Cunningham at crossroads with deflated Dubs
Published 05/07/2016 | 02:30
When Anthony Daly stepped down two years ago, he was celebrated by county board officials for bringing Dublin hurling "back to the top table" but their position, and that of current boss Ger Cunningham, must now come under intense scrutiny.
Three years ago the Dubs were on the verge of an All-Ireland final place before Ryan O'Dwyer's second-half dismissal tipped the balance in Cork's favour, and the Rebels caused further heartache on Saturday night.
The team that Daly built during his six-year term was scarcely recognisable in Páirc Uí Rinn, with wholesale changes and a host of new faces in the two years since his last game in charge, an All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Tipperary.
The turnover of players is remarkable with only four starters retained: captain Liam Rushe, Johnny McCaffrey, David Treacy and O'Dwyer, while Paul Ryan, Eamonn Dillon, Niall McMorrow and Niall Corcoran were introduced as subs in Thurles that day in July 2014.
Such a changing picture wasn't imagined by anybody, including Daly, who on his resignation said: "It's the best move for everybody, for players and maybe management, for a fresh approach to come in. There are still good players in there."
Much has been made of the exodus to Jim Gavin's football side, the likes of Diarmuid Connolly, Tomás Brady and Cormac Costello being lured away by the big ball, while many of those good players Daly was referring to have parted ways for a variety of reasons during Cunningham's tenure.
Others were unavailable including former skipper Stephen Hiney, who hung up his hurl in December 2014.
Alan McCrabbe, Dublin's first All-Star since 1990, didn't commit to the squad, Conor McCormack wasn't part of Cunningham's plans from the outset, Ross O'Carroll left the panel during the League last year, while inspirational defender Michael Carton walked away mid-Championship.
Alan Nolan, an All-Star nominee just 12 months previously, and Simon Lambert were dropped last winter, while the capital's hurling scene was rocked to its core when star forward Danny Sutcliffe decided to opt out for the immediate future due to college commitments.
Sutcliffe lit up the Championship in recent years but played no part while Conal Keaney, one of Dublin's most cherished servants, retired in the wake of Ballyboden St Enda's All-Ireland club football triumph this year.
Promising attacker Colm Cronin went travelling for the summer, while the versatile Joey Boland left in the wake of their 12-point mauling to Kilkenny due to a lack of game-time.
Shane Durkin had featured regularly for Dublin but didn't play a minute of League or Championship this year, likewise for the injured Peter Kelly, while Paul Schutte broke a finger following his return from shoulder reconstruction to cap a bitterly disappointing campaign for the Cuala defender.
Talismanic David 'Dotsy' O'Callaghan was dropped following the Cats defeat and didn't feature at the weekend. Both Keaney and Carton have been hugely critical of the current management.
"Tactical (sic) a shambles tonight Dublin need all their best hurlers playing to compete #changeneeded #dublinarebetterthanthis," Keaney told his Twitter following in the wake of their second half collapse to Kilkenny.
Carton was similarly scathing in his assessment of Dublin's decline since Daly's departure.
"Positve (sic) is some serious young hurlers coming through for dublin but awful result tonight, havent (sic) progressed under the current management!" he tweeted after the defeat to Cork.
For former players to publicly to berate the present regime is both surprising and damning. And apart from a natural decay due to retirements, it's hard to fathom how the bulk of a side which claimed a first League title in 72 years just five years ago, and a first Leinster title in 52 years in 2013, have been cast aside.
Having played in four provincial deciders and reached the last four of the race for Liam MacCarthy twice, 2011 and 2013, under Daly, Dublin have limped through the past two Championship seasons under Cunningham, despite comfortably retaining their Division 1 status.
There was an inevitable fall-off in the former Cork goalkeeper's first year and having scraped past Limerick in the Qualifiers they fell meekly to Tipp in the last eight. There's no doubt he has put his own stamp on Dublin with their Cork-style game-plan but will it pay off?
The three-time All-Ireland winner has built a team for the future but will he get the time to build it? Exciting young talents like Chris Bennett, Shane Barrett and Eoghan O'Donnell have been blooded to good effect while Chris Crummey and Cian O'Callaghan have shown enough to suggest they're here to stay at the highest level.
Unlike many other inter-county managers who don't think with an eye on the future, simply churning as much as possible out of the current crop before moving on, Cunningham's main focus has been on development after being handed a three-year term.
Their fortunes could have been radically different had they held on in Croke Park last June to edge Galway; instead they were trounced in a harrowing replay and a general Championship malaise has followed.
And after becoming accustomed to dining among hurling's elite it will be interesting to see whether Cunningham gets the time to finish the job.