Learning from their mistakes
After a disastrous end to last season, Anthony Daly's Dubs have returned refreshed and with a new sense of purpose
Last July, Anthony Daly questioned whether he was making real progress with the Dublin hurling squad. And, if not, what was the point in continuing?
Admittedly, the venue for the soul-searching was far from ideal, taking place outside an emotional dressing-room, occupied by players who, minutes earlier, had squandered a six-point lead against Antrim in an All-Ireland qualifier.
Antrim won by a point and as Croke Park awaited the 'real' Saturday action in the form of a Dublin-Armagh football qualifier, only a small number of blue supporters worried too much how the Daly and his hurlers were feeling.
"If my message isn't getting through, then you'd have to consider," he said. "I don't know if I'll stay. What do you do? Do you give up or do you keep coming back for more? It mightn't be with me, but they have to keep coming back for more.
"They're young and they have a huge amount of hurling in front of them."
Within seconds it was clear that, while the immediate pain was intense, the memory of the season as a whole was already beginning to remind him that this was no time to walk out on the project.
"This is a big setback, there's no doubt about that, but there's also been a good bit of progress; there's no doubt about that either," he said.
Eight months on, Daly and Dublin are not just back on track, but have increased the progress tempo to a pace where qualifying for a first Allianz League final (Division 1) since 1946 is a realistic target after taking seven from a possible eight points to lead the table.
Granted, they still have to play Galway (on Sunday), Kilkenny (Saturday week) and Cork (April 17), but that's no longer the intimidating prospect it once was. Dublin have already beaten Galway and Kilkenny in the Walsh Cup this year and sweetened the pot by adding All-Ireland champions Tipperary to their victims' list in the league.
Beating the three favourites for the All-Ireland and league titles is new territory for Dublin, bringing with it a pressure which they must handle if they are to take the next step.
For all the squad development and the improved results against top teams, there are many in the hurling world who remain to be convinced that Dublin will succeed in juggling the many balls required once the season reaches its greatest intensity.
Daly isn't worrying about that right now but is instead concentrating on maintaining the brick-by-brick building process which has enabled Dublin to win six and draw one of seven Walsh Cup and league games so far this year. And while Sunday's game with Galway is a top-of-the-table clash, he is keen to classify it as just another game.
"We knew once we saw the fixtures list that we were in for a tough finish against Galway, Kilkenny and Cork," he said.
"The good thing is that, whereas last year we were looking over our shoulders worrying about relegation at this stage, we're in the right half of the table now. That's brings a different type of test, but it's one we're enjoying."
It's all so different to last year which, after a promising 2009, turned into something of an anti-climax, producing just two league wins and a disappointing championship exit against the Saffrons.
"Maybe we got a bit carried away and stopped doing the things that had served us well the year before. It's all about good performances and results on a given day and we didn't have enough of them last year.
"We went down to Galway in the league and played some of our best hurling, but still lost.
"We had a few days like that, but, in the end, you have to look at the results -- they tell you everything you need to know about how you are going."
They certainly present a pleasant story this year, but, ever the realist, Daly points out that it's still only March.
"Better to be going well than badly, but it's very early days," he said.
The cruciate ligament injury which will keep Stephen Hiney out for the year has come as a serious setback in a season which, up to then, had been going so well.
"People talk about the need for strong panels who can cope when they lose a player or two, which is fair enough, but it's still an awful blow to lose a guy like Stephen," said Daly.
"He has been a great leader for several years. It's terrible for him personally too. It couldn't have come at a worse time for him or Dublin."
Of more immediate interest will be the fate of Peter Kelly, who will attempt to have a four-week ban lifted at tonight's Central Hearings Committee (CHC) meeting.
Kelly was shown a yellow card following an incident involving Shane Dooley in the Dublin-Offaly league tie, but had it upgraded after the referee was asked to review the video footage by the Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC).
Kelly hasn't accepted the CCCC recommendation of a four-week ban and will be hoping to persuade the CHC of the validity of his case tonight.