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New regime challenging Dubs to trust their instinct

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Dublin hurling manager Ger Cunningham: ‘He has done it all as a player so he has that authority when he speaks’. Photo: Barry Cregg

Dublin hurling manager Ger Cunningham: ‘He has done it all as a player so he has that authority when he speaks’. Photo: Barry Cregg

SPORTSFILE

Dublin hurling manager Ger Cunningham: ‘He has done it all as a player so he has that authority when he speaks’. Photo: Barry Cregg

Like it was for Anthony Daly six years earlier, almost to the day, the first competitive outing for Dublin manager Ger Cunningham took place in Parnell Park in the Walsh Cup. On Tuesday night last, Dublin made light work of the students of DIT, winning 4-20 to 1-12. Daly was less fortunate. In January 2009 they drew Kilkenny in the first round and were beaten by six clear goals.

There are obvious allowances to be made between a challenge posed by the most successful hurling team of all time - then in their full pomp - and a student side not among the heavy hitters in this year's Fitzgibbon Cup. But the rainy evening that greeted Cunningham's unveiling at Donnycarney offered clues that this regime will have its distinctive marks.

The team selection demonstrated a new way of thinking with a series of interesting relocations: Michael Carton to full-back, Peter Kelly to centre-back, Liam Rushe to full-forward and, in the main tactical stroke of the night, Eamon Dillon to centre-forward. Dillon, a fringe player up to now, normally confined to the full-forward line, justified the faith placed in him in a more expansive role. On no less of a player than Kieran Bergin, the formidable Tipperary half-back, he scored 1-5 from play.

Niall McMorrow, an exceptional minor in 2007 and '08 who has struggled to bring that form into senior hurling, also netted and Cian Boland did his damnedest to get one too. Boland might have been better advised to take his point on more than one occasion but that's a better flaw than the charge of being too timid to try. Another to impress was the Crumlin wing-back Ben Quinn who is a tidy hurler with a good level of technical ability and perhaps the kind of player Cunningham is looking to promote.

Reports on their preparations to date are perky and positive and there is a noticeable emphasis on ball work, even through the heavier training segments. They have also settled on a permanent training location at DCU, where they are doing their gym training and field work, having previously moved all over town, even outside it to Bray, during Daly's time. O'Toole Park in winter was not conducive to much good ball work and the players are glad to see the back of it.

But if there is an intrinsic difference so far between now and recent seasons it has been that early concentration on basic skills training. "What I've noticed is that it's a lot more focused on hurling - any physical work we've done has been with the ball," says Niall Corcoran, the experienced defender who has been with Dublin since Tommy Naughton's time in 2008. "The ball will be the centre of the session. Any of the games we played, or sessions we're doing, it is all focused on players doing the right thing on the ball. He is challenging players through hurling."

If players had any reservations about Daly's replacement, they centred on his lack of inter-county management experience. They were not related to his coaching which they knew to be highly regarded after spells in Cork and UCC. After the vitality of Daly's personality, Cunningham is a more sedate and retiring figure, though the players have warmed to his down-to-earth manner. In early January they spent a weekend at Johnstown House where they forged a closer alliance and it became clear where his emphasis will lie - fine-tuning their skills, developing their reactions under pressure and using their heads. To get them to hurl on instinct ideally.

Tommy Dunne has been retained as a coach and Cunningham has added Ed Coughlan from Cork who worked as a strength and conditioning coach with the Mayo footballers last year. Cunningham's decision to bring in Shay Boland, the former county minor manager whose son Cian played on Tuesday last, was also a wise one.

Few in Dublin know the players who are coming through from underage better than Boland. Few are as genuinely interested in getting the best out of what's there and as disinterested in personal kudos. Gearóid Ó Riain, of Kilmacud Crokes, is also part of the new management team appointed for three years.

The retirements of Stephen Hiney and the departure of Alan McCrabbe happened over the winter and Tuesday's team saw a recall for Daire Plunkett, a forward and speed merchant who played under Daly and then vanished off the panel. He has resurrected his career through a series of strong performances in midfield for St Brigid's last season. Dotsy O'Callaghan and Conal Keaney, who played against DIT, committed to another year at least. Today's Walsh Cup game against Antrim sees a raft of changes and further experimentation, with a lot of young players having been drafted into the panel.

"It has really freshened up the whole squad, with the newcomers," says Corcoran. "It has brought new energy to the squad." Early days admittedly, but did Corcoran see anything genuinely heartening in the win over DIT? "There were a couple of things. We didn't have too many wides. Already lads are looking sharper in front of goals. And the fact that Eamon Dillon played well at centre-forward. He is player who is on the panel for a few years now - he would not really have played centre-forward before. They would be the positives. The movement in the forwards was good, lads were thinking where the ball should go."

As for a style of play, it is too early to say. Ken Robinson, who previously worked with the Ballymun Kickhams football team, is the team's physical trainer and Corcoran says training at the moment is designed to see where players are best suited. Cunningham has said he will have an open mind on that and declared after the DIT game that he was against "pigeon-holing" players in set positions. Johnny McCaffrey's selection at corner-back was another example of this willingness to avoid typecasting.

There is no denying the challenge awaiting them when the league starts next month, but they are coming in with a fresh start and a certain amount of bounce. Dublin begin their campaign with a home game against Tipperary in three weeks, and travel to Kilkenny a week later. They host Cork on March 7, are away to Clare the following weekend, and have Galway at home in the final round on March 22. None of those games offers the prospect of easy points, especially for a team in a process of transition and looking to undergo a certain level of experimentation.

Trying to retain a high standard of performance is a big test for Cunningham, while at the same time striving to introduce his own standards and beliefs. After that the challenge is to see Dublin do the good things consistently and avoid the notorious form swings of recent years.

Cunningham, previously coach alongside Jimmy Barry-Murphy and John Allen in different regimes in Cork, has retained his ties with UCC's Fitzgibbon team, having led the college's Freshers to four championships out of five in recent years. Many of the Cork team which reached the 2013 All-Ireland fell under his wing. Yesterday he was due in Kilmallock for a Waterford Crystal match before he switches his attention to Dublin's game against Antrim in Parnell Park this afternoon.

The GAA development officer in UCC, John Grainger, believes Dublin have got a good catch. "It's an open secret that various counties were approaching him (to manage). Ger would be a very proud Corkman but a real hurling man as well. Dublin hurling is a challenge and he is the kind of guy who likes a challenge, I know that for a fact. When we won the 2012 Fitzgibbon Cup, the team that Paul O'Connor coached, Ger's fingerprints were all over that, having coached them as freshers.

"I think he will bring a common-sense approach to Dublin. I think his approach will be simple enough, not all about tactics, but it will incorporate every facet of the game: the hooking, the blocking, the striking of the ball, the lifting, all those things. It will be about making them into better hurlers. I think he gets on well with players which is very important, I think he understands players, but he is the boss. He has done it all as a player so he has that authority when he speaks."

After the charismatic Daly years, Cunningham's regime promises to be more understated and low-key. Dublin hurling is in a different place now compared to when Daly took charge, when he knew maybe a couple of the players on first introduction. They are more established and better known. That makes Cunningham's job easier to some extent, but it makes it harder and less forgiving too.

Michael Carton has been there since in 2003. "Anthony (Daly) was brilliant for Dublin hurling but change can do good. They are completely different in the way they manage. You have Anthony and the mannerisms, he would have been the life and soul of the place and the loudest person in the dressing room whereas Ger stands back more and watches what goes on. He has to do that though to get to know the players."

Playing full-back doesn't trouble him unduly. "You want your place, you will fight for it. I will work as hard as I can. I just want to get on to that starting 15. Ger is very methodical - everything he says makes sense. It's really, really positive at the moment."

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