It’s not every day that 15/2 outsiders are victorious in a two horse race in the GAA. It’s not every day that a Dublin football side is beaten in a Leinster competition at ANY level, least of all by a Wicklow one. But sometimes, even in places as inauspicious as Joule Park Aughrim, strange things can happen.
The victory of Wicklow senior champions Rathnew, over recent All-Ireland club winners St Vincents last Sunday, was just about the biggest shock we have seen in the GAA this year. Let me know if you can think of any that were greater, but as unexpected results go, this one ticked practically all the boxes.
This was a Vincents side, lets no forget, that have won 4 of the last 5 Dublin county championships. A side that were recently after defeating Ballymun Kickhams in the Dublin senior county final, who themselves contained 6 All-Ireland senior medals winners from this year. A Vincent’s side that contained inter-county stars such as Diarmaid Connolly, Ger Brennan, “Mossy” Quinn, Enda Varley and others.
Not only that, but any time that Vincent’s have entered the Leinster club senior football championship in the last 35 years they’ve invariably won it. They’ve been victorious 5 times during that time, in 1984, 2007, 2013, 2014 and last year. But this time, in their first game in the provincial competition this year, they came up short. And if that wasn’t enough of a story in itself, the fact it was a Wicklow side that defeated them, makes it even more special.
Now of course, that’s not to say that a Wicklow side is automatically inferior to anyone else in the country. But given the county’s, shall we say, less than stellar performances at inter-county level (one of only 2 counties nationwide without a senior provincial title) there’s always the tendency to underestimate them at club level too. They’ve won just 2 Leinster club titles in 46 years, with Baltinglass victorious in 1989 and Rathnew themselves defeating Na Fianna from Dublin in 2001.
Then again these things can happen in the club championship. 2 Carlow representatives (Eire Og in Football, Mount Leinster Rangers in hurling) have reached the All-Ireland finals in the past quarter century, whereas their inter county sides have got nowhere near. Also, Loughiel Shamrocks from Antrim won the All-Ireland club hurling title in 2011, a feat that is unlikely to be repeated by their inter-county side this century.
What Rathnew’s victory showed is that the most important tool in any victory is belief. Speaking on the Second Captains days after the game Rathnew and ex Irish international rules star Leighton Glynn said that after watching the Dublin senior county final this year, his side believed Vincent’s could be beaten “We just thought teams tended to sit off them a bit too much and concede kick outs and let them build. We just wanted to push up go man for man and make it as difficult as possible for them. We’re used to teams playing defensively against us in Wicklow. We couldn’t change our tactics in 2 weeks to play defensively against them”
So if belief was a key component of the victory, the tactical nous of Harry Murphy and their management team cannot be underestimated too. The mercurial Connolly was marked out of the game by the tigerish ex-Wicklow full back Damien Power. Another old inter-county star James Stafford made the transition from midfield to full-forward in the latter stages of the game to yield a scarcely believable 1-2. Indeed Vincent’s didn’t score after Mossy Quinn got their goal in the 46th minute. So as far as ambush victories go, this one had all the perfect ingredients.
Looking at the result in isolation, what can we read into it in terms of inter-county level? Does this mean that the Dubs are more vulnerable away from home? Does this mean that Wicklow can dream of defeating them in next year’s championship? Well yes and no. Clearly any side benefits from home advantage, and it would appear to be much easier to defeat a Dublin side in the depths of winter in Wicklow, than the height of summer in Croker, but given the disparity between both county sides, we can’t expect a repeat of such a result next summer. But there is talent in Wicklow that can be mined, and if the county can harness the mentality of their club sides, and that they had for a few years under Mick O’Dwyer when they were beating the likes of Down in the qualifiers, who knows how far they can go?
The lesson from this game seems to be if you have one superbly drilled, focused and confident outfit in the shape of Rathnew, and another star-studded, albeit slightly complacent one, in the form of Vincent’s, the more focused one will win. Unlike most competitors from the Garden county, Rathnew have the mindset of winners. And that must be at least half of the battle.
The fact is that Rathnew have won 4 of the 5 last Wicklow senior championships. They’ve got players who’ve represented their county and country with distinction. So if you have that level of pedigree and an even more grizzled spirit, there really is very few limits to what you can achieve.
The flip side of it, is that it could be as good as things get. Before the Vincents game, Rathnew were perhaps seen as an unknown quantity. Now everybody knows who there are and how they play. In their 3 previous Leinster campaigns over the last half decade they haven’t got past the quarter final stage. So, in the dog eat dog world that is provincial club football, there really is no guarantee they’ll progress further. Their next game, against Moorefield, is arguably, just as difficult a fixture as Vincent’s. But at least that memorable victory will have given them immeasurable confidence going into the future. And they’ve given everyone around the country hope that if their club sides can be beaten, hey, maybe the Dublin inter-county teams can be beaten too.
So, while last weekend was a triumph for the underdog, there’s always the worry that maybe the wakeup call is just around the corner. But for now at least, Bravo Rathnew.