GAA Football

Dublin's Rock. A huge battle awaits says Dubs' forward Dean

This season Dean Rock became Dublin's top scorer in League and Championship football, but it hasn't all be plain sailing for the Ballymun clubman, who has gone from surplus to requirements to marksman supreme. Andy Watters writes.....

Dean Rock rides tackles from Kerry's Jack Barry and Jason Foley in last year's All Ireland final. Picture: Seamus Loughran

A DAMP October day in 2009. A gale blew down Crossmaglen’s Oliver Plunkett Park when Ulster hosted Leinster in the Inter-Provincial Championships (AKA The Railway Cup) and a young Dubliner called Dean Rock was given a run out.

“He must be Barney’s son?” mused the veterans in the stand as the then unknown teenager effortlessly sent a series of 45s fizzing into the wind and over the Ulster crossbar. He hadn’t even played senior for the Dubs at the point but ‘Charlie’s son’ gave an indication that day that he would make his own name in the game.

And of course he has done. Tomorrow’s All-Ireland final will be the fifth for the Ballymun Kickham’s clubman, an ice-cool free-taker who has been able to take whatever’s been thrown at him (including Lee Keegan GPS tracker as he stepped up to kick the winner against Mayo in 2017) and drive the Dubs to win after win. In all, he has amassed 33 points in deciders including 10 points in last year’s draw against Kerry.

But it hasn’t all been plain-sailing for Rock. Despite the talent he displayed against Ulster that day he was dropped from the Dublin panel in 2012 and struggled to nail down a regular starting role until Jim Gavin took over as manager from Pat Gilroy.

“There would have been times when you really doubted yourself,” he admits.

“I remember getting dropped off the Dublin panel. Chelsea were playing Bayern Munich in the Champions League final and I got a phone call from Pat Gilroy saying I was dropped.

“I probably thought at the time he was ringing to say I was playing against Wexford in the Championship.

“It just transpired that for whatever reason, I wasn’t deemed good enough at the time. I remember the next day going down to Garristown, where I live, running and running for hours until my Dad had to come down and pick me up.

“So I think it was just that resilience piece that you need as a sportsperson. You’re going to have your setbacks. I certainly had them and I could easily have packed it in and walked away.

“But I made a promise to myself that I was going to do what I could. Luckily enough the club came to the rescue for me that year. We won the club championship and that set me up for when Jim came in in 2013. So yeah, I suppose from there, I never looked back.”

Dublin jerseys are leased, not owned. Look at Brian Howard (an Allstar in the last three seasons), Paul Mannion (an Allstar in the last two) who have both had to settle for places on the bench this season. And then there’s Cian O’Sullivan, winner of seven All-Irelands, who didn’t even make the squad against Cavan.

"Most guys on the Dublin panel would have had to overcome their own personal adversities,” says Rock.

“You look at Robbie McDaid (man of the match against Cavan) now, he's probably had the same journey as myself, he's probably been dropped off the Dublin panel numerous times but that perseverance and resilience piece for him in particular.

“He stuck at it when he easily could have went: 'Look, I'm not going to make it with the Dublin senior team' but he's flourishing at the moment and that's just testament to him and to other guys as well for sticking at it in the hard times.

"I think that's really part of our success is that resilience and perseverance piece within the group.”

Rock’s goal against Meath in the Leinster final took him past Jimmy Keaveney as Dublin’s all-time scorer in League and Championship. Keaveney had set the bar with 30 goals and 402 (492 points) and Rock edged past him with that early goal. He added eight points and another six against Cavan to move to 17-456 (517 points).

“I wouldn’t have been too aware of it until the end of last year,” he says.

“Probably after the All-Ireland final, somebody said something that I overtook my Dad. Then you were close to overtaking Bernard Brogan and Jimmy Keaveney and those great guys.

“You were aware of it. But it’s one of things. You just tick it off your list and moved on. You wouldn’t be going out in a game saying ‘I need to get six or seven points here to overtake whoever.’ It was just ‘go out and perform’ and the rest of that stuff looks after itself.”

Dublin’s stroll to another final hardly needs mentioning. Suffice to say that none of their four opponents has got within 10 of the six in-a-row chasing champions but Mayo, old rivals who have come mighty close to breaking the Dubs’ grip on Sam, will obviously be a much harder nut to crack and you’d expect that in a final.

“Mayo have a lot of new guys that maybe we couldn't have come up against over the last number of years,” says Rock.

“They've obviously got an influx of youth there in terms of the likes of Tommy Conroy and Eoghan McLaughlin and guys like that and it's certainly going to be a different challenge from what we've come up against from Mayo in the past.

"Obviously they're scoring freely, scoring 5-20 (against Tipperary) is great shooting and not to have too many wides I think in that spell as well. Look, they've been hugely impressive since the return from the lockdown from a scoring perspective and had a really good Connacht championship.

"We're expecting a huge challenge like we always have with Mayo, we've had some incredible battles with them over the last number of years and there's a huge amount of respect there as well.

"So with the respect both teams have for one another, I'm sure we're going to have a great game.”

Mayo’s scoring power in the Tipperary semi-final was superb but it did paper over gaps in their defence, particularly early on when Michael Quinlivan and Conor Sweeney both passed up gilt-edged goal chances that could have made a real game of it.

Rock, Con O’Callaghan, Ciaran Kilkenny and co. will not be so charitable on Saturday and so is Rock ‘licking his chops’ at the prospect of getting a run at the Mayo rearguard?

“When you attack so much you're always going to leave holes and gaps and that's the same for every team,” he said, with trademark diplomacy.

“And some of those (Tipperary) scores came towards the end of the game when maybe there were changes made and different things like that so you probably couldn't read too much into that.

"All you can do is take Mayo on their face value and they won three games away from home in Connacht this year which is no easy feat, to go to Hyde Park and Salthill and win those games, and then obviously hugely impressive against Tipperary, who were being built up to potentially beat them.

"So they're a really good team and potentially could be the best Mayo team that we've ever played in terms of that mix of youth and speed that they have now at their disposal.”

If Mayo’s gameplan works tomorrow, Rock and his colleagues up front will have to make the most of every ball they get. The westerners pride themselves on how they press the ball in the opposition have and around midfield so Rock expects “massive intensity” at Croke Park.

“We've played them against them in big Championship games and that's how it's been,” he said.

“It's been man v man and plenty of battles around the pitch and the games have only been decided by one or two points here or there. There's a huge battle ahead.”

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