Saturday 19 October 2019

Improving Dubs keen to follow Limerick's lead after sudden fall from grace

Mattie Kenny's men are showing positive signs of rehabilitation after sudden fall from grace

Dublin’s Éamonn Dillon in action against Padraic Maher during last week’s Allianz League quarter-final victory over Tipperary in Semple Stadium. Photo: Daire Brennan
Dublin’s Éamonn Dillon in action against Padraic Maher during last week’s Allianz League quarter-final victory over Tipperary in Semple Stadium. Photo: Daire Brennan

Dermot Crowe

It may be forgotten how closely aligned they were, the hurlers of Dublin and Limerick, before the Treaty men excused themselves and went their separate way.

For several years they were like companion climbers, tied by the same rope and similar ambition, until one decided he couldn't keep pulling the other and cut the connection. Limerick continued ascending and reached the pinnacle last August. Dublin had started to recover some altitude by then after a calamitous and damaging fall.

Where did the separation take place? That is arguable. Limerick were putting down roots that were gradually fraying the rope binding them and Dublin were working on the same foundation principles before it suddenly unravelled. But for a good while there was nothing to divide the two and Dublin would have considered their prospects of making a breakthrough at least as healthy, if not better.

Today they meet in a league semi-final with Limerick All-Ireland champions and firm favourites, while Dublin, fourth best in Leinster last year, are now ranked ninth among the leading hurling counties. That means Limerick and Dublin occupy opposite ends of the spectrum of serious contenders. So, to see Dublin share billing with Limerick this afternoon is a positive sign of rehabilitation.

For a place to start looking for the early fault lines in the relationship, you can go to 2015. Three years before Limerick won their first All-Ireland in 45 years, Dublin demolished them in a league quarter-final, 1-25 to 0-16. That day in 2015 Mark Schutte was their top marksman from play with 1-5 but in the meantime Schutte has spent time on the county football panel. Last year, while Limerick reached the summit, Schutte was a peripheral member of Jim Gavin's squad.

The win over Limerick four years ago was one of the high watermarks of Ger Cunningham's reign as Dublin manager which went downhill the next year and was showing signs of wear even in the first year. Of those who saw action against Limerick four years ago, ten are still part of Dublin's plans under Mattie Kenny. Eight of Limerick's players that day played in last year's All-Ireland final.

In the qualifiers in Thurles later in July, Dublin recovered from an eight-point deficit after 27 minutes to win again, 1-17 to 1-16, helped by a Dotsie O'Callaghan goal in the 62nd minute. Paul Ryan hit 0-12, including six points from play. The result put Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-final, where they lost in an exciting match to Waterford, while Limerick's season was done.

At face value, Dublin were performing more than respectably, while Limerick were in torment over their fitful form. The previous August they had shared a thrilling All-Ireland semi-final with Kilkenny in the rain at Croke Park. A year before that they were Munster champions when Dublin conquered Leinster under the management of Anthony Daly.

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But 2015 left them reeling and two of their worst days were defeats at Dublin's hands. After the Dublin defeat in the qualifiers the Limerick manager TJ Ryan was attacked by a supporter and Shane Dowling also had an exchange with another follower as he went off the field.

"There will be criticism and I will be criticised," TJ Ryan forecast afterwards with sombre precision, "and that's the nature of sport and we have to take that on the chin." By then Daly was involved with Limerick as the director of their underage hurling academy and a coach with the minor team. He could see the frustration at first hand.

"With Limerick I think very much it was a work in progress that was going to take time and patience, which they lacked," he says. "They absolutely lacked patience. I found that if you were a fella whose father had brought you to the 1973 All-Ireland there was not much point in saying, 'Have patience, it will come'".

The year before Daly arrived, in 2014, they won the Munster minor title and lost the All-Ireland final to Kilkenny. "I could see the whole focus was on hurling in Limerick, ok there is a football academy, but the footballers were in Division 4.

"I would have seen there was a complete focus on the hurling in terms of this is where we wanted to go. They were on a mission. I came in for 2015, that 2014 minor (All-Ireland) should have been won. In hindsight, I think it was probably the best thing ever."

A team with Cian Lynch, Seamus Flanagan and Tom Morrissey, Seán Finn, Diarmaid Byrnes and Peter Casey failed to win the All-Ireland which grated when success was scarce. "They did not win an All-Ireland and what harm?" says Daly. "I just thought the process was very good. I was trying to persuade people that the bigger picture was that you were going to get the pool of players. You would be contenders."

TJ Ryan, after changes to the backroom team, survived after the disappointments of 2015 and the following year Limerick defeated Dublin in the league quarter-finals after failing to get out of Division 1B, winning 1-21 to 1-19 in Parnell Park. Limerick lost the semi-final by 11 points to Waterford and neither Dublin nor Limerick made much impression in the championship. Ryan's tenure ended and John Kiely took over, having led Limerick to the All-Ireland under 21 title in 2015.

Despite ostensibly healthy results, cracks were appearing in the Dublin foundations that year. Before the Limerick qualifier match, Michael Carton stepped away, with the summer virtually upon them. Eventually, players like Shane Durcan, Paul Ryan, Danny Sutcliffe, Simon Lambert, Schutte, Conal Keaney and Peter Kelly also departed the stage and it became clear there were issues around player-management relations. Cunningham introduced a large number of new players but lost a medley of hurlers with invaluable experience and leadership qualities.

Under Kiely promotion eluded Limerick in 2017 and their championship ended in the qualifiers away to Kilkenny. But Dublin were falling deeper into the abyss. They suffered relegation and they went out of the championship when trounced by Tipperary in Thurles 6-26 to 1-19. Cunningham's time was up.

Daly, who was frequently linked with a return to the Dublin post he vacated after six seasons in 2014, finished up with Limerick in 2017. Over the course of his time there Limerick won two All-Ireland under 21 titles and Na Piarsaigh became a first Limerick winner of the club championship. But he could see that Dublin had talented young players committed to hurling if the structures were in place.

"We played each other a lot in minor tournament games and met in an All-Ireland semi-final (2016), and I think you are seeing the fruits of that in Dublin now too. They have a lot to pick from, seeing what they were missing (through injury) last weekend."

In Pat Gilroy's one season they managed to restore stability and better governance and more senior players returned to the panel. Limerick were moving at a different level by then and doled out a 1-26 to 0-17 beating to Dublin in Division 1B on the way to winning promotion. It was their first time back in the top tier since a huge loss to Dublin in 2010, when labouring with a second-string team, saw them demoted.

Mattie Kenny's arrival has meant a return for Schutte, and with a more effective mix of experienced hands and younger players. Daly is back in Dublin, managing Kilmacud Crokes.

"The standard is way up," he says of club hurling. "Whereas back then when I was managing Dublin, bar Ballyboden having a complete off-day they would not lose. Whereas now Cuala could win two All-Irelands and we (Crokes) could catch them and still not win the county final. There is a bigger depth there now than when I was there.

"I think there is serious talent in Dublin. It is a good time to be going in (as manager). OK, there might be slightly higher expectations, because genuine hurling people know there are better players there now, but I think there is a genuine chance of an All-Ireland to aim for."

Cuala winning and then defending the title is another reason why he is confident Dublin can leave a serious mark, and the dual player issue is no longer the drain it used to be.

"You are either one or the other," says Daly, "although who's to say that if five in a row is done, or not done, that Con O'Callaghan won't be a Dublin hurler next year? And Mattie (Kenny) would have a great connection there. Maybe Con could be tempted over. I see a real possibility of that next year."

Limerick were a recurring theme in his days as Dublin manager. After taking over, he won his opening two league games in 2009 in Division 1 and then lost the next to Limerick in the Gaelic Grounds. In that year's All-Ireland quarter-final Dublin lost to Limerick in a match they felt they should have won.

Two years later three goals from Ryan O'Dwyer drove them to victory against Limerick in another quarter-final. In 2013, they met in Division 1B at Croke Park where Limerick won by five points, only to later lose to Dublin in the promotion play-off final when Declan Hannon scored 1-7.

While Dublin are making progress under Kenny, they appreciate the ground they still have to make up. "I think for Dublin giving a performance is huge, I know we all harp on about that," says Daly of today's challenge. "If there was ever a game you don't need to flop in this is it. Limerick are probably better than Tipp at the minute. I was there when they beat Tipp in the league and they physically blew them away."

He also factors in potential Tipperary complacency in trying to read the true merit of last weekend's win in Thurles. But they have come on a considerable deal since the devastation of that 22-point loss to Tipp less than two years ago. That hammering, which paved the way for Gilroy's surprise appointment, was Dublin hurling's own 'startled earwig' moment.

They ran into Limerick's blades last year in the league, losing by 12 points in the Gaelic Grounds in mid-February, and they know Limerick are a lot stronger now. But to be here is progress and a sign of a team moving in the right direction.

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