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Dublin: 3 °C Thursday 23 November, 2017
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Getting his Na Fianna debut from Pillar Caffrey, training with Jonny Cooper and Dublin senior prospects

Dublin’s All-Ireland U21 winner Aaron Byrne was recently crowned EirGrid U21 Football Player of the Year.

Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

WHEN DESSIE FARRELL met the latest crop of Dublin U21s for the first time over the winter, he told them a story about golf and monkeys.

It probably wasn’t what they were expecting.

He proceeded to tell a tale which was popularised by Gregory Knox Jones, a Presbyterian Church pastor from Virginia in the United States.

When the British colonised India, they built a golf course in Calcutta but grew frustrated by local monkeys who caused chaos on the course. The monkeys dropped from trees, ran across the course and tossed the balls around.

The British put up fences and tried luring the monkeys away, but nothing worked.

Finally, they decided to play the ball where the monkey dropped it. Sometimes a perfect drive down the fairway was moved by a monkey to the rough. Or the opposite might happen.

Farrell’s point to his new squad was simple. Some of the breaks in life, good or bad, are beyond our control.

“You must play the ball where the monkey leaves it,” Farrell concluded.

Dessie Farrell Source: Presseye/Philip Magowan/INPHO

That speech was never more relevant than the week before the team played in the All-Ireland U21 final in April.

The first round of the Dublin SFC took place the weekend before the final against Galway, with a host of Farrell’s squad set to be involved.

It led to a messy standoff amid rumours the panel had voted to boycott the club games.

Na Fianna had the joint-most representatives on the U21 squad with three players – Aaron Byrne, Eoin Murchan and Glenn O’Reilly involved.

“It didn’t affect us much really,” Byrne tells The42. “We had a meeting to see if we’d boycott the games but after a few minutes chat we realised what was possible.

“We got in touch with a few managers and some clubs were playing against weaker teams so they didn’t have to play the players. That’s how it worked out.

“We didn’t say we’d boycott it. After that meeting we said, ‘What’s gonna happen is gonna happen and we can’t do anything about.’

“Dessie gave a speech at the start of the year and said, ‘Play the ball where the monkey leaves it.’ That kind of came into it. This was what we had to deal with it and we dealt with it.

“I don’t think there could have been too many distractions to take us off that All-Ireland. To be honest it wasn’t much of a problem.

Cillian O’Shea and Con O’Callaghan lift the trophy Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

‘We were lucky enough our manager Phil McElwee was one of the selectors. He told us it wasn’t a problem and there was no pressure from the club.

“If Phil had asked us we were happy to play. All the lads were with him on that decision. They told us to concentrate on the final.”

Dublin went on to defeat Galway by six and lift the last ever All-Ireland U21 football crown.

Byrne was later named EirGrid U21 Football Player of the Year, and his stunning season bodes well for his Dublin senior prospects. Meanwhile Murchan was called up to Jim Gavin’s set-up and made the bench for their game against Carlow last weekend.

Na Fianna were knocked out of the Dublin championship by St Vincent’s in the second round, but they’ve got a full league programme to complete over the summer.

“It was very disappointing after the game as we had our chances and if we could have taken them it would have made it a tighter game coming the end. We are fairly optimistic.

“We knew in the last few years that we could have done a bit better but it was the luck of the draw getting Vincent’s the last two years in the second round. We are hopeful for the future and there’s a few good lads at minor that might be able to come in and help us out again.

“I’m going to head away for a few weeks and then kick back into gear. Keep doing what I’m doing with the club and hopefully then I might get a call (from the seniors) someday.

Aaron Byrne Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“Now it’s back to the club. We’ve a good bit of the league to play. We’ve only played one game before this as we had a few games called off. There’s no point taking the foot off the pedal now.”

It was a special moment for Na Fianna who had clubman and former Dublin star Farrell in charge and three players on the team.

It’s no surprise the young trio dominated the county together at underage level since their teens.

“We’re part of a lucky team (at Na Fianna). We won Feile, U15, U16, minor and U21 championships together. We were part of a golden age in Na Fianna.

“You see the likes of Shane Barrett up with the Dublin senior hurlers, he was a big part of our football team as well. There’s a few other lads getting in with the senior lads now. We were kind of split with the age group that we had great hurlers and footballers.”

Na Fianna are a coming club, and one that has some very good underage coaching structures in place.

They’re also the home club of incoming GAA president John Horan, who’ll take up the position next February.

“People in the club are just very dedicated to coaching,” explains Byrne. “I played with Lucan Sarsfields until I was about 10. I lived out there and then I moved house.

Jonny Cooper Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“My mam always wanted me to be a Na Fianna man because her brothers played with them. Niall Cooper, Jonny’s brother, was coaching us at one stage and he’s excellent. He’s up with us at senior now.

“They try to get a few senior lads helping out with the underage teams and it has worked out well. There’s good things happening in the club so hopefully it continues.

Former Dublin manager Paul ‘Pillar’ Caffrey gave Byrne his senior debut with the club, while the likes of Donal Burke, Conor McHugh, Jonny Cooper and Tomas Brady also hail from the Glasnevin outfit.

“When we were in the first year minor Pillar called myself Murchan and a few other lads up to play U21 with the club. That’s when we got our first U21 medal.

“We had the confidence Pillar knew what we were capable of and he’d seen us play. We didn’t have to prove too much to him. In fairness to the rest of the lads they gave us confidence going in that it wasn’t too difficult a step up to senior.

“The likes of Jonny, McHugh and Tomas Brady that were up with Dublin, when they come back after winning the All-Ireland you think they could be a bit complacent coming back to the club. But I’ve never seen people drive standards on so much.

“They never leave it to a manager to start telling you that it’s wrong. If we’re doing a drill in training and they don’t think the standard is there, they’ll call it in and get everyone around them. You see the standards they bring and it pushes everyone on. It’s incredible to be around. It is impressive. When they’re there the training goes up a couple of levels.”

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Kevin O'Brien

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