DANNY SUTCLIFFE is part of the new generation of Dublin hurlers – talented, confident and ambitious for All- Irelands, yet never letting his focus wander beyond the next match.
And that next match is Antrim this Saturday in Newry, where a place in the Bord Gáis Energy All-Ireland U21 final berth beckons for the winners. Virtually all the pundits expect that to be Dublin. Ditto the bookies. But Dublin hurling teams know what it's like to enter an All-Ireland semi-final in the putative role of whipping boys, only to push overwhelming favourites to the brink.
So too does Sutcliffe: he enlisted with Anthony Daly's senior panel last May and was watching from the Hogan Stand substitute seats as they threatened to derail Tipperary with an heroic performance just four days ago. A Sky Blue minor last year, this 19-yearold has already made his senior championship debut, coming off the bench during the closing stages of their quarter-final win against Limerick in Thurles.
Now Sutcliffe is hoping for a rapid return to Semple Stadium – in next month's All-Ireland U21 final. “It's easy for people to say, ah, we're going to get easily through to the final – but we're just seeing it as four games out of five to win the All- Ireland,” he told the Evening Herald this week. “So it's a process at the moment where we're looking at it as the fourth game, we're not looking ahead.” So then, thoughts of Galway or Limerick haven't crossed the Sutcliffe radar?
“Not a chance,” he insists. “Obviously the management are looking, but the players haven't been paying attention. “It's just about Antrim – we're not playing Galway or Limerick on Saturday.” For all that, the St Jude's clubman doesn't try and hide his or his team's ambition. He has come right through the underage ranks, playing three years as a minor, culminating in last year's run to the All-Ireland semi-final where they lost narrowly to Clare. It's that very goal – playing in and winning All-Ireland finals – that drives him on.
Harking back to last month's emphatic Bord Gáis Energy Leinster U21 final victory on Wexford's own turf, he says: “I didn't even look at it as a Leinster final – it was just three out of five because Leinsters, for us really, aren't good enough anymore in Dublin. We're just looking for the big one now.” Where Dublin teams in the past have “tended to settle” for Leinster titles, exhaling a sigh of relief that their job is then done, the current generation view provincial finals as part of a process.
“Five games out of five is where you want to be. You want to be in September; you want to be hurling through August,” Sutcliffe reiterates. For all that, to become the first Dublin U21 team of recent vintage to conquer Leinster away from home “definitely” added to the satisfaction. IMPORTANT “To go out of Dublin and win a Leinster final, that's a really important victory,” says the Trinity College business and economics student. “The fact that they (Wexford) had their full crowd there and expected to win it was even better.” This was followed by that late cameo against Limerick, his first ever competitive run-out with the seniors.
“I didn't think I'd see any time this year because I came in so late. “I was overwhelmed really. It's an unbelievable set-up, the senior team. “It's going to be hard for me to break into,” he admits. As for the likely reaction to last Sunday's Tipp defeat, he surmises: “If anything, it will drive the under-21 team on. Obviously they felt they should have won it; they nearly felt hard done by.” Sutcliffe's underage career has seen him feature in a variety of positions – midfield is his current home. He has extra motivation for chasing victory this Saturday, having lost an All-Ireland Colleges ‘B' final for Coláiste Eoin against Cross and Passion, Ballycastle, at the same Newry venue two years ago.
He also hopes the experience of last summer's minor quarter-final against Antrim will work in Dublin's favour: this came just after the Sky Blue seniors had been stunned by the Saffrons in Croke Park. “We got a great wake-up call after the seniors losing,” he recalls. “So we knew going up what they (Antrim) would be like – they'd come bursting out of the dressing-rooms. “We just had to go toe-to-toe with on its head and cure the Kingdom curse goals cutting the half-time deficit to six points – but it all ended in more September mortification, 4-15 to 3-5.
Morrison had just one season with Mayo and his take on that final is intriguing: “After the magnificence of the (semi-final) performance against Dublin, we just fell flat against Kerry. “The only answer there is in people's heads. There seems to have been a fear of Kerry in finals.” He suggests that this mindset of “anybody but Kerry” transcended the entire county. Management thought they had “cracked that mindset” when recording a rare league win on Kerry soil that spring but the problem was “brought home when we had our warm-up – our warm-up was very dead.”
O'Neill blames a wider array of factors. “In hindsight, there definitely was a failure to be ready for that mental or physical challenge in the first 15 minutes,” he says. “Maybe there was a false sense of security after the Dublin game, that this would be a shootout of pure football when, in essence, we should have been a lot more physical, a lot more in-your-face, in the first 15 or 20 minutes.” O'Neill was then attached to Na Fianna in Dublin; he turned 38 on Tuesday but is still playing senior club football for his native Knockmore. Back in 1997, he was pushing hard for an All- Ireland final recall until breaking his leg. That game is forever remembered as the Maurice Fitzgerald final but, according to O'Neill, “that was definitely an All-Ireland that we left behind.” He concludes: “I definitely don't think it was a fear of Kerry in any of those games – it was just a failure to be prepared from a mental, tactical or physical perspective.”
Morrison signs off on a typically positive note: “The impossible is only something that hasn't happened before. Some day, a Mayo team is going to beat a Kerry team, so why not this year?” LEINSTER CHAMPIONS: Dublin U21 captain, Liam Rushe, and his team-mates celebrate their Bord Gáis Energy Leinster HC final victory over Wexford. them for about 20 minutes until it opened up for us and then the hurling came through. “That's what we're hoping for Saturday as well. “We've worked hard,” Sutcliffe adds. “We've trained hard.
“We're probably the fittest team in the competition,” adds the St Jude’s man. You saw in the Wexford match, where in the last 10 or 15 minutes we were still able to keep the intensity up. “So to have that in your back pocket is very important.
“We have 100 per cent confidence in our preparation, so it's just to be mentally right to turn up on the day and not hold back.”