Monday 29 May 2017

Vincent Hogan: The method in Daly's madness

Former Tipp captain and now Dublin selector Richie Stakelum tells Vincent Hogan why sharing in Anthony Daly’s passion for All-Ireland glory will inspire him to push his adopted county to rise above the world of mortals in Croke Park tomorrow

MAYBE revolution is, above all, a state of mind. When Richie Stakelum thinks about what it is that Anthony Daly has brought to their lives, he suspects it to be something as simple as the nobility of struggle. All the words in the world can fall from a man's mouth, but, without little acts of selflessness, they become nothing more than stones.

He remembers one January day in '09 and, from early evening, snow leaking from a sky of velvet black. The M50 became a pocket of Antarctica. It took him three hours just to get home from Citywest and, pulling into the drive, he felt like Amundsen pitching tent in the South Pole.

Then the texts began to fly.

Daly was in O'Toole Park ready to start training. Where was everybody? Suddenly, across a quilted city, kit-bags were being tossed in car boots and wheels skittering in drives.

"There was four or five inches of snow on the ground," recalls Stakelum "and I don't know how in the name of God he got up from Clare. But, when players heard he was there, they started to make an inordinate effort to get to O'Toole Park.

"I thought at the time they'd be saying: 'This is f******g insane stuff!' But no. He knew better than I did that he needed to send a signal of how this has to be madness. And, yes, we have to become lunatics. And we have to show that we're lunatics to shock people out of the comfort zone.

"In other words, nobody could talk about making the change unless they were going to do it themselves. And Dalo is a lunatic, in the nicest possible sense."

That night, Dublin trained.

IF, IN '87, HE BECAME the face of Tipperary's escape from the wilderness, Stakelum's hurling childhood comes back to him as an endless smear of bad days.

He grew up in a Borrisoleigh house with high connections. His uncle, Pat, was a great Tipp player of the '50s and he remembers his late father calling him down from bed one evening to meet a man sitting to tea in their kitchen.

Christy Ring reached out to the child with this great shovel of a hand, murmured: "Howya boy," and continued eating. He recalls Ring being surrounded at the table by local gentry, John and Jimmy Doyle, Jimmy Finn and, of course, Uncle Pat.

But they belonged to an era now dusty in Tipp minds. Richie soon came to associate Championship with hurt.

True, he was with family in the top deck of the Hogan Stand when they beat Kilkenny in the '71 All-Ireland final and remembers the plastic bags filled with water hitting the car as they drove home through Urlingford that evening.

But that was the end of it. From that Sunday to the day, 16 years later, he himself stood in Killarney, declaring "the famine" over, Tipp amounted to a basket case.

For some reason, games in Limerick and the endlessly grey drive home through Dolla and the Silvermines came to form a kind of crust in his psyche.

He remembers being in Thurles in '81 and Mossie Carroll, who had hurled with Limerick in an All-Ireland the previous September, now giving an exhibition against his native county. Tipp went off to a standing ovation at half-time and, not long after the resumption, led by 14 points.

Then Joe McKenna knifed three second-half goals and, incredibly, the lead had dwindled to nothing.

"The worst day of all," Stakelum recalls of that draw. "It killed people." Tipp went to Limerick for the replay with all the optimism of blindfolded men granted a last cigarette.

Two years earlier, they'd beaten Galway in the National League final, big Jim Kehoe having a field day at full-forward. He'd already scored five points and was walking off injured only to turn, field a Galway puck-out, and throw over a nonchalant sixth. The Irish Independent made Jim their 'Sportstar of the Week'.

A couple of weeks later, Cork beat Tipp by a point in Pairc Ui Chaoimh.

Richie remembers a Borrisoleigh priest, Fr Power, lamenting on the train home of how "sick and tired" he was of watching Tipp being involved in great Munster Championship games that they lost.

And he will never forget the silent walk back out the Nenagh road after the epic '84 provincial final in Semple Stadium and sitting into the car to hear Micheal O Muircheartaigh interview John Fenton.

"Can we take it that Tipp are back?" O Muircheartaigh asked the Cork midfielder. "Not until they win Munster," said Fenton.

Something had eaten into Tipp people. Something rotten. "There was a lot of stuff bandied about at the time," recalls Stakelum, "and one thing that made an indelible mark on me was hearing people say: 'Sure why would you want to hurl for Tipp?'

"The question was being asked would players really want to put themselves in the firing line of dog's abuse. And, to me, that was incomprehensible. I mean how could you possibly not want to hurl for Tipperary?"

But that was the bed that Tipp lay in through the early 80s. The game had left them behind.

HE DIDN'T PLAN one syllable of the Killarney speech and is, sometimes, disarmed by the depiction of it as some kind of Gettysburg Address.

The words flowed, essentially, from understanding. One year earlier, they'd played 'Spancil Hill' over the tannoy in Ennis after Tipp spilled an eight-point lead against Clare.

The picture of retreat had been painted so often in their minds by then, they "ended up stepping into the canvas."

Then 'Babs' Keating came into their lives and began talking of a Tipperary they could not recognise.

He dressed them in smart blazers, fed them like prize heifers and put them up in five-star hotels.

Tipperary Supporters' Club funded the revolution and, by the time they beat Cork in that '87 replay, they had become hurling's new modernist wing.

Winning Munster was seen as a stepping-stone, not an arrival.

"We didn't hate Cork," reflects Stakelum now. "I remember playing against them for the U-21s and my Uncle Pat more or less saying that playing Cork was what defined a Tipp man. But the word hate would never have applied to how we felt about them.

"That just wasn't there. There was no spleen. By Christ did we love to beat them, but there was no hatred."

His speech would retrace the "heartbreaks and scourgings" of a lost generation of Tipperary hurlers. Dignified and free of bombast, it seemed to strike a perfect chord.

But then they lost the All-Ireland semi-final to Galway and, somewhere in the flow of recrimination, Stakelum became a target. He got blamed for a Martin Naughton goal and, slowly, found himself losing his footing on the ladder.

In his autobiography, Babs would write of his regret at what followed. Richie slipped to the periphery of things and would walk away after the All-Ireland win in '89.

"He deserved better," wrote Babs seven years later. "Unfortunately, he let the criticism affect him to a great degree. He lost form and, eventually, his regular place on the half-back line.

"We were wrong, very wrong. Richie deserved better from us."

In '94, Babs would materialise in the carpark of the school in Tallaght where Stakelum was then teaching and ask him to consider a return to the Tipp colours. Richie had found his confidence again with Kilmacud Crokes, but knew the fire for inter-county was no longer in him.

"Did I get some stick from supporters (in '87)? Yeah, I did," he recalls now. "But that didn't have any major impact on my life. It obviously didn't help the confidence, but injuries had a big part to play too.

"In the space of less than 12 months, I broke a leg, a thumb, a hand and, then, my jaw. All of those injuries, psychologically, started to take a toll on me under the high ball. I stopped attacking the ball and started playing an awful lot more conservatively. I stopped hurling with abandon and that didn't suit me.

"I remember someone saying to me at the time: 'Jesus, you must have brittle bones!' But I knew I hadn't. Then, after a couple of years hurling with Crokes in Dublin, my confidence came back. Next thing, Babs was out in the school carpark. We went off for a spin and, being honest, I was flattered and probably believed I still had something to give.

"And I considered it, though not for very long. I knew in my heart of hearts that that time had passed and that zeal and madness that is required for inter-county wasn't there anymore. The fire was out.

"'Babs, I'll be honest with you,' I said. 'I don't have that desire anymore.'''

IT TOOK A LONG TIME for Stakelum to understand the energies coursing through Dublin hurling.

In his first two years with Crokes, he pined for Borrisoleigh. He'd been living in the city a whole decade when he made the club switch in '92, but -- deep down -- he was still a parish animal. One of his last games at home was a junior football semi-final in Holycross and he came away from it with a broken collar-bone and shoulder as well as damaged vertebrae in his neck.

For the next six months, he stewed. A man with too much time to think.

"It took me a while to realise that Kilmacud Crokes wasn't a parish," he remembers. "And I found the transition something very difficult to understand. In my own mind, I got a bit frustrated. On a Sunday night in Borrisoleigh, if you were after playing a poor game, you wouldn't be inclined to go down to the pub for a drink. Because, if you did, you'd get it. And rightly so (laughing).

"In Dublin, regardless of whether you won, lost or drew, it was kind of the same reaction. And I found that difficult to cope with. So, it took me a while because the same mad, manic rawness that you have in village areas wasn't there. It took me time to understand that that didn't make people any less committed.

"Everyone was just as anxious to do well, but in a different way. The old parish lingo stuff just didn't apply."

The hurling was routinely salty with "a liberal use of timber" and he quickly embraced the wisdom of moving a ball quickly.

But the perception was that the best players were all country imports, men like 'Shiner' Brennan and Eamonn Morrissey of Kilkenny. And Faughs had a name for harvesting them the moment they reached Newlands Cross.

But young talent was being farmed too and, at Crokes, Billy Noctor inveigled him into helping out with a talented group of U-14s that had just won an All-Ireland Division 1 Feile. Last year, when Stakelum was manager of the Dublin U-21s that won the Leinster title, six of those Crokes boys were on the panel.

It wasn't just Kilmacud, though. This kind of growth had long been recognised across the city. The game just needed a figurehead.

It was Nicky English who texted him news of Daly's appointment in November of '08. He didn't know Daly other than from a brief chat at the wedding of former Clare corner-back, Michael O'Halloran, some years earlier in Limerick.

But that evening, surrounded by hurling people in Glenalbyn, a palpable giddiness took hold. "This," announced Stakelum "may be one of the greatest days in Dublin's hurling history."

And, somehow, he had a sixth sense of what was coming.

The following Thursday, the phone rang at home and, when he didn't recognise the number, he remembers thinking: 'I've a fair idea of who this is'. They met at the Clare Inn a few days later, drank copious amounts of coffee and lost themselves so deep in hurling talk, they left without paying the bill.

And the night Daly and Stakelum sat down in the Citywest Hotel with Vincent Teehan and Ciaran Hetherton, the plan was unambiguous. "Look, we're not here to make some marginal improvement in Dublin hurling," said Daly.

"That's not our job. Our job is to win the All-Ireland."

IF HE HAS AN IMAGE of last year's meltdown, it is of Oisin Gough at the post-match meal.

He remembers staring across at the Cuala kid and thinking how utterly lost he looked. Not a mouthful of food passed Gough's lips. The grief of losing to Antrim already filled his stomach.

Stakelum didn't wait for the bus out of Croke Park that evening, preferring his own company for a walk back to collect his car at Parnell Park.

He remembers not a single step of the journey. The following morning, the U-21s had a challenge game in Portmarnock and, before they met the players, Teehan and himself scrubbed the hang-dog looks from their faces.

"This has nothing to do with ye guys," they said.

But bad luck was coming at them like a tsunami now. The following Tuesday, David Treacy tore his cruciate in a challenge against the county's minors. One week later, Shane Stapleton did his in a Tullamore challenge against Sixmilebridge.

By the time Galway got hold of them in the All-Ireland semi-final, the heart had been ripped out of Dublin.

One year on? The seniors are National League champions and the minors and U-21s are Leinster kings. The year has pitched Dublin hurling into the big time.

Daly came back in his own time and, somehow, relocated the evangelist within. And, if mishap has followed the team like a shadow, the city spirit burns.

When, on the Friday before their All-Ireland quarter-final against Limerick, Stakelum took the call from a garda friend to say that Conal Keaney had come off his motorbike in a collision with "a lorry," time jolted to a halt. For maybe an hour, there was a vacuum of information.

"A horrible little stretch," recalls Richie. "And all I'm thinking is an accident between a motorbike and a lorry can't be good."

Keaney, as it happened, escaped with just a torn cruciate. In doing so, he joined their list of long-term absentees like Stephen Hiney, Tomas Brady, formerly Joey Boland and, latterly, Gough and Treacy. In crossing the Rubicon, Dublin -- clearly -- ran over a family of black cats.

No matter, tomorrow they square up to Tipperary. Stakelum's people. Daly's favourite enemy.

Richie chuckles. "You have to have that kind of craziness, that kind of magic," he says of the Dublin manager's personality. "Last year's defeat to Antrim took a huge emotional toll on him, on all of us really.

"I think we realised we needed to radically change, to analyse every detail of what we did from A to Z. Now we're light years away from what we were doing even a year ago.

"But look, we're playing Tipp. We're not fools. They're a brilliant team. Last year's All-Ireland final was the best match I ever saw.

"In the world of mortals, we have no chance. But let's go and throw the kitchen sink at it, go at it with absolute abandon. Because this chance might never appear for any of us again."

Irish Independent

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