Place at top table whets appetite for main course
Anthony Daly and his Dublin side are getting themselves back on track, says Dermot Crowe
FIRST off, that victory jig: the one performed by Anthony Daly after a win over Limerick that sealed an instant return to Division 1A. Mention that little celebration bop and he displays a mild impatience. It wasn't a big deal. People have mentioned it as if he were a young Ronnie Whelan running out of Wembley like a mad goat after scoring in the Milk Cup final. No, please, some restraint. Early days. Talk to him after Wexford on June 8.
The notice he attracted might be down to the simple fact that the man hadn't celebrated in a while. It was good to see and hard to begrudge. Since Dublin parted the stage in 2011 after a highly honourable defeat to Tipperary in an All-Ireland semi-final, having won the league in revolutionary style, there has been little to savour. Injuries, relegation and a pillaging by Kilkenny had them retreating back to the hills.
And there was that lonely night of the soul in Ennis when his native county overturned a deficit of six points to sail on in the qualifiers and torpedo Dublin's interest. He went back to his home a few miles out the road. The players had the long journey east. Neither party knew where the road would lead after that.
"I knew I had Clarecastle minor training the following Wednesday night, that was as much as you knew," says Daly now. "You need to go away and mourn I suppose; that is what you do."
The answers he needed lay within the group of players. He had to know what they wanted and if they felt he had more to offer. "I just felt there were a few imponderables out there. Was it getting to the stage they wanted a fresh voice? Anyone who will tell you they never had any doubts – that is bullshit. That is what I wanted to know. I needed to know they were 100 per cent behind me."
Having endured all that and returned to win a league by defeating a highly respected opposition like Limerick demands a small celebration. But you get the impression that 2012 has shaken him, and his fellow selectors and troops, to the
point where they make no handy assumptions or glib remarks. That bit sterner is their countenance. They didn't set the league alight but they won a tight match when it truly mattered whereas last year they made an infuriating habit of losing close encounters.
Today's match against Tipperary in Thurles carries no stress; they can express themselves. They've achieved their goal. The sun has come out from behind the clouds.
Limerick have been a recurring presence in Daly's career. The dismal Munster final defeat in 1994 pushed his resolve to the limit even though a young man in his mid-20s. The next year they went through Limerick and life would never be the same again. A year later there was Ciarán Carey's point. In his first year with Dublin it was Limerick who stopped them in Thurles in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Limerick, he knows, do not surrender easily. In Croke Park this year, Dublin were all over them but ended up losing the match. Winning the matches they should be winning is still part of their learning curve.
The Division 1B final wasn't a classic. Yet there have been few matches as important to Dublin in Daly's time in charge. "We were very disappointed coming in at half-time the way we were hurling but I think, and we addressed it the last few days, there might have been a little bit of a feeling that 'ah we will play as well as we did in Croke Park and we're bound to take the chances this time'. And every game is different. We created 5-31 in chances the first day and only scored 1-16.
"I think it seeps into the sub-conscious. Every single hurling match is completely different; look at something as mad as the Clare-Cork game last weekend and how is that level at the end of full-time – to be level with all the chances created. It is a mad sport in that sense.
"The celebration I think was more of a symptom of the way the game went. We were very poor in the first half and there was a fair bit of blood-letting at half-time. We got a response; that was it more than anything. You were feeling: are we gone here? We did, I feel, get a great 35 minutes out of the lads."
He feels an empathy with Limerick as he has been there before. The Tuesday night after Limerick defeated Dublin in Croke Park training felt a heavy lift. They rose themselves to win in Wexford and they closed off with a victory against Carlow, before Limerick came back into view.
"I'd have great time for John Allen," Daly says earnestly. "We have been through a bit on the line back to 2005. John is a gent and we have organised challenge matches over the years and I have to say driving up (to training) on the Tuesday (after winning the league) my thoughts went to Limerick. We had a really good session and everyone was upbeat. Everyone trained hard but lads were mad for road.
"I did think of John and the Limerick lads. The other thing is I am around long enough to say that ultimately when we go to Wexford Park on June 8, it will count for nothing. We won the league two years ago and our championship match against Offaly was in the balance with ten minutes to go.
"The league has changed. Playing in Division 1B doesn't do you any good. In our last match (against Carlow) we played in front of 400 or 500 people. We felt also-rans that day. People were tuning into their radios to find out what was happening in the matches in Division 1A."
One of the first changes before it was announced he'd be staying for a fifth season came about by surprise when Martin Kennedy, the team trainer, switched allegiance to the senior football team. With Tomás Brady also crossing the divide, Dublin hurling morale suffered another dip. Some of the best of last year's minor dual players were swept up by the footballers. They knuckled down and convinced themselves they had enough good players available to take a stand. Ross Dunphy took over as team trainer and there was a change of approach in allowing players arrange their own gym sessions, replacing former group assemblies. Regular monitoring ensured that any player taking a short cut would be detected.
"We had a good look at last year," says Daly. "Maybe all of us, overall, got distracted and we let the outside in. And we were not working any less. We worked probably harder than we have this year. We were trying to take the next step. Maybe we should only have tried to be every bit as good as we were in 2011 and see where that took us."
Shane Martin, who was part of Daly's first Dublin squad, arrived as a new selector and Tony Griffin, the former Clare hurler, has also had a role, though Daly describes it as casual and is reluctant to accept descriptions like 'life' or 'performance' coach. "He's living in Dalkey and doing bit of training with Cuala. He has no interest in the coaching. He came in and did the winter training in O'Toole Park. Got to know the lads. If a few lads want to talk they talk to him, stuff outside of the hurling. I don't want to know about stuff like that unless it is affecting their performances."
Daly feels the ongoing preoccupation with the long-term injured trio of Conal Keaney, Stephen Hiney and Brady turned into a "circus" last year and some players' elevated profile brought extra distractions and public demands on their time.
"We did a fair bit of self-analysing over the winter. The way we looked at it, we were going to do it our own way. Instead of thinking this is the way this crowd do it. Even our training. We would be trying to get the best out of ourselves. We are going to be the best Dublin hurlers can be. In that sense I have really stopped worrying about what people write or say."
The squad has become more preoccupied with the fundamentals rather than the trappings. Not that they have been feverishly courted by the press so far. There was only one match in the spring series this year involving the hurlers, when they played Limerick on the undercard in March, and they have been getting on with their work relatively unheeded. They head to Thurles with the least expectation of the four semi-finalists. This is the territory which Daly is most accustomed to and has fared best in. Their second and fourth seasons were their most disappointing. Their first and third were their most bountiful. This pattern would suggest that this year will produce a decent yield.
Injuries have not been the scourge they were a year ago. Keaney was their outstanding league performer in 2011 and they missed him enormously last spring. The form of some others fell away or was fitful. That does not seem to be an issue this spring but Division 1B can conceal weaknesses and Tipperary will exploit any deficiencies.
How far can they hope to go? If they defeat Wexford, they face Kilkenny again. There won't be any pundits siding with Dublin against Kilkenny this year if that fixture materialises. But unless today ends in some unmerciful hiding they'll sign off their league in much merrier form than they did a year ago. Wexford and whatever might follow is down the road.
One of the lessons of last year was that they might have got a yard ahead of themselves and that has informed everything about their approach since. Last year delivered a sore and chastening lesson before the eyes of the nation. Their recovery is on track but it would be premature, Daly says, to judge how far. For now, being in the company of Tipp, Galway and Kilkenny in Thurles on the penultimate day of the league suggests they must be doing something right.