Vincent Hogan: Dublin's year zero
'They wouldn't let horses run in The Curragh, but they let us hurl,' recalls Kevin Flynn of the day Dublin were knocked out of the Leinster SHC by Westmeath. Five years on, they are league champions and face Kilkenny in a Leinster final. Vincent Hogan takes a look at their journey
If the bad days have a hierarchy, Westmeath features high. Their last true embarrassment in the province. Some games seize you up and spit you out and that one in Portlaoise just lent ballast to the standard repertoire of Dublin's story.
In a deluge that had people scanning the horizon for Noah and his Arc, Westmeath wanted it more.
Dublin were too big for their boots.
On Thursday night, Kevin Flynn sat out on the balcony of his Milwaukee apartment, the mercury in the high 20s and ran his fingers through the memory. It was five years, one month and nine days distant now. Fragment of another lifetime.
"They wouldn't let horses run in The Curragh that day, but they said it was okay for us to hurl," chuckled Flynn. "You were probably in more danger of drowning than being injured."
Westmeath came with a late run to steal a two-point win and, two weeks later, lost to Kilkenny by 14. That was Dublin's level. Nowhere men.
They would subsequently survive a championship relegation dog-fight, just as they had done the year before. But they looked prisoners of a cycle now, each new dawn unraveling as another fantasy.
Two years earlier, Flynn had stepped out of that cycle. After a heavy championship defeat to Offaly, he excused himself and flew off to Chicago to find work. Eight years a county man, he just felt his hurling life had become a lie.
"We'd got slaughtered in every match we played that year," he recalled. "A lot of the lads were walking off the panel and the set-up just wasn't there. Players could see that and their commitment levels dropped accordingly.
"It was a case of 'What's the point here? Is anything going to be done by just hanging around?' A big change was needed."
He'd been captain of the team and his vice-captain, Liam Ryan, also chose to leave. In their absence, Dublin lost a qualifier to Kilkenny by 26 points. The arithmetic cursed those who had abdicated.
Flynn was told he'd never wear a county jersey again and, sure enough, he missed the succession of horse-whippings that subsequently came Dublin's way in the National League. Then Laois beat them by four goals in the Leinster championship and Humphrey Kelleher stepped away as manager.
Tommy Naughton agreed in principle to become caretaker, but, when he indicated an intention to restore Flynn to the fold, the county board baulked. An interim management team was appointed with chairman John Bailey at its head and the players rebelled.
They refused to work under the new appointees and chose, instead, to train on their own in St Anne's Park. In the qualifiers, Dublin lost three out of three, including defeats to Clare by 13 points and Waterford by 23.
Eventually, Naughton was given the job and they escaped regrading only by beating Laois in a relegation play-off.
"When we took over, we were a game away from Christy Ring hurling," recalled Naughton this week. True, they'd won Division 2 of the National League too, but that -- he knew -- was a straw crown.
"Bear in mind there were 12 teams in the first division at that time," reflected Naughton. "So, we were outside that 12. The real achievement was to stay in Division 1 the following year. And the year after that.
"That's when things began moving in the right direction. But losing that game to Westmeath in the '06 Leinster championship was a sickener."
John Shaw was Westmeath's captain that day and doesn't doubt that complacency was Dublin's undoing. For all of their troubles, he believes a certain self-regard ran through Dublin teams at the time, like an incurable virus.
Shaw looks at what Anthony Daly has done with them now and is inclined to distil it down into something brutally simple.
"He's cut out the bulls**t really that you would have associated with Dublin teams in the past," he reflected this week.
"Because they're a million miles from what we beat in '06. They probably would have come to Portlaoise that day fully expecting to run us over. Yet, at the time, there would have been nothing much between us.
"Daly seems to have got rid of that, the cockiness and the arrogance. They're hard, tough f***ers now. They're nearly playing like a country team. Same as Kilkenny, they're hitting hard. They're able to take their belts and there's no bulls**t about them at all."
Yet, Dublin's story isn't about any single person.
When the 'Blueprint for Dublin Hurling' was launched in '01, its vision was pretty much precisely what is happening today. Daly, after all, would have been on a fool's errand without the raw material.
And, even through the unceasing negativity of '05, the structures underneath were clearly being buttressed.
Dublin won their first Leinster minor title since '83 that year and would win another in '07.
They won a provincial U-21 crown in '07 too and regained it again last year. Incredibly, Dublin have contested eight of the last 10 Leinster U-21 finals.
In '06, their combined schools won an All-Ireland colleges title and, even further down the food chain, two of the last seven Division 1 Feile (U-14) hurling All-Irelands have been won by Dublin clubs, Kilmacud Crokes ('05) and Castleknock ('07).
Nicky English has been one of many big names inveigled into workshops for coaches in the city and sees the success now flowering as a largely logical process.
"The influx of country people into the city was massive in the 90s," says English, "and their offspring are coming up now. It's mathematics, really."
Yet, for Shaw, the sight of Dublin disappearing out over the horizon still seems scarcely credible.
"I would say they're probably number three in the country now, with only Tipp and Kilkenny ahead of them," said the Westmeath man.
"But five years ago, they were a million miles away from Kilkenny. If they'd beaten us in that game in '06, trust me, Kilkenny would have beaten them out the gate the next day. So, the jump they've made is remarkable.
"But their under-age is so strong now. I mean, we felt we had a really really strong minor team in Westmeath this year and got to our first Leinster semi-final in maybe 10 years. But last Saturday, Dublin just brushed us aside.
"They've moved onto a different level, while we've remained the same or maybe even taken a step back."
In the end, Flynn hurled 15 years with Dublin's seniors, finishing up with a substitute's appearance in last year's shock qualifier defeat to Antrim. It was a desperate way to end things, but he knew his race was run.
If he had young legs, he'd love to have stayed for the rising. Because, if Daly had been his seventh Dublin manager, he was and someone it was easy to believe in.
If there is one thing the Clareman has taught Dublin, it is that championship requires another gear. Maybe only now has that message landed.
"There was definitely complacency, from all sides," Flynn said of that defeat to Antrim. "I'd imagine even management would admit to it. But maybe it's been the making of this team.
"Having been there with Clare, Anthony would know what it takes to get beyond that. To become tougher mentally.
"I know from talking to some of the lads that they've probably upped things again by 40-50pc this year. Sometimes, they're training twice a day. But that's where you've got to take it now. Kilkenny brought things to a new level a few years ago and Tipp have brought it on again.
"So, it's a lifestyle choice. It's not something you can do and continue on your normal life.
"You're living in a complete and utter bubble. I know that once December kicked in for me, I had friends and -- whether it be weddings or stags -- they just wouldn't contact me for six or seven months.
"When you're with an inter-county team now, there's nothing else that really matters. Even when you're not training, you're pucking a ball against a wall, doing mental preparation, watching your diet. You don't drink. Last year, we went out once.
"A lot of people wouldn't understand that. But you do it because you have to. No point sitting on a barstool when you're done, saying you could have done this or should have done that. If the hurling isn't your priority, then you shouldn't be there."
He credits Naughton -- "an honest and honourable man" -- with putting in place the first seeds of senior revival.
In '07, Dublin's Leinster championship campaign ended in a single-point loss to Wexford. One year later, they fell to the same opposition, only after a replay.
By the time Daly helped them over the line into a Leinster final in '09, Dublin had stopped deferring to all but the blue-bloods.
They'd blown the opportunity of a league quarter-final spot in '07, too, when traveling up to Antrim with their heads in the clouds.
Hubris just seemed Dublin's default setting whenever on the cusp of achievement.
Now it is as if they mine that past as an insurance against the present.
In any hurling argument, maybe the ultimate truth comes from grasping the bare wire that is Kilkenny.
In three meetings with Brian Cody's team this year, Dublin remain unbeaten. The old, iron-clad certainties of life in the Cats' shadow appear to have been decommissioned.
You ask Flynn of the potential psychological lift for Dublin that a Leinster title might bring now and he pointedly bends the question in another direction.
"I think a Dublin win this Sunday would be more of a psychological blow for Kilkenny than a huge fillip for Dublin," he said.
"Not trying to sound cocky, but Dublin, at this stage, possibly realise that there's no point worrying about the Tommy Walshes or Henry Shefflins of this world.
"It's all about Dublin just bringing their own intensity and hunger to the day.
"They've done that so far this year and the results have spoken for themselves.
"Look -- Dublin know that, realistically, nobody's going to remember the National League. It'll be a nice thing to have when you're done and dusted, but it's championships that people remember.
"But some people seem to be writing Kilkenny off, despite the fact they've been in the last five All-Ireland finals and won four.
"I can't understand that. If Dublin got to even one All-Ireland final, they'd possibly consider themselves legends."
He will have to watch the game on his laptop, for Milwaukee isn't exactly a hurling stronghold.
Funny, but many of those swept away in Westmeath's late surge five years ago are now part of hurling's loudest uprising.
Men like Gary Maguire, Tomas Brady, Michael Carton and Johnny McCaffrey all hurled that day. Alan McCrabbe made his championship debut as a sub.
Some things in life you never forget.
"I've never seen a match played on a pitch like that and I'm sure we never will again, especially senior inter-county," said Flynn. "But Westmeath were certainly a lot hungrier than us. It showed and they won."
And that trip to Chicago two years earlier? The one that had him all but branded a lower caste by his own county board as Kilkenny went to town?
It was on that trip he met Jess who, in December, gave birth to their son, Tadhg.
Not all the bad days left a scar.
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