Vincent Hogan: Ryan O’Dwyer has no regrets over switch
Ryan O’Dwyer has no regrets over switch as he aims to thwart former Tipperary team-mates in the sky blue of Dublin
Ryan O'Dwyer took a text from James Woodlock this week, enquiring about the condition of his shoulder. He responded positively, expressing the hope that Anthony Daly might give him some game time against Tipperary. "Good," replied Woodlock. "Hopefully, I'll get a shot at you!"
It's been the tenor of O'Dwyer's week. Wall-to-wall mischief. Woodlock is a good friend he will link up with after this evening's game in Croke Park. O'Dwyer texted him good wishes last Saturday night on seeing him make his inter-county return against Kilkenny.
In a sense, the two now share much common ground.
Woodlock has described as "bittersweet" watching Tipperary win last year's All-Ireland and knowing he might have been part of the story but for a horrible leg break suffered in the '09 county final. O'Dwyer, too, wrestled with thoughts of 'what if' as he stood on Hill 16 last September alongside his brother, John.
In June, Liam Sheedy had called him back into the Tipp panel after an 18-month absence. O'Dwyer went in for two weeks, then flew to Boston for the rest of the summer. Why? Because he'd given his word.
When Tipp hadn't wanted him in the summer of '09, he'd found consolation in friendships forged on the east coast of America. The 'Wexford' club asked him to return and he'd given a commitment that he would.
"If I give someone my word, I don't break it," he says with a wry smile now. He is sitting in the boardroom of St MacDara's Community School in Templeogue. The Wednesday before Tipp ended Kilkenny's five-in-a-row bid, he started work here as a woodwork teacher, having flown in from America 48 hours earlier.
Seeing old friends reach the mountain-top left him in an odd place on September 5. "Maybe a little bit of pity for myself crept in for a minute," he reflects. "But it didn't last. I mean I was so delighted as a Tipp man and I'd soldiered with so many of the lads.
"Anyway, I don't believe in regrets."
He'd been part of Babs Keating's championship campaign in '07 and, again, of Sheedy's first year in '08. A lean, resilient kid from Cashel who looked like the answer to Tipp's long-term search for a No 11. But, for every step forward that Ryan O'Dwyer took as a Tipperary hurler, something always seemed to knock him a step back.
He broke a thumb in the first of their three games with Limerick in the Munster Championship of '07 and, having been used as a sub the second day, sat out the third game with his hand in a cast. While starting subsequent qualifiers against Dublin and Offaly, he was on the bench (with Brendan Cummins, Eoin Kelly and Shane McGrath) as Tipp eventually lost an All-Ireland quarter-final to Wexford in Croke Park.
"I was warming up for about half an hour, but never got on," he smiles in reminiscence.
In '08, he was a starter for Tipp against Cork in Pairc Ui Chaoimh. The game would uncork their first away championship victory over the Rebels in 85 years, yet O'Dwyer remembers it as a personal nightmare. Two weeks beforehand, he broke his sternum in a club championship game against Cappawhite. An MRI scan confirmed the damage, yet -- recklessly -- he kept the information to himself.
"They asked me was I alright and I'm like 'fine, no bother at all!' My own stupidity," he remembers. "It still hurts even at times now. I got a horrible day down in the Pairc. I was awful. I try to shut it out of my mind now.
"It's as if I never played that game."
He was dropped for the Munster final against Clare and, despite regaining his form in training, never played another minute of championship hurling for Tipperary. Sheedy, it seemed, had made his mind up.
The following winter, O'Dwyer was walking out the gate of University Limerick when he got the dreaded phone call. Sheedy began by making some small talk, but his tone was instantly transparent. "Afraid I've bad news for you," he eventually conceded.
Maybe an hour later, Seamus Butler rang O'Dwyer. "Did you get a phone call too?" he asked. Turned out eight of them had been culled.
"It just ripped my heart in two," he reveals. "Since I was five, playing with my brothers out on the road, I'd wanted three things. To hurl for Tipp, to be a fireman and to take after my father (a carpenter). But to hurl with Tipp was the major one."
Hindsight arms him with a peculiar clarity now. O'Dwyer says he has no gripe with Sheedy's call. If anything, he blames himself.
"In my own mind, I'd let him down," he reflects. "The first couple of league games that year, I was playing well. But I'd be taken off for the last 10 minutes and, as often as not, Seamie Callanan would come in and score three or four points.
"I've never said this to anyone before, but that seriously shattered my confidence. I used be afraid going to the ball. If I made a mistake, I'd be looking for the curly finger from the sideline. I'd be very good friends with Seamie, but I went through a hard time back then.
"You couldn't help but be listening to what people were saying. It was always 'Seamie's scored such and such in 10 minutes, he should be starting centre-forward ... '
"If you hear enough people say it, you start to believe it yourself. I'm better at blanking stuff out now but, back then, I ended up trying too hard. For two weeks before the Cork game ('08), I'd say I ripped about seven or eight sliotars against the wall at home. Just trying to get right.
"By the end of it, I was nearly sick of hurling. I was torturing myself. I'd never say anything bad about Liam, but I always felt on edge with him. I felt if I was going to make a mistake, that was me finished. And I just know I hurl so much better with a bit of freedom. It wasn't Liam's fault. I was beating myself."
He is of Dublin now. It was September when Richie Stakelum rang and, to begin with, O'Dwyer thought the call a hoax. He was collecting cones after a session with the U-8s in Cashel when Stakelum enquired if he would be interested in a meeting.
The job in Dublin had changed everything and, even that morning, friends had been slagging him that "Daly will be on to you now!"
He met them the following Tuesday and O'Dwyer was impressed by Anthony Daly's sales pitch. They told him not to rush his decision, mind. To take as long as he needed.
That Saturday, he was at the ladies' football sevens in Naomh Mearnog when he decided to ring home and seek his parents' imprimatur. "I'd be very close to them both," he says. "Without them, I'd be nothing."
His mother, Bernie, responded as he always knew she would.
"I'd be proud to see you hurling with Dublin!" she said.
And John, his father? A naturally undemonstrative men, he simply told him, "Sure, do whatever you want".
"But would you be proud?" asked Ryan.
There were mixed feelings from a couple of his brothers, but nothing to discourage him from joining Daly's mission now. Changing club, mind, would be a different proposition.
To begin with, he had no intention of leaving Cashel King Cormacs. After years of neglect, the club is back moving purposefully forward again and, in young players like Ross Doyle and Jonathan Grogan, might well have Tipp stars of the future.
But the logistics of his new arrangement were beginning to hit home and, out of a simple sense of fairness to both Cashel and his new employers, O'Dwyer chose to make the break.
He picked Kilmacud Crokes, not simply because of Stakelum's influence, but also from a sense that here was a young team with which he could make a difference.
"Leaving Cashel was the hardest thing I did," he says now. "They're lads I grew up with. My family's still in Cashel. They're team-building at the moment and I knew, to some extent, they were relying on me.
"But I have a responsibility to be at the top of my game in the job here. And I didn't think I could do that going up and down the road to Cashel."
If there has been a surprise in all of this, it has been the warmth encountered. His first night with the Dublin hurlers was a November get-together in Castleknock. Daly introduced the newcomers, then broke everyone up into smaller pods.
O'Dwyer found himself in a group with Dotsy O'Callaghan.
"Where are you living?" asked Dotsy. "Tallaght."
"What part?" "Springfield."
"Great. I'm living there too. That'll be handy for training."
Instantly, he was made feel welcome in the group. Shortly after the league fixtures were revealed, he was working out in the gym in Ballyboden when Simon Lambert alerted him to the venue for tonight's game.
"Tipp in Croke Park, the script is written for you!" said Lambert.
As it happens, it wasn't quite. Three weeks ago, O'Dwyer damaged his shoulder in training and will start this evening on the Dublin bench. "There's hard hitting in training, as you can see," he says.
So where does he feel that Dublin stand, in relation to the All-Ireland champions?
"There's very little skill-wise between Dublin and Tipperary," says O'Dwyer. "Tipp's biggest thing is belief and a certain type of arrogance. Not a bad arrogance, just a feeling that comes from tradition. That's the only difference.
"Dublin have to get arrogant like that. Arrogant in a good way. Believe me, they're going to make the breakthrough. Sooner or later, it's going to happen. I don't think they fear anyone."