Securing an elusive ‘two-in-a-row’ of All-Ireland titles is often cited as being the standard demarcation for any truly great GAA team. On September 18, 2016, Dublin were on the verge of doing so as they led Mayo by one point as the clock went six minutes into the red of a pulsating contest.
From a sideline kick, Ciaran Kilkenny scanned the pitch for a safe pair of hands to see out the game and condemn Mayo to yet another heartbreaking loss and a winter of soul-searching that only supporters of Clermont Auvergne or the Buffallo Bills can relate to.
As Diarmuid Connolly wrestled the ball from Kilkenny’s reluctant arms, Mayo gained a stay of execution. The ensuing sideline punt sailed hopelessly wide. Mayo moved the ball up the field with purpose to Cillian O’Connor who scored and levelled the contest to ensure that they survived to fight another day.
Connolly played a full part in the replayed final, seeing off his rival Lee Keegan to a black card and scoring 1-1 in an equally enthralling and slightly surreal Saturday evening final played under bright lights and a bruised city sky.
Dublin had claimed three All-Ireland titles in four years through an oft-quoted mantra of being a process driven, non-outcome focused sporting entity based on self-improvement.
The term ‘process’ could be defined in this generation by the image of the coach of any given sport’s dominant team seeking to distance himself from his players achievement. Preaching humility while barely concealing the competitor’s self-satisfaction at victory behind a wry smile. Jim Gavin fits this mould comfortably; as does Bill Belichick, Steve Hansen and many others.
Within these process-driven models for team success, personal responsibility means everything. How else can ego be subjugated to the common good without sacrificing the individual creativity that stand-out talent needs to win?
A group of talented sports people can be provided with every natural advantage that it is possible to bestow. However, if their talent is smothered by orders or they fail to act in unison it will become increasingly difficult for them to win.
The key variable that mitigates the need for both instruction and invention is personal responsibility.
If a player is prepared to own their decisions and accept the consequences of their actions then strong leadership ethics should emerge as a natural conclusion. The over-arching logic of these process-driven models trusts that if talent and intelligence is respected then it will respond with loyalty, altruism and active responsibility.
Player performance is monitored closely through advanced technology and this is a hot topic in the GAA. Players and management set personal goals which are consistent with a group philosophy and that are focused on self-improvement. This is what Jim Gavin means when he speaks glibly about Dublin’s ‘process’ in post-match interviews.
The New Zealand rugby team are perhaps the foremost proponents of this school of sporting philosophy.
It is easily forgotten through the haze of recent dominance that the All Blacks had become rugby’s perennial World Cup chokers during the professional era. The pressure of representing the talent pool of an unforgiving nation, which expressed a superior sense of self-identity through rugby to the point of obsession was intense. They cracked at crucial junctures while the French trampled them into the Cardiff ground.
Equally, it should be reminded that Dublin football had been a national laughing stock for much of the era during the redeveloped Croke Park. A decisive victory against the capital’s swaggering hype-job became a rite of passage for the eventual All Ireland champions of each year.
Dublin’s losses were viewed as a ‘serves them right’ embarrassment by the wider GAA public which lapped-up the latest 14-point capitulation or seven-point lead that was thrown away.
The Dublin team competed in the early nineties was arguably the most talented squad during one of the most competitive eras of Gaelic football. They eventually won their All-Ireland in 1995 but had also earned the unenviable ‘chokers’ moniker.
Dublin suffered final defeats in 1992 and 1994, as well as a semi-final loss to Derry in 1993, before eventually stumbling over the line. In his autobiography, Tangled Up in Blue Dessie Farrell mused on that team’s tendency to act as individuals during tense, high-stakes periods of play.
The overhaul of Dublin football that created an underage environment in which the current squad flourished followed a similar process to that of the All Blacks. The high-profile failures of both teams held comparable factors and posed an identical challenge; how can every natural advantage be correctly focused into a self-evolving model for success?
Humility is a crucial identifier although the definition in this instance becomes nuanced. It is widely known that the All Blacks clean their own dressing rooms after every game. The senior players scrub the floors as an example to younger players and as a continuous grounding in humility. This translates to the field of play as an act of collective responsibility and instils the value that nobody will look after the All Blacks; that they will find their own solutions.
Brooding on the Landsdowne Road pitch in the return fixture following their historic defeat to Ireland in Soldier Field, the physicality of the All Blacks was ferocious. A cynically-landed shoulder had broken the jaw of an increasingly effective Robbie Henshaw so the All Blacks clapped their fallen adversary with great humility as he was stretchered off the field. They had found their own on-field solutions and would do so without a twinge of conscience.
James Kerr was granted remarkable access to the New Zealand rugby organisation and gained unique insight into this culture for his book Legacy, a step-by-step explanation of the philosophical revolution which their current success is accredited to.
In addition to those concepts already outlined in this piece, the Maori mythology around whānau guides this process-driven philosophy.
In Maori culture, whānau means to place importance on the tribe of extended family. It is symbolised by the spearhead, expressed in nature by the V formation of a flock of birds; that they, like the spear, move with greater effect if they do so in the one direction. The strength of any pack lies in the wolf as the strength of any wolf is in the pack.
This translates to the All Black’s dressing room through their less eloquent mantra of ‘no dickheads’. Many of the most talented players in New Zealand have been excluded from the group because they are deemed to fall outside this descriptor. The All Black justification for this is clearly laid out by Kerr:
“No one is bigger than the team and individual brilliance does not automatically lead to outstanding results. One selfish mindset will infect a collective culture.”
In wrestling the ball from Ciaran Killkenny’s arms and sizing up a difficult and unnecessary scoring opportunity in the sixth of seven minutes of injury time, Diarmuid Connolly was stating unequivocally that his YouTube moment was of more importance than every other teammates All Ireland medal.
It was almost perfect allegory; Killkenny represents those collective values succinctly through his endless workrate and never-ending urge to recycle possession and make lateral hand passes.
Jim Gavin is clearly a coach driven by his philosophies, be they expressed through style of play or by player management. The dilemma that he faced in this instance was clear; was he leading a GAA revolution or just a team of footballers who happened to be more talented than the others? At this juncture, Gavin’s actions were inconsistent.
Connolly started the replayed final, scoring 1-1 and seeing off his rival Lee Keegan to a black card. Dublin emerged as All Ireland champions but fissures in the integrity of personal responsibility and collective purpose had emerged. Did Connolly accept any meaningful responsibility for his actions or how this impacted the group?
In the strictest application of the culture in which Dublin had raised their footballers, Connolly had forfeited his place in the team as his actions deemed him to be lost to the group anyway; a lone wolf. Pragmatically, dropping Connolly was difficult to imagine.
Connolly did not feature in the early rounds of the league as he was expressing the force of his talent without limitation for St Vincents in the club championship. It is widely acknowledged that he ‘plays on the edge’ and it is a significant achievement that Gavin had managed him within the group up to that point.
Connolly appears to be testing the boundaries of self-regulation which have defined the culture within the Dublin set-up.
Upon his return to the Dublin team, Connolly did not complete one half of football in three games, earning two black cards and scoring just 0-2 in the process. He did play a full part in Dublin’s opening championship victory over Carlow, 0-1 from a ’45 and earning a 12-week ban for ‘minor physical interference’ of a linesman.
The wider issue of the ‘attention’ which Connolly receives from opposition cannot be ignored but it is not the subject of this article, nor is it intended as a criticism of Diarmuid Connolly necessarily. His physical form and skill-set make him the prototype Gaelic footballer of his generation.
Connolly’s willingness to sacrifice all to his craft has provided breathtaking moments and performances of the scale which elevate Gaelic football to the status of elite sport, yet many are prepared to judge him harshly while he is being sledged beyond his reason.
Jim Gavin was presented with the most testing question that every man of principle must face and he faltered.
The Diarmuid Connolly crisis that Gavin now faces is of his own design. Can he realign Connolly to the set of values which has underpinned the collective purpose and success of one of the most talented collection of footballers that Gaelic football has ever known?
The correct way to do so is unclear and it will require an unparalleled feat of man management.
Ciaran Priestley, Pundit Arena