Friday 23 March 2018

Capital's small ball project needs win to justify means

Today's clash with Wexford is D-Day for hurling in Dublin, writes Damian Lawlor

Wexford’s Eoin Quigley converts the late equalizing point against Dublin in Nowlan Park last Saturday.
Wexford’s Eoin Quigley converts the late equalizing point against Dublin in Nowlan Park last Saturday.

IT was a familiar scenario. Wexford's Diarmuid Lyng stood over a placed ball in the dying seconds of last Saturday's Leinster senior hurling semi-final, just as Barry Lambert had in the corresponding fixture a year earlier.

Back then, Lambert converted. This time Lyng scuffed the shot. Dublin survived.

The question is how did it even come to that?

In a league meeting last March, Dublin dominated proceedings but still only managed a draw. The latest encounter in Nowlan Park was a carbon copy of that meeting.

After conceding two early goals last Saturday, Dublin shot 11 first-half scores compared to their opponents' three. As the game unfolded they owned the ball but registered 19 wides (12 of which were appalling) and it cost them dearly. Somehow, with only seconds left, Wexford could have snatched it.

By then, salvation should have been well beyond John Meyler's men. Dublin's problem was that once their opponents raised a gallop, they fell back into all their old bad habits. They were guilty of silly shooting, panic shooting, aimless high balls into the forwards and a lack of shape.

Indeed, the wonder is that they hung on to claim a draw at all. That, at least, is one positive Dublin can take from the game. In previous years they would have left Nowlan Park gallant losers. A draw, in some respects, was some sort of progress. But it's not good enough.

Leinster hurling, the champions aside, is dire. Wexford are at an all-time low and Offaly are rebuilding from scratch. Dublin should be making hay while there is a hint of sunshine. Nobody expects them to win an All-Ireland any time soon, but after their progress in the underage ranks it's high time we saw them consolidate on the minor, U21 and college successes by beating a major power in Leinster.

In the 47 years since they last contested an All-Ireland final, the county has beaten Wexford just once in the championship, and they might never have a better opportunity to rectify that than they did last weekend. Yes, Wexford were that bad. Maybe it's the weight of history holding Dublin back -- the last time they won a senior hurling All-Ireland was 1938 and since the '40s they've landed just two Leinster crowns. Whatever is stopping them from beating a top-tier county it's certainly not their ability anymore. There are, however, selection and tactical issues.

They have exceptional forwards in David O'Callaghan and Ross O'Carroll. That's something they haven't had in recent years and their opportunism compensates for others in attack who are struggling, like full-forward John Kelly and wing-forward James Burke, who both missed golden chances to clinch last Saturday's game with goals. It says a lot that Damien Fitzhenry never had a save to make, but instead saw five balls flop harmlessly into his hands instead of being drilled into the Dublin full-forward line. At the other end, Stephen Hiney is a fine hurler but he's just not a full-back and you can see it. Perhaps it's time to give Tomas Brady a shot there.

In letting teams like Wexford off the hook, Dublin hurling remains the great unsolved puzzle of the modern game. They have the back-up, the numbers and the willingness. All it might take to get them challenging at senior level, year after year, is a breakthrough at the top. Equally, there's a danger that the good work of the past few seasons could count for nothing if the senior team doesn't step up soon.

Five years ago, almost 500 club officials gathered in Croke Park for a symposium on their hurling future. It ran for six hours as passions and frustrations ran high. They called for a separate hurling board, something that was not ruled out by then director of Dublin hurling, Diarmuid Healy, who said: "Hurling cannot be looked at through the eyes of a footballer. It has to be organised and promoted by dedicated hurling people."

That symposium presented hurling folk with plenty of ideas and volunteers and coaches quickly set to work on improving underage structures. Development squads and Schools of Excellence mushroomed, schools and underage players were targeted and in 2005 the minors made a breakthrough with a Leinster title.

Two years later, another set repeated the feat, along with the U21s who claimed a provincial crown. To this day the progress report is fascinating: two Feile wins for two different Dublin clubs in three years, an All-Ireland U21 final appearance, Ballyboden reaching last year's Leinster club final, an All-Ireland senior colleges title for the amalgamated county team, three Leinster colleges titles in the decade under the same banner and a North Dublin colleges team recently making a first appearance in a Leinster juvenile final.

At underage level, there's no doubt they are the coming force, but the seniors need to make some type of breakthrough to maintain that push and keep players interested. Leinster desperately needs them too. The Offaly makeover will take years, Wexford will have to wait on a string of physically powerful minors to graduate before they reignite, while Carlow and Westmeath have a long distance to travel before they can challenge. As for Laois, well hurling there is experiencing severe difficulties -- they can't even field their best players anymore.

The Dublin hurling development drive has left most of the province behind. In fact, many counties are copying their template. But there are also signs that it is leaving football within the county in its wake and a growing number of football clubs in the capital are worried. When a player from St Sylvester's in Malahide is making a Dublin minor hurling squad, they ought to be.

One former Dublin star recently remarked that he would burn every hurl in the county if he could, just to negate the game's increasing threat to Gaelic football. It was an indication of just how strong the small ball game has become there.

At the moment, they are the county most likely to challenge the Cats in the years to come. If they beat Wexford in today's replay, they will have at least two more big games which will keep their players honest and leave them hurling up to the end of July. If they lose, it's back to the qualifiers and it's highly unlikely we'll hear much more from them this season. That essentially makes today D-Day for Dublin hurling. There's a danger of overstating the case and everyone knows younger troops are on the way up, but opportunity is knocking now and when that happens you must answer the door.

This afternoon's replay presents Tommy Naughton's men with another big chance. After taking the job when no-one else wanted it and when the camp was in disarray, Naughton deserves his shot at the big time.

Very soon we may see a big name manager coming in to bring them to the next level: Nicky English has been mentioned, while Davy Fitzgerald was also said to be looking at the job down the line before Waterford came calling.

For the time being, however, the players should be aiming to reward Naughton for somehow steering a sinking ship to calmer waters.

It's not just Naughton who deserves credit. The GAA, Leinster Council and county board have all adopted Dublin hurling as their pet project. Massive amounts of time and money have been invested in hurling in the capital and a major win would justify that. A lack of progress, however, could jeopardise future funding. They can't be a coming force forever.

Not many felt sorry for Dublin last weekend, which shows how far they have come. With so many good youngsters coming through, there's plenty of talent on the boil and it's important to avoid losing players to football. David Treacy from Cuala, centre-forward on last year's minor team, is a great prospect. So too is Danny Sutcliffe from St Judes and Ciaran Kilkenny from Castleknock. In addition, there are six or seven really skilful hurlers in their late teens almost ready for senior selection. Their emergence can be traced back to that blueprint adapted after the symposium by the likes of former manager Michael O'Grady.

Success breeds success and the trend of the county's most talented hurlers leaving to join the football squad has been reversed in recent years. Shane Ryan and Conal Keaney would be massive additions to the current team but at least John McCaffrey, Tom Brady and O'Callaghan have all focused on hurling. Losing underage stars like Alan McCrabbe and Keith Dunne is part and parcel of life in any emerging county, but once the senior team start winning trophies not too many will be leaving.

Around the city, floodlit and synthetic pitches, hurling walls and complexes are being installed. A county training centre is on the way in Rathcoole, as well as three separate all-weather facilities across the capital. Dublin's youngsters are honing their skills on these surfaces and matching counterparts in Munster and other parts of Leinster. There they will learn to eliminate mistakes and speed up their hurling. Wouldn't it be great if they had heroes to look up to while they learned their trade?

Naughton's men are honest, but they need a bit of cuteness today and that, unfortunately, only comes with winning. They may have missed their chance for this year.

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