'I was small and slow. Not the sort of player you want'
Seán Moran's hurling career path has been more gradual progress than overnight success
In Thurles in mid-March, Dublin hurlers were four points clear of Tipperary at half-time in their league quarter-final with the elements to face. Within four minutes of the restart a scoring burst had reduced that lead to rubble. But the expected never happened. Tipp could not get ahead in the long stretch to the finishing line and Dublin held out for a victory with landmark status. It marked their first win over Tipperary in Thurles since 1946.
All through the last decade new signposts have been reached by Dublin that indicate the distance travelled. The 2013 Leinster title ended a journey of 52 years. The win over Kilkenny that year was their first in the championship since 1942. But where teams craved consistency, Dublin became prone to extremes. That spring they were trounced in the league semi-final by Tipp by a five-goal margin.
Seán Moran was on the panel at the start of 2013, before being let go, and it was not until they played Galway in Tullamore two years ago that he made his first championship start. A heavy defeat sent them into the qualifiers where the season ended with a 22-point loss to Tipp in Thurles. They conceded six goals. Outclassed. Moran, midfield against Galway, played wing-back and went off with 20 minutes to go. Dublin's current half-back line all played, as did their outstanding full-back Eoghan O'Donnell.
For those players, beating Tipp in the league quarter-final this year signalled progress and offered some healing. That night Moran was a pivotal figure, impeccable as the team's centre-back, scoring five points that included three frees and a '65. It hasn't been an overnight success. Now 26, this will be only his third season as an established county player. His impact on the public consciousness has been gradual. Dublin's season ended in the group stages last year. Most of what you have seen of him has been with Cuala during their two All-Ireland wins.
But he is now rapidly becoming one of the most elegant and all-round centre backs in hurling. If style and finesse are the yardsticks, a case can be made for placing him alongside Declan Hannon in the country's top two. In marked contrast to Hannon, he developed late, having failed to make the county minor panel. Moran has been a Cuala senior player since 2012 but success there, too, took time. Travel, two extended periods in California and Glasgow, partially explain the delay.
Moran claims his first year in UCD had a big influence. He was part of a talented freshers' team under coach Colm Crowley who moved him to centre-back and helped change the direction of his career. Until then he had mostly played as a forward. The switch seemed to liberate him, as if he had found his natural habitat. From there he began to blossom.
"At my age group in Cuala we were middle of the league (rankings) growing up," says Moran, sipping a coffee on Waterloo Road on a break from work on a Friday afternoon. "I am the only one from my year who is still playing senior hurling in the club. Growing up to be honest I was average enough until I got to college. I was a forward all my life until I got to college and then I was put centre-back and that changed the course of my hurling career."
Moran says he was a better footballer in his juvenile days than a hurler, but loved hurling more. Damien Byrne, the former Cuala and Dublin hurler, spotted a special talent though. He had him for a year at minor. "He was a very skilful player," says Byrne. "He just had natural ability and balance and his co-ordination was fantastic. On the ball he was very confident. He didn't rush anything. Everything was measured. Some kids when they're small get a ball and try to get rid of it as fast as they can, whereas he looked up and picked people out. He was always that step ahead."
Crowley, a native of Cork, plays down the decision to switch Moran to defence in UCD, saying that they were always shifting players into different roles, but he freely admits that Moran's impact caught everyone by surprise.
"I was surprised he hadn't played Dublin minor," states Crowley. "I rang one of the selectors from the year that he was minor and asked about him. He just said he was not at that level then. I know from being with the county minors myself a fella can develop after minor. Maybe if he hadn't gone to college in UCD he might never have pushed on.
"Same as everybody else, it was my first year involved with the freshers, and we got a list of about 100 names. We carried out trials and this fella from Cuala was able to play centre-back. When you don't know a fella and he stands out you are wondering if it was a once-off. We had a loaded team. Jack Guiney, Willie Phelan from Kilkenny. Cillian Buckley as well. With those high-calibre players, Seán settled into centre-back and held his position for the year.
"You are wondering what was wrong here - he obviously was a bit of a late developer. He had a lot of talents: rangy, a fluent mover; he made it look easy getting around. Good hands and good positional sense. Ticked a lot of boxes and things you are looking for. He is a graceful kind of mover, no real force.
"You can see a bit of a forward in him with the sidestep out of trouble and the acceleration. Only thing was maybe physique-wise when you are not involved with county minors he was not getting exposure to that strength and conditioning. But it didn't hinder him at all. I didn't realise he didn't play centre-back before."
Moran says he was small for much of his earlier years, experiencing a sudden spurt in his late teens, and adds that pace was a problem. He was "in and out" of football and hurling development squads. What held him back?
"Probably my speed; I was very slow. My skill base probably got me by to a certain level. I was also very small, I didn't start growing until I was about 17 as well. So I was small and slow (laughs), not the sort of attributes you'd want in any sort of player."
The growth he had no control over, but he worked on the speed by learning about improved technique and using weights programmes. He always had the hands, is good in the air and blessed with a good sense of vision and natural game intelligence.
He also appears instinctively calm and composed. Last year he was called upon in injury time in the All-Ireland club final against Na Piarsaigh to take a 20-metre free, the game's final puck, with Cuala three points down and on the brink of defeat. His goal saved them and in extra-time David Treacy's late point sent the game to a replay which Cuala won, after coming from behind. Moran was declared man of the match and the AIB Club Player of the Year at the season's end.
After getting on the Cuala senior team and playing in UCD, he made the county under 21 panel for two years, and the team in the second of those, 2013. Neither season was successful. They lost to Laois in the first and Carlow in the second. In his first year with the Cuala seniors in 2012, they had a surprise run to the county final, losing to Kilmacud Crokes. On the back of that Anthony Daly brought him and some other county under 21s into the senior panel but he was travelling the following summer to California on a college placement and let go from the panel in early 2013.
He returned in August 2014 and was asked back into the Dublin panel but he left Ireland again in December 2014 for Glasgow until the following July. In 2015, Cuala won their first senior championship since 1994 and started the run of success which raised Moran's profile and broke new ground for a Dublin hurling team. An internship as part of his master's in biomedical engineering had taken him to Glasgow. There was also a romantic connection. His girlfriend, and now wife, Carla, is from there.
They married in December 2017 but could not go on their honeymoon to Mexico until late January. The wedding date had to take stock of his hurling schedule. "We got to the All-Ireland the year before," he explains, "and we were thinking when we got engaged what if that happened again? It worked in the end for us; the two schedules aligned really."
Cuala retained the Leinster title in 2017 and they were facing Liam Mellows in the All-Ireland semi-final less than two weeks after the honeymoon was over. He informed Mattie Kenny. A deal was struck. He didn't take a hurl but kept working on his fitness levels. He became the first member of the Cuala team to get married; if it were a race he'd have won with laps to spare. Interviewed by his team-mate Shane Stapleton afterwards, he admitted it bucked the trend.
Stapleton went to the trouble of finding out the national average for the Irish married male. Moran was coming in 10 years younger.
His father is a Mayo man, from Kiltimagh, while his mother is from Ballybrack in the Cuala district. Sport does not figure prominently on either side. Talking of marrying young leads him to mention family and his upbringing which had strong Christian beliefs. Those values remains with him today.
"I guess, marriage for some people doesn't mean a lot," he says. "To us it means a lot. I was brought up in a religious home. For me it was the right move at the right time to marry Carla."
He comes from a family of four, with three sisters. His family is part of a Christian group which he describes as a collection of "like-minded people" and he compares the purpose as being similar to a team or club where there is a collective sharing of ideals and common beliefs.
"The values that my parents instilled in us, I like to be able to live by them," he says. In a secularised society and with religious faith falling off a cliff in this country over the last 20 years, this is a road less travelled for the young men of today.
At times he will read a passage from the Bible and maybe find something there that is relevant to his life and maybe reassuring or useful advice. It is part of his life and belief system but he carries it lightly. And he does not want to make a big deal of it, asking that you don't focus too much on that or cast it in a negative way. A young man in this day and age capable of reflection and having a core set of values is a refreshing break from the norm - it is anything but negative.
And so, from there, we are back into hurling. But he is not going to make much of a prophet here. Dublin's ambitions are game to game, slow build, not much different to his own progress. I think I can hear Mattie Kenny talking in his head.
They head to Kilkenny next Saturday night a year after losing to them in the last moments in Parnell Park, a two-point defeat repeated in the next match with Wexford. "It is a tough block of work," he admits. "It is all about after-match recovery and getting ready for the next one."
No hurry, no drama; good things come to those who wait.
Pretenders to the throne
The team to beat, full of confidence and vaulting ambition, and now, with ghosts banished and knowing they can do it, better than they were last year. The league title win indicated as much but retaining the All-Ireland won't be an easy mission. The evidence to date is that they have handled their status transformation well and have a strong panel, which is needed, especially in the Munster group stages. Aaron Gillane is leading the charge.
First Match: Cork at the Gaelic Grounds, May 19
Key Player: Aaron Gillane
Bottom line objective: All-Ireland winners
All-Ireland Odds: 10/3
Reduced optimism. Despite using over 30 players in the league, it is unlikely that Galway will have too many new faces. Seán Loftus could come in at midfield alongside the impressive Cathal Mannion and Brian Concannon might win a place in attack. But the fixtures sequence is kind: Carlow and Wexford in Salthill and a break to games in Kilkenny and Dublin. Need Joe Canning back from injury and some others, like David Burke, recharged.
First Match: Carlow at Pearse Stadium, May 12
Key Player: Cathal Mannion
Bottom line objective: All-Ireland win
All-Ireland Odds: 10/3
Cork came desperately close to reaching last year's final, undermined ultimately by injuries to three key players in extra-time against Limerick. They have the distinction of beating Limerick in this year's league but if they fail to win their opening match against Tipp, they go to the Gaelic Grounds having to repeat it. A top-class forward line, but unsettled in defence where full-back seems a toss-up between Damien Cahalane and Eoin Cadogan.
First Match: Tipp at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, May 12
Key Player: Seamus Harnedy
Bottom line objective: All-Ireland final
All-Ireland Odds: 11/2
And speaking of perceptions changing like the wind . . . you will remember Tipperary winning the All-Ireland in 2016 with Seamus Callanan's tour de force, and the form they took with them into the following spring, scoring for fun. Until the league final against Galway and the collapse from which they've never really recovered. Failed to escape the group last year. Liam Sheedy and Eamon O'Shea are back, but will the old magic be?
First Match: Cork at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, May 12
Key Player: Brendan Maher
Bottom line objective: Munster title, All-Ireland final
All-Ireland Odds: 6/1
Not hugely optimistic, although their immediate prospects are improved by Galway's injury misfortunes, while Wexford and Dublin will still be seen as trailing behind them, if marginally. They have their own injury problems, affecting Eoin Murphy, Cillian Buckley and Conor Delaney. Winning Leinster seems a realistic target. Playing Dublin in a crucial match next Saturday, they don't want to be heading to Wexford Park in mid-June needing a result. The talented Adrian Mullen may enter the frame.
First Match: Dublin at Nowlan Park, May 11
Key Player: TJ Reid
Bottom line objective: Leinster title and All-Ireland semi-final
All-Ireland Odds: 6/1
Capable on their day but inconsistent. Winning a first Munster title since 1998, having lost the last two finals, would be a mark of progress and a steadier line of form. Need Tony Kelly to have one of those summers and greater stability in defence where Conor Cleary is ruled out of Waterford game through suspension. Injury to John Conlon doesn't help but they have talented forwards, supplemented by the return of Shane O'Donnell.
First Match: Waterford in Walsh Park, May 12
Key Player: Tony Kelly
Bottom line objective: Munster title and All-Ireland semi-final
All-Ireland Odds: 9/1
All going fine and dandy until the league final where they were out of step and tactically upstaged. Waterford are still working on a safety code which enables greater freedom of expression without over-exposing them to risk. The evidence of the league final is that this is a work in progress. A home tie to start, with Stephen Bennett revitalised, and lessons presumably learned, they will be hard work for all opponents.
First Match: Clare at Walsh Park, May 12
Key Player: Stephen Bennett
Bottom line objective: Top three group finish
All-Ireland Odds: 12/1
Re-emerging as a contender with increasing aspirations after a healthy league. That ended with an honourable defeat to Limerick in the semi-final in Nowlan Park where they start this year's championship. The league win over Tipp in Thurles that preceded Limerick showed an encouraging resilience. Two excellent central defenders, a nice sprinkling of tidy young players, and rising dander. Vying with Wexford for third in the group.
First Match: Kilkenny at Nowlan Park, May 11
Key Player: Eamonn Dillon
Bottom line objective: Top three group finish, All-Ireland quarter-finals
All-Ireland Odds: 22/1
Reached the All-Ireland quarter-finals last year and missed out on the Leinster final when losing a nine-point lead against Kilkenny, in their fourth match on consecutive weekends. After two high-octane leagues and worries about summer fatigue, this spring campaign petered out tamely in Salthill in the quarter-finals. This might be no bad thing. Have Kilkenny at home in the final round this time but start with two away ties to Dublin and Galway.
First Match: Dublin in Parnell Park, May 19
Key Player: Rory O'Connor
Bottom line objective: Leinster final, All-Ireland quarter-final
All-Ireland Odds: 28/1
The McDonagh Cup winners are making progress under Colm Bonnar and managed to avoid relegation from Division 1B. Get under way with a daunting trip to Galway. The challenge will be more difficult having attracted attention by drawing with them in the league. A home game v Dublin on June 2 might be their best chance of getting the win that might avoid the drop, but the odds are stacked against them.
First Match: Galway at Pearse Stadium, May 12
Key Player: Marty Kavanagh
Bottom line objective: Go down fighting
All-Ireland Odds: 1,000/1
Sunday Indo Sport