Cuala on march to halt crippling trend for capital
Southsiders aim to end Dublin's 36-year Leinster club hurling drought
In 1978 Michael O'Grady coached UCD to the Fitzgibbon Cup title. O'Grady also guided the college in the Dublin club championship that year. On the day of the World Cup final between Argentina and Holland, they met Crumlin. O'Grady was in the Gaeltacht at the time while most of UCD's players were involved in other county championships around the country. UCD were still fancied to rattle the championship but Crumlin won and went on to secure their first title. After retaining their Dublin crown a year later, Crumlin defeated Camross in the Leinster final. It was Dublin's first Leinster club hurling title. And also their last.
In the history of the Leinster club championship, Dublin's record amongst the top five counties is by far the worst. Remove UCD's three final appearances in the last decade (2000, 2004 and 2005) and Dublin clubs have only appeared in three more Leinster finals over the past 36 years. Ballyboden came closest to winning when losing to Birr by one point but Dublin's strike rate continues to be one sorrowful mystery.
When Ballyboden won five-in-a-row between 2007-2011, they won the five finals by an aggregate of 50 points. Half their team were on the Dublin senior squad. Yet they still couldn't crack Leinster. "In my opinion, Ballyboden should have won a Leinster club, and an All-Ireland," says Michael O'Grady. "They were good enough but they didn't do it. It's an indictment of Dublin clubs because some have been good enough to win Leinster."
Winning the province has still never been easy. Oulart-The Ballagh also won five in a row in Wexford between 2009-2013 and lost four Leinster finals in succession. Ballyboden lost to O'Loughlin Gaels after extra-time in 2010. They also lost Leinster semi-finals to Coolderry and Mount Leinster Rangers. All three teams subsequently reached the All-Ireland club final. "Ballyboden would be disappointed with their return from five Dublin titles in a row," says Ciaran Hetherton, a Dublin selector with Anthony Daly for six years.
"Yet it's not that the Dublin teams have failed either because there have been some very strong clubs in Leinster. Look at the unbelievable players Ballyhale have and they couldn't even get to the Kilkenny final this year."
For years though, Dublin clubs had no excuses. O'Grady, who managed Dublin in the 1990s, saw clubs with the talent to do well in Leinster dilute that opportunity through lack of ambition. "In the early years, most clubs didn't care about Leinster," says O'Grady. "It was all about winning Dublin. There were no aspirations there."
O'Toole's had an excellent team in the mid-1990s, winning three in a row between 1995-'97, and narrowly losing the 1996 Leinster final to Camross. UCD lost successive Leinster finals in 2004 and 2005 to James Stephens but an increased ambition from Dublin clubs in Leinster has also been difficult to marry with their domestic championship.
With Dublin's football dominance, the county's hurling championship has had to take its place in the queue. Dual players have also been a big factor. Diarmuid Connolly is still one of the best hurlers in Dublin and the St Vincent's hurlers refuse to play without him.
Dealing with the same issues, the Dublin club football champions have still won eight of the last 12 Leinster club titles. Yet with their poor tradition in Leinster, a condensed season hasn't always helped the Dublin hurling champions' cause.
"In recent years, the whole championship has been held up because of football," says O'Grady.
"Dublin have ended up rushing through a championship, playing matches under lights, mostly one game a week, and sometimes two a week to get ready for a Leinster club. Look at Sunday. Clara haven't played in three weeks. Cuala are playing their third big game in 15 days. That is a factor in these heavy conditions. Will Cuala have recovered in time? I'm not sure."
At least Cuala are back now in the big-time. After winning their first county title in 1989, they reached that year's Leinster final, which they lost to Ballyhale by ten points. They also won county titles in 1991 and 1994 before finally bridging a 21-year gap when defeating St Jude's two weeks ago.
Their re-emergence also underlines how the power base now has emphatically shifted back to the southside, with Ballyboden, Kilmacud Crokes and Cuala sharing the last nine titles between them.
The previous decade had been dominated by the northside clubs, O'Toole's and Craobh Chiaráin before the massive underage strides made by the big three southside clubs gradually took hold at senior level.
In the last decade, Ballyboden and Kilmacud won Division One National Féile na nGael titles. Ballyboden, Kilmacud and Cuala players have been prominent figures on Coláiste Eoin teams, now firmly established as a force at colleges level.
"These guys have no fear of anyone," says Hetherton. "They are used to beating the big teams in Leinster. The southside clubs put in the work but the northside clubs have responded now and are putting in massive work at underage."
Huge money and resources has been pumped into coaching in Dublin but vast swathes of the county still remain hurling wastelands. Many clubs have regressed. And all the while, the Dublin football culture is thriving.
With such an intensive coaching drive though, some clubs are beginning to carve their own hurling tradition. Castleknock (2007) and St Brigid's (2012) also won Division One Féile na nGael titles in the last decade.
Raheny and Clontarf have got really strong at underage level, with both clubs now playing Division One in some of the key underage grades.
Clontarf's Paddy Smyth was a brilliant centre-back on this year's minor team, and is still underage again next year.
This year's minor squad of 24 that reached the All-Ireland semi-final was represented by 15 different clubs. "Some clubs, many of them non-traditional hurling clubs, are putting in massive work," says Hetherton. "The big question now though, is whether they can bring it on at adult level."
O'Grady has been to club matches in Limerick and Wexford this year. He has watched club games from elsewhere on TG4 and is no doubt that the standard of club hurling in Dublin is as good as in any other county.
Dublin's record in the Leinster championship belies that belief but a Cuala team packed with quality and talent has a decent chance of finally altering a crippling trend.
"Cuala are a serious, serious team," says O'Grady. "If they get the breaks, they could be in Croke Park in March. It will be tough but they are definitely good enough to get there."
For now, though, reaching a Leinster final must be Cuala's sole focus as they prepare to face Clara. Winning a Leinster title will have to be for another day. Because history has shown how hard crossing that threshold has been for Dublin clubs.