Dubs now a major threat to big guns
Former manager Michael O'Grady talks to Ruaidhri O'Connor about Dublin's resurgence and hails the input of current boss Anthony Daly
THERE have been close calls and false dawns throughout the recent history of Dublin hurling. The capital's hurlers have flirted with success at senior level, come close to breaking through, but ultimately shied away from the spotlight occupied by the footballers.
Near misses and dark days have all added to the memory bank that led, eventually, to those who love the game getting fed up with coming up short and putting together a plan -- the fruits of which are being seen today.
It's a long time since hurling was being talked about in such hushed tones in the 'big smoke'. Children carry hurls around like a third arm in parts of the city not known for their passion for native sports -- it's a new world.
Coached by a famous Clare man in Anthony Daly, the Dubs go into their championship opener against Offaly on May 29 as league champions and in the bookmakers' top six contenders for the All-Ireland.
Last month, they ended a 65-year wait by securing a place in the top tier's league final then they won it for the first time since 1939 -- two years ago they bridged an 18-year gap between Leinster final appearances. Daly refered to the lack of a fear factor against Kilkenny being one of the key components of their historic league victory and between minor, U-21 and Colleges success, the firsts have been rolling in for a generation of players who show little fear and plenty of belief.
It hasn't happened by accident -- the work on the pitch has been matched by endeavour off it. 'The Friends of Dublin Hurling' group have toiled tirelessly to raise funds and awareness. At the heart of it all is former manager Michael O'Grady and the result is a world away from the scene he surveyed between 1996 and 2001 when he was at the helm.
"We won Division 2, got into Division 1 and had great wins over Cork and Galway in Division 1," he recalls. "Cork went on to win an All-Ireland 18 months later, but our problem in those days was that we were very inconsistent. We'd have a great win, followed by a bad loss.
"We ran Kilkenny very close in the Leinster championship at Croke Park in 1997 -- the crowd came on the pitch and some say that affected the result at the time, they went on to win by a few points.
"I was always interested in Dublin hurling and I felt that if Dublin hurling could make some sort of a revival it would be great for hurling generally because when Dublin are doing well at any level, even in football, it will raise the game of the rest of the country because everybody loves beating them."
O'Grady's time in charge epitomised the hurlers' struggles. They came within inches of beating Wexford and Kilkenny in two championships, but in other years came out on the end of cricket scores.
1998 was the ultimate example. The Cats were supposed to be there for the taking and Parnell Park was packed. But DJ Carey came out of retirement and hit 1-8 in a 4-23 to 0-14 win. A blue dawn turned into a whitewash.
After seeing his side exit the 2001 championship at the hands of Laois, O'Grady stepped aside but was asked to chair a working group to plan a road back to the top. The population was there, the potential was there but they needed a plan.
The group produced an ambitious document and appointed a director of hurling among a raft of planned changes. Underage success followed, playing numbers swelled and the county's teams began to flourish on the bigger stage.
But it was one thing doing it as kids, the adults needed to believe. Humphrey Kelleher brought them on some way, Tommy Naughton another, but a big name was called for. Enter Daly.
"Anthony was a fabulous find for Dublin -- he's really charismatic in how he deals with players," O'Grady explains.
"Clare were where we were in the early 1990s and he said there recently and I thought it was funny, 'When Ger Loughnane told me we would win the final, I didn't believe him myself'. And he was the captain.
"That's the kind of belief he is now giving to the Dublin players. He has walked the walk, he just doesn't talk it.
"He is inspirational. He's tough and fair with the lads, he's brilliant. I'd say he's No 1 in Ireland at the moment. He has a charisma that very few managers have. He's a humble guy, a simple guy and he'd talk straight.
"The Dubs like that kind of style, no beating around the bush. Up front, say what you're going to say and we'll take it on the chin. He's just what Dublin needed."
A net effect of the last decade's work is that Dublin teams no longer fear their traditional rivals. They have beaten teams decked out in black and amber and reckon they can again - even in the white heat of the Championship.
"The team I had probably had no success over Kilkenny at any level," O'Grady concedes. "But the present guys have beaten Kilkenny at Colleges level, they've beaten them sometimes at Feile, at minor, at U-21 including last year and three or four years ago, as well as the Walsh Cup last year and they drew with them in the league.
"The present Dublin team wouldn't be afraid of Kilkenny. I'm not saying Kilkenny won't beat them -- they are still the best team around -- but the fear factor is gone. Dublin are afraid of nobody."
Last July, Daly's Dubs hit a serious speedbump in their development and let Antrim back into a game that had looked over to exit the championship when they looked odds on for a quarter-final.
In the bowels of Croke Park last July, Daly hinted he might give it up after watching his side collapse. At the end of a long season, the progress of his first year -- which saw them reach the Leinster final -- seemed to have been reversed.
Ultimately, he stayed on, committing to another stint and ploughing ahead. It looks like being rewarded and O'Grady reckons the defeat to Antrim was a watershed moment.
"I believe in hindsight that the Antrim defeat has made the present team," he says. "When they looked back on it, they said to themselves that the match was won. They were coasting, had their eye on a quarter-final and lost focus. They have to admit that.
"I felt he would never walk, I just felt that the guy -- even for his own credibility -- needed to come back and prove that it was just one of those bad days. It was a bad day for everybody."
Dublin are back this year and are bolstered by the return from football of Conal Keaney, the capture of Ryan O'Dwyer and the emergence of Paul Ryan and Daire Plunkett. Suddenly their forward options are numerous and they have plenty of cover.
And despite the difficulties of negotiating a way through the expanded Leinster championship, O'Grady reckons the semi-finals should be within their grasp this season.
"With Galway involved we're in a very difficult province," he said.
"Dublin would probably fare better in Munster. Their hardest match will be when they play Offaly for the simple reason that Offaly have six weeks to focus on the championship match. Dublin only have four because of the league final.
"I believe Dublin will end up in a semi-final of the All-Ireland, whether by Leinster or the back door. They are good enough."