Just being here is a success
Dublin's quarter-final place is an act of survival and defiance.
Wins don't need to be stylish or resounding to have value, especially to a team down on its luck, so it was no surprise to see Dublin players fall to their knees in thanksgiving after they overcame Limerick in the final round of the qualifiers. It had been a character-defining afternoon. Twenty-five minutes in, David Breen breezed past Liam Rushe before scoring a goal that bolted Limerick eight points clear. Breen's actions appeared those of a man serving notice of Dublin's eviction from the Championship.
Eight points is not an insurmountable lead in hurling but the plodding demeanour of the Dublin players didn't augur well for a capital revival. In the RTE commentary box Anthony Daly, who has been in this place before, looked on. He saw the next few minutes as crucial. Dublin needed a few scores to keep breathing; if those scores went to Limerick it could turn ugly for a team struggling with confidence.
"There was a ten-minute period where it was make-or-break, heads might have dropped, but in fairness some of the leaders like Johnny McCaffrey, Ryan O'Dwyer, Paul Schutte, really stood up," notes Daly. "When you're eight points down you need fellas to stand up."
What would you have given Dublin's chances at eight down after 25 minutes only five weeks after being butchered by Galway? But they found something within themselves. They fired over the last four scores of the first half and by the interval Limerick's lead was halved. By all accounts the mood in the Dublin dressing-room was transformed. Those ten minutes were their salvation and lifeline. Chronic Limerick defending allowed Dotsy O'Callaghan in for the critical late goal and a point-scoring exhibition from Paul Ryan took them through by the skin of their teeth.
Mood is everything. The mood in the dressing-room, and whether a manager has the dressing-room, is of paramount importance to any team. It could not have been good in Tullamore the day they lost their Leinster quarter-final to Galway, with serious question marks over how the team was set up when facing a gale in the opening half. Until the resurrection against Limerick, that had characterised their summer.
"When Limerick got the first goal it looked like that could have been the final nail," says former Dublin player Liam Ryan. "I mean there were eight points in it, it was all Limerick, they had dominated and I think Daire Plunkett made one or two great runs and they just tacked on a few scores. Clawed their way back into it."
Five weeks earlier in Tullamore, Paul Ryan was replaced a minute from the end and his reaction betrayed a degree of mystification and frustration. It was a curious move given that he had contributed on the scoreboard and set up Eamon Dillon's goal after being introduced earlier in the game but Dublin's senses looked scattered on both sides of the line. The hours and days that followed presented Ger Cunningham with his greatest challenge since taking over from Daly, needing to keep a squad united and look honestly on their own failings. Having steered them into the final six while still waiting to find the form they feel they are capable of is reassuring and will bolster confidence in the set-up. They will hope that their best summer performance arrives today.
"There isn't a manager in Ireland who hasn't gone through that," says Daly, referring to heavy defeat. "Players talk. I remember going back to '96 (losing to Limerick) after winning the All-Ireland the year before having a few jars and hearing 'what the Jesus was Sparrow (Ger O'Loughlin) doing out wing-forward for the whole of the second half?' That is the nature of the beast but the beauty of the system now is you get another chance.
"Players talk, sure of course they do. I am sure that was questioned that day, how they lined up against Galway. An error was made on the day. He (Cunningham) won't be the first nor last to make one. It was not the easiest draw either (in the qualifiers). Laois did get a hockeying from Galway but still Laois in Portlaoise and the whole Cheddar thing, having quit and came back, and beaten Offaly, it wasn't a gimme by any means."
After Galway it became a human relations exercise, repairing morale and looking starkly at the forensics. For a while there was no guarantee of that being successful and in the wake of the win over Laois, evidently unhappy with being overlooked for selection, the experienced Michael Carton left the squad.
Players are not always right or justified in their actions but Carton's departure was bound to have some potential to further destabilise the situation. Laois, though, offered Dublin a chance to start the process of rehabilitation, and the management a chance to set out a team more in keeping with their strengths. The most obvious moves were sanctioned: bringing Rushe back to centre-back and Conal Keaney to full forward. "It takes a bit of bottle to row back," says Daly, "it was just a sensible move. I think they set up naively against Galway and they've learnt their lesson."
Ryan says a team in the place Dublin found themselves after Galway can go one of two ways. They either surrender or set out to "prove that is not where we are at the moment; it could be used as a rallying cry." He also makes the point that they should have defeated Galway the first day, and they had a good National League, reaching the semi-finals and unlucky not to make the final.
But the absence of any visible plan to counteract the force of the wind favouring Galway in the first half of the replayed Leinster quarter-final shook the confidence of players and management. Simon Lambert was placed in the eye of the storm at centre-back and by the time Rushe went back the damage had been done with three early Galway goals. Paul Schutte's selection gamble backfired. The absence of a sweeper almost defied belief.
After that experience, a win over Laois wasn't going to repair the damage; they needed lengthier counselling. Being still in recovery meant a good start looked essential against Limerick and when the opposite happened the omens looked bleak. In those few minutes before half-time the leaders they needed stepped forward. They may have been the least impressive of the six remaining contestants, but considering where they've come from, being here is a success in itself, an act of survival and some defiance. They return to Thurles with momentum, in a healthier frame of mind.
"I think there is huge room for improvement in this Dublin team," says Tommy Naughton, their former manager. "Waterford have been majestic all year but Dublin have a lot of good players. While they haven't been striking the really high notes yet they have a great chance. I would be very happy being in the position they are in going into this game; they are an experienced team and know they have a fantastic opportunity."
Feeding that conviction is the return of players to fitness, with their former All Star full-back Peter Kelly among those declared available, joined by one of their rejuvenated hurlers during the League, Niall McMorrow. In the Limerick match Dublin had to plan without Kelly - injured since the drawn match against Galway - and also Cian O'Callaghan, who filled the role against Laois. O'Callaghan, who had been having a fine season, is also ready to resume after illness. There are also signs in the last two games, notably in the later stages of the Limerick game, that Danny Sutcliffe is finding the form which made him Dublin's most important player until injury intervened at a critical time last year heading into the summer.
The encouraging form of the new players like O'Callaghan, Chris Crummey, Shane Barrett and Cian Boland, outstanding in the under 21 championship against Kilkenny, is also important to Dublin given the high age profile of some of the team. Cunningham has not been afraid to introduce young players and they have settled in quickly. To have those hurlers experiencing a run to the quarter-finals is a good return for a first season. Win today and Cunningham and his backroom team will have equalled Daly's two best achievements, when reaching the last four in 2011 and 2013.
Those advances have been countered to some extent by late injuries to Shane Durkin and Plunkett, the latter having felt like a fresh addition, even though he was previously established on the team. Plunkett had given the team renewed energy and his pace and runs against Limerick were influential, ending with two points, one of which should have been a goal. Against a running team like Waterford, he would be a valuable asset but his loss is McMorrow's gain.
"I would not be shocked at all if they kicked on and won again," says Daly. "I know they were on a training camp last weekend, the feedback is that they are very positive. Waterford only scored 16 points in the Munster final, they set up with the gamble of getting goal at some stage. If Gary (Maguire) makes a save from that goal chance and Dublin can pillage a goal at the other end they've a great chance."
They are far from the finished article, but it is starting to look a look more positive for all concerned.
Sunday Indo Sport