'Dublin have a few wrongs to put right'
It's hard to be a presence at your own absence. For all his adult life, Shane Ryan toiled in Dublin sky blue in games of either hue, large ball or small.
They called him 'Rhino', whether on Hill 16 or inside Hill 16, sitting in the stands of the Croker cathedral or standing on the seats of the Temple public house.
Ryan's relentless whirr of activity, which found its most natural outlet as a scavenging, roaming midfielder in his latter years as a footballer, seemed to mirror the frenetic fanatics who adored him.
Just as he re-defined football's midfield exponents, perhaps his greatest supporters should have re-defined him, too. Rhino seemed an almost too inelegant term of affection.
His career garnered individual plaudits but never the prize he craved. Who knows, had he been retained in midfield, whether Dublin may have stilled Mayo's infamous fightback on a day few dare remember?
Unfairly castigated on a contentious DVD -- for his lack of work rate! -- he was subsequently unceremoniously benched alongside his familiar midfield foil, Ciaran Whelan, by the manager who would eventually secure Dublin's holy grail. Such cruel irony.
Ryan would be a hurler by then, returning to his first love and, as hurling zealots will attest, his favoured one. Time and the ravages of the body would end that autumnal stint.
And so this summer, the once perpetual figure of motion has been stilled. His watching brief is not from amidst the flailing arms and legs and hurls of combat but the confined strictures of the bleachers.
He remembers once reading Kieran McGeeney ponder the emptiness of existence without competition and never realised what he meant.
Until now. His only consolation was a modicum of preparation for the fact that all of it had to end sometime.
"It's a strange feeling," admits the Naomh Mearnog man hewn from storied GAA lineage. "It took me a bit of getting used to -- the first summer as an adult not being involved in a championship.
"I suppose I've been out so long. It's time to move on. Look at things from the other side.
"I'd gone through it a bit with the footballers. That was very strange because I'd been with them for so long, watching lads I'd been training with for so many years now out there playing without me ... it was strange.
"With the hurlers, I kind of know what to expect when I watch them, you know. I know how they're feeling. I still support the teams and I was gutted as anyone after the Kilkenny defeat."
Hurling this week, football the last. Dublin are the reigning champions but one of their most loyal sherpas had been left midway towards the summit.
"There were mixed emotions," he admits. "You're thinking wouldn't it have been great if it happened for me, or if I'd still been around. But on the other hand, I was still delighted to see them winning.
"The wait was finally over. Having been part of the struggle for so many years, it was great to see them reach the promised land. And now they're in a great position to do two in a row.
"No matter what way the result went last weekend, they'd be there at the business end. Perhaps it highlights a few issues. They've the experiences of winning and being champions now and I expect them to push on."
Just as the footballers stood at an important threshold last season, where defeat could potentially have ushered aside yet another unfulfilled regime, now it is the hurlers, so long in the shadows, who must maintain their desire to hog the spotlight.
Following catastrophic and inexplicable defeat without prior warning from any notable experts against Kilkenny last time out, Dublin travel to Cusack Park and Clare tonight more in trepidation than anticipation.
Careers, managerial and playing, are on the line. So too Dublin's burgeoning reputation as a likely hurling heavyweight.
Where so recently, folk spoke of the duopoly housed by Kilkenny and Tipperary being shadowed by a third force in blue, Dublin are now threatened by retreat further into a longing pack containing resurgent rivals such as Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford and tonight's opponents.
The ambitions which soared so buoyantly just over a year ago following that emotional league final success are now in real danger of being engulfed by the brutal realities of defeat in 70 minutes of defining hurling.
"No disrespect to Laois," says Ryan, referring to Dublin's opening championship conquests, "but Dublin would have been building up to Kilkenny for months. This was going to be the one that would change the face of hurling.
"So maybe everyone was too hyped up and anxious on the day and that affected work rate and attitude. Last year, they were also well beaten by Kilkenny but they turned it around and beat Limerick, then ran Tipp close.
"So I'm sure that will be the message from Anthony Daly again. This can turn the season around. If they had Clare at home, everyone would expect them to win. Going down there turns it into an opportunity."
Opportunity may knock but so does the thrum of vulnerability. Where once Dublin coursed the established order, their current status, however fleeting, renders them a target for other, more recognisable, if waning hurling powers.
Hence the inordinate interest upon the sideline in the resuscitation powers of Davy Fitzgerald, directly in opposition to the preservatory instincts of his one-time comrade in arms, Daly.
Dublin have climbed inexorably in recent years. The slippage could be equally precipitous.
What will comfort the committed band of supporters en route to the Park today is that, while Dublin struggled to contain their excitement at the giddy prospect of beating Kilkenny, they have become better at winning these clinch games.
Their spring relegation dilutes that conviction in some people's eyes, but not Ryan's.
"With the highs Dublin have had over the last couple of years -- winning the league, beating Galway -- they won't want their season to end this early," he says. "But more importantly they don't want it to end in this manner.
"They've a few wrongs to put right, a few things they need to prove to people, but more importantly to themselves. They'll go out fighting. If they don't win, it won't be for the lack of fighting. But I don't think it will come to that.
"If it did go wrong, I don't know if you'll see any retirements. There's only one lad in his 30s. Most of the lads have a good few years ahead of them. But there has been a lot of work done.
"There's a lot of momentum. There are a lot of underage teams there but that's never a guarantee. Those young guys are used to beating Kilkenny and all that but it's the senior team needs to keep the momentum going."
Dublin will beat Clare, Ryan believes, simply because they're the better team. For all the things they left behind them with such forgetful waste in O'Moore Park, remembering this will be all that counts tonight.
Dublin have been given another opportunity. The consequences are too significant for them to toss it away now.