Battle for respect from the best
The story of Dublin hurling over the last 15 seasons can't be told without reciting the story of Conal Keaney. When he first appeared as a Leaving Cert student against Laois in the 2001 Leinster Championship, showing momentary touches of his class as a second-half substitute, Dublin hadn't been in a senior provincial final for 10 years. An underage development squad was being mobilised that would win the Leinster minor title in 2005, their first since 1983, but by then he was gone, having become disillusioned with poor results and third-rate preparation.
He gave county football and hurling an honest go in 2004 and felt both suffered. But he left hurling with a heavy heart and the promise he would return when the environment was right. It took six years. At the first training session on his comeback he was present at 6.0am, half an hour before the appointed start, ready for road. "He was first out, on his own pucking around, so straight away without opening his mouth, the message loud and clear was there are standards here; those are the standards I demand of myself," recalls Richie Stakelum, Dublin selector at the time. "His very presence and the way he trained went through the team like a bolt."
By then he had left the football team that would win an All-Ireland that September, but the previous year he hadn't been a regular starter. In Stakelum's opinion this would have devalued a medal for someone with Keaney's convictions. It had to be won on the field where he felt he was contributing. The question then was: could he contribute to Dublin's hurling team, having last played inter-county hurling in 2004?
The answer was emphatic. From the early games in the Walsh Cup, he hurled like he had never been away. Through the National League run which ended with Dublin reaching the final and beating Kilkenny, he was exceptionally good. The monster point he scored into the breeze from under the Hogan Stand in the second half of the final shines among the manifold memorable contributions of the comeback years. His arrival, and that of Ryan O'Dwyer, added a new physical presence that the team had lacked and made Dublin the serious contenders he always felt they should be.
"He was very lucky as well," says Anthony Daly, "in that Ballyboden are such a good club. Shane Ryan was stuck up in Portmarnock - with all due respect, he just couldn't get the touch back as quick to where it needed to be. But Conal could straight away. Boden were winning championships and getting a good bit of hurling every year. He had it in the wrists and he's incredibly brave - it would frighten you how brave he was."
Keaney is a lion-hearted performer on the field; off it he has a serious and reserved nature and can be exceedingly self-critical. Stakelum and Daly could both see that. "He wouldn't be the most confident player, and that goes hand in hand with being incredibly hard on himself," says Stakelum. "When I see confidence I see someone like Danny Sutcliffe or Liam Rushe who are naturally confident, in the best sense, they won't be intimidated. They don't see themselves as any way inferior. But Conal doesn't lack self-belief. He won't flinch when a hard ball has to be won."
Keaney proved true to his word. In 2005 he stated his intention to return and win something with Dublin hurlers and that belief never wavered. With a Galway father, his childhood saw him develop a fascination around Galway and especially Joe Cooney. He still has a Galway shirt at home and he spent many hours poring over videos of the team in action, observing their movement, picking up things.
Dublin didn't offer the same role models and nowhere near the same success. At the point of departure in 2005, training attendance sank to under 10 players. Morale was rock bottom. "I always wanted to play in the same set-up as the footballers had," Keaney explains. "And that (hurling) players should have the same ambition. We are definitely there now. Probably 10 years too late for me. But it is great to be there and involved at the level that is required. I was always going to come back at some stage. I think the timing was right. The players were ambitious, they were good enough, they wanted to win. They weren't just happy to be there and getting the jersey for the first round of the championship. I could never understand any of that nonsense, going around getting the gear and then parading the gear around for the rest of the year."
His form vindicated the decision. "Obviously you are nervous going back. It is one thing playing club, a different thing playing inter-county. But I probably put more effort and time into it, hurling outside of training, than I've ever done. I used to train every day before work. I wanted to make sure hurling wasn't going to be the problem. I wasn't going to be a footballer playing hurling. I wanted to be known as a hurler and that was it. I wasn't there for the ride. When I came back I wanted to be the best."
There are moments in matches, the big games, that stand out for Stakelum. That point against Kilkenny in the league final that would make the hairs stand on the back of your neck. The outstanding show of leadership against Galway when they won the 2013 Leinster final. His influence against Cork after half-time in that year's All-Ireland semi-final when he helped turn the game Dublin's way, though ultimately they came up short. Last year in Wexford when they were in a dogfight and he delivered five points.
Keaney was their natural leader but not a vocal presence in the dressing-room. That didn't come to him naturally and he wasn't one to fake it. His former manager at Ballyboden, Liam Hogan, remembers an exception, before they went out to play St Vincent's in the 2007 county final. Boden had lost the previous year's final to Craobh Chiarain, who had the greater stomach for it even if they didn't necessarily have the better hurlers. Those doubts over Boden's nerve carried through to the final a year later. "There was a belief out there that Ballyboden had a soft underbelly," says Hogan, "and they had."
Before they left the dressing-room Hogan was about to make a short speech when the St Vincent's team were heard exiting along the corridor. As they passed they slapped the Ballyboden door a few times. "I presume to intimate us," says Hogan. "Keaney stepped forward and almost broke the hurley off the physio's bench in the middle of the room. He wasn't shouting, his voice was controlled but you could hear the determination in his voice. There and then I saw there was no need for me to say anything, I took a step backwards and I observed the lads and knew he had their undivided attention. No need to say anything, the job was done. When he had finished speaking I just let them out. Himself and Stephen Perkins led them out."
Boden won and proceeded to win four more titles in immediate succession. "He is the leader on the pitch and very seldom spoke," Hogan explains. "A very strong-willed character. He trains very hard. He gives it everything in training."
Keaney was a fully-fledged Dublin county footballer when Hogan took up the reins. "Even though he was with the footballers he would always be out with Dave Curtin and Emmet Carroll hurling every single day, so I knew the touch was always going to be there. When Dublin were out of the championship I'd tell him he really should take a week or two off and come back to us, but each time it happened he was back to us within a week. He is very driven. He wanted to work all the time on his game."
He managed to get back for the Leinster Championship campaign with his club in 2011 after being in a motorbike accident earlier in the year. Lucky to escape with his life, Keaney suffered serious injuries including a cruciate tear. It happened shortly before Dublin were to play Limerick in the All-Ireland quarter-final, and on the day the late Andy Kettle, county board chairman at the time, wore Keaney's jersey. The players were motivated after watching a video clip from the hospital bed showing Keaney wishing them luck.
"To come back emotionally and physically from the injuries he suffered, because they were horrific both mentally and physically, took a lot - it was a hugely traumatic experience for him," says Stakelum.
Under Ger Cunningham, and now 32, Keaney finds himself relocated to wing-back. Hogan believes his best position is full-forward and Stakelum tends to agree, especially now, but versatility was never an issue. The appeal for Cunningham is obvious enough: he has a strong, abrasive player on his half-back line, good in the air, a strong hurler off either side. "You probably have to think a lot more about your game than I did as a forward, where you do things naturally," says the player himself. "Now you have to keep track of where the ball is, where your man is, where the strengths and weaknesses are. Two years ago I was playing in the backs, I think I started centre-back against Wexford and then I went back up the field. I don't really mind."
Cunningham has put his own stamp on the team. But their form held up in a tough division where they came close to reaching another league final. "He (Cunningham) has probably opened up people's minds to being flexible in where they can play," says Keaney. "A lot of the time under Daly you probably saw much the same team playing the Walsh Cup final that you'd see in the championship. He's (Cunningham) saying if you are a good hurler you can play anywhere really."
He is enjoying it, the regime change, even though they all knew Daly would be a big void to fill. "A lot of lads loved Daly, the way he went about it, they liked the crack that we had with him. He brought Dublin hurling to a different place to where it was, to where it should be all the time. Like, you couldn't argue with a fella like that, he has done it all. Captain of two All-Irelands. There as never any question over what he was doing, ever."
The successor had to come from outside, in Keaney's view. "I don't think there is anyone from Dublin, in Dublin, at this point capable of taking the team."
Why? "I just don't think that they would have the ability to bring us on to where we need to be. No-one has played at that level that is coaching that I can see. Maybe some lads will come through and in a bit of time will be there but I think it was important to get someone who not only played at the top level, but coached at the top level. I think he was a great appointment; we were lucky to get him."
He looks at where he is now compared to where he stood 10 years ago when he left the hurling team. He can take comfort in that. "There is no question about it, Dublin will win a couple of All-Irelands, it is only a matter of time," he says. Others said that back then but it was a bluff. Keaney says it not for effect but because he earnestly believes it.
"I think it's very open," he says of this year's championship. "I don't think any team, on league form anyway, is streaking ahead. Obviously there are three or four counties there again, I wouldn't fear any of them. Whether you'd put us in those three or four I don't know. I certainly would."
Choosing hurling is now a more appealing option but young dual players are still lost. "I can understand what they are doing, I wouldn't question them at all. You have to do what you want to do. I think those lads are very comfortable playing football, a lot of them are top-quality footballers. There's a good enough squad there without us needing to look over our shoulder saying 'oh if we only had Tomás Brady back' or if we only had whoever. They aren't there. They are irrelevant."
Brady was one of the younger players who initially chose hurling, then switched midstream. "I remember when Tomás rang me and told me he was going to the football, I actually thought he was joking. I didn't really know he played much football. He showed this year that he is a really quality footballer. But him leaving opened the door for the likes of Paul Schutte to come in. Paul Schutte is probably one of our best defenders."
Keaney still feels that the more successful counties don't regard them with the respect they now have for themselves. "Until we win an All-Ireland I think it will still be there. That general perception maybe that we are good hurlers but maybe blow hot and cold."
The real test for any player, even one of Keaney's stature, comes now: a championship match in Croke Park. How will he handle the pace of some of the game's lightning-fast forwards? "Are you saying I'm slow?" he joshes. At least I think he is joshing. It is hard to say for sure.
Sunday Indo Sport