Alan Brogan: 'Surviving Class of 2011 more crucial than ever in Dublin's drive for five'
They were two footnotes in a forgettable match: Rory O’Carroll’s inter-county return against Louth and Mick Fitzsimons’ first point for Dublin later in the same game.
Both poignant moments.
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It’s eight years since we won an All-Ireland together.
The men who manned midfield and attack from the 2011 teams have mostly faded from view, but the majority of that back seven remain.
If Rory gets back into the team this year, we could have five of the back seven from that 2011 All-Ireland winning side in the team again this summer.
That’s remarkable and it’s indicative of two things: the importance of those players to Dublin’s defensive well-being and the comparatively slower speed with which the conveyor belt has tossed out defenders in the last eight years.
Mick Fitzsimons is a great example to any player. He was on that All-Ireland Junior winning team in 2008 but when Pat Gilroy brought him into the squad before the 2010 season, he hadn’t any sort of reputation.
A year later, he was marking ‘The Gooch’ in an All-Ireland final.
We’d struggled for defenders in the years previous to that.
Prior to 2011, when Dublin and Kerry last met in the Championship, Colm Cooper was marked by the temporarily remodelled Paddy Andrews in a full-back line along with Denis Bastick and Davy Henry – all good players but not in the style of Kerry’s or Tyrone’s destroyers, men like ‘Ricey’ or Gormley, Marc Ó Sé and Aidan O’Mahony.
In ‘Pillar’ Caffrey’s four Leinster finals as manager, four different players played at full-back. So when Rory came along, it looked like he had been sent by God.
After the blow-outs we had against Kerry in ’09 and Meath in ’10, Pat felt he had no option to but to build a defence from scratch.
So he just identified the best – and vitally, the fastest – young defenders in Dublin and moulded them into a back six.
It wasn’t just a case of all these players arriving on to the senior scene at the same time, taking the jersey and fulfilling their destiny.
There was no successful underage team that offered up a tranche of ready-built defenders.
The first thing Pat did was make the likes of Mick and Rory – and also Cian O’Sullivan, James McCarthy and Kevin Nolan – believe they had the qualities to succeed at the top level.
Pat has ferocious self-belief. But he also possesses the ability to infuse others with it.
Part of that meant creating an environment where players could make mistakes and not be hung out to dry. There was a collective responsibility.
The second thing he did was construct a system that protected the full-back line.
In 2010, our half-backs never moved so our full-backs didn’t had to worry about an acre of open space in front of them. Bastick sat behind halfway and hit everything that moved towards our goal.
But the key trait Pat needed in defenders was pace. You can get away with most things in football but you can’t get away with being slow in Croke Park.
Cian O’Sullivan is the classic example of this. Cian doesn’t do anything particularly fancy with the ball but he’ll go down as one of Dublin’s most influential players this decade.
He was corner-back in ‘11, midfield in 2013 and since 2015, has been the perfect ‘sweeping’ number six, identifying danger and moving swiftly to snuff it out before it ever really unfolds.
He glides across the pitch like an ice-skater but he reads the game so instinctively.
Mick is the same. When Jim came in in 2013, it was obvious Mick wasn’t quite what he had in mind from his defenders.
He hadn’t the ball skills or the attacking instincts of a Jonny Cooper or a Philly McMahon but he has obviously convinced Jim of the primacy of the traditional duties of the role with some big performances in huge games.
Between them, Mick, Cian, Philly, Rory and James McCarthy have 27 All-Ireland medals.
They’re a remarkable group and as the light has declined on the rest of that 2011 team, they are more crucial now to Dublin than ever.
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