Vincent Hogan: Daly's Dublin hell-bent on laying ghosts to rest
So the ghost of Limerick pitches up in Parnell Park tomorrow, booked in for a show that's box-office for all the wrong reasons.
Outside of Donnycarney, the National Hurling League all but excuses itself to take a little siesta this weekend. There are three dead rubbers to be endured in Division 1. And there's Dublin-Limerick.
Not too many laughter lines, then, around the face of a competition to be decided in an evening final between Cork and Galway on May 2. The league has, essentially, been wound up prematurely. In fact, if it wasn't for the 'head-to-head' factor introduced to separate teams tied on equal points, even this bleak-house thrill would be denied us.
Dublin, we can be sure, go into it cursing their own carelessness. Having drilled a complacent Tipperary by nine points in the second round, they immediately fell to a seven-points reverse against Offaly in the third. That set-back in Tullamore put them on an emergency footing that, despite emboldened subsequent displays against Kilkenny, Cork and Galway, has now drifted into code red.
Relegation, in itself, would be a heavy setback to the Anthony Daly regime. Yet, relegation at the hands of a supposed ghost team would add ribbons and tassles to their grief.
However you look at the Limerick story, there is no escaping the sense that what we're witnessing is mere symbolism here. Their year has been lost to the dispute between Justin McCarthy and more than two dozen of the county's better players. Relegation is, essentially, expected of them then. Likewise, championship embarrassment.
Yet, maybe the one thing to be said for Limerick in this league is that -- the Tipp game apart -- they haven't been humiliated. Actually, despite losing five from five, spirit has patently stayed robust.
They were six points closer to Offaly in Tullamore than Dublin managed and, last time out, Kilkenny weren't exactly doing triple toe-loops on their grave en route to a 2-17 to 0-16 win at the Gaelic Grounds.
Equally, the value of a Limerick win tomorrow would -- for McCarthy and the county board at least -- carry a PR bonus Saatchi and Saatchi would struggle to even countenance.
So Dublin find themselves in an unusual place here. The hunted as distinct from the hunter.
Alan McCrabbe, whose Vodafone All Star award last year was the city's first in almost 20 years, is braced for a journey into pretty treacherous territory.
"It is a tricky game," suggests the Craobh Chiarain man. "We know they aren't going to come up here just to lie down.
"They'll be coming to put up a fight and rack up a good score. I'm sure for that 70 minutes, they'll be just trying to forget what's happening down in Limerick and dig themselves out of relegation. It's up to ourselves really to get ourselves right. If we do that, I think it'll be half the battle."
The common depiction of this Limerick team as a virtual 'third-string' maybe feeds an illusion of players operating hopelessly out of their depth. Yet, the memory of Thurles last July and, specifically, the damage wreaked on Dublin's full-back line by Paudie McNamara will have Daly's men on edge.
McNamara has been having a splendid campaign too and, with David Breen operating on the 'forty', the spine of Dublin's defence now faces a significant aerial challenge.
The view that opposing teams may, perhaps subconsciously, be a mite de-motivated when playing Limerick in this league does not impress McCrabbe.
"It's a dangerous way to be thinking," he says. "Look we know ourselves that, if we don't win this, we're back down to Division 2. That's not where we want to be. We want to be going forward and, to do that, we've got to be playing Division 1 hurling.
"So we have to be motivated for this. We've seen that Limerick are putting it up to teams. I mean they're obviously a proud group. They're not going to go to places and allow themselves be the talk of Ireland, all the time getting hammered. They're fighting hard in every game they play and this won't be any different.
"To be honest, we're expecting a real dog-fight. But hopefully, if we get ourselves right, we should be able to beat them at the end of the day."
It would be churlish to over-play the unavailability of men like Tomas Brady and David Treacy for Dublin tomorrow given their opponents' chorus-line of absentees.
Daly, clearly, has been frustrated by an apparent quirk in his team's psychological resilience.
They were, in his own words, "just shocking" when hammered by Waterford in the first round and, having then beaten Tipp, he detected a curious lethargy in the dressing-room prior to the defeat in Tullamore.
Furthermore, the impression of Dublin being a far more potent force in Parnell Park than on their travels has become an irresistible one. Yet, the narrowness of their recent defeats (Kilkenny four points; Cork three points; Galway two points) suggests a team at least coming to terms with the consistency of performance required to be contenders.
"It's been a frustrating League for us," agrees McCrabbe.
"I think getting beaten in Offaly just after a good win over Tipp was the hardest part. Anthony really introduced us to a few home truths after that.
"But in our last three games, we've shown how good we can be. With a bit of luck, we could easily have won any of the games against Kilkenny, Cork or Galway.
"The fact we were there or thereabouts against them is encouraging. Because we feel that, on a given day, we can beat any of those teams.
"I suppose last year we were a bit of a surprise package. But teams are preparing differently for us, which I suppose is a compliment. The games are tougher.
"I know I'm getting a bit more treatment on the pitch than any other year. But you have to take that. That's good for us. We know we're going forward when teams are starting to respect us."
Having won his All Star at midfield, McCrabbe has been pushed into a more forward role this year. His trust in Daly's management is so implicit, that individual preferences are subsumed by the needs of the collective.
Indeed, McCrabbe suggests there is now a personal dimension to Dublin's fight for Division 1 survival.
"Relegation would be a big set-back," he agrees. "It would probably be two steps back from where we were going last year. I think we all feel we owe it to Anthony not to let that happen. Because he's put a lot into Dublin hurling the last two years and it wouldn't be great seeing us go down into Division 2 after all he's put in. So we'll be going out to do it for him and for everyone in the county that has pushed Dublin hurling on.
"Our home form has been pretty good. When Anthony took over, we talked about trying to turn Parnell Park into a fortress. I think we've done that to some degree.
"No team has come in and given us a hammering in the last few years. Our away form is improving too. We probably should have got the win down in Galway the last day. We feel we're getting there. So we certainly don't want to be going back down to Division 2."
Particularly when the hand doing the pushing is that of a ghost.