Championship Review:

Three weeks ago the curtain came down on the 2016 All Ireland SFC for Dublin and its supporters with the ultimate prize in the game secured in the capital for another twelve months at least.

The rollercoaster ride for the Dublin supporters had been worth all the frayed nerves, bitten fingernails and irregular heartbeats, as Captain Stephen Cluxton raised the Sam Maguire Cup high into the Dublin skyline to the cheers of the sky blue faithful on Hill 16 and all around the famous stadium.

The magical journey began way back on the 4th of June with the novelty of a summer away day fixture for the first time in a decade against Laois, a game that was played not in the O’Moore county, but in the home of Kilkenny hurling, Nowlan Park.

Leinster Championship fixtures away from the capital use to be a welcome part of each season for Dublin supporters, but the financial pull of staging all of the Dubs Leinster championship games in Croke Park for the previous ten years, was too good of a financial windfall opportunity for the Leinster Council to give up. So Dublin supporters had to make do with trips to exotic places like Killarney, Mullingar, Salthill, Omagh and Carrick-On-Shannon in the depths of winter and early spring.

So without the need for thermal underwear and socks, the blue army headed to the Marble City in their thousands and without the need for the county board to sponsor a glut of Sat Navs.

The noise and colour around and inside Nowlan Park was incredible on the day as the Dublin supporters made the most of the occasion and partied like it was 1999. The game exploded into life with two quick fire goals from Dean Rock and Diarmuid Connolly which only heightened the carnival atmosphere inside the ground.

Jim Gavin’s men were scintillating in the first half and led by eleven points at the break and were also up a man as Laois had O’Loughlin sent off. The party feeling was subdued for a spell in the second half when Laois threatened a mini revival. But Dublin got back on top hitting six points on the spin to the roars of “Come On You Boys In Blue”.

An eleven point victory achieved, job done, an away day championship fixture enjoyed by many and now it was back to the familiar confines of Croke Park for the rest of the summer.

Next up was a Leinster semi-final clash with the old enemy and near neighbours Meath in Headquarters on the 26th of June. A clash with the men from the Royal County use to be relished by the Dublin support, as form and all logic went out the window in these full blooded clashes.

But those nerve changeling days are long gone and the paltry challenge from Meath in recent years has dulled the senses of both the sky blue supporters and those from the Royal County, for a fixture that in the past would have filled Croke Park to the brim, falls way short of that these days.

But Meath travelled talking the talk now it was up to them to walk the walk. They certainly threatened that early on racing into an 0-03 to 0-01 lead. Dublin responded and midway through the first half the teams were level. Jim Gavin’s troops then pushed on and led 0-11 to 0-08 at the break.

The Meath challenge all but faded out in the second half and Dublin eased their way to victory outscoring their opponents by ten points to three to run out comfortable winners by 0-21 to 0-11 and with it a place in the Leinster Final against Westmeath on July 17th.

Dublin were chasing a sixth Leinster title in a row a feat not achieved by a team from the capital since 1979. Westmeath were the opponents as they had been the previous year, twelve months previously they had set up there own version of Hadrian’s Wall in an effort to keep the losing margin down.

Leading into the game the noises coming out of Westmeath was they were going to have a cut at the Dubs and actually try and win the final. Dublin supporters flocked down Jones Road and the surrounding streets in good voice and anticipation of a good game and challenge from the midlanders, they got nothing of the sort.

Westmeath again set up a defensive fortress and kept the game tight for the opening half and at the break Dublin led by a point 0-07 to 0-06, so much for having a cut, the Westmeath challenge was as blunt as the back of a knife.

Dublin duly swatted away the meagre resistance from the Lake County and hit 2-12 in the second half with Westmeath only managing 0-04. Dublin opened up the second half with three points in a row, Westmeath replied with a point of their own. Then came a blue whirlwind of scores as the capitals finest hit seven points on the bounce and it was game over heading down the home straight.

But the sky blues were not about to ease up their gallop and Bernard Brogan and Kevin McManamon hit the final nails in the Westmeath coffin with two sumptuous goals as Dublin ran out very comfortable winners by 2-19 to 0-10 and a sixth Delaney Cup was safely tucked away.

It was yet another leisurely trip for the Dublin supporters through the Leinster campaign, there were hardly any nervous moments along the way, they got a memorable trip away in the summer sunshine to talk about in the years to come and the fingernails were still intact and there had been no need to monitor the blood pressure just yet, but that was about to change heading into the business end of the season.

The first real test for Dublin arrived on the 6th of August in the shape of Donegal. The calm,assured and confident persona of the Dublin supporters was replaced with an excited, nervous apprehension as memories of 2014 came flooding back. Just as it was back then, Dublin headed into this seasons All Ireland quarter final as red hot favourites and the men from Donegal were again waiting in the long grass to pounce on any frailties in the Dublin set-up.

It was a game that had everything in it from black and red cards, to two glorious goals and some spectacular points. It was the first real test of not only the championship credentials of the Dublin team but a test of the nerves of the Sky Blues supporters.

Dublin started the game well and scores from Dean Rock, Paddy Andrews and Diarmuid Connolly eased them into an 0-09 to 0-04 half-time lead and at that stage there looked to be only one winner.

But that all changed in the 43rd minute when Donegal opened up the Dublin defence in similar fashion to the way they had done two years previously and Ryan McHugh scored the first goal of the game. It got worse for the Dubs minutes later when Diarmuid Connolly was shown the line for a second booking and Dublin were down to 14 players.

Michael Murphy hit a free to reduce the gap to just three points and suddenly for the first time in the championship the Dubs supporters were feeling very nervous and flashbacks of 2014 came flooding back.

But Jim Gavin’s men kept their composure and patiently retained possession until they created openings in the packed Donegal defence and points from Kevin McManamon and Jonny Cooper gave them a little breathing space.

With the game heading into injury time the drama was not quite yet over, Eoghan O’Gara on as a late substitute was shown a red card and Dublin were down to 13. The blue clad supporters on Hill 16 and around the stadium expected an onslaught on the Dublin goal from the men from the northwest.

But as Donegal attacked with a bit more gusto than they had in the previous 70+ minutes the Dublin defence stood firm, turned the ball over and broke forward, the ball was fed to another substitute Paul Mannion who slalomed his way past three Donegal defenders for a brilliant solo goal and despite a black card for Brian Fenton in the dying seconds, Dublin held on for victory on a score line of 1-15 to 1-10. Next up was a meeting with Kerry.

The 28th of August 2016 will go down as one of the all time classic encounters between Dublin and Kerry, both sides went at each other with all they had and the result was in the balance right up to the final whistle.

Leading up to the All Ireland semi-final and of the morning of the game there was a quiet confidence among the followers in blue. The belief was Dublin had been given a proper test heading into the game by Donegal, it would bring Jim Gavin’s men further on to top match sharpness and that they would have too much for an ageing Kerry side. But you write The Kingdom off at your peril.

In front of a packed Croke Park Dublin started the game brightly and controlled the opening twenty five minutes of the game and when Connolly slotted over a point in the 24th minute the Dubs led by five with the score 0-09 to 0-05, All going to plan so far and that earlier quite confidence seemed to be bang on the money.

But Kerry hit back with three points on the spin, then all hell broke loose, Kerry pushed up on Stephen Cluxton’s kick out and the Parnell’s clubman gifted a short one to Paul Geaney, a couple of quick hand passes later and Darren O’Sullivan bundled the ball to the back of the net and the sides were all square.

Cluxton then went into a mini meltdown, his next kick out went over the sideline, Kerry’s tails were up and they hit a point to go one up, they won the next kick out and pushed two ahead. Panic had now set in not only throughout the team but also among the Dublin supporters. A Jonny Cooper point eased the tension a little but moments later there was more havoc to come.

Anthony Maher hit a bomb towards Paul Geaney who rose to beat Cluxton and David Byrne to the ball and punched it towards the goal and it crossed the line despite the efforts of Cluxton and Byrne to keep it out. Moments later Colm Cooper hit a free to extend Kerry’s lead to five and at the break they were ahead by 2-08 to 0-09.

There was stunned silence on Hill 16 and around the stadium as the Sky Blue supporters just stared at each other trying to make sense of what they had just witnessed.

Within 15 minutes of the restart that stunned silence was turned into an almighty roar as Jim Gavin’s team hit six points to a single reply from Kerry, it was all square heading into the final quarter and the atmosphere around the stadium was just electric.

That final quarter was just gripping as supporters from both sides were put through the ringer. Kerry got going again and built up a three point lead, but Dublin came storming back with four points in a row, two excellent efforts from Kevin McManamon and Philly McMahon and two Dean Rock frees.

The tension and excitement was at times unbearable for the supporters, in the final minute of normal time Dublin led by a point, but Kerry came back again and equalised through substitute Stephen O’Brien and as the game headed into injury time the game had replay written all over it.

Eoghan O’Gara put Dublin back in front as the clock ticked down to roars of approval from an unbelievably noisy Hill 16. Then came the most controversial talking point of the game, Kerry where on the attack with Peter Crowley on the ball, Kevin McManamon came in from the side and met Crowley with a massive hit and the ball broke loose. Kerry players and supporters were screaming for a free for a frontal charge, but referee David Gough waved play on and Dublin tore forward, the ball was played to Diarmuid Connolly who hit a glorious point from the Hogan Stand side of the pitch.

Moments later the full time whistle went and Hill 16, the Nally, Davin,Hogan and Cusack stands erupted with a cacophony of sound and fans celebrated as if their team had just won the Sam Maguire Cup. It was a game befitting a final and such was the rollercoaster of emotions that the Dublin faithful had just been put through they were well entitled to celebrate with such gusto.

It took a long while for everyone to catch their breath and for the elevated heart rates to return to normal levels, but once they did all the attention turned to the All Ireland Final on September the 18th and another tussle with Mayo.

Mayo’s stumbling form in reaching September’s showpiece final, lulled some of those in Sky Blue into a false sense of security heading into the game and talk of the current Dublin squad being the best that ever played the game didn’t help.

On the day of the All Ireland Final the weather gods decided to not play nice for the second year in a row and the game was played in a constant deluge of rain throughout. It helped to add another layer of lunacy to one of the craziest Finals ever witnessed in GAA headquarters.

Before the game started there was a scuffle in the tunnel between both teams and they arrived out on the pitch at the same time. What followed for the next thirty minutes was mind boggling, no Dublin player had managed a score in that period, yet the Dubs led by two points thanks to two own goals, Dublin had also lost James McCarthy to a very soft black card at this stage and by the break found themselves five points up with the score 2-05 to 0-05.

Dublin were a pale shadow in the first half and as the Dublin supporters tried desperately to make sense of what they had just witnessed, the belief was just as they had done all season, they would come out a much better team in the second half, how wrong they were.

Mayo came out on fire and quickly reeled the Dublin lead in and the sides were level in the 45th minute. Dublin finally troubled the scoreboard in the 50th minute with an excellent Brian Fenton point, that was followed by another fine score from Dean Rock and the Dubs led by two.

But the see-saw nature of the game continued, Andy Moran had the goal at his mercy but blasted the ball over the bar to leave the bare minimum between the sides. And with seven minutes to go Alan Dillion drew the sides level again with a fine curling effort.

With two minutes remaining of normal time Dublin built up a three point cushion, with points from John Small, Dean Rock and Diarmuid Connolly. In the final minute Cillian O’Connor reduced the gap to two with a well taken free and seven minutes of injury time were announced to a stunned audience gripped by the action on the pitch.

Donal Vaughan grabbed another point for Mayo to reduce the Dublin lead to just one point. And with three minutes of stoppage time left Cillian O’Connor should have been black carded by the referee for a blatant drag down but he escaped any punishment and the Dublin supporters vented their anger at that decision.

Aidan O’Shea had a wild attempt at a point as panic set into Stephen Rochford’s men. Dublin then played keep ball to the frustration of the Mayo players and their supporters. With a minute remaining Dublin won a sideline ball on the Hogan Stand side, all they need to do was hold onto the ball and they would claim victory. But there was the strange sight of Ciaran Kilkenny and Diarmuid Connolly grappling for the ball and arguing about which one of them should take it.

Kilkenny wanted to play a short one and hold onto the ball, Connolly wanted to have an audacious attempt at a point. Connolly gets his chance but pulls it wide, there were now only thirty seconds left, surely that wasn’t enough time for Mayo to at least grab an equaliser.

But grab one they do, they broke up field and the ball ended up in the hands of Ciallian O’Connor who should at this stage have been watching the final minutes of the game from the stands. He let fly and the ball sailed over the bar and it was all square, moments later the full time whistle went and the teams and their supporters had to do it all over again on the 1st of October.

There was a deafening silence from those in Sky Blue and Green and Red as they left the stadium to head either to the nearest watering hole or home. There was a sense of relief among the Mayo hordes and a sense of anger and disappointment from the Dublin supporters with the performance from Jim Gavin’s team. It’s been another nail-biting game and everyone seems emotionally drained from it all. Drawn games always bring a strange set of feelings among supporters, there is none of the celebrating that comes with a win and no drowning of the sorrows from a loss, just a confusing emotional void.

The two weeks drag along till the replay, questions about players form, team selections and tactics adorn every media outlet. There is a sense from the Dublin support that there will be a much improved display from the Dubs this time and Mayo have missed there chance, it’s not a cocky feeling but a belief that this current crop of players don’t play badly two games in a row.

Drumcondra is awash with colour and there is a nervous energy among both sets of fans. The chatter heading down Clonliffe Road is fairly low key as neither set of supporters know what to expect from the game.

The team announcement bring gasps from around the stadium, Mayo have dropped their keeper a strange move that comes back to haunt them. Jim Gavin has also wielded the axe and David Byrne, Michael Darragh Macauley and Bernard Brogan have dropped to the bench, Flynn switches to midfield, Andrews comes into the team as does Michael Fitzsimons, bold moves by Gavin, but ones, along with some astute substitutions later in the game that lead to victory.

The game itself was full of drama, controversy, stunning scores and heart pounding right to the end.

Dublin came flying out of the blocks and hit four unanswered points, three from Dean Rock and the other from Kevin McManamon inside the opening six minutes. Mayo responded and the sides were level five minutes later. Dublin pulled two points ahead again but they were rocked back on their heels when Aidan O’Shea put Lee Keegan in on goal and he made no mistake finishing the ball brilliantly to the bottom left hand corner of the net.

Dublin then suffered the hammer blow of losing Jonny Cooper to a black card early in the first half, but that was evened up late in the half when Mayo’s Lee Keegan suffered the same fate for dragging down Diarmuid Connolly. Dublin’s John Small was very lucky to not have joined them on the sideline for a deliberate trip early in the game.

Points from Dean Rock and Diarmuid Connolly though gave Dublin a 0-10 to 1-09 lead at the break.

The pivotal moment of the second half arrived in the 40th minute, the sides were level and Mayo keeper Rob Hennelly came out to claim a harmless looking shot cum cross from Paul Flynn, but he dropped it into the path of the onrushing Paddy Andrews and in a moment of desperation he pulled the Dublin forward to the ground. Maurice Deegan awarded a penalty and black carded Hennelly and Connolly dispatched the penalty brilliantly past his replacement David Clarke to give the Dubs a three point lead.

There was still long way to go though and the atmosphere in the stadium was now at fever pitch, the destination of where Sam Maguire would reside for the next twelve months was still to be decided and both sets of fans buckled themselves in for the bumpy ride of emotions that was to come.

Back came Mayo as the action swept like a tidal wave from one end of the pitch to the other. Points from O’Connor and Kevin McLoughlin put the bare minimum between the sides again. Jim Gavin introduced Michael Darragh Macauley and Bernard Brogan and they combined brilliantly together for Brogan to split the posts.

Back down the other end it went and Paddy Durcan hit a cracking point from distance and you could have cut the tension in the air with a knife. But cometh the hour, cometh the man as Cormac Costello entered the fray and hit two stunning points in the space of a minute and suddenly there was three points between the teams.

But one thing Mayo can’t be faulted for is their character and two Cillian O’Connor points reduced the gap once again and the game headed into six minutes of injury time.

One minute into that injury time and it was Costello again who was the hero of the hour as he hit his third point to give Dublin a two point advantage.

With two minutes remaining Mayo were awarded a free in front of the posts when Ciaran Kilkenny jumped in as a third man for the throw ball and he was rightly penalised and O’Connor dispatched it with ease, one in it now and thoughts of extra-time entered the minds of those supporters in the stadium, surely not, would their nerves be able for another twenty minutes of this engrossing encounter.

Dublin broke upfield Michael Fitzsimons had the chance to take a score himself to make sure of the victory, but instead passed the ball towards Costello, the ball was intercepted and Mayo broke at pace, they were awarded a free out on the hogan stand side of the pitch.

O’Connor stood over it, he had expertly hit his previous nine frees throughout the game, time was up, huge pressure on the kick then, but pressure aside such was his free kicking form on the day surely there was no way he would miss this one, but miss he did as it drifted to the left of the post.

Cluxton hit his kick out to midfield where Ciaran Kilkenny determined to make up for the easy free he gave away minutes earlier, rose to claim the ball, Dublin were awarded a free and seconds later the full time whistle sounded and those Dubs supporters on Hill 16 and around the four corners of the stadium erupted in unison in an almighty roar.

Their heroes had done it again, back to back All Ireland Triumphs had been achieved for the first time since 1977 and new songs and stories would be there for the younger generation coming behind to be raised on.

Jim Gavin’s team now stand shoulder to shoulder with the famed Dublin side of the 70’s and have cemented their own legacy in the history books that still might have a couple of chapters to be added.

2016 has been some journey for the Dublin supporters, one never to be forgotten, their nerves have been tested to the point of breaking and the emotional rollercoaster ride has been exhausting but worth every single moment.

For now it’s time for those Dubs supporters to bathe in the sweet aroma of another All Ireland Title winning season, recharge the batteries and gear up hopefully, for another long and winding road journey through the 2017 Championship all the way to the summit of the Hogan Stand steps on the third Sunday of September.

Video Credit (Gaa.ie via YouTube)