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'They were pushing on so getting back to where you were a year before wasn't going to be enough'

Former Dublin captain Paul Griffin narrowly missed out on his county’s golden years.

FORMER DUBLIN FOOTBALLER Paul Griffin could sense the end was drawing near.

Paul Griffin injured Paul Griffin being stretchered off during Dublin's National League clash against Monaghan in 2010. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

A serious knee injury had pushed him out to the sidelines for almost two seasons, but even though the healing stage was over, he was still struggling to make his way back from the fringes.

Griffin was first introduced to the senior Dublin ranks as a 19 year-old in 2002, and for the next seven years of his inter-county career, he had minimal issues with injuries.

His progression to the starting 15 moved at a favourable pace too.

He made his debut in 2003, and after his club Kilmacud Crokes achieved All-Ireland success in 2009, Griffin was entrusted with the honour of captaining his county.

At 25 years of age, he was still climbing towards the peak of his abilities, until he was felled by a cruciate tear during a National League game against Monaghan in 2010.

He tried to make up the lost ground, but the game had mercilessly moved on without him, and keeping pace with his teammates was becoming increasingly difficult.

To compound his misery, the timing of his enforced absence between 2010 and 2011 happened to coincide with a time of renewal in Dublin football.

After 16 years of wandering in the wilderness, they were All-Ireland champions again.

Bryan Cullen Byran Cullen holds the Sam Maguire aloft after the 2011 All-Ireland final. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

And although no-one knew it yet, the boys from the capital would later evolve into a dominant force and go on to claim three more All-Ireland titles over the next five years.

Jim Gavin’s charges are pursuing three-in-a-row glory later this afternoon.

Griffin was playing during the formative stages of that rise to prominence, and despite the years of service he gave to Dublin, he was left behind when they struck gold.

“I suppose there was a sense at that stage that something was building. We were beaten in the semi-final that year (2010) by Cork, but we developed it a bit further, we pushed on.

“You want to contribute as much as possible, but it’s just one of those things. Up to the seven or eight years I had been playing, I didn’t have any issues in relation to injury.

Those things happen in sport. You were trying to manage it and trying to give yourself the best chance of getting back and the medical team give you every shot at getting back, but it just didn’t work out in the end. It was just a bit too difficult.”

The early 2000′s was a bleak period for Dublin football.

Winning the Leinster championship wasn’t the sure thing that it is for the current squad, and navigating the waters at All-Ireland quarter-final and semi-final stages was effectively beyond them.

Repeating the glory of 1995 was obviously the goal, but it was becoming less and less likely with every passing year. The players were in danger of letting the opportunity pass them by.

“Everyone was conscious of the time gap between All-Irelands,” Griffin recalls. “Dessie (Farrell) and Jason (Sherlock) would have been there at the start in terms of guys who would have been involved in the team in 1995. They had the experience.

We had great teams around us. There were Tyrone and Kerry teams who were exceptional and better than us. The reason we didn’t win it was because we weren’t good enough. But you were conscious of, ‘was this going to happen?,’ particularly towards the latter part.

“I suppose that was why 2011 was quite a key year. I think once we got over the line, it took some of that pressure off.

“The kick on since that All-Ireland has been immense in terms of the confidence it gave that group of players to push on and really drive forward.”

Dublin reached a low point in 2009, when they made a humiliating exit at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage.

Declan O'Sullivan and Paul Griffin Paul Griffin tackling Kerry's Declan O'Sullivan during the 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

They looked to be on the cusp of making a breakthrough, and were paired with a Kerry side whose campaign was riddled with poor performances. Defeating the Kingdom in Croke Park seemed like a simple formality.

Source: PJ's Classic GAA Channel/YouTube

But in a savage role reversal, Kerry dished out a 17-point pummeling, which prompted then Dublin manager Pat Gilroy to produce the infamous ‘startled earwigs’ remark.

Unfortunately for Griffin, it was his first year as captain, not that the title cushioned the blow of the disappointment in any way.

“We went in with high hopes, we had played well up to that. We didn’t perform well on the day. We probably had a few of those chastening experiences when we under pressure, our ability to knuckle down.

The pressure would get to us and we tended to ship scores. It happened in the previous year against Tyrone and we hadn’t created enough of a safety net to ride that out.

“Being captain didn’t make the defeat worse than for anyone else. It was a key moment in terms of the development of the group and looking at a more fundamental shift in how we were going to become more competitive at that time of the year against the better teams.”

Dublin’s search for redemption began in earnest the following season, with Griffin holding onto his title as captain for a second consecutive year.

But the injury to his knee meant he would play no part in Dublin’s transition from contenders to the all-conquering unit they have become.

He sat out the 2010 season in order to rehab his knee, but the need for another procedure in 2011 stalled his comeback.

And while he was still chasing his full fitness with no success, the pack was moving on without him.

“You were just carrying things and then by the end of that year that was sort of the end of it, there was no need to go back the following year.

Even when I got back playing, you were conscious of it becoming more difficult. You were becoming uncomfortable the day after and it was taking longer to recovery. It was more of a slog, it wasn’t as enjoyable at that stage.

“It wasn’t a case of you woke up one morning and that was the end, it had kind of built up over the months.

“Guys are progressing during the summer and the pace is increasing, so you’re struggling more and more to keep up with it. The gap was becoming slightly wider and it was becoming obvious that you weren’t going to get back and be competitive with the group you were in.

They were pushing on so getting back to where you were a year or two before wasn’t going to be enough because they had pushed on beyond that stage.

Griffin is a chartered physiotherapist, and despite what his profession would preach about the importance of committing to a recovery programme no matter how gradual, he was often tempted to accelerate his return.

There was a tendency to do that because you’re conscious of the time of year and your season is running away from you. You do push it at times and try to accelerate things, but you have limited success with it.

“It was something we had gone through a couple of cycles of in trying to get back, but you recognise that it’s just going to be too difficult to try to compete at the level I was at. That became more apparent and you’re more aware of what the prognosis is going to be.

The odds are stacked against you and it’s going to be more damaging.”

Bryan Cullen would go on to lift the Sam Maguire for Dublin in their famous victory over Kerry in the 2011 decider, with Griffin watching on from the sidelines.

Paul Griffin enjoys the after match lap of honour Paul Griffin celebrating with Dublin after their All-Ireland final victory in 2011. Source: James Crombie

What began as a career that showed such promise unfortunately petered out under the weight of injury, but Griffin doesn’t reflect on his time in the Dublin jersey with any resentment or regret.

He feels privileged to have held the honour for as long as he did, and is glad the county finally did make that breakthrough.

It’s about getting Dublin across the line rather than your role within the group. Your role shifts but ultimately it’s about Dublin football doing well.

“From my point of view, being part of the group and seeing the guys succeed was satisfying.

“The important thing was that Dublin football was competing. You’re watching guys that you played with, you’ve been through the hard times that they’ve gone through and seeing them succeed brings a massive sense of pride.”

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