Do or die for Daly's Dubs
Relegation today would surely be a catastrophic blow to Dublin's hopes, says Dermot Crowe
I n March 2007 Dublin hurlers went to Limerick and sampled a rare win on the road. This was their first away match since winning promotion the previous April, and remains their only win outside Parnell Park in four years of hurling in Division 1.
Dublin's best form has been reserved for Donnycarney, where Tipperary, Galway and Waterford have all been put to the sword. Kilkenny, the All-Ireland champions, had to settle for a draw there three years ago. They'll be glad they have Limerick there today.
If Dublin manage to preserve their Division 1 status, the next step will be to better their away form next year. After beating Limerick three years ago, the next best performance was last year's draw in Wexford; the rest have all ended in defeat. The Offaly reversal in Tullamore, two weeks after a stirring victory over Tipperary, emphasised ongoing issues with consistency as they try to attain a higher rank. Much of this may be down to years of servitude, the relative youth of the side and not carrying the same measure of surprise anymore. But it makes it no less frustrating for those in charge.
Progress is being made -- the win over Wexford last summer offers hard evidence and the quality of the performances, even some of the losing ones -- but they remain prone to the head-staggers now and then. This creates an air of dread over today's proceedings. They have been playing better hurling than Limerick, clearly, with none of the unhelpful distractions plaguing their opponents, and yet there is a nagging sense of vulnerability. They are prone to self-harm.
Relegation today would be a catastrophe. So it will come as considerable relief to all those who have invested time and prayer in the Dublin hurling project to know today's match does not involve a trip down the country.
Last spring, Dublin had a storming home win over Galway and followed it with a poor performance a week later in Limerick. Beating Limerick at the Gaelic Grounds was never a given but Dublin would have been expecting to, and they had earned the right to expect to. In 2007, they had five points out of the first six when they lost in Casement Park in a rescheduled fixture with Antrim and blew their chances of making a league final.
For Casement Park 2007, read O'Connor Park 2010. Before that there was the opening-round defeat in Waterford. The squad travelled down the night before to prepare and faced a depleted home team the next day who won by 13 points. A week later, not untypically, Dublin wiped Tipperary off the field. Two weeks after that came the Offaly defeat, and since then Dublin have registered a string a noble defeats to Kilkenny, Cork and Galway. Dublin should win today but they have some injuries and enormous pressure.
How enormous? Today's match is, frankly, Dublin hurling's biggest of the last five years apart from the Leinster championship tie with Wexford last summer. It is a must-win. And Dublin have not shown much liking for must-wins -- which invariably has created a good deal of unease about the fixture and the consequences riding on it. Limerick defeated Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-final last year against the odds and even in their enervated state will feel they can repeat that act this afternoon. All the expectation is Dublin's -- this has tended to bring out the worst in them.
After the defeat by Limerick last July, Anthony Daly said a team can't go on learning forever. It was a neat line and maybe it betrayed a hint of impatience with the pace of their progress and eradication of bad habits. They dropped too much ball and their first touch let them down. They crowded themselves and played into Limerick's hands. They learned lessons, but some of these lessons had been learned already. So they repeated old mistakes. And that maybe was what Daly was getting at.
Dublin absolutely must win today. If they do, they can look to the championship with reasonable confidence and optimism. If they lose, the damage caused will be monumental. Division 2 is no longer a handy escape for relegated teams, with only one county allowed back up. Were Dublin to drop, then they would be vying with Clare or Wexford, and probably Carlow and Laois, for promotion next year. And the psychological impact of relegation could be ruinous.
Dublin have won under Daly with expectation on their shoulders. The Wexford match in Nowlan Park was one such example and even the Antrim match that preceded it, while you could argue that this year's league has seen them enjoy none of the advantages of being a mysterious guest at the dinner table. Their card is marked, the challenge has steepened accordingly.
In last year's Leinster final, Dotsy O'Callaghan had two men guarding him, so there would be no repeat of the audacious solo goal he scored against Kilkenny in the league. Dotsy is one of several players who will have rueful recall of Limerick in Thurles last year.
This year he hasn't been in the kind of form to which he has become accustomed. The result of that has been a renewed struggle for scores in the Dublin attack, with the highest contributor from play a midfielder, John McCaffrey. His resurgent form, after a quiet 2009, is one of the positives for Dublin heading into this critical match, while Shane Durkin appears to be fulfilling his youthful promise, being a little slower than some of his contemporaries to make a mark. Tomás Brady would have welcomed another crack at Paudie McNamara today presumably were it not for his suspension.
Last July, Dublin went down 1-17 to 2-18, having had a dream start, 1-2 on the scoreboard before Limerick responded. After that the match was mostly played on Limerick's terms. Perhaps the most striking example of Dublin's rawness was Stephen Hiney's charitable pass to a Limerick player which led to a crucial score, this from a man who had been hurling the game of his life. Old Dublin habits died hard. Today, Parnell Park must be declared a fumble-free zone. Dublin have to set the terms of business from the off and never deviate from them.
Losing the two O'Carrolls has weakened Daly's squad options and the physicality of their forward line. Ross O'Carroll was a shock defection to Pat Gilroy's football squad, who also had designs on Tomás Brady, with less success. Football, in spite of last year's incineration by Kerry, remains a plague of sorts -- Conal Keaney looks to have buried the last hopes of a return to the hurling team. Rory O'Carroll was centre-back on the Dublin U21 hurling team narrowly defeated by Kilkenny in the 2009 Leinster final.
Ross O'Carroll, his older brother, signed off the 2008 championship against Cork with three points from play, and he had four against Wexford in the drawn Leinster championship match earlier that year. Injuries limited him to a quarter of an hour's play in last year's championship but he is one player Daly would love to have in around the forwards, mixing it.
Liam Rushe, David Treacy and Oisín Gough established themselves last year and each had a highly impressive term, but they are still developing as inter-county players. Dublin need to maintain a high profile long enough to start making a real pitch for a Leinster title in the next two or three years. That is not unrealistic.
Shane Ryan's recall hasn't been a thriving success and he looks unlikely to nail down a starting place. Having been out for so long, however, it would make sense if he were to continue improving his touch over the coming weeks and months -- he could yet be a notable factor in Dublin's plans, even as a substitute.
Dublin don't need reminding how far they still have to go, but they may need to keep reminding themselves how far they have come. Four years ago, they faced Kerry in a Division 2 league final; they look capable of beating any team in Division 1 now.
Last year's Leinster final appearance, helped by a favourable draw, was their first in 18 years. They finally slayed the Wexford dragon and didn't roll over in the final against Kilkenny. That day, Kilkenny's starting inside forwards scored two points from play over the entire match, but Dublin couldn't cover all the angles -- Martin Comerford scored 2-4. Still, they were there, they walked the parade with one of the most feared teams of all time and they didn't get whipped. At times they hurled with refreshing levels of confidence and belief.
All of this counts to a team with ambitions to move up a level or two. But today counts even more.
Dublin v Limerick,