Wednesday 22 November 2017

Great divide stretches city limits

Dual players abound in Dublin but football retains first call on the majority of them, writes Dermot Crowe

IN 2007 an annual awards ceremony was initiated by the Friends of Dublin Hurling to honour those making their mark on the game. By then Dublin had won two of the last three provincial minor titles, a Leinster under 21 championship, and the senior team had made itself resilient opposition in the league. Ronan Fallon, the team's centre-back, was chosen as senior player of the year, while Alan McCrabbe took the young player award. Neither is now involved.

That isn't an extraordinary admission. Fallon was a fine centre-back with lots of presence but his inter-county career petered out and he spent some time abroad. McCrabbe left a more lasting imprint, winning an All Star in 2009. Injury-plagued, he hasn't returned to the panel, leaving his future uncertain. Awards are of their time; they do not protect players from downturns in form or fortune. But some names on the winners' list make for an interesting retrospective.

In 2008, for instance, Tomás Brady won the young player award. Brady was on the 2005 Leinster minor-winning side and for those who foraged for many years to raise hurling's profile, his decision to commit to Tommy Naughton's senior hurling squad represented a small

coup. That act of devotion could not have been assumed. Brady is arguably a better hurler than a footballer but he represented Dublin at minor and under 21 level in both codes. His decision was another sign that hurling was beginning to assert itself and emerge from the giant shadow of Gaelic football.

Brady was already firmly established when Anthony Daly came on board that same year and along with McCrabbe, they enjoyed a richly promising 2009. It has been a rocky road since then.

Last season spelled acute frustration for Brady as he spent most of it trying to recover from a knee injury. The optimism generated by the previous year's league win and All-Ireland semi-final appearance also faded. And yet the loss of Brady to the footballers still came as a shock.

Hurling has always lived with that reality and recent events have shown that hurling will have to continue to make the best of what comes its way. Daly had early experience of this tug-of-affections in his efforts to bring Conal Keaney back after his decision to pack in hurling in 2005 and join the footballers in the hope of winning an All-Ireland medal. It was hard to argue against Keaney's logic, given how dysfunctional the hurling house had become. The hope that Keaney might return was never fully extinguished and with hurling a more appealing environment he returned for the 2011 season. It was no coincidence that their best year had Keaney back and in the form of his life.

Relations between Daly and Pat Gilroy, the then manager of the Dublin senior football team, were mainly cordial. It is believed Gilroy didn't have Keaney linger on the football squad – he gave him a straight and frank prognosis of his prospects and Keaney deduced that hurling might offer the better path.

There seemed to be less understanding between Daly and Gilroy over Ciarán Kilkenny when the young dual player finished his Leaving Cert last summer. It is believed an arrangement had been agreed between the football and hurling set-ups enabling Kilkenny to train with the hurlers one week and footballers the next. The hurlers were playing Kilkenny on a Saturday and expected to see him training with them on Tuesday. He never showed. When Dublin played Wexford in the football championship, Kilkenny made a late appearance despite the hurlers being told he was not part of their immediate plans.

When Daly learned Kilkenny was home early from Australia, efforts were made to contact him. Kilkenny is an excellent dual player, and his father is said to be a hurling man primarily, but the hurlers could not get any response. Then on Sunday last Jim Gavin announced that Kilkenny would be focusing on football and might play under 21 hurling. That was how Daly and his management team heard the news.

Kilkenny was one of four dual players who played in four All-Ireland minor finals in the last two years but the number of dual players could have been as high as 14 according to one estimate had the respective managers, Shay Boland and Dessie Farrell, not established a good level of trust and co-operation. There were situations where a dual player who was evidently better at one code was let free to pursue that game, even though the manager making the allowance couldn't be certain he wouldn't miss him at some stage. It cut both ways though and that arrangement was mutually beneficial. It also meant that with a relatively low number of dual players training arrangements were a lot less complicated. All four dual players have since opted for football.

Late last year the Friends of Dublin again held its awards night. The young hurler of the year went to one of those four, Cormac Costello. He was introduced to the audience by Michael O'Grady, a former Dublin manager and author of the blueprint for Dublin hurling which was published over ten years ago at a time when the county was a pushover for all the top teams. O'Grady, the master of ceremonies, noted how young Costello was tall like his father – that being the Dublin county secretary, John. He then asked in jest: "So where did the hurling come from?"

Before long it was announced by Jim Gavin that Costello and Eric Lowndes, another dual player, were going to commit to football. There was some disquiet in hurling circles that Daly didn't act swiftly enough in pursuing those players but for a while his own future was uncertain. And he seemed dubious of the merits of the decision being based on who picked up the phone first.

Gavin made earlier contact but Daly did get in touch and both players agreed to attend a hurlers' meeting. But within an hour of the meeting Daly got text messages from the players stating that while they both had great time for hurling they wanted to focus on football for now.

Daly is long enough around to know that that kind of horse-trading and politicking goes on. Ultimately, it is each man for himself. The year that he, Gavin and Gilroy won All-Irelands within a fortnight of each other during a memorable summer in Dublin, Ger Loughnane forbid a number of Clare players from playing in a Munster under 21 hurling final because they were preparing with the seniors for an All-Ireland semi-final. Even the fact that the two teams were of the same code made no difference, although it is an extreme example.

There won't be any radical change to Dublin's successful development squad system – dual players will still come on board. Where a player, like Costello or Kilkenny, is equally prized at both then football is always going to be favourite to win the charm contest. Suggestions that players might be compelled to choose one code at, say, 14 or 16, are flatly dismissed.

The hurlers are not a lost cause. They still have several good minors from recent years in the senior training squad, players like Seánie McClelland, Chris Crummy, Cian O'Callaghan and Colm Cronin. Danny Sutcliffe and Liam Rushe were both approached by inter-county football interests but they prefer hurling and declined. There is always the chance that some of these players of more recent vintage may have a change of heart or find that they may have a more viable inter-county career in hurling further down the track.

There isn't much of a relationship between Daly and Gavin and the early snaring of hurling trainer Martin Kennedy by the footballers hardly got things off to a promising start. Daly learned of the decision afterwards but he is not the kind to collapse into self-pity and stay in his room. Training is back in full swing and reports are of a positive environment.

In 2011, they were in an All-Ireland semi-final and the majority of those players are still on board and anxious to redeem themselves. There are worse places a hurler could find himself. Far far worse places.

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