Monday 20 January 2020

'Every day I think about winning the All-Ireland' - Dublin hurler Eamonn Dillon

An unqualified success and inspiration, Dublin hurler Eamonn Dillon is a shining example to kids

‘Someone said we were small and the stick made us equal,’ hurler Eamonn Dillon says of growing up and playing in Cabra
‘Someone said we were small and the stick made us equal,’ hurler Eamonn Dillon says of growing up and playing in Cabra

Dermot Crowe

Eamonn Dillon, the Dublin hurler, is talking about growing up in Cabra when an incident from his teens springs to mind. "Me and me mates were up in Ashington, that is just up the road, we had our hurls out, it was a Saturday evening, and the guards came round, took the hurls off us. Said they could be used as weapons."

This wasn't great timing as they had a game the next day. They contacted their manager, Nial 'Hubba' Brady.

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'The guards are after taking the hurls off us.'

'I'll get that sorted.'

So he rang Nicky Kehoe, whose father was an early clubman in St Finbarr's, driving the juvenile section in the 1950s, before Nicky himself went on to play and manage both codes.

"So Nicky went up to the superintendent in Cabra garda station," says Dillon, taking up the story, "and he got the hurls back there and then. And the superintendent said, 'sorry about that Nicky, I don't know what the lads were thinking, it won't happen again'."

The juvenile team Nial Brady managed at the time, containing Dillon when he was a year below the grade, had talent to burn, narrowly eclipsed in Under-15 and U-16 'A' finals by Kilmacud Crokes. Despite the socio-economic obstacles Cabra has faced, hurling has been a popular release from those entrapments since the St Finbarr's club was founded in 1945.

"There is a tradition here," says Nicky Kehoe. "You will always have young fellas that would take to the hurling quicker than they would to the football. You will have lads who wouldn't play up to 10 or 11, and they'd then automatically turn to the hurling.

Eamonn Dillon is one of the leading lights in the Dublin forward line
Eamonn Dillon is one of the leading lights in the Dublin forward line

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"We are very community based. But the hurling has always been to the fore of that. Maybe it is because of the psychological thing of the stick. Someone said we were small and the stick made us equal."

Dillon comes from a family with no GAA background but that was never a deterrent to club officers chasing new recruits. Nor would that mean that he couldn't come to love it any less.

Cabra has a strong sporting tradition, with a long line of famous soccer players from the area, and hurling has managed to carve out a niche and retain a presence. Dillon's earliest memory is of watching his older sister play camogie and gradually becoming involved himself from there.

A young man could veer off course if he didn't have an anchor. Hurling, outside of family, was Dillon's. "I suppose it depends really what group of mates you have," he says. "Like, all my mates played, I played with them all the way up. So like you were always out hurling.

"You could be hanging around the shops, up to no good. I am not saying we were angels. We weren't hanging round shops. We were always out hurling or playing football, we were always doing active things. You'd be down in the club, or on the all-weather pitch. If you hadn't your sport in Cabra, God knows what you'd be at.

"I think everyone needs routine. As they say, the devil finds work for idle hands. So if you are not at something you are going to find something to fill that void. And I think sport does bring on discipline, you have to be punctual. I hate when I go to coach teams and training is at 6.30 and there would be fellas arriving in the door at 6.30. You'd be saying, 'come on, you should be here 15 minutes ago'. So it does give you structure in your life. And it makes you accountable to a team."

The primary school he attended is adjacent to his home and the wall of the school offered him a place to puck a ball to his heart's content. "He would be there day and night, seven days of the week, banging on the wall on the school," says Kehoe. "That is where he would have built up his skill levels."

Dillon, with a natural touch, started out as a goalkeeper and made the county development teams, playing for Dublin in the All-Ireland minor semi-final defeat by Clare in 2010. By then he had moved outfield with the club.

It was probably inevitable but the switch came in an U-15 championship semi-final against St Vincent's, when he was just 14. "They were beating us by two points or something like that and I took him out with a few minutes to go," recalls Nial Brady. "He never played in goal for Finbarr's again."

Dillon went into the attack and scored a goal, which helped earn a draw and they ran away with the replay. "When he was with Dublin minors he was playing senior for us at that time and he was scoring goals to beat the band," says Brady. "But Dublin minors couldn't score and they had him in goal."

He was an outfield player for Dublin when they reached the 2011 All-Ireland U-21 final and Anthony Daly took him into the senior set-up the following year. One of Daly's selectors, Vincent Teehan, works in the secondary school Dillon attended, St Declan's, and had him on teams there.

"He was one of the nicest fellas you would come across," says Teehan without hesitation. "Hurling wise, he would always go for the goal. Always. Sometimes when it wasn't what you wanted." John Paul Park, also known as the Bogies, is where the Barrs play their home games and in Dublin it has a reputation for being hostile and sometimes intimidating. It is no secret that the club use that to their advantage.

"They are a different breed," says Teehan of the local club. "It worked to our benefit in school matches in fairness at times as well. I played in the '90s, with Ballyboden for two years, and came up against them and they were worse. They were much worse.

"They weren't as bad with us (school teams). You had a bit of toughness alright, they wouldn't stand back, but I don't even remember any of them to get sent off. You could see them playing club matches, they were totally different. The manager in your face. They traded on it.

"But Eamonn was the total opposite, Eamonn never pulled a stroke in his life. Not one. Even when I was there with (Anthony) Daly, we said the one thing that he was lacking was that bit of aggression. Because he's a big lump.

"He is quiet. He was one of the nicest lads you would meet. I don't think anyone in school would have a bad word about him. He wasn't the typical Cabra lad even though he hung around with them. And that's not knocking the Cabra lads either, it's just the way they are."

The club has helped keep many young men on the straight and narrow by providing a sporting and social outlet, which Teehan freely acknowledges. "I know some of them were in trouble in school and the club always bailed them out and kept them playing. There was a really good player, he never played past 16. And the next time I saw him he was in a huge sports car, so we know where he went. So we used to come across a few like that. But we knew Eamonn Dillon or Ger Dodrill (a close friend of Dillon and one of the club's most talented hurlers) would never be like that.

"You see what they are up against to keep the young lads hurling, they have done a fantastic job; whether they can continue to do it I don't know. I remember that time they were going to America on trips and bringing the young lads. But they had a real community thing, with festivals and everything."

Dillon moved out of Cabra in February with his partner and their two young daughters to live in Ratoath. Up to then he lived with his mother, Alma. He makes no bones about her influence on him and where he is now.

"Ah me ma, Jesus, I could never repay me ma for what she's done for me like. Unbelievable. I owe everything to her. Never wanted for anything. She gave me anything I wanted, even still to this day. If I wanted lunch made for work she'd make me lunch. The nights I'd be going training she'd have my dinner ready. She's one-in-a-million. I lived with me ma all my life. My girlfriend lived down the road. We were going between the two places. Then we got the chance to move out there (Ratoath).

"She was always hard on me, being in at a certain time and that. You thank her for that now. I knew never to smoke, she'd kill me. I'd never come home drunk up to a certain age. She always had that discipline on me. Sometimes I probably did test her patience. But I am thankful in the long run that she did not give me a free rein - you do see some people where their ma's aren't as strict, that's where they start."

He knows those whose lives went sideways, that "just went mad, in fights, getting up to no good in school. Now as I said you were never an angel as a kid but you knew the rules and boundaries."

"I suppose minor is a big stage in people's careers because that's when you get to the stage of drink and everything else, all the other distractions. That's when people say, 'am I really serious about it or do I just want to go through the motions?' As you get to minor some lads start dropping off. Some of the best hurlers I played with have dropped off. You hear stories about them. That's the way it went. Like you wouldn't have that drop-off (level) over on the southside."

The club set about ensuring that Dillon's juvenile team didn't drift and many went on to become the nucleus of the current senior side. With that in mind in the last decade the Barrs brought a minor team to New York, a party of 35 players and 20 mentors, and played matches in Gaelic Park and Boston.

"We wanted to give them the trip of a lifetime," says Kehoe. "They raised a lot of money too, car washing, bag packing and all that. The mentors didn't drink, there was none of that."

The clubhouse has a thriving bar trade with regular weekend dances and musical entertainment. Dillon did five years of part-time work there from the age of 15. "The first day I started working in St Finbarr's club actually me and my mate Ger (Dodrill) were after being water boys for Dublin. They were playing Kilkenny in Parnell Park. I think we got a draw with them.

"Joe Lyons used to be on the management team, who was involved with Finbarr's. I remember it was Mother's Day and absolutely lashing. Me and Ger went back to the club. And then Hubba says, 'do you want to do a few hours?' Like at the time there was nobody really working there that used to play. And we worked all Mother's Day collecting glasses, taking orders and all that.

"And like in Cabra there wouldn't be that many nice pubs. You have the Oasis. You wouldn't let your dog into the Oasis."

He is asked how he thinks the outside world regards the Barrs.

"A tough team," he replies. "You always know you will get a game off them. I remember someone was chatting to Anthony Daly, and he said they were looking at a player off a different team, we were playing Lucan, and he said if you want to know how someone performs, like if they are going to make it or not, go up and watch them play Finbarr's in the Bogies. And if they are a good player they will perform up there and if they're not they won't perform. He went up and I think his mind was made up.

"There'd be teams that would hate going up to the Bogies because it is like a fortress up there. It would probably have a bad reputation, maybe some of the southside teams would probably fear coming up, so you use that to your advantage as well. But that way is kind of gone, it is much more strict. It's cleaner now. Like years ago you'd hear stories about things going on in the pitch, lads getting split."

In Cabra virtually everyone has a nickname. Dillon's is Trollier, after a TV show from years ago. When he had his eldest daughter, Molly, someone decided she should be called 'Mollier'. He laughs, denying any hand, act or part.

Having started the decade as Dublin's minor goalkeeper, he is now, at 27, trying to bring a greater level of consistency to his county performances. Sparkling National League form did not carry through to the Championship, although in recent years he has been stifled by injuries.

To reach the point he has, whatever follows, he is already an unqualified success and inspiration to the young players in the Barrs - a shining example to others. But the competitor in everyone wants more. The year past had the high of beating Galway followed by the desolation of losing to Laois.

What did he make of it? "Playing against Galway this year showed everyone we can do it," he says. "Just, can we do it all the time? The Laois game will bring us on a lot and I think you can see that in the pre-season already. Like lads are hungrier. They want it. The lads are putting in the effort."

And the ultimate objective?

"The All-Ireland is the main thing."

You think about it?

"Ah yeah, every day, every day."

Really?

"It's what you want. You'd think of it subconsciously as well."

It's possible?

"Ah yeah, definitely, I definitely think it's possible. I definitely think we have the team there, the management team, everything is put in place for us to do it. You just have to get through that mental barrier and go out and perform every day and know you are good as anyone else out there."

Trollier returning to Cabra with the MacCarthy Cup - now that would be a picture worth seeing.

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