Dublin's other hurling team
FOR SOME Dublin hurlers and their manager, last Monday night was a far cry from the county's recent Division 1 euphoria in Croke Park.
Just five days away from playing in an All-Ireland semi-final, Fingal had only 14 fit men training on a side-pitch at St Sylvester's, Malahide, and were lurching from one crisis to the next.
Defensive star Niall Ring also hurls for the Dublin U-21s, who, worryingly, were looking for him for a challenge match this weekend that would clash directly with Fingal's Nicky Rackard Cup semi-final in London.
On top of a season-long litany of injuries, five more of Ben Dorney's team are gardai and, with all leave cancelled, he still had no idea how many would make today's game in Ruislip.
Two of them are 'Special Branch' detectives, who arrived to confirm they'd been detailed to accompany the queen to Cork, further lessening their chances of catching the team's flight last night.
"Sure isn't she flying home from Cork lads! Couldn't she give ye a lift over?" someone suggested.
"Yeah," quipped Dorney. "She might take the gear over as well!"
Anthony Daly's boys may have put 'sexy' back into the capital's small ball game, but this is the deeply unsexy world of Dublin's 'second' hurling team. Their kit is purple and their emblem a raven, but the traditional Dub wit is still plentiful and an invaluable asset when you're a Fingal hurler.
Dorney's not a Dub actually, but a Corkman, from Ballyhea.
He's a primary school principal in Marino and a good-humoured hurling zealot in the Paudie Butler mould who says his side have "a hardcore of guys who are deeply committed and have a phenomenal appetite to improve."
Dorney has managed Kildare to a Christy Ring final and was involved with the 2008 Dublin minors that included current seniors Liam Rushe and Daire Plunkett.
When Fingal's three-year boss Denis Murphy stepped down this year he was approached. "I was on my way out the door to Leopardstown, it was a moment of madness," Dorney grins.
"He is mad alright ... but good mad," his players concur, marvelling at his passion and intensity as he sprints around tirelessly in their midst, barking out instructions that are a shade more colourful than his usual classroom lingo.
Apart from Martin Ormonde (originally from Lismore), the players are all true Blues, including 14 diehards involved ever since this experiment to improve hurling standards in north Dublin began four years ago.
Selectors Sean McGarry, John Bourke, liaison officer Danny O'Connor and a physio are in attendance, but that's the extent of Fingal's entourage.
As usual, some walking wounded -- Ormonde (Sylvester's), Cian O'Mahony (St Brigid's) and Dara de Burca (from Ballymun's hurling-only club Setanta) -- help out, shifting cones, carrying water, feeding sliotars.
St Brigids and Naomh Mearnog both play Division 1 hurling, but otherwise Fingal pick from north Dublin's intermediate and junior clubs.
Some players have made Dublin underage squads, even played county U-21, and Davy Byrne was a recent Dublin senior. But most from this post code can only dream of belting a sliotar into Hill 16.
Yet Danny O'Connor already sees Fingal yielding green shoots. St Pat's (Donabate) and Wild Geese (Oldtown) are new clubs and Skerries just fielded its first minor team.
The County Board is supportive and there's tea, sandwiches and baskets of fruit and yoghurt in the dressing-room afterwards. But Fingal are still the distant relations in Dublin's nouveau riche hurling family, begging pitches for training and matches, with Brigid's and Sylvester's most supportive.
The one time they hit the headlines was when Dorney pulled them out of a Division 3B NHL game this year because many of them had already played club games that morning.
Dublin schedule club hurling fixtures to avoid clashing with the NHL's Division 1, but they still sometimes collide with Division 3B, and that's before you throw in club football.
Many Fingal hurlers are quality footballers -- Ross McGarry plays senior with Bryan Cullen in Skerries -- and the big ball has 'first call' in most of their clubs.
If it's chapter 'n' verse on Fingal you want, meet Willie Bourke (St Brigids), their typically outgoing goalkeeper.
"'Occasion' me arse lads! This is my third semi-final and I'm not losing a third one," he bellows during the post-training team talk.
A Dublin senior during Humphrey Kelleher's reign, Bourke (35) recalls Fingal's first ever game.
"Against Tallaght IT in the Keogh Cup in 2008, two points up in injury-time and we lost. We didn't play league the first year, had a nice run in the Nicky Rackard, but then met Sligo and yer man, Keith Raymond, gave us a lesson."
Like them all, Bourke adores the game and is proud to represent Fingal, saying "it's still inter-county, isn't it?"
"We've always had good championship runs, but getting to play that first game in Croker, that's what we badly need," he said as Fingal again face London, who beat them in 2009 and 2010.
"Playing in the Christy Ring, that's what'd really make the difference," Bourke reckons.
"I could name you 20 good hurlers who should be playing with us, and if we got up into the Christy Ring, I guarantee you they'd join us."