Wednesday 24 January 2018

Dublin hurling had it hard for long enough, those days are over

Not everyone in the GAA in Dublin is thrilled by hurling's revival in the county, writes Damian Lawlor

Dublin players Conor McCormack and Shane Ryan celebrate last Sunday's league final win, a victory which will have a huge spin-off effect in the county. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Dublin players Conor McCormack and Shane Ryan celebrate last Sunday's league final win, a victory which will have a huge spin-off effect in the county. Photo: Stephen McCarthy

L AST Sunday, just as Dublin turned the screw in the League final, Conal Keaney hit three showbiz points. For the Ballyboden man, it was the climax of a phenomenal campaign.

The return to his hurling roots coincided with the team landing a national title just eight months after a traumatic championship defeat to Antrim. With game-time limited under county football manager Pat Gilroy, Keaney's decision to switch codes was an obvious one. But his old football team-mates must have been left to wonder, 'what if?'

When the footballers imploded against Cork two weeks ago, they will have come off the pitch knowing that Keaney's left boot might have seen them home. Instead, it was the hurlers who benefited from his prodigious talent. That League title was justification for switching codes after a decade of football which included an All-Ireland under 21 title and six Leinster senior championships.

Two of Dublin's emerging dual youngsters, John McCaffrey and Tomás Brady, had the option to throw in their lot with the footballers. Only they chose a different path.

In 2005, McCaffrey was captain of both the county minor hurling and football teams and Brady was highly rated by his clubmate Kieran McGeeney at Na Fianna where he is still considered their best footballer.

At the time, the Dublin footballers had just entered an era of provincial dominance, whereas the hurlers had lost 15 games on the trot. Surprisingly though, both youngsters chose hurling. It was a watershed moment for the game in the capital.

"Yes, a landmark decision," says Dublin's former director of hurling Diarmuid Healy. "When I took the job, there wasn't the huge appetite that there is now for hurling -- those two were as good footballers as you would see but they became the first high-profile players to choose hurling and forged a path for others to follow. Most of the current team are the product of an era that started with them."

Once McCaffrey and Brady nailed their colours to the mast, others found it easier to follow. Danny Sutcliffe, for instance, was regarded as a great football prospect but is now in his third year with the county minor hurling team.

Committed volunteers who backboned Dublin hurling's evolution: people like Jimmy Boggan, Tom Fitzpatrick, Tom Ryan, the late Lar Foley and, in later years, Willie Coogan, John McEvoy and John Dermody, can take a bow for ensuring that young Dubliners had a chance of achieving something in either code. Along the way they challenged the populist view that Gaelic football was destined to be number one in the county.

It hasn't quite worked out like that and the football brethren have cried foul. They feel victims of positive discrimination, perceiving that there is preferential treatment for hurling in the last decade. At various junctures, individuals privately expressed concern about the significant resources invested in hurling. There remains some resentment at the game's rise but few have aired their gripes in public.

Yet the undercurrent is always there. When Healy was installed in his position, the county board was taken to task for not appointing a director of football first. One speaker at a board meeting maintained that their most marketable product, the footballers, were losing out because of the fuss over hurling.

Some members of the 2005 dual minor fraternity were placed under huge pressure to choose football. One player asked for 24 hours to make a final call on his future. When his mentor rang back and asked for a decision, he was told it was hurling. The line instantly went dead.

There is a feeling in some quarters that whenever a leg-up could be given to hurling it was done. And despite the considerable associated costs, including the provision of helmets, hurleys and sliotars, constant efforts were made to put a hurley in every kid's hand. This determination didn't impress everyone.

Gerry O'Sullivan, the former Ballyboden St Enda's chairman and current Dublin hurling PRO, feels, however, that while there may be some unease at the game's high-tempo revolution, it's only on a minority basis.

"There's always been enthusiasm even during hard times," he says. "People like the late John Egan, Tommy Naughton, Michael O'Grady and Humphrey Kelleher kept the ship afloat until the right players came through but the county board would have been supportive of all their work. Most clubs would be too. There may be a few resentful but sure you have that in every walk of life."

Back in 2001, there were sniggers when the newly-formed Dublin Hurling Review group sought to make it the number one game in the capital within 10 years. As time passed, however, the smirking stopped.

Meanwhile, the county board continued to embrace hurling's potential and the way was cleared for outside managers like Kevin Fennelly and, later, Anthony Daly to come in. Development squads were prioritised and these are run as strict meritocracies, with dropped players continually encouraged to keep improving with the prospect of being recalled at the next stage.

"Really and truly, the hurlers were only getting to parity with the footballers but people probably perceived it differently," one official says. "For years, the hurling folk weren't equipped with the same resources but they didn't complain loudly. Then comments were passed as they got more attention, but the county board would feel they were only being brought to a par with the footballers. They ignored the negativity."

Scratch beneath the surface, however, and you'll find tensions still linger. Last July, Daly was unhappy with the senior football management for trying to withdraw dual star Rory O'Carroll from the Leinster under 21 hurling final in case he jeopardised his chances of featuring against Armagh in their senior football qualifier. O'Carroll, left with an almost impossible call, opted out of the under 21 showdown against Wexford.

At the time, Daly was irate. "I think it's unbelievable," he said. "The football management's point of view is it's too much to ask him to play on Wednesday and again on Saturday but he's a 20-year-old, fit, young fella. It's rubbish. It just seems to me some people in Dublin football are more worried about Dublin hurling than Armagh."

It's true not everyone wants hurling. After successfully introducing the sport to its students, one north county school recently asked their local club to enter an underage hurling team but their request fell on deaf ears.

Other outfits are understandably wary of battling dilemmas such as dual status or placing further demands on youngsters. But underage hurling is now blossoming in untypical areas like Castleknock, Swords and Balbriggan, while Ballyboden and Lucan Sarsfields are reinforcing at under 21 level. Most players involved also play football. It means that almost every future squad Dublin will feature six or seven proficient dual players.

There are five in the current county minor set-ups and only good communication between respective managers Dessie Farrell and Shay Boland allows the youngsters a chance of playing both codes. It's widely thought that neither team will enjoy success in 2011 without these five players. It's not easy keeping a ship steady in those circumstances.

The key is to prevent petty difficulties from escalating. Talk to any club in the capital and they'll cite the Kilmacud Crokes row around 2004 as the worst-case scenario. Football was dominant in that club and the flow of promising underage hurlers from adult teams alarmed the hurling enthusiasts. It was claimed that young players were being directed towards football. The hurling brotherhood wanted greater autonomy but felt thwarted by the club executive and relationships broke down at a stormy AGM. The hurling section's bank account was frozen on an executive order and the two groups later formed their own sections.

Other units feel that episode turned into a personality-based row and hope the same fate won't befall them. However, with hurling's popularity soaring, Diarmuid Healy feels it would be beneficial if clubs operated as separate wings.

"They are very different sports with very different methods and with large numbers and big populations involved I think it would make sense to have separate boards for hurling and football within clubs," he maintains. "You're talking about two very distinct games and the only thing they have in common is that they come under the GAA umbrella."

Having served as Ballyboden chairman for years, Gerry O'Sullivan admits there are serious challenges involved in keeping all sides happy but says his club successfully draw from the one well and it has worked.

"We operate under the one umbrella," he says. "Our accounts are central and if one team or section raises money, it goes into that central fund -- though the work undertaken by that particular group will be recognised. There's kind of an unwritten rule that senior footballers won't be asked to play junior hurling and vice versa so that alleviates the burden on players. Fixtures are obviously run on alternate weekends too which also helps. Our managers communicate well and compromise for certain games. I don't see why the county in general can't co-exist in the same fashion."

Jerry Grogan, the PRO of Cumann na mBunscol for the past 33 years, is in agreement.

"Maybe there's still resentment towards hurling but if Dublin GAA can't co-exist no county can," he muses. "We have a huge population and while the dual thing is a massive factor going forward, our numbers are high enough to cope. People have to recognise that."

Underage Dublin managers in both codes are already making concessions and compromises regarding dual players. With up to nine dual performers on some panels managers have taken it upon themselves to shuffle decks to keep all sides happy. That means sometimes releasing a back-up member of their squad who could play a leading role with the other side.

It's taxing stuff but the quandary will not be solved any time soon. Hurling participation for next year's Cumann na mBunscol competitions is at an all-time high while football's numbers remain as lofty as ever.

"Football numbers are massive and hurling is going through the roof," says Grogan. "We have 162 hurling teams in the city, 78 senior (under 13) hurling teams and 84 under 11. Those are huge numbers. When I first started out there were only 30 schools hurling. But with our population there's no reason why both codes can't thrive."

With the 2012 Féile na Gael competition fixed for Dublin, their National League success couldn't have come at a better time. Emerging hurlers have now witnessed provincial glory at minor and under 21 level, All-Ireland colleges' success and a Féile title for Castleknock. Anyone tuning in only this year would still be impressed -- Daly's men have played 11 games and only lost one, to Galway, where they hit 19 wides. The revolution is afoot.

"Youngsters love a bit of glamour and they want to see a trophy," Grogan adds. "In just two days, you could see the impact that winning the League had."

One Dublin hurler says he doesn't care if begrudgery exists and reckons the momentum is only building. "We had it bad for long enough," he said. "I heard stories of hurleymakers keeping aside their rough cuts and shite wood to send their worst sticks up to Dublin because no one would ever challenge them. Those days are over."

Certainly looks like it.

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