Sport Hurling

Monday 23 October 2017

Hard road pays off for Daly as perseverance drives hurling's nearly men into the fast lane

Anthony Daly has had dark times in hurling but today is the kind of day he lives for, writes Dermot Crowe

THE journey is still in its infancy, and it will carry on when he's gone, but irrespective of what lies ahead he'll always remember the first few yards. "You have 35 faces looking up at you and you don't know too many of them," Anthony Daly says, recalling an early audience of Dublin hurlers.

Some wonder greeted his appointment. The logistics seemed scarcely sufferable -- east being east and west being west -- but he leased his pub, got the blessing of wife and family, and then drew up a plan where it could work. And the road network improved, removing the last of the bottlenecks from the corridor connecting the capital to Limerick and his beloved Clare. Results, though, would be his yardstick. Along came the Walsh Cup game against Kilkenny early in 2009; he won't forget that too easily. "Beaten by six goals," he states baldly, "I suppose it was a long, tough drive home that day."

Kilkenny has been a recurring signpost on the journey but if Kilkenny keep converging on your path then you are doing something right at least. You are on the right road even if at times you feel a bit lost and the notion of turning back flits through your thought-pressed mind.

In that first year he sent them out of the dressing room to face Kilkenny in the Leinster final, Dublin's first in 18 years, with an auxiliary player in defence. In 2004, this ploy almost caused an upset when Clare played Kilkenny in the All-Ireland quarter-final. This time Dublin went down by a respectable six points and if they never really looked like they would win the match, they could walk off the field feeling that they had grown a bit and knowing Kilkenny were more human than maybe they were initially prepared to believe.

And since then Kilkenny have been constantly shadowing their progress. Last year's Leinster semi-final defeat of 19 points was regressive, but harsh, and not entirely reflective of the respective strengths of the two teams. Kilkenny could do that to you, they were still doing it, and Dublin were still naive in lots of ways. Some of Kilkenny's terror-mystique has been stripped away since then, with Dublin defeating them in the Walsh Cup and league finals, but memory is crowded with vivid hangovers from those lethal black and amber concoctions.

They will be more bold today, hurl more on the front foot, but he has no regrets about being defensive in 2009. "We just felt we had the type of player with Johnny (McCaffrey), playing loose and offering extra cover -- it was a very early stage in our development. You go to the end of the year before, the beating that Waterford got in the All-Ireland final; would a defeat like that have benefited Dublin? A hiding of hopeless proportions was never going to be any good to us. We had to make sure we were solid at the back first anyway."

He feels they didn't kick on last year and they spent a lot of time mulling over the reasons why and striving to introduce new ways of ensuring that did not happen again. Declan Coyle, a motivational speaker who worked with other GAA teams, was brought in to talk to the players. If it made one player improve by one per cent, Daly says, it will have been worthwhile. They had a new physical trainer in Martin Kennedy. They made changes in the working relationship between the senior and under 21 management teams.

When the season's work was about to begin Daly told them they were starting afresh but with two years of work behind them and all the advantages that that would bring. Securing Conal Keaney and Ryan O'Dwyer would prove invaluable but there had to be a clear signal that the body of players was willing to do whatever was necessary to go the extra mile.

"People talk of consistency but teams started looking at us a bit different too (in 2010)," says Daly. "In the league you could tell teams were more wired up for the challenge on the day. The contrast between Waterford in Parnell Park in 2009 and Walsh Park in 2010, even from their sideline, was huge and we didn't match up to that. I remember we had a big chat the night before the Waterford game and we ended up talking about the Limerick match the year before. Instead of focusing on the job at hand.

"They're great lads. They push each other on. I just think the over-riding thing is after the Antrim game last year, everyone had to decide were we driving on -- especially the players. They had to look hard at themselves. I couldn't say enough about how they have responded. These fellas are creating that themselves.

"Since the time I sat with them first there's a kind of less-giddy attitude. It's the difference between wanting to be on a county team and wanting to be on a county team that wants to achieve something. That's noticeable. They want to try and kick on and be the best they can. Fellas are trying to step up. I know we have a long, long way to go. We have so much more in us to improve. Look at the standard of the last two All-Ireland finals, they were incredible games. It is a fair level to get to."

He empathises with other managers and feels a common vulnerability to the slings and arrows, the mood swings. "It helps so much when you are getting results. You would be half-glad for Banty (McEnaney) getting a result the other day, no disrespect to Louth. I know (team selector) Paul Grimley, too, and they are not lads who wouldn't be doing things right. There would be no stone unturned in terms of preparation. But, like after our first year, there was that pressure there.

"'Twas gas. I got a few calls after the league final, asking me to go and talk, whether to teams or maybe businesses, to come in and have a chat with our sales staff and that kind of thing. I felt like saying, I am the same way now as I was before the league final, the same person, why didn't you ask then. But you deal with it. You grow up and you mature, you are (almost) 41 years of age."

Dublin have found a pleasing grain of consistency that all but the most prejudiced recognise now places them in the company of any of the leading hurling counties. Their confidence has shot up and in all areas they have moved on to a different plane: their fitness and physical conditioning is much commented on, but their hurling has also been transformed. If they can beat Kilkenny, more formidable and driven than in the league final, then Daly says it will be an "enormous" feat. Who knows where it will eventually stop? Even if they lose they know the future is bright.

"There is a massive, massive freedom for us. I mean, realistically, none of ye are giving us a chance. They having the four big guys back. Worst thing we ever done, one fella said to me, was beating Kilkenny like that -- and celebrating it as well. We had (he says laughing) right to have gone down on our knees. A huge amount of the hurling population is expecting a backlash. Sure isn't there a fantastic freedom in it for us, the longer we are in the game the greater pressure on them. If they lose the three to us (Walsh Cup, league and championship) they will hardly let the bus across over the Dodder! We can have a lash at them."

Some of the players have surprised Daly and his selectors with their rate of progress since last year. Daire Plunkett and Conor McCormack were not obvious graduates from the successful underage academies but they have fast-tracked themselves onto the team and given Dublin a much wider range of attacking options. Paul Ryan has finally delivered on his promise, having shaken off injury and settled into the side. Throw in Keaney and O'Dwyer (suspended today) and you have five forwards Daly couldn't call on in 2010. To see a player exceed expectations is one of the unbeatable joys of coaching and tutoring.

"Fr Harry (Bohan) said it to me, humanity is like the iceberg, so much hidden underneath, so much is governed by the processes we have gone through in life. You are a Clare hurler; you don't win Munster championships or All-Irelands. You are a Dublin hurler; you don't win Leinster championships. That can keep you down. And you see the potential in fellas, and sometimes they don't fulfil that, and it is fantastic to see lads improving themselves. A fella throws off some of the shackles and realises a lot of this is in the mind. That's great to see that, and yeah, some lads have come out of themselves. A fella like Daire (Plunkett). We would have earmarked in late '09 18 or 19 lads to go on weights for the under 21s, put them on programmes and monitored them. You'd test them every couple of months . . . Daire wasn't even on that; he came through the trials system . . . and to see him blossoming into the player he is. He's still an under 21. It is only better he is going to get.

"I mean, Paul (Ryan) went to the States in '09, sure young fellas are doing it everywhere, and last year he was on and off again. This year he probably said to himself 'I am committing all my time to this thing'. Early on in the year he picked up a few injuries and he wasn't on fire but, a bit like Daire, the penny is dropping. And of course, every day is a challenge, he is now more of a marked man. Conor McCormack has come in from club hurling."

Winning the league final with a flourish forms a radical backdrop to today's encounter but they are expecting a ferocious assault from Brian Cody's men. How valuable was it to Dublin? "It's very valuable," says Daly. "Like, it wouldn't be anything as valuable for Waterford or one of those teams, but it is valuable for ourselves not having been down that road. It does the players a power of confidence.

"But there was more of a feeling of satisfaction coming out of Tullamore (having beaten Galway), when there was a lot of talk about us. Galway would have been seen as the team most likely to challenge the big two. But like the league final, it lasted a few minutes. Two weeks later you are faced with Kilkenny. We didn't want to go down the road of facing into a qualifier. Meeting Limerick, or as it was then, Clare or Tipp. We knew there was a huge prize in beating Galway."

He has been asked many times about the Antrim game and he feels it is now buried and dealt with. But when he looks back over the story of his career it will be there, looming high on the skyscape of disappointments. Each reference to Antrim is accompanied by a plea that he doesn't want to come across as insulting. He saw Antrim as a threat but Dublin led by six points with a quarter of an hour left, took off Liam Rushe and Dotsy O'Callaghan and went into a fatal tailspin. The loss shook him to the core.

"I just thought when I get over it, if I ever get over it, I am not letting that happen to myself again. You shouldn't be that upset over amateur sport. You shouldn't be that depressed."

There were others. He had a generous selection from his days as a Clare hurler. When he took over as Clare manager his first match was a 19-point savaging from Waterford in Thurles. He stood helplessly on the line and there was no remote control to switch the thing off. Losing to Cork when in a commanding position in the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final also hurt but at least there was pride in the performance. "But very little to take out of the (Antrim) match last year," he notes. "A sort of a doomed feeling after it."

Learning what people like him go through in dealing with loss is intriguing and in many ways more interesting and revelatory than their behaviour when winning. Take us back please. "A black hole: that is the only way I can describe it. I didn't even want to face the kids because I knew the kids would be saying why did you lose to Antrim? I don't mean that against Antrim. Just didn't want to deal with people, wanted to be on my own. There is an element of grief about it, there shouldn't be, shouldn't be, like. You'd be a liar if you said there wasn't an element of that feeling. But I will tell you, I have a first cousin who is only 18. My uncle lost his wife to cancer, my mother's brother Chris, he remarried again. He had another boy, Phillip, from the first marriage and then a second boy, David, great little jolly fella you know, he did his Leaving Cert last year. Just before the results he went to Oxegen and came back feeling lousy and between Merlin Park and the Bon Secours in Galway and James Street, he has been in hospital for a year now.

"I mean, that's real pain. He's fighting this, he's an inspiration, and you say, jeez, get over yourself. What is it: a hurling match? These things make your own troubles seem small."

Hurt is a risk you run, it is in the small print of the contract, but you know it is there. Maybe, to borrow from Raglan Road, he loves too much but what is the choice? You throw your heart and soul at it because it demands no less. "You wonder then, at those times, if the mundane is a better way of life?" He ponders for a millisecond. "Fuck it, now, I'd still rather be doing what I'm doing. I'm just happier in life, buzzier in life, better to be around. It's the next best thing to playing, isn't it, that drug of playing."

The dressing room after exiting the championship last year -- what can be said? "I said a few words. Gerry Harrington, who was chairman then, said a few words, thanked us. I think (Stephen) Hiney said a few words. But Hiney hadn't the heart to talk and I hadn't the heart to talk. Just got out. I somehow got a pass to get in at the back of the stand with the car, the footballers were playing Armagh I think and I got into the car and just drove west and I didn't take the turn-off for Galway (towards home). I wound up in a hotel in north county Galway somewhere looking up at the roof, spent the night there. Just booked a room, couldn't face anyone. I got into the car the next day and drove to the Burren and walked the beach in Fanore, drove around Black Head for a long time."

He phoned his wife after the match to tell her not to be concerned, he'd return the next day, just needed some time to himself. He checked his voicemails, there were messages from Richie Stakelum and others on the management team enquiring about his whereabouts and welfare. Other defeats have hit him hard but this had a place of its own: "No matter how painful the defeat I'd chance a pint; after three or four you'd be loosening out."

The image of a man as distraught by a result as to disconnect himself entirely from society sounds stark, but anyone who has suffered defeat and the crush of hope will feel empathy. Floyd Patterson's habit of fleeing after losing fights, often in disguise, and then driving aimlessly across State boundaries because of a sense of profound shame comes to mind.

"Shame," says Daly, "that's the way I felt, I did feel ashamed. And again now, it's not losing to Antrim, I thought there was a chance Antrim could beat us going into the match. But the way it unfolded in front of our eyes. We took off Rushie, we should have left him on but he played against Clare and again in the under 21 game against Wexford during the week and he looked a bit tired and subdued. But we were missing a good few and options weren't tremendous on the day, and a general sort of a panic set in on the field and on the line as well, we couldn't do anything to stop it. I think the guilt or shame was should you have prepared them better, did you not have them ready to cope with this scenario? What did I not do? Reminded me a bit of '96 against Limerick. They came with a surge, you could sense the panic in the Dublin crowd, they were coming in for the football as well, it was dripping off the stands. We did everything to halt it. But it was more to have the heads right.

"In my mind I have put it to bed, I know we are bringing it up today talking about it. I don't remember one like it. The Waterford one I suppose, my first day as manager, I remember being totally shocked, but that started right from the start of the match. They blew us off the field; we just didn't play at all. That was more shock than the sort of shame thing. And then there were other chances after that and we went on to nearly beat Kilkenny, you could salvage something out of the year, but with that Antrim game it was over."

But as his old team-mate Niall Gilligan used to say when their socialising reminded them there was a price to pay, the going up is worth the coming down. Croke Park. Kilkenny. Bone-crunching, breathtaking championship hurling. His heart in his mouth. Where else would he want to be.

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