The Six Days of Dalo: Day Three, 2011 All-Ireland SHC QF - Dublin 3-13 Limerick 0-18
WHERE to start the story of Semple Stadium, July 24, 2011?
This was a day of deliverance for Anthony Daly’s hurlers; a day weighted in historical significance; and the day a blood-soaked Ryan O’Dwyer sealed his position as Dublin’s favourite Tipp man.
Yet there’s only one place to start: two days before that All-Ireland quarter-final against Limerick, on the road to Blessington.
Conal Keaney was on his motorbike, riding to work on that sun-kissed Friday, when "this van just pulled out and knocked me over."
As Keaney recalled in April 2016, in a Herald exclusive revealing his (since rescinded) inter-county retirement: "At the time, lying on the ground, I didn’t even realise my knee was sore. It was my foot that I was more concerned about.
"And I remember I couldn’t move on the ground and, you know, (thinking) ‘Would I be able to put the boots on tonight?’ ... and ‘I have to ice this now to make sure I’m okay for the weekend’ ... and ‘How am I going to tell Daly that I can’t train tonight?’ It wasn’t until the ambulance came and then the pain really kicked in."
Very quickly, news of the accident filtered back to the city.
"I can remember it very clearly," says O’Dwyer, nine years on. "Look, I didn’t give a b****x about the hurling – it was how is Keaney, is he okay, what’s the story?
"I remember I rang (Dublin team doctor) Chris Thompson that morning to see was he okay. He was sorting out a lot of stuff, as he did for every single one of us.
"It was worry about Keaney and his family. Hurling really took a back seat. We appreciated the important things and they are your teammates, your family – because we’re a very close team.
"Now, I know as time went on, they kind of got fractured over the years, but that team in 2011 was such a close team. It wasn’t a case of Ballyboden, Kilmacud, Vinnie’s, Lucan; that never came into it. It was 'Club Dublin'.
"And when it came to the game (county board chairman) Andy Kettle, Lord have mercy on him, wore Keaney’s jersey out onto the pitch. Now, we all kind of sniggered in one way because it was absolutely stuck to him. But it did help, it drove us on as well - that we’re all in this together."
The six years of Dalo incorporate two standout seasons. Most people instinctively turn first to 2013, because of the two crowning glories contained therein: scalping Brian Cody’s Kilkenny en route to a first Leinster senior title in 52 years.
But it’s arguable how much of that would have been possible without 2011. And not just because it yielded a first national league title in 72 years, or because the team advanced so deep into summer, all the way to a semi-final duel with the reigning champions, Tipperary.
Part of what made 2011 so special was Dublin’s reaction to multiple adversities.
The previous summer, from a position of cruising, they had crashed and burned to Antrim.
That humiliation could have broken the team. Instead, they rebounded quite brilliantly.
True, Daly was aided by two key additions: O’Dwyer, a modern-day rock of Cashel, and Keaney, the homecoming hero, who rejoined the Dublin hurlers after six years of exclusive football service.
But even as Dublin made league history and then torpedoed Galway to reach the Leinster final, the setbacks mounted. Skipper Stephen Hiney in March and full-back Tomás Brady in June had already suffered season-ending ACL tears.
Then, after Dublin had lost tamely to a vengeful Kilkenny in the Leinster final, Keaney completed the cruciate triple-whammy, just two days out from a watershed quarter-final date with Limerick.
The stricken Ballyboden man posted a video message to rally the troops before battle.
"Bones can heal but when we knew his head was okay, there was a relaxation there and a relief," O’Dwyer recounts. "Then, seeing that video of him in his bed ... that was certainly a motivational factor. And sure, when you’re listening to Dalo in the dressing-room, that’s like adding fuel to a fire."
This adopted Dub had his own personal motivations - but it was not about redemption over the red card against Galway that forced him to miss the Leinster final.
"Look, that was just stupidity," he muses in self-reproach. Rather, a driving factor was being back in Thurles, for his first game there as a Dublin hurler. "There were people who work in Semple Stadium coming into the dressing-room, wishing me the best of luck," he recalls. "I remember someone saying, ‘F***’s sake, you’re popular here!’
"There was a buzz," he adds. "The team was very relaxed ... I was relaxed as well.
"Everyone wants to play in Croke Park but I think the home of a hurling match is in Semple Stadium. Maybe it’s just because I’m originally from Tipp but the bounce of the ball, I think, is sweeter.
"I was on a high that day simply because I was going back to Thurles. Maybe, subconsciously, I felt I’d something to prove to Tipp.
"From a personal point of view as well, I loved playing Limerick. I’ve never got ‘bet’ against Limerick when I’ve been on the pitch."
All of which might explain what happened next: a hat-trick of first half goals. Relocated to full-forward, O’Dwyer struck after five minutes (latching onto a breaking ball), 12 minutes (after a sumptuous Alan McCrabbe pass) and 24 minutes (on the rebound after David O’Callaghan was denied). Dublin led by 3-6 to 0-6; a first semi-final appearance since 1948 beckoned.
At their next session, selector Richie Stakelum relayed to O’Dwyer how he had been so switched on that, after one of his goals, “you didn’t turn around, you didn’t put your arm up, you started shouting at lads to mark their man for a quick puckout.’
"As I get older now, I realise in so many games I was switched on; some games I thought I was switched on; and some games my head might have been somewhere else. It comes with age and experience as well but certainly, when you’re switched on, you feel you can beat the world."
This being Dublin, however, they didn’t make it easy: Limerick hit the next seven points and were still just two adrift after 65 minutes when O’Dwyer ‘scooped’ an inspirational point following a one-two with Liam Rushe. Almost there...
And this being Ryan, his day of days wouldn’t be complete without a pumping head, right at the death.
This was a recurring 2011 theme: "In the league final I got cut in the mouth. The Galway game was very bad - I’d to go off three times. I ended up getting 37 micro-stitches in my ear; I lost a bit of my ear."
This latest mishap was "a serious slap. Like, knee right into the head. And I think I was knocked out ... then I came back to reality and I said, ‘No, I’m getting back onto the pitch, I’m fine.’ But when I came back out, the game was just about blown up."
Dublin had hung on to win by four. And three weeks later they would lose by the same margin to a heavily fancied Tipperary. To echo an old Greek saying much loved by their manager ("Come back with your shield - or on it"), Dublin had died with their boots on.
As O’Dwyer sees it, they had the perfect managerial mix that year: not just Daly ("a serious operator") but Stakelum ("the cool, calm head"); fellow selector Ciarán Hetherton ("one of the lads" and a go-to man if you’d a problem); trainer Martin Kennedy (S&C and so much more when it came to team bonding); Chris Thompson ("our psychologist, our agony aunt, our doctor"); and Declan Coyle (a motivational speaker who "instilled a belief in us").
"A lot of people ask me was 2013 or 2011 better?" he reflects. "Yeah, we won Leinster in 2013 which was fantastic. But, in the development of Dublin hurling, I think 2011 was more significant because it was the first bit of national success that Dublin had got. It was the first breakthrough; it was unique; the hurling was on a high."
SCORERS - Dublin: R O’Dwyer 3-2, P Ryan 0-8 (6f), L Rushe, D O’Callaghan, S Ryan 0-1 each. Limerick: D Hannon 0-11 (4f, 1 ‘65’), B Geary (2f), K Downes, G O’Mahoney (2f) 0-2 each, D O’Grady 0-1.
DUBLIN: G Maguire; N Corcoran, P Kelly, P Schutte; S Durkin, J Boland, M Carton; J McCaffrey, M O’Brien; C McCormack, A McCrabbe, L Rushe; D O’Callaghan, R O’Dwyer, P Ryan. Subs: D Treacy for McCormack (32), S Lambert for McCrabbe (44), D Plunkett for O’Brien (51), D Sutcliffe for Durkin (60), S Ryan for O’Callaghan (66), D Curtin for O’Dwyer (blood 69).
LIMERICK: N Quaid; D Moloney, S Hickey, T Condon; W McNamara, B Geary, G O’Mahoney; D O’Grady, P Browne; N Moran, D Hannon, J Ryan; S Tobin, K Downes, G Mulcahy. Subs: S Walsh for Geary (26), D Breen for Tobin (49), R McCarthy for Moran (54), S Lucey for O’Grady (67).
REF: B Gavin (Offaly)