How ‘the death of football’ breathed life into Dublin’s record-breaking run

On Saturday Derry face Dublin in Division One for the first time since a miserable night in March nine years ago

New GAA president Jarlath Burns was chair of the Standing Committee on the Playing Rules at the time. Watching the Dublin v Derry league match at Croke Park, he tweeted that he was watching ‘the death of football’.

It was nine years ago this month. The match was a demonstration of ultra-defensive football. Derry parked the bus and Dublin did more or less the same when they didn’t have the ball and when they did, their attacks often ground to a halt, ensnared by the half a dozen defenders strung across the 45m line.

Approaching the hour mark, the teams were level at 0-4 each. Dublin then pulled away with four unanswered points.

It became a reviled exhibit in the case against modern football but the match also marked a watershed. Dublin had lost their All-Ireland title in 2014 against Donegal in what was regarded as a major coup.


The champions actually opened up their opponents in the early stages of the match but failed to convert goal chances and, reprieved, the Ulster champions hit them on turnover ball and speedy counter attacks, which left Dublin ragged and beaten 0-17 to 3-14.

Jim Gavin’s management had to reset and understand that teams would set out to disrupt. A strategy was needed to cope with this and it involved suppressing the instincts that had made them so exhilarating at times the previous year but evolving a style of play that would make them less vulnerable.

It would be all right to win a match by 0-8 to 0-4, as they did that night in 2015. It would be acceptable not to score for 10 minutes if you were controlling the match.

“You can either have a full-court press, which we have used in the past to great effect,” said Gavin afterwards, “particularly last year against Derry. We went for something different tonight and I think our guys stuck at it and worked really hard.”

Dublin weren’t the only ones trying to get over a bad memory. A year previously, Derry had beaten Dublin in Celtic Park in a Division One match but a few weeks later had been annihilated in the league final.

Manager Brian McIver, who took Donegal to a first league title in 2007, reflects on his mindset coming to Croke Park nine years ago.

“We had struggled that season. Slaughtneil had been having a great year and reached the All-Ireland club final so we were missing our key players. Going to Dublin that night in horrible weather, we knew that we had been well toasted in 2014 even with a stronger team, playing the way we wanted to play.

“The definition of insanity is to do the same thing and hope for a different outcome. The plan was to make this as difficult for them as we could and see if we could get anything out of it. Our problem was that although we did make it very difficult for the Dubs and our defence and midfield were top class we just couldn’t get enough scores at the other end.”

Leading by 0-3 to 0-2 at half-time, Derry scored only once more in the second half. The evening proved a watershed for both counties. Dublin would go on to win the league and that summer take the first step towards the fabled five-in-a-row All-Irelands – which a year later became six.

Derry, though, were relegated that night, having run out of chances to recover and unable to compensate for the loss of the Slaughtneil contingent. They tumbled all the way to Division Four and have just completed the journey back to the summit of football.

McIver stepped down at the end of 2015 and says the decline was the result of a couple of factors.

“Derry lost a number of influential players and went through a spell of little or no success at minor or under-21. It’s hard to cope with one of those problems and impossible to cope with both together.”

Dublin’s unprecedented success was built on the lessons of 2014, as trialled that night the following March. “They learned a lot from Donegal in 2014 – they were never torn apart like that again. And from playing our packed defence that night and working out how to open that type of defence,” he says.

Dublin would turn defensive systems into an opportunity. If a team wanted to play a sweeper or plus-one, they could select a seventh forward, at one stage placing Ciarán Kilkenny at wing back.

The circle closes. This Saturday will be the first time the counties have met in Division One since that last weekend in March, 2015. Dublin are again All-Ireland champions. Derry are top of the division, as back-to-back Ulster champions and a team that under Mickey Harte is regarded as ready to challenge at the very top.

Last weekend, Burns took office as GAA President. One of his first priorities was to establish a committee to review football. For months he discussed the project with the man he wanted to chair the committee, Gavin, who will be joined by an array of football strategists, including old rivals Éamonn Fitzmaurice and James Horan.

“He thinks in a way that nobody else I know thinks,” said Burns. “His higher-level thinking skills are incredible. I know that he is going to bring all of those skills to that post.”

  • See our new project Common Ground, Evolving Islands: Ireland & Britain
  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily – Find the latest episode here