Tuesday 15 October 2019

Sporting chance

They may have had an early exit from this year's Championship but Dublin hurling star Danny Sutcliffe truly believes that the squad will win an All-Ireland final - if he didn't, he wouldn't be playing

True blue: Dublin hurler Danny Sutcliffel. Photo: Tony Gavin
True blue: Dublin hurler Danny Sutcliffel. Photo: Tony Gavin
Danny Sutcliffe and Mayo footballer Andy Moran launch Kellogs Cúl Camps with little helpers Arian Cooke (6) and Juno Murray (6)
John Meagher

John Meagher

Danny Sutcliffe does not like to look back. It's a fool's errand, he believes. He shrugs his shoulders when it's put to him that he and his comrades in Dublin hurling were fantastically unlucky to have exited the championship so early.

Most hurling aficionados would feel that they should have beaten Kilkenny at home in the first game and they really could have got the better of Wexford in the second. If results had gone their way, they could have been playing in the semi-finals last weekend and - who knows - maybe even preparing for an All-Ireland final later this month.

"Look, the season is over for Dublin hurling," he says, simply. "What happened, happened and we have to think of the future rather than what might have been. The scoreboard doesn't lie."

Today, he's got something else in mind. The Kellogg's GAA Cúl Camps, of which he is an ambassador. These children's summer camps have become hugely popular over recent years and he believes they are fundamental in helping to foster a love of hurling and Gaelic football, especially in parts of the country where the games may not be quite as well established as they are elsewhere.

"The GAA is brilliant at connecting with communities and they've made really good and affordable camps that children can really enjoy. For some, it will be their first chance to play these sports and it could be the week that they fall in love with them."

And the numbers partaking in these camps are growing enormously. A record-breaking 142,467 children took part last year, an increase of 12pc on the previous year. Those figures work out at one in every four children aged between six and 13 attending Cúl Camps - a statistic that every other sporting organisation in the country would long to emulate.

Sutcliffe grew up in south Dublin and plays hurling with the Terenure-based St Jude's club. "Nobody in the family was interested in hurling, so it wasn't like it was passed down through the generations. But as soon as I picked up a hurley at school [in the Scoil Mologa gaelscoil in Harold's Cross] it was a sport that I couldn't get enough of."

By the time he went to secondary school - to Coláiste Eoin in Stillorgan - Sutcliffe was seen as one of the best players in the county and he was still at school when he played for Dublin at minor level. "I love the idea that a boy or a girl who has never played the games before, they go to one of these camps and they fall in love with it, and as a result of that they go on to play for their county and maybe win an All-Ireland."

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Winning an All-Ireland is something that has eluded him to date. And he has yet to experience the thrill of playing in a final too. He is determined to change that and he believes Dublin hurlers can emulate their illustrious football counterparts.

"Liam McCarthy," he says simply, in reference to the fabled cup awarded to the winners of the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship. "That's the goal. I wouldn't be doing this if that wasn't in my mind or if I felt that we couldn't do it."

The odds, though, are stacked against Dublin. The county may be all-conquering when it comes to football these days - seeking four consecutive titles - but Dublin hasn't won a hurling All-Ireland since 1938. And it hasn't contested a final since 1961, although that team were said to be exceptionally unlucky to lose by a point to Tipperary.

The 26-year-old is seen as one of the best Dublin players of his generation, a crucial part of a team that could win an All-Ireland, but he is very much his own man.

At 24, having won a coveted All-Star award and with a rare Leinster title under his belt, Sutcliffe walked away from hurling to focus on his career and on seeing a bit of the world. He's an accountant by trade and, armed with a masters, he went to work in New York. He was off the Dublin panel for two years and didn't seem to miss it.

But then, at the beginning of this year, he was back home and got a phone call from new manager Pat Gilroy. He was offered a chance to train with the panel and to fight his way back into the starting 15. He accepted. Gilroy holds a special place in the hearts of Dublin GAA lovers. It was he who laid the foundations for the great Dublin football side that have been sweeping all before them in recent years.

Gilroy was manger when Dublin won the All-Ireland in 2011, delivering their first title in 16 years. And it was made all the sweeter that it was traditional rival, Kerry, that was put to the sword - beaten in the dying seconds by a free kick scored into the Hill 16 end by goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton.

And yet, Gilroy never managed a hurling team. It didn't matter to Sutcliffe. "He has that winning mentality and he changed everything about Dublin football. So much of what we're seeing today is down to him." Sutcliffe was able to talk to his club mate, Kevin McMenamin, about Gilroy and the footballer reassured him that his old manager was a man who made things happen.

Sutcliffe says he enjoyed his time in New York and reckons he may well have stayed on if his visa hadn't run out. He made friends through GAA and even represented New York's footballers in their Connacht Championship bout against Sligo last year. After making a good start, the 'Exiles' ended up losing well. Sutcliffe held his own, but he's the first to admit that he won't be switching codes any time soon. A fine hurler he may be, but those are skills that don't necessarily make a top class footballer. "I wouldn't be at that level at all," he says with a smile.

Sutcliffe says he will give his all for the next three seasons and then review his position. Inter-county hurlers and footballers can find the game can be all-consuming, one where relationships and professions can feel squeezed, and he says he has to be mindful that that doesn't happen to him.

He is single and says it's easier to fully commit to the demands of top-level GAA when you're only answerable to yourself. And he dismisses the idea that there are severe demands on modern-day players. "Go past a FlyeFit [the Dublin gym chain] at six in the morning and it's packed. People who want to get fit think nothing of getting out of bed an hour or two early and getting a workout in before their working day begins."

He's uneasy about the notion of pay-for-play. "I think you hear people outside of players talking about that. We do this because we love it. Having said that, I don't think players should be out of pocket, so there should be a fair system of expenses if you've to travel long distances for training."

But some players are more equal than others when it comes to off-pitch revenue opportunities. Sutcliffe is not taking time out of his working day to talk about Kellogg's Cúl camps simply because he likes cornflakes. He's articulate, photogenic and a safe pair of hands - just the sort of qualities that appeal to marketeers.

But like the modern-day GAA player, he is very cautious about what he says. He's much more open than many members of the Dublin football squad, who seem to have mastered the art of saying nothing and saying it well, but anyone looking for an outlandish quote should look elsewhere.

Sutcliffe says he has little interest in doing interviews during the course of a season and at several times in our conversation he asks that such and such a comment be off-record.

He is diplomatic about the reasons he departed from the Dublin panel during Ger Cunningham's tenure as manager. The ex-Cork player was widely criticised for taking Dublin hurling backwards after the achievements of previous manager, passionate Clareman Anthony Daly, but Sutcliffe doesn't want to dwell on that.

"I've had several different managers and all of them try something different," he says. "I was at a stage in my life when I wanted to travel." He says he didn't want to become one of those players who gave everything to the jersey in their 20s and early 30s and then found it was too late to live for a time overseas.

He understands why a footballer as lauded as Diarmuid Connolly would choose to depart the Dublin fold during this championship summer in order to experience life in the US, but he chooses his words carefully. "He's a player that has won everything," he says. "He has nothing to prove."

Sutcliffe's love of hurling knows no bounds. He doesn't daydream about playing football with the Dubs in front of a packed Croke Park, and while he enjoys cross-channel football, and supports Man United, it never supplants his love of hurley and sliotar.

Rugby doesn't float his boat at all and he finds the adulation towards the players somewhat baffling, especially as he points out that the sport is played by only a handful of countries, compared to football. "I've no interest in it," he says, "and never have. It just doesn't do anything for me."

It's a frank admission coming from a sports star. Often, GAA players and their rugby counterparts are only too happy to big up the talents and achievements of another code.

But he is passionate about the need to stay fit, and he says the choice of sport is not important to meet that end. "We have a problem with obesity in this country and you see it in children a lot. We've got to get them moving more, and to exercise in a fun way. And we've got to get them eating properly."

Sutcliffe has always been wiry and fit. He is six foot, two inches tall and weighs an optimum 13 stone, five pounds. "I'm always around the 85kg mark," he says. "And I'm lucky that I can keep the weight off but, of course, you can't let it slip at any time of the year. When the league and championship ends, the intensity of your training goes a bit, but it's got to be a big part of your life. You can't just decide to let yourself go for a few months and then try to get back to the level of fitness you were at before. It just doesn't work that way."

He will be an eager viewer of the All-Ireland Hurling Final - held early this year after a new championship restructure - and a small part of him may wonder what it would be like to experience such an occasion. "I believe it will happen," he says. "But it's not enough to just think it, you and everyone on the panel has to work extremely hard. We'll see where we're at next year."

Danny Sutcliffe is an ambassador for Kellogg's GAA Cúl Camps. The week-long camps take place this month throughout the country, and cost €60 per child. See kelloggsculcamps.gaa.ie

Photography by Tony Gavin

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