On a quiet November 2004 evening, it all began. Far from the glamour of the third Sunday of September triumphs, countless All-Stars and National League dominance. Paul ‘Pillar’ Caffrey succeeded Tommy Lyons as manager of the Dublin footballers with a vision.
A vision of a man in Sky Blue climbing the steps of the Hogan Stand to claim Sam Maguire someday, one day. It had been almost ten years since that had been done but Pillar was on a mission to build a team to conquer all.
The ingredients were there, a core of young talent fresh off All-Ireland u-21 success were integrating into the senior team, seasoned campaigners such as Colin Moran, Paul Casey, Jason Sherlock and Ciaran Whelan could only benefit from this surely. Perhaps this could be the team that would end the capital’s drought?
Fast forward to Sunday, August 2, 2009, and Kerry, the old enemy humiliate the Dubs by a monumental 17 points in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Humiliated and outclassed, one of the county’s darkest days.
Pillar had resigned at the end of 2008 in the wake of a thrashing at the hands of Tyrone after coming so close to the All-Ireland final in 2006 and 2007, losing by a score to Mayo and Kerry in dramatic circumstances.
The dark days had not ended, they continued to haunt Dublin fans, players and managers alike. “Startled earwigs” – the words in which manager Pat Gilroy used to describe his team after the 2009 Kerry defeat.
The years came with their miserable moments. In the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo, the Hill sang ‘Dublin in the rare auld times’ as Pillar’s men led by eight points mid-way through the second half, Mayo reeled the Dubs in slowly and edged the encounter by a mere point.
Tyrone proved the greatest enemy throughout those years. Eoin Mulligan broke Dublin hearts in 2005 with one of the greatest goals ever witnessed in Croke Park in a saga that saw Pillar’s men take Tyrone to replay for a place in the All-Ireland semi-final.
The next time they met was not as close, Mickey Harte’s rejuvenated Tyrone put The Dubs to the sword by a dozen points in what turned out to be Pillar’s last game in charge.
The battle hardened unit had hit rock bottom time after time. Pat Gilroy took charge after Pillar and looked to rebuild. Shane Ryan, Ciaran Whelan, Conal Keaney, Jason Sherlock and others would soon make way.
A new breed emerged, spearheaded by a hungry group of u-21 All-Ireland winners.
Philly McMahon, Cian O’Sullivan, Rory O’Carroll, James McCarthy, Paul Flynn, Kevin McManamon and Michael Dara MacAuley all would become central figures in a new Dublin.
Just over two years after that defeat to Kerry, Dublin were All-Ireland champions. The Holy Grail, the pain was over, Gilroy had led Dublin to their first All-Ireland triumph in 16 long years.
Something clicked that day, the scars didn’t open, almost as if the Alan Brogan’s, the Diarmuid Connolly’s and the Ger Brennan’s would not allow them to open.
They had learned their lessons, they would not let their demons possess them again, not let their demons infect the new breed.
Mayo. Tyrone. Kerry.
Dublin have lost just twice in Championship football since that September day in 2011.
The foundations built by Pillar, 13 players in the squad that day had fought through the hard, dark days during Pillar’s reign.
There was, of course, emotional scenes as the Brogan brothers celebrated with Pillar while he was on duty with the Gardai in Croke Park, a testament to what it meant to them.
In the years that have followed, Dublin have claimed a further three All-Ireland crowns and even four National Leagues in a row from 2013 to 2016. The years of hurt was necessary, it helped mould that team into the winners they now are today.
Now as we head towards 2018, Jim Gavin has sculpted this team into one of the greatest ever. Three Championships in a row, not since the days of Heffo has Dublin been so dominant in Gaelic football.
Dublin fans are living in the glory days and there’s no telling when they’ll end but it all wouldn’t have happened without the years of heartbreak and the dark days of Pillar’s Army.
Gavin Quinn, Pundit Arena