7am on a weekday morning and Pat Gilroy is in manager mode. He is still busy at work these days but football will always have a place in his diary.

He isn’t bringing a team together under the cover of darkness, or getting a panel of players to crawl around on a beach in the name of team-building, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t serious business for those involved.

Early-morning training sessions in miserable weather were the foundation of Dublin’s championship breakthrough in 2011 and ten years on, that hasn’t changed for Gilroy. Although rather than trying to reclaim Sam Maguire or reinvigorate the Dublin hurlers, he has taken on a much more personal, and streamlined pandemic project: overseeing his son and his cousin as they look to make a mark in the St Vincent’s senior ranks.

There is no All-Ireland at stake, or day in Croke Park to aim for, but Gilroy still demands things are done a certain way. “We have done 110 training sessions since November 1,” he says, “and today is the first one I’ve missed.

“They were doing morning and evening sessions in November to get a base and they have done five a week since. It gives them a bit of order and discipline. I said if I’m doing this, I’m not your dad. I’m going to treat you like a player on a senior team that I’m managing. That has to be the way. So they get their punishment if they don’t do things right.”

If overseeing the development of his immediate family seems too small a task for an All-Ireland-winning manager, then it’s worth remembering that Gilroy’s coaching CV before taking over the Dublin footballers was steering the St Vincent’s U-14 team to promotion into Division Two.

He was a surprise choice in October 2008 to replace ‘Pillar’ Caffrey, who stepped down after Dublin were mauled by a tigerish Tyrone in the quarter-final. Funnily enough, Jim Gavin was in contention for the post before a management committee of Dublin royalty – Kevin Heffernan, Pat O’Neill and Robbie Kelleher – recommended Gilroy for the job.

“My wife had said I needed to do something because I had given up playing and was hanging around the house. Then I came back with the Dublin job and she said, ‘I didn’t mean that!’,” he remembers.

With Dublin now sitting atop a footballing empire that seems almost unassailable, it is easy to look at some of the foundations Gilroy laid during his tenure – an emphasis on the group over the individual, developing DCU into a training hub, harnessing Dublin’s commercial clout through brand partnerships – and say that he had a master plan all along.

Yet there were times during his tenure where Dublin seemed as far away from the summit as the challengers who chase the Boys in Blue today. He may be the man who built the modern Dublin machine, but glory didn’t always feel destined.

“I was the biggest idiot in 2009 when we were beaten by Kerry, so I didn’t go from that to being a genius in two years,” he says. “A lot of the foundations were put into Dublin before that. The whole thing was building from previous set-ups, to the success of the clubs, and it was inevitable that Dublin would make the breakthrough.

“Being the Dublin manager was like being a managing director where you have to pull all the bits together. You don’t have to do them all but you have to have someone looking after each area. Through work, I had the skills to do that.

“Mickey Whelan’s influence as coach was phenomenal. His training was exceptional. The guys had to be in phenomenal shape because we played such a high-intensity game. I would never have taken the job if Mickey wasn’t doing it with me.”

The expectations in 2009 would have been, at worst, to restore some pride after the rain-soaked Tyrone hammering and leave the team positioned for an All-Ireland assault in year two. Instead came the August Bank Holiday Monday massacre, a 17-point quarter-final thrashing from Kerry so iconic in football folklore that two words are all that is required to describe it.

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“At that moment in time, anything could have come out of my mouth because I was a ‘startled earwig’ myself. I couldn’t believe what had happened,” Gilroy says.

“We were favourites going into it. It was a Bank Holiday Monday and we were hanging around all weekend and the pressure got to us. It was a humiliation and I basically hid for two months trying to figure out what the hell went wrong. Physically, we were in great shape, but we were overrun.

“You just want the ground to open up and swallow you. By half-time, the game was gone and our heads were gone, but a huge amount of learning came out of it. We changed a lot in terms of being very precise with our preparation. It was a tough, tough lesson.”

Gilroy and his management team quickly drew up a list of areas where Dublin needed to improve – chiefly, to become more hard-working and difficult to score against. However, before the page could be turned, Gilroy had to take his turn in the stocks as the townsfolk had their say.

“The abuse we took from supporters ... people don’t tend to be too kind when these things happen,” he says. “It never bothered me personally, but for my wife and kids it was awful. It was a free-for-all. People thought they could say what they like and it didn’t matter. My wife and kids, who were less than eight years old, could be standing beside you and someone is saying that you are a b****x who has ruined Dublin football.”

Did Gilroy consider stepping down after such a chastening defeat? He admits it was briefly a possibility – but only if the county board had not backed him with two more years to see through his plan. As well as detailed tactical work with the players, the management travelled to Arsenal to see what best practice looked like in terms of preparation, and Gilroy also looked at where he could improve.

“After 2009, I felt I needed two more years so that we could rebuild,” he says. “I did have a few moments with the county board where they weren’t willing to give me that extra year and I certainly would have walked if I only had one more year because we wouldn’t have changed it.

"If players thought you only had one year, they might have doubted you. I’m not someone who takes setbacks lying down. I like to get up and see what I can do. I learned so much from 2009. It was definitely a good thing to happen ... although it wasn’t great at the time.

“It exposed a few gaps in my armoury as a manager that I didn’t know existed. I knew very little about psychology and how people worked. As a player, nerves weren’t something that happened to me regularly. That winter, I went on a journey to learn as much about it as I could. I looked at getting the right people in to help the team in that area. That was something I hadn’t a clue about because I never had to deal with it myself.”

There were changes in personnel too. Ciarán Whelan retired, although Gilroy had hoped to keep him as a 20-minute impact sub, while Jason Sherlock was deemed unsuited to the team’s physical style. Unearthing new players who were unburdened by the past was important too. Rory O’Carroll, who went on to win two All-Stars at full-back, was introduced along with Michael Darragh Macauley, although his inter-county career was almost derailed before he pulled on a jersey.

“He came to trial game in 2009 – he tells a different version of this story but this is what it was like from my perspective,” Gilroy says. “He was the best player on the field by a mile but I didn’t pick him. The reason I didn’t pick him was because he arrived late, and there was a smell of drink off him. So I went up to him afterwards and said that he was very good, but that he couldn’t come to his first trial game with Dublin smelling of drink.”

“Well, I finished my exams yesterday,” Macauley said.

“Could you not have gone drinking tonight?” Gilroy countered.

“He said fair enough and I said that’s the reason you aren’t in the squad. In fairness to him, that year in the club championship he was outstanding and Ballyboden won it. From that point on he was a key component because his work ethic was phenomenal.”

Macauley emerged as the engine in the Dublin midfield, and only recently retired after winning eight All-Irelands, which isn’t bad for someone who Gilroy says needed to be shown pictures of Seán Cavanagh so he would know who to mark at the throw-in.

Players like Macauley were integral as Gilroy and Whelan tried to instil a more hard-working attitude from defence all the way up to Bernard Brogan who, heading into 2010, was still trying to establish himself as a top-level forward. Gilroy and his coaches made an example of Brogan on a number of occasions to get the message across that nobody was exempt from their defensive duties.

Eventually things clicked and he enjoyed the greatest season of his career in 2010, winning Footballer of the Year, but it wasn’t a straightforward process.

“Bernard had so much talent but he wasn’t getting the best out of himself. We bordered on being cruel to get him to where he eventually got to. You wouldn’t do it to every fella but Bernard could take criticism and it inspired him. At times it was bordering on cruelty what we would say to him, but he didn’t mind it. He wanted it, it fuelled him.”

Despite all the lessons learned from the Kerry capitulation, Dublin arrived at the mid-point of the 2010 championship at a familiar juncture, having been yet again ripped apart; this time losing in Leinster for the first time since 2004 after Meath hit a scarcely believable five goals past Stephen Cluxton. Yet Gilroy maintains the second humiliating championship defeat of his reign proved to be the making of the team.

“We actually played very well against Meath,” he says. “Five errors led to 15 points. We were talking to the referee and they took a quick free. Bang, goal. Someone didn’t chase back. Bang, goal. We played some good football but they were so clinical that any mistake was exposed.

“It was actually a real turning point for the group because when we analysed it, we felt that we had done 80pc of things right but five times we switched off, which was like 50 seconds out of 75 minutes, and we were killed with 15 points. That is how up for it we had to be all the time. We learned a huge amount from that. Now, things weren’t looking good publicly but the squad was very confident that we would get a run through the qualifiers.”

That they did, beating Tipperary, Armagh and Louth before producing a landmark win over Tyrone in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Although they let a winning position slip against Cork in the final four, the team looked primed for an All-Ireland challenge heading into 2011.

One player that Gilroy hoped to have back in the fold that year was Diarmuid Connolly, who had left the panel before the 2010 championship. Gilroy and Connolly have a long-standing relationship, having won an All-Ireland club together with St Vincent’s in 2008. That closeness could make things a bit awkward when it came to man-managing the mercurial marksman.

“It was tricky with Diarmuid,” Gilroy explains. “His father taught me in school. I’ve known him since he was 10 or 11. I probably kept playing football because he became an adult just as I was getting old and I thought, ‘Jaysus, there is a chance of winning a championship here’. Diarmuid is one of the nicest people you could ever meet in your life but there were times where he had a view on how things should be done, and I had a view, and it was different. Sometimes I had to say enough was enough. It was 90pc a pleasure, and 10pc ... it would break your heart to be sending Diarmuid off a panel. It would break your heart but it was the right thing to do so you just did it.

“I don’t think we would have got to the All-Ireland semi-final in 2010 if we had kept him there. He wasn’t buying into what we were doing to the same level. He wasn’t getting to the level of fitness for the game we wanted to play. Mentally, he wasn’t pushing himself. It was a tough call, but I think it was right for him and right for us. He came back ten times a better player and was probably one of the fittest guys on the team. The minute the 2010 championship was over, he said, ‘I want to come back, I f****d up here’.”

Not that he would have, but you could have forgiven Gilroy if he had taken a moment in the closing stages of the All-Ireland final that September to reflect on how things had come together.

A team that had conceded 1-24 to Kerry in 2009 had reduced that by 13 points two years later. Their find in midfield, Macauley (right), was a whirlwind of energy, bursting forward in the final moments to create a vital score for Bernard Brogan – who had absorbed Gilroy’s tough love en route to becoming the game’s deadliest forward.

And when Kerry equalised, the team finally showed the composure that had been lacking in previous big games to work the ball down the field and win the decisive free. When Gilroy reflects on the endgame though, it isn’t Stephen Cluxton’s coolness that he remembers, but the underrated performance of a star player whose contribution summed up the qualities the management had sought to instil.

“Every night Stephen Cluxton would come out and kick 15 balls over the bar from the same spot as that last kick so when we got that free, I knew there wasn’t a chance he would miss it,” Gilroy says.

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Diarmuid Connolly

Diarmuid Connolly

Diarmuid Connolly


“People think of Stephen or Kevin Nolan in that final, but Diarmuid Connolly’s work-rate, which he wouldn’t be renowned for, was phenomenal. He was making tackles, he was taking balls off people in his own half and still getting up the other end. In the closing stages, I think he got three turnovers, made seven tackles and was involved in all the scores. He was everywhere. He wouldn’t be the guy who springs to mind when you think of that final.

“When the whistle blew, I didn’t fully realise it was over for a second. It was just pure relief that we had got there. A lot of teams put in the same work, but not every team gets there.”

It may have seemed a natural end after finally reaching the top of the mountain, but Gilroy came back for one more year – minus Mickey Whelan, who stepped away after his wife became seriously ill. The team never really got going in 2012 until they were ten points down to Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final but despite roaring back, they came up short. Jim McGuinness’ formidable Donegal team – who had narrowly lost to Dublin in that infamous semi-final clash in 2011 – awaited in the final, and Gilroy admits now that he got caught looking ahead.

“We had stuttered through Leinster but we weren’t worried about that. We thought we were really geared up for Mayo but they hit a really purple patch against us. I actually think we trained even harder in 2012 than we did in 2011, and maybe we pushed them a bit too far. They were a bit slow coming out of the blocks in that Mayo game but I think we needed that training because Donegal were so good that year.

“I probably cost us that bloody match by thinking more about Donegal and taking Mayo for granted. I asked the trainers to train them very hard so that we had a base for the final. It was the only time in the four years where I had an eye on the next match. I don’t think it got through to the players but my focus wasn’t 100pc on Mayo.”

The loss to Mayo was Gilroy’s final game as he decided to step away as his work commitments increased, while Jim Gavin, fresh off winning a second U-21 All-Ireland in three years, was primed to move into the senior job alongside his underage stars.

History says it was the right move and Gilroy says he has no regrets about departing when he did – partly because he recognised that Jim Gavin was a unique managerial talent ready to make the step up.

“I just told the players I had done my part and I couldn’t do any more,” Gilroy says. “I thanked them and we went and had a few pints and that was it. We didn’t win in 2012 but even if we had won, I’d had enough. I was starting to do work overseas and the travel became too much to do both.

“I was happy to walk away and I was very sure that they would do well because they were going into great hands. It was very easy to hand it over to someone that is probably better than you. Jim was always going to do great with them. He is phenomenal. His attention to detail and his work ethic ... he was a dynamo as a player and never stopped working and he brought the same to management. He evolved the team every year.”

Gilroy quickly settled into the life of a supporter, enjoying a pre-match pint instead of worrying about tactical match-ups. But Dublin have won seven of the eight All-Ireland titles since he left, which has raised concerns about the competitiveness of the football championship.

When it comes to the possibility of splitting the county in the future, Gilroy says that it should only be considered in a wider conversation about the structure of the inter-county game in the future.

“I don’t see Dublin winning eight of the next ten All-Irelands,” Gilroy says.

“It is never good in any sport for one team to dominate, or two. If you look back at football, they have had dips but Dublin and Kerry have dominated since the seventies.

“If we are thinking of splitting Dublin, we have to look at amalgamating other counties. If you really want to get competitiveness, you would be throwing out all the sacred county boundaries. Do we have that level of flexibility in the GAA? The population has changed so much and we have kept the same structures.”

After stepping down as Dublin football manager, Gilroy’s GAA involvement for the next few years was restricted to some work with the Parnell’s club in London, where he was based with his family for work. Then one day in 2017, in a most unusual epilogue for a Dublin football manager, his name surfaced as an unlikely replacement for Ger Cunningham with the hurlers.

Even when betting was suspended, it seemed an unlikely appointment but lo and behold, come Dublin’s championship opener at Parnell Park, Pat Gilroy stood on the sideline wearing the hurler’s bainisteoir’s bib like a WhatsApp rumour come to life, going up against Brian Cody and Kilkenny.

“Growing up as a kid, I probably preferred hurling to football,” Gilroy says.

“I had watched the Dublin hurling championship the previous year and thought that the standard was very high and that they should be doing better than they were.

“I thought I could give something different to them. Their confidence was shot because they had experienced some very bad defeats. It was very similar to what we walked into in 2009.”

Ultimately, Gilroy’s championship record was one win over Offaly and defeats against Kilkenny, Wexford and Galway, but having led those three games as underdogs in the closing stages and battled throughout, that was progress.

However, before the squad had a chance to build on year one, work commitments once again meant that Gilroy had to step away.

“I was going to be away for months on end,” he says. “They were saying that others could run it while I wasn’t there, but you can’t be the manager and not be there. I was disappointed but it doesn’t pay the wages or put the meals on the table, so work comes first.

“I think we did bring the team on. They started to believe in themselves. Without winning many championship matches, we got them competitive again because they had taken some drubbings over the previous years. I think they will make a breakthrough because they have some very good hurlers.”

With both Dublin teams ticked off the list, where will Pat Gilroy go from here? His name surfaced as a possible replacement for Jim Gavin but he says he never considered returning to the role. Could Gilroy ever envision going into another county to oversee the sort of ground-up rebuilding project he undertook in Dublin? A lot of managers are reluctant to go outside their own county and Gilroy says he is the same. Five seasons as an inter-county manager were enough for him.

“I’d have no ambition to get involved again. Going back into inter-county full on wouldn’t be top of the agenda,” he says.

“Maybe it’s old school but I wouldn’t manage anyone other than St Vincent’s or Dublin. I couldn’t see myself managing anyone else because I couldn’t manage against them.

“I’m not someone who regrets anything, I just move on and do something else. I really enjoyed it but I don’t miss it.”

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