Whatever fate awaits Ballyboden in Carlow today, club hurling in Dublin has turned a significant corner. For 36 years Crumlin stood alone as the only Dublin provincial champion, having reached the summit in Athy in 1980. Two years ago Cuala matched that feat; it led to a series of firsts. They became the first Dublin club to go on and win an All-Ireland. The first to retain a provincial and national title. The first to reach three Leinster finals in a row.
Cuala were an especially gifted team, romping through the provincial and All-Ireland series the first year. But the hardest matches they encountered were in Dublin. When Cuala won their last two county finals, Kilmacud Crokes were within a goal of them each day. This year Crokes, hugely motivated and under the management of Anthony Daly, put them out of the championship in the semi-finals.
And Crokes, having achieved that, had to endure the agony of falling to Ballyboden in the final, a match that went to a second day. Ballyboden haven't breezed through to today's Leinster final against competition specialists Ballyhale. But they are there on merit and have shown a resilient streak of character to see off fierce challenges from Clonkill and Coolderry, in both cases needing extra-time. They also defeated Cuala in the group stages in each of the last two seasons.
Most encouraging is that the Dublin club teams being produced now are fundamentally home-grown. Faughs still lead the county senior hurling championship roll of honour by a distance, but their last title win was in 1999 and over the years they were a recognised home-from-home for country players. Only in relatively recent times did they realise that this demographic no longer guaranteed a plentiful supply of playing talent and that they would have to build from within. Now Faughs have an excellent underage section and are producing county players and a senior side of which the vast majority is indigenous.
Paudie O'Neill, the Tipperary-born coach who up to recently chaired the National Hurling Development Committee and managed Ballyboden winning teams of the past, has seen the transformation in Dublin hurling over three decades.
"If you take a real long-term look at this and go back literally 30 years, we (Ballyboden) contested a championship final in 1988 and I was on the team," he says. "Fourteen of our starters that year were non-natives including myself. If you take a longer frame look at it, what you see with our place and a lot of other clubs in Dublin is that you have had this 30-year transition whereby - and this is an interesting statistic - we have 31 players on our senior panel at the moment and 30 of them have come through the juvenile section of our club. The only exception, and he has been with us for years, is Malachy Travers who played for Wexford. And he is very well integrated. I think that is the first kind of element I would say as regards looking at the whole progression.
"And I think the same has been replicated in many of the Dublin clubs. When I first started hurling in Dublin you went out and you were meeting fellas that you played against in Tipperary and that has diminished greatly."
It hasn't been easy at times. In 2000, '04 and '05 UCD won the Dublin senior hurling championship. In '04 they defeated Ballyboden in the final, St Vincent's the year after, with an assortment of inter-county players from outside Dublin. At a time when winning Dublin was the only game in town, the presence of UCD led to fierce resistance from Dublin clubs, culminating in a threat of boycotting the county championship unless the Belfield team was removed.
O'Neill, teaching in Dublin since the 1970s, was then managing Ballyboden. "We just had to suck it up. You couldn't say much about it. But looking back on it now, it was - I wouldn't want to use the word travesty - but it was a very unfair playing field when we were trying to win our first championship with a group that at that stage was home-produced. Over a period of 15 years a lot of people put in a savage amount of work to get players up to that level and then you come up against UCD, an All Star outfit, and you just couldn't beat them."
UCD reached Leinster finals each year they won the Dublin championship in that decade. In 2004 they lost to James Stephens by a point, before the Kilkenny side went on to win the All-Ireland. The next year they fell again to James Stephens, this time by four points, having led by nine in the first half. None of this was of any benefit to Dublin hurling. The captains of seven senior teams, including Ballyboden, signed a petition seeking an end to UCD's involvement, claiming it was stunting the growth of club hurling in the capital.
The director of sports in UCD, Brian Mullins, strongly rejected the charge and pointed out that in 1961 UCD won the county championship and Dublin still reached the All-Ireland final. He maintained that UCD should be a motivating factor for the Dublin clubs rather an impediment. Ultimately, UCD withdrew, but Ballyboden were about to launch a period of domination in any event. They won five in-a-row from 2007 although they were unable to add a provincial title, their nearest bid coming at the first attempt, when they reached the final and lost to Birr by a point.
"We were in a Leinster final against Birr back in 2007 in Tullamore, I think maybe we were a point down with ten minutes to go playing with a strong breeze," recalls O'Neill. "I just felt at the time that was a wonderful opportunity because that was also the first year that we won the championship in Dublin. Guys were on a high. They didn't have cumulative bad experiences behind them.
"I remember sitting with a friend of mine, Paddy Corrigan, and I turned to him with about ten minutes to go and said, 'Paddy, we could we waiting a long number of years to get back to this position.'"
While Ballyboden, Cuala and Kilmacud Crokes have won the last 12 Dublin senior championships, St Jude's contested two recent finals and Lucan Sarsfields another. Na Fianna have been threatening to really challenge for a senior title after turning into a powerful underage force, winning four of the last six minor championships. St Vincent's, frequently knocking around the business end, are not far off the mark. O'Neill cites this year's minor final between Ballyboden and Crokes as an example of the rising quality of the hurling on view. "I would say it was as high a standard as you would see in any county. It was exceptional. A final score for November of 2-21 to 2-16. An exceptionally high standard."
The game has spread too, with growth in areas traditionally deemed almost inaccessible to hurling. This year's Dublin minor hurling team contained a liberal spread of players from lower-light clubs like St Olaf's, Round Towers Clondalkin and Fingallians, with a noticeably low percentage of starters from the traditional heavyweights.
"There are maybe eight clubs in Dublin now in senior hurling who are really well up there," says O'Neill. "I would attribute a lot of it to the fact that Dublin has put a very good games programme in place. I managed our club minor team in 1994-'96, we won three minor titles in succession. That time you probably only got seven or eight games a year, you had to go chasing games, go down the country or whatever. Our minor teams, both in hurling and football, were in the minor championship finals in the last couple of weeks. They had a programme where in hurling and in football each will get 14 games. That's a really good games programme. And most who play in Dublin are dual, they might make their choices after minor. So that has been a big impact as well.
"Development squads have also played a role in Dublin in exposing guys to good practice. Dublin have the advantage as well in that overwhelmingly all their players are based at home."
Boden's minor win in 1994 was their first minor A championship win and spawned a run of success at the grade in subsequent years. "It's funny, going back, in 1996 I managed the Dublin minor team," says O'Neill, "we went to a Leinster final, I'd say we only had five clubs really significantly represented. In terms of hurling development you look at Dublin minor teams in the last few years where you are pulling in players from north county Dublin, from clubs that would be unheard of. But I think that is going back to the games programmes, more and more clubs are playing hurling because they are getting games.
"But in terms of the overall development of hurling in Dublin there has been a lot done in terms of upskilling coaches. And what I would find about Dublin coaches, I am giving a course tonight, I think there is an openness to learning in Dublin. A growing mindset. An openness to new ideas."
The more open-minded tend to prosper. "For example in our club," says O'Neill, "25-30 years ago, when we were starting juvenile hurling and even up to about seven or eight years ago young lads had to choose between hurling and football. Now most clubs work a model in their nursery whereby they will do 40 minutes hurling and 40 minutes football. That meant that it broadened the base. And again going back to my experience in the mid-'90s the total number of minor hurlers, 17-18-year olds, in Dublin at that stage would not have exceeded maybe 300. What has been done over the years is that critical mass is now being developed.
"Within clubs where you have forward-thinking people they realise that a proper games programme, with hurling and football, will keep boys involved longer and it is right to give them exposure to both. We had to overcome a fair bit of resistance, back in time in our own club, but after a while people realised, hey listen, play both, it'll all add to the thing."
Growing numbers hurling are evident right through the age ranks. In the last ten years player numbers in the 8-12 age group have gone up by 95 per cent in hurling. The implications for the county team of a healthy feeding system of organically produced players, with constantly improving standards, bodes well for the county side.
"I was at the Dublin games this year," says O'Neill, "they were within a hair's breath of beating Kilkenny. They were leading Wexford I think at the end of normal time. They beat Offaly. And they were ok against Galway even though I know it was a dead-rubber. The fact that the club hurling is at a high level is absolutely going to help it. Now there's no guarantees as you know, but they are not far off."
In a timely intervention, The Story of Interprovincial Football has emerged from the pen of Dermot Kavanagh, following a similar work by the same writer on the hurling series two years ago. For all the indications are that the interprovincial series has breathed its last, bereft of tearful requiems or parting ceremonies. It simply slipped quietly out of existence.