Declan Darcy unsure of Dublin management team's future
By John Harrington
It’s the day after Dublin’s All-Ireland replay win over Kerry, and team selector Declan Darcy is in reflective form when he sits down with a table of GAA writers.
That seems significant, because it's not his style. As Darcy himself points out at one stage in the conversation, “the day you look behind you is the day you get caught…the minute you looked back and reflected you get a bit soft”.
But, despite his own misgivings, he can’t really help but be more reflective than usual on the journey he has travelled with this Dublin football team.
He admits the 2019 All-Ireland Final win “definitely felt a bit more significant than any of the rest we achieved”, and it was telling that he and fellow selector, Jason Sherlock, accompanied Jim Gavin over to Hill 16 after the match to applaud the Dublin supporters there and bask in their acclaim.
That’s something they have never done before, Darcy admitting “we would be very careful particularly after matches how we would carry ourselves…but there was just something special that left people go a bit.”
And, as he talks, Darcy lets himself go a bit some more as he processes the day that was and the overall experience of being such a key cog in this Dublin machine.
He came in with Jim Gavin in late 2012, but feels himself that his connection with this team began a little over a year earlier when they won the All-Ireland Final in 2011.
“I lost my sister (Sinead) in 2011, which was a very tough time for me,” said Darcy.
“She was my soul-mate. I just found that very difficult to deal with but this group and the GAA again looked after me. Stephen (Cluxton) that day kicked a point and they brought me back to the hotel and the night-club and they brought me into their group and I kind of got a connection with them and I felt a loyalty and that has been given back in spades with me.
“When I had it tough and was having bad days, that team gave me good days and that is a really important thing for me.”
When you put so much into the process, then the achievement of winning the big prize means a hell of a lot.
But Darcy is adamant that the bond he has forged with this group of Dublin players is what he really cherishes from his time as selector.
That was really driven home to him earlier this year when his father Frank fell ill and everyone in the Dublin camp quickly rallied around him.
“Before the semi-final, he went in for an ordinary hernia operation and all of a sudden things didn't go well for him.
“He was in intensive care and things didn't go well and it wasn't looking good for him. He got pneumonia. But the lads went into the hospital and sent videos and did a placard with 'Best of luck Frank, hope you get better'.
“And, like, that was, for me, fantastic.
“They're little things that say why you want to be part of this group. It's not so much about football. They're a really good group and they care an awful lot about what they do and who they represent.
“When you get little tonics like that, and it's happened to others, I know the Smalls are going through a difficult time at the minute, their Dad is not well.
“There are some really tough stories but the 'family' of themselves are looking after each other and how they operate and keep an eye on each other is very impressive.”
It’s that sense of ‘family’ that Darcy claims was the primary motivation to bring Diarmuid Connolly back into the Dublin fold this year.
“I think first and foremost it was really important for us, the care of Diarmuid,” said Darcy, when asked how the decision to bring Connolly back into the fold came about.
“Things weren't going really well for him probably outside of football and I think he needed football, he needed structure and whatever about whether he was to function within our group or not, to bring him back into the group was the right thing to do.
“He had soldiered long and hard for us and he deserved that right to come back in and I think it was a really good thing for him to do.
“No matter whether we won an All-Ireland, I still think it would have been the right thing to do because we were looking after one of our own and he needs to be in our family.
"Because the lads are brilliant to look after him, and reach out to him, which is really, really important. It was very impressive to see it, when it operated, and how Diarmuid flourished in that environment, and that friendship being shared to him...it was brilliant to see.
"Then the football side of it, he was in really good shape, and then the balance piece for us was to play him when other guys were there all season. It was difficult enough to balance that piece, but he had produced good stuff in training.
"There was no indications as to why we wouldn’t play him when he was producing some really good stuff in training.”
It all worked out well in the end, but had Dublin been beaten by Kerry in the All-Ireland Final then the wisdom of recalling Connolly would have been questioned.
It would definitely have been suggested that his comeback had an adverse effect on the morale of any players he bumped down the pecking order, thereby damaging the collective.
“Oh yeah, a big call, because we were worried that it would crack the group, and obviously the connotations,” admitted Darcy.
“If you were there, I am sure you would be thinking the same. We’d rather be looking at Diarmuid than not looking at him, up in the stand.
“And particularly, we were watching his fitness levels. We were monitoring his fitness levels and they were very impressive, so all the indications were he was in a really good position to go.
“And again, even if we lost, I still think it was the right thing to do.
“He was one of our own and we were looking after one of our own, and I think in the context of sport, the GAA is a really good powerful community within, right around the country at looking after their own.
“It’s a really important part of it, and this was no different as well.”
Darcy has never shared a quiet pint with Jim Gavin and reflected on all they have achieved together with Dublin as players and a management double-act at U-21 and senior level.
He hopes to do so someday, but is coy about how soon or otherwise that may be.
Gavin’s decision to walk towards Hill 16 after Saturday’s All-Ireland Final replay win and then bring his father Jimmy into his post-match press conference were two significant breaks in protocol from a man not in the habit of making any.
Does it suggest that he might be ready to pull the curtain down on his hugely successful tenure as Dublin manager? Darcy isn’t giving anything away, but admits the demands of the job have taken a toll on his friend.
“All I will say is that man has put in - and I know I am probably right beside him - but the work and preparation he puts in his phenomenal. I couldn’t put into words the drive and determination of him.
“And the work ethic. You don’t get these things unless you work hard – bottom line. You can have a certain amount of talent, but if you’re not putting in the hard yards, it’s not going to happen for you.
“In fairness to Jim, he leads that work ethic, he’s phenomenal. He just works, works, works so hard and he’s very diligent. I think it has taken a lot out of him, so whether he has the energy to pursue it, I don’t know.
“There wasn’t any discussions yesterday among ourselves to be honest, but taking time he’ll probably have a bit of reflection and see has he the energy to…and I think the whole context for us as a coaching group is ‘can we give something to this team, or can we add something to this team,’ and that would be the context.
“These players deserve the very best and people that have the full energy to drive on. And that’s what they demand, and if you are getting a little tired maybe it’s time to go, but at the minute, no, there’s no conversations like that.”
How about Darcy himself?
“I don’t know, I have an awful lot of stuff to balance in life,” he says. “I have the under-12 boys and two girls U-16 teams in Clann na Gael and I’m under-16 Dublin girls manager. It’s very hard, I have a business to run and I actually love the GAA.
“I love the kids, they bring me right back down to earth; especially after days like yesterday. This life balance piece, the lads are brilliant at. There’s a connection in the group that’s very powerful and the friendships are very strong, and that’s kind of under-estimated a little bit as well. They are a very strong group.”
If Jim Gavin, Declan Darcy, and Jason Sherlock do decide to exit stage left, then Dublin certainly have the talent to win more All-Irelands under a different regime in the next decade.
Losing this management team would definitely be a big blow though, because their utterly professional every box ticked approach has been pivotal to the team’s success during their seven years in charge.
Darcy is not the type to brag about it, but he has played a really important role in transforming this Dublin team into arguably the greatest the game has ever seen, even if he’s very uncomfortable with that choice of words.
“I'd never look at it that way,” he said. “That's for someone else to say. We go out every day to go out and play and do the best with this group and for this county and that's the mantra that we set and it's going to get this group to wherever they want to get to.
“It's the key driver of the team and every time they play...and we worried about it in the beginning where we said we'd go after every League match and where is this going to end? Can we do this?
“Then we said, no, that's exactly what we'll do. Every time we pull on a Dublin jersey we're going to play to represent. Every time we play, all the players, once they put that jersey on they have a responsibility to perform. And we've done that.
"I think we'll keep them in that head-space. And in time to come they can look back and maybe people will say they're great, I don't know.
“There'll always be a debate about this team versus other teams. It's a good run alright. But I don't like that word 'great'. No, don't like that word, to be honest with you.
“They're a really special group. You'd bring your kids to watch them play. That's what really pleases me. When I coach the kids in Clann na Gael, I say, 'Just look at Jack, look at Con'.
“That's what you want, and that's the beauty of it, I think. You couldn't but be very proud of the way they play and the way they carry themselves.”
Darcy might not like the description 'great', but if the 2019 All-Ireland title really is the swansong of this Dublin management team, then they deserve that moniker as much as the players themselves do.