"I get flashbacks of Diarmuid O’Connor winning that ball..." Ghosts of All-Irelands lost put to bed for Brian Fenton

James McCarthy raises the Sam Maguire in triumph. Picture: Philip Walsh
James McCarthy raises the Sam Maguire in triumph. Picture: Philip Walsh James McCarthy raises the Sam Maguire in triumph. Picture: Philip Walsh

THE ghosts of All-Irelands lost were put to rest when James McCarthy climbed the steps of the Hogan Stand to receive the Sam Maguire on Sunday.

Brian Fenton admitted that bad memories of losing their last two All-Ireland semi-finals – Mayo in 2021 and Kerry last year - kept him awake at night and he feared he would never get back to the top with the Dubs.

He played his part in Dublin’s renaissance with a brilliant display in midfield. In the first half, Kerry goalkeeper Shane Ryan couldn’t get the ball past him and Fenton – on top in centrefield alongside Brian Howard - also scored superb points in both halves.

“We reviewed that Kerry game last year,” recalled a delighted Fenton after Dublin’s two-point win.

“The kickout at the end… We let them get soft kickouts and they came up the field and we gave away soft frees… We reviewed that and took learnings from it. Jesus, it would haunt you! The simple mistakes we made. That stuff genuinely haunts you.

“Mayo was the same. The extra-time two years’ ago. Rob Hennelly’s free… I get flashbacks of Diarmuid O’Connor winning that ball on the end line, I was ushering it out and Diarmuid kept it in… Images like that haunt you so to get back up to the top of the hill this year is extra sweet.”

Dublin got back on top with a consistent team display spearheaded by Paul Mannion who was their best forward on the day. Meanwhile, Michael Fitzsimons did a superb man-marking job to restrict the influence of Kerry’s best forward David Clifford.

“I don't think Clifford's kicked as many wides or been as quiet or kind of hot-and-cold in a game and that's credit to Fitzy,” said Fenton.

“He is unbelievable at his study of players, at his analysis of players.

“He'll be having conversations with me about what position I should take up if I'm coming back there, if I'm just tracking back or whatever. He is the ultimate professional. He had no reason to come back and he still does for the love of Dublin football and for the love of rewarding young lads who might have their first (All-Ireland).

“He's unbelievable and I’m genuinely thrilled for him and for those lads to get to nine All Irelands and to kind of sit above those Kerry lads of the ’70s and ’80s. I'll go to bed happy at night thinking that we helped to get them there.”

With seven Celtic Crosses in his collection already, Fenton is certainly a candidate for at least equalling the record now held by McCarthy, Cluxton and Fitzsimons.

“I definitely won’t get nine,” he said.

“Seven is unbelievable. I’m 30 not this year so I’m not the right side of the age limit but I’m just so relieved, so thrilled and so happy for the lads, for Dessie, for Macker, for Clucko… I didn’t even talk about Clucko! It’s unbelievable. Genuinely, I’ll go to bed with a smile on my face thinking about Macker going up them steps, it’s unbelievable.”

McCarthy hinted that captaining his county to the Sam Maguire (the first Ballymun clubman to do so) was “a decent way to bow out” and Dean Rock hinted strongly that Sunday was his last game for Dublin.

“We’re not letting him go anywhere,” said Fenton with a smile.

“Jack coming back, Manno coming back… We’re all moving on in age and who knows? I don’t know? The young lads have got a taste for it now and I don’t know what the plan is. Dublin is a huge county with a hugely passionate playing group at underage and in senior club football. When you get a taste of this it’s hard to let it go and I’m sure the young lads will only drive on to bigger and better things.”

If the Dublin players were criticised when results dipped, their manager Dessie Farrell bore the brunt of it. The former Dublin forward took over from Jim Gavin and was tasked with rebuilding a side that had lost Diarmuid Connolly, Michael Darragh Macauley, Cluxton (although he returned) and others. Farrell quickly discovered that there was no shortage of onlookers ready to stick the boot in when results started to dip.

“Dessie was like the front face of all our troubles, all our woes down to 2020 and the COVID breach, the training breach and the bad performances, the relegation,” said Fenton.

“People were pushing for him to step aside. Look, you're always going to get that bit of poisoned chalice when he came in after Jim. I’m so happy for Dessie and I would probably know Dessie as personally as anyone at this stage from U21s.

“I'm looking at him in the dressing room there and you're kind of saying you do it for a couple of things, you do it for yourself and your family and etc but, the likes of James McCarthy and Dessie now are huge to motivate us for me.

“This one was absolutely different. Sweet, as I said already. When you're kind of written off and when people are tipping Clifford and all the lads.

“When you can get back to that stage, get back to that level and get back to that standard, it’s such a genuinely deeply rewarding feeling. Something that I'll remember for a long time.”