Thursday 18 July 2019

Dermot Crowe: 'Cuala liberator gets opportunity to make mark on county arena'

New Dublin manager will hope to generate early momentum to take into the summer

Dublin hurling boss Mattie Kenny comes up against his native Galway in the semi-final of the Walsh Cup at Parnell Park today. Photo: Sportsfile
Dublin hurling boss Mattie Kenny comes up against his native Galway in the semi-final of the Walsh Cup at Parnell Park today. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

It began with a simple request. A Galway man in Dublin attached to Cuala, involved with one of their minor teams, meeting Mattie Kenny when he was working in the capital and taking a break from hurling. Or at least when he thought he was taking a break from hurling. That was 2014. After a couple of visits the Cuala seniors asked if he might consider taking a few sessions with them as well. They were without a manager. The rest hardly needs to be told.

This afternoon, Kenny's Dublin host Galway in the semi-finals of the Walsh Cup at Parnell Park. Nobody is going to become hysterical over a match in mid-January, but it wouldn't be normal if the fixture didn't have added resonance for Dublin's new manager. He is facing his own county for the first time and continues to live in Duniry in east Galway. Only by the finest of margins, reputedly, did he fail to be appointed manager of the Galway team when Micheál Donoghue was given the job in late 2015.

Journey back through his ancestry and you'll find his grand-uncle Mick Kenny captaining the first county team to win the senior All-Ireland in 1923. John Connolly was a boyhood idol. In Loughrea Vocational School, he had Fr Iggy Clarke and Niall McInerney as coaches and his own adult playing career with Abbey-Duniry began in 1977 aged 15 and continued through thick and thin to well into the last decade. He was rarely less than instrumental in their attack for 30 years. He served as player-manager, combining roles, and became club secretary while still a teenager.

That's the bare bones of it. If anything, he tended to try to do too much, being one of the key figures in helping a small rural club win a junior title in 1986, before adding an intermediate three years later. In the next decade they defied gloomy forecasts that they were relegation fodder to reach successive senior finals, losing each time to a powerful Athenry. Prior to this Abbey-Duniry had never contested a senior final. They made the absolute most of what they had. Growing up in that part of east Galway, the love of hurling was unconditional.

When John McIntyre, who has been covering Galway hurling affairs since 1980 with the Connacht Tribune, as well as coaching extensively around the county, speaks of Kenny's "sterling service" to his home club he is not saying that lightly. You needed to go beyond your comfort zone in an area of two half parishes, where the number of houses might have been no more than 200, the equivalent perhaps of a small section of an estate in Cuala's heartland.

For a few years in the mid-1990s Mattie Murphy had him on his Galway senior panel and after that he managed him at Abbey-Duniry. Murphy says he is the kind of man who can't understand why everyone else hasn't the same devotion as he does. He describes him as "hands-on" and you can detect that Murphy doesn't feel that this quite conveys the half of it. Kenny was still playing when he became part of a team along with O'Donoghue that helped Galway win the All-Ireland under 21 title in 2005. He tends to bring good luck with him. Galway had lost six under 21 finals since their previous win.

He was a fresh addition with Tom Helebert to the under 21 management team under Anthony Cunningham that brought Galway another All-Ireland title in 2011, a year after they were demolished in the same grade by Tipperary. That led to his two years with the senior team, coaching alongside Helebert and Cunningham and winning an historic first Leinster senior title, before both Kenny and Helebert left after a disappointing 2013.

After Abbey-Duniry, Cuala was different in almost every conceivable way. In the first 18 months he devoted himself to trying to create the kind of rural parish environment he had been used to, working in a more challenging and secular society. Players gradually bought into his homespun philosophy. They had talent, undoubtedly, but Cuala were seen as underachievers and hadn't won a county senior championship since 1994.

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When they won in 2015, his second season in charge, it was the start of three in a row, a first Leinster title, retained a year later, and two All-Irelands. That is easy to run off in a sentence but the enormity of their success can be seen by Crumlin being Dublin's sole winner of a Leinster title until Cuala defeated O'Loughlin Gaels in early December, 2016.

Ollie Robinson, the club chairman of what is now Tynagh/Abbey-Duniry, says Kenny played a bit of junior C last year for his home club and a bit more than that the year before. He did not go easily into the night. He hurled at the highest club level in Galway until past his mid-40s.

A report from 1983 in the Connacht Tribune on a county under 21 challenge against Dublin referred to Kenny as an "unheralded" arrival, a midfielder from "one of the less glamorous clubs" who "matched skill with industry in an excellent display that must certainly earn him further recognition". The same year he won an All-Ireland under 21 medal.

Out of that team came a new fleet of stars like Peter Finnerty, Tony Keady, 'Hopper' McGrath and Michael Coleman who helped bring senior success at the end of the decade. At a time when Kenny should have been in his prime he could not break into Cyril Farrell's panel. When he did get into the Galway set-up in the next decade, winning a National League medal in 1996, his best years had passed. But he continued to be a highly effective club player.

By 1997, then 20 years a senior player, he was still capable of inspiring a comeback against Clarenbridge that rescued a county semi-final that had been slipping out of reach. They lost the replay. Mattie Murphy had taken over as manager and when retained the next year Kenny was the club secretary attending to business.

By 2000, the team had started to wane after losing successive county finals but Kenny remained on and again took on the role of player-manager. By the middle of the new decade he was still hurling and also finding time to manage Ardrahan for two years. In 2009, he went in as manager of the now Tynagh/Abbey-Duniry, along with Greg Kennedy, and brought them to an intermediate title.

Kennedy remained a trusted and valued coach and confidant to Kenny during his Cuala years, although not part of the current Dublin arrangement. Despite his good track record with teams, the Dublin job is Kenny's first major headline act in county management. Dublin expectations aren't sky-high after a few barren years and relegation to the second tier of the National League but they are always under the microscope. Kenny's Cuala success will fuel optimism that it can translate into the county team.

Already he has managed to lure back key players like Mark Schutte, Seán Treacy and Darragh O'Connell, with Schutte and Treacy having been missing for the last two years. It is expected that Conal Keaney will return once fit and Colm Cronin's career might also be revived although he is currently focused on completing medical studies. Dublin showed enough promise in last year's championship to suggest that they can finish at least in the top three in the province in the summer, when Galway will again be in direct opposition.

For all of Dublin's promise, and clear improvement in underage hurling, they have not been able to win an All-Ireland at minor or under 21. Their All-Ireland under 21 final defeats in recent times, in 2007 and 2011, were both to Galway, each one an emphatic loss. The second of those had Kenny on the Galway management side. An All-Ireland minor title has also eluded them. Galway have won five in the last ten seasons. In recent years Clare, Limerick and Waterford have been to the fore in winning All-Irelands at under 21 level, the modern stepping stones to senior success.

Kenny's first National League match when part of Anthony Cunningham's senior management team was against Dublin in 2012, an impressive home win, but a year later he was present when Galway suffered a demoralising loss to Dublin in the Leinster final. Great as that day was for Dublin, they have not been able to build on it and the years since have been a test of morale. With the restoration of some experienced hurlers, and the presence of talented young players like Eoghan O'Donnell and Seán Moran, Dublin have the potential to cut a better impression in this year's National League than they managed last year and carry some momentum into the summer.

Kenny's knowledge of the Dublin club scene also stands to him. In many ways he has helped to put Dublin club hurling on the map and earned it a genuine respect though the exploits of Cuala. But football continues to be in the ascendancy. Two of the most exciting forwards of recent years, Con O'Callaghan and Colm Basquel, a sensation for Ballyboden last season, are committed to the county football team. Not even Kenny's persuasiveness, one presumes, would entice O'Callaghan to switch codes at county level with Dublin footballers aiming for five in a row this year.

Kenny has been given a three-year term and could not have expected to be in this position given that Pat Gilroy, after one year, withdrew for unforeseen reasons. After being overlooked for both Galway and Dublin in the past, Cuala's liberator now has the ideal platform to make his mark.

Dublin hurling: A success story waiting to happen

Two years after the release of Dublin's GAA strategy in 2011, 'The Blue Wave', the county's hurlers won the Leinster Senior Championship for the first time since 1961. John McCaffrey went up the steps after a resounding win over the reigning provincial champions, Galway, to take the cup from a member of the '61 team, Jimmy Gray.

The same year the 'Blue Wave' reached our shores, the Dublin hurlers won the National League with a runaway win over an injury-depleted Kilkenny.

The omens looked good for Dublin hurling, but it has not been able to keep pace with its own expectations nor those set out in the county's strategic plan. There were two eye-catching aspirations contained in the report: that Dublin would win the All-Ireland senior football title every three years, and the hurling title every five. In the time since, Dublin have won five more All-Ireland senior football titles including four in a row. Hurling has lost ground.

Dublin hurling has failed to build on the feats of 2013 when they reached the All-Ireland semi-finals, narrowly losing to Cork, and defeated Kilkenny for the first time in the championship since 1942. At the time, they were All-Ireland-winning material but that team has undergone radical changes since, and there was also a difficult and fractious time during the management of former Cork goalkeeper Ger Cunningham.

The tenth anniversary of the 'Blue Wave' is just over two years away. If Dublin win an All-Ireland before then, Mattie Kenny's legend will be assured.

That quality isn't there right now. However, this year should reveal a good deal about their prospects in the immediate future.

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