Wednesday 18 October 2017

Saturday Interview: 'Only good things can happen when you make that courageous decision'

Dublin selector Richie Stakelum tells Vincent Hogan why the Sky Blues' historic victory over Kilkenny has far from sated this side's ambition

Richie Stakelum congratulates Dublin manager Anthony Daly after the Leinster SHC victory against Kilkenny
Richie Stakelum congratulates Dublin manager Anthony Daly after the Leinster SHC victory against Kilkenny
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

On the night of August 9 last, Richie Stakelum and Anthony Daly met in Kilkee to consider whether they were now at the helm of a shipwreck.

Dublin's season had run aground one month earlier maybe 35 miles east in Ennis, defeat to Daly's native county in the All-Ireland qualifiers obliterating all sense of progress. Four years into this project, the temptation to cut their losses tugged palpably at both men.

But Stakelum knew that the call would, ultimately, be Daly's.

He has often recounted his story of a January evening in '09 when, with the M50 under a blanket of snow, it took him three hours just to get home from work in Citywest. Yet, Richie was barely inside his hall door when Daly texted.

The Clare man was already in O'Toole Park, impatient to start training. "Where is everybody?" the text enquired.

Almost three years on, that kind of evangelism needed – at least – the nutrition of hope. But Dublin's journey had lost clarity. They'd built their plans for 2012 around a single day and that day, June 23, just tossed them into a great canyon of self-doubt.

'Kilkenny 2-21, Dublin 0-9' read the scoreboard in O'Moore Park.

No man's land.

So they were all but invisible that August night in Kilkee, the entire country pre-occupied with a beautiful Irish smile beaming up out of the London docklands. Katie Taylor had just won her Olympic gold and normal life here seemed to hang in temporary suspension.

As their conversation meandered, Daly felt compelled to cut to the quick. "Richie, are we good enough?" he asked the Borrisoleigh man. Under their watch, Dublin had won a National League (their first since 1939) reached two Leinster finals and an All-Ireland semi-final.

But, like grain from a sack, all that momentum was escaping now. Before the Portlaoise meltdown against Kilkenny, Dublin had forsaken their Division 1A status in the league. They were rapidly losing traction as a serious force and hurling itself seemed to be asking Daly's very question.

Were Dublin actually "good enough"?

Stakelum understood that there could be no glibly comforting answer. "Anthony, that can't really be the question," he protested. "The question is 'What's the best that we can be?'"

*******

THAT night on the edge of the north Atlantic, they reached no firm conclusion, nor did they formally commit to another chapter. Daly needed time to rationalise the logistics of sometimes thrice weekly round-trips between Clare and Dublin that, as Stakelum puts it, "you could openly describe as a certain form of madness."

But the tone of their talk left Richie thinking that Daly had a mind for one last throw of the dice.

"We spent a long evening discussing what we'd do," recalls Stakelum. "And really it was Anthony's call because the level of commitment he has given is just phenomenal. It's a huge journey that he makes up and down and I knew he hadn't fully decided.

"So we had a long debate, then said we'd let it lie for a while.

"But I came away feeling pretty sure that there would be another go. It wasn't locked up in certainty that night but, coming away, if someone said to me 'what are the chances of ye going again' I'd have said they were an awful lot better than before we had the chat."

Stakelum was in Kilkee with his family again this week, honouring a summer tradition that dates right back to his own childhood in North Tipperary and a midland longing for the sea air. On Wednesday, he travelled up to training with Daly, but – for Dublin – this was a week of replenishment, not hard planning.

The third Leinster final of their five-year reign comes hard on the heels of, arguably, their first truly seismic championship victory. Dublin need, above all, to be recovered in time for Galway now.

To this end, Stakelum found hope in the demeanour of the players immediately after last Saturday's replay defeat of Kilkenny. There was none of the giddiness they might have expected. The players just showered, dressed and got on the bus with a minimum of commotion.

Once back in Dublin, they had a quick meal at the Louis Fitzgerald Hotel, then went their separate ways.

"I think they've got to the stage where they're just that bit more mature, that bit older," observes Stakelum. "Remember, this will be this group's third Leinster final. So really the euphoria that you might have experienced in the past after a result like that wasn't necessarily there on Saturday night.

"And, I mean, the next game coming is obviously the biggest one so far."

Dublin have not claimed a Leinster senior title since 1961. But to win tomorrow would be to do something more than simply bridge a 52-year gap. It would be to reassert the possibilities for hurling in the city, to reach out to the hearts of kids for whom there are more seductive paths to follow.

Two of the brightest young hurlers in the city, Ciaran Kilkenny and Cormac Costello, are unavailable to Daly, having prioritised football for the year. Both were parachuted back in to play for the U-21s recently in a Leinster Championship defeat to Carlow. Last summer, the city's U-21s came up short against Laois.

Such defeats create a difficulty for those trying to forge the founding of a new faith. As Stakelum explains: "Hurling in Dublin is perhaps a bit different to counties like Kilkenny and Tipperary, where all the young boys come through a system that grooms them only to be hurlers. In those counties, there's no other great distraction. But, in Dublin, there's an obvious one.

"It's human nature for young people to gravitate towards something they perceive as giving them a greater chance of success. And football in Dublin has benefited from that with marquee young players like Ciaran Kilkenny and Cormac Costello opting out of the hurling this year.

"That's why the hurlers getting a big win last weekend was so important. This group of players might have beaten Kilkenny at minor, U-21 and colleges level, but they'd never managed it in championship at senior. So there was a lot of deep personal satisfaction that they could do that.

"And maybe it was a shot in the arm for the club coaches who have nurtured the best young players in Dublin, hopefully a fillip for them to stay going too. Because you do need a kind of seismic result to turn young lads' heads."

Dublin haven't changed much in terms of personnel from last season, but they have scrubbed their thought processes clean.

Now they no longer pursue the empty sickness of comparisons.

"This year we have focused entirely on ourselves," explains Stakelum. "We've really made a serious project of that because, ultimately, that's all we can control. We're not Kilkenny, we're not Tipperary. And we never will be."

*******

FEW people will be more taken with the unique dichotomy of this weekend's hurling programme then, than the man who famously led Tipp out of a 16-year 'famine' in 1987.

For in newsprint terms at least, this Leinster final has felt marginally subordinate to tonight's Phase 2 qualifier at Nowlan Park.

The idea of either Kilkenny or Tipp being out of the championship before a provincial final has even been played carries profound implications for all those casting a covetous eye towards the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

As Stakelum reasons, the unusual energy of tonight's game could take it anywhere.

"Watching Kilkenny over the years," he says, "people have been asking 'when is Homer going to nod?' I think their injuries now are starting to mount up. They're obviously on the road a long time and there was a general feeling after last year's All-Ireland that that road might have been getting a little bit tighter.

"That's probably what we're seeing. I think Galway's display last year in the drawn match gave hope to the chasing pack that it wasn't just about Kilkenny and Tipp anymore. Now that's not to say that by the end of this year either Kilkenny or Tipp won't have won the All-Ireland. But I would say that the gap is starting to narrow a bit.

"Kilkenny looked quite good in the league final, though a lot of the Tipp forwards didn't fire that day. I think Kilkenny are going to have to make this game almost like the Alamo. That will probably be their mentality. I think you'll have a huge, huge Kilkenny crowd because, probably for the first time, there's a concern of it possibly being over for this great team.

"We believe they're not going to have Henry Shefflin or Michael Fennelly or Paul Murphy and this is the third week in a row for a team that's on the road for a long time. That's a lot of game time in a very short spell.

"So the challenge is to get this great lift in front of their home supporters, to circle the wagons and create a real siege mentality. And I think, really, that's what the general hurling public in Kilkenny is hoping for."

And the prospects for his native county?

"Well Tipp come into this game fairly fresh, but if it gets into a real dog-fight and you have the Kilkenny backs being really tough and aggressive, there have to be question marks over whether or not the Tipp forwards will hang in there.

"That's the great conundrum. There's a part of me that says 'I don't know if Kilkenny can sustain it for three weeks in a row'. Will Tipperary's freshness overcome them? But the X-factor in all of this is Nowlan Park and it being last-chance saloon."

*******

FOUR games into this championship then, Dublin chase Leinster glory, still self-educating and exploring the depth of their own resilience.

Stakelum believes that, had they escaped from Wexford Park with a narrow win on June 8, they would never have beaten Kilkenny last week. For the draw that night shone a stark light on whatever little delusions they might have been carrying as baggage.

All season, that has been their style, moving forward in small, barely discernible increments.

Gaining promotion back into Division 1A of the league met the most basic imperative of their season. Now ambition tows them higher, albeit – against Galway – the simple hope is that they hurl as they know they can.

"You know, hurling in Division 1B served its purpose for us in the sense that we had to get away from the limelight and go back to the grunt of hard work," suggests Stakelum. "We never made any excuses for being down there because it's exactly where we deserved to be.

"We've worked very hard to try and get the players to hurl with freedom. The night we drew with Wexford, I think Ger Loughnane used the expression that it looked like 'constipated hurling' and we wouldn't necessarily have disagreed.

"Anthony's great catchphrase is 'GO TO THE BALL ... ' That's what we've been trying to get across. Rather than being tentative and afraid of making a mistake, we want them to cut loose and just be the players they can be.

"And I think they're beginning to see that only good things happen when you make that courageous decision."

Galway, they recognise, represent treacherous foes in the wide expanses of Croke Park. Winning, says Stakelum, "would be wonderful", but Dublin's bottom-line won't deviate.

"If we can look one another in the eye afterwards and be able to say 'Look, that's the best that we can be' then we'll be happy," he stresses. "If the scoreboard has us coming out on top, then better still."

Irish Independent

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