Living the dream at long last
Conal Keaney has done it the hard way for Dublin hurling
AT the final whistle in last Sunday's Leinster senior hurling final, the national broadcaster managed what had eluded Galway all day long: it pinned down Conal Keaney and held him stationary. Later Paul Ryan, his Ballyboden clubmate, would win the television man of the match award, but had Keaney been given the accolade there would have been no outcry. He was magnificent on a day when Dublin produced the ultimate dream team performance.
How fitting. No player embodies the trials and tribulations and fairytale finale of the Dublin hurling story more than he. His revitalised contemporary, Dotsy O'Callaghan, shot five points from play against Offaly in 2004 and was with the county footballers the following summer, a sign of times when one code might raise a player of that calibre and wouldn't have the means to keep him. But Keaney was away for longer – six seasons – and his return looked anything but a formality. And of the bright young players coming out of the earlier hurling academies, he was the brightest of the lot.
You can wonder how good Keaney might have been had his career path followed a more conventional course, but then there wouldn't be the same soaring exhilaration that he must have felt last Sunday evening. He did his best in that post-match interview to disguise it and perhaps that calmness and lack of giddiness is his true measure.
"I don't think we played particularly well," he said. "I think there is a lot more in us." Of course there is still an All-Ireland to compete for, and that was probably on his mind.
So let us try to put this in some perspective. Walter Walsh played his first senior match last September for Kilkenny at 21 years of age and ended the game with an All-Ireland medal. Keaney's first senior match for Dublin was in 2001 when, in his Leaving Cert year, he came on against Laois and showed touches of the class for which he had already begun to earn repute. They were six points up and still two up deep into injury time when Paul Cuddy hit a hopeful ball that carried all the way to the net. The season was over on the first day.
Walsh had the good fortune to be born in Kilkenny during an unrivalled age of prosperity and Keaney was born in Dublin where ash-led expeditions more often than not turned to dust. That is how the world was and while he is part of a new generation less inclined to settle for those paradigms, eventually his will sapped. In 2005, he quit the hurling squad to focus on football. Players were not committing and training attendances were poor.
He held out the hope of a return but the longer he stayed a Dublin footballer the more remote the possibility seemed. "It's my dream to win a Leinster (hurling) final," he said in an interview with this newspaper back then. "I think it's still on the cards even though we're in trouble at the moment. If the right players were picked, the right manager in place, I think we'd definitely go forward."
It has taken eight years. Later that summer Johnny McCaffrey captained the Dublin minors to the county's first Leinster title in 22 years. They have won three more since then. Two years after that came the county's first under 21 provincial title since 1972. Through those victories Keaney was a footballer for his county, politely declining approaches to return to hurling until he finally made the leap in 2011. His immediate impact was extraordinary for a player so long out of county hurling and he inspired Dublin to a strong run in the league that culminated in their league title win. The subsequent motorbike accident that ruled him out of the All-Ireland quarter-final win over Limerick and All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Tipperary robbed Dublin of their most important player.
That absence was sorely felt through the league last year when they were relegated and while he returned from serious injury to play against Laois, he broke down early in the Kilkenny match that brought a crushing defeat at Portlaoise. A week later, he was a spectator when they went out to Clare in Ennis.
To come from there to where he stood victorious last Sunday, the RTE mic pointed in his direction as the Leinster medal winner he always dreamt he'd be, is a true sporting fairytale. When the need was greatest, the lion-hearted Keaney gave an exemplary display of leadership. Last Sunday, aged 30, 13 years after his senior hurling debut and six of those in exile, came his career's apotheosis, even if there are still legs left in Dublin's summer.
His under 21 hurling manager in those earlier years, Tommy Naughton – to Dublin what Len Gaynor was to Clare – used to rate Keaney in the top four hurlers in the country. Tommy was a proud man in Croke Park last Sunday who doesn't feel any less in his conviction now than he did back then.
"A powerful man, great striker of a ball and a real doer as well," he says. "You saw yourself the balls he won when there was a bit of pressure coming from Galway in the second half. Anyone might get 50 per cent, but he got you 100 per cent – even the point that Michael Carton got, he won and passed it back to him. The power. His tackling as well. I think everyone is braver around him. You could play him everywhere. But really he is a great target man from the point of view of puck-outs."
Ten minutes to go in the Leinster final and Galway are within six of Dublin and carrying a clear goal threat. They are on the attack when Keaney gets in the way and makes a vital interception. The ball is delivered into the Galway half of the field and eventually Shane Kavanagh, under tremendous pressure, clears down the middle. On to the ball comes Keaney and he drives it over the bar. Just one of many critical Keaney interventions. No player caught as much ball and no player caught as much hard ball as he did.
Last Sunday, Keaney was on the ball on 20 occasions in a frenetic match and when it was at its most frenetic he was usually in the thick of it. Dublin followers found comedy value in his assertions after the game that they had more in them. They loved it of course because they believed him, and they had no reason not to. It is what makes him the player he is. Dublin have more hurling to do and in 1995 Clare managed to kick on and win an All-Ireland after a provincial breakthrough that took longer. But, for now, credit is due.
Dublin scored 2-25 against a team that won the same title by trumping Kilkenny a year ago and almost winning an All-Ireland against the same exalted opposition. Of that winning total, 2-21 came from play.
In the last 40 years of Leinster senior hurling finals only two winners have surpassed the Dublin total of 31 points: Kilkenny in 2008, with 36 in a landslide win over Wexford, and Kilkenny in 1973 when they scored a total of 34 points and defeated Wexford by ten but in a match played over 80 minutes.
Another notable feature was the attendance. While relatively modest in the context of the overall stadium capacity at 36,657, it was respectable and above the recent average. It marked the highest attendance at a Leinster senior hurling final since 2006 when Wexford played Kilkenny. Last year's final brought only 22,171 and the Dublin turnout a week ago is seen as encouraging by those promoting the game in the county. The rise in the general hurling population in the last ten or 15 years has contributed to that; more hurlers playing translated into more match-goers.
Dublin Strategic Programme manager Kevin O'Shaughnessy says that they have seen a ten-per-cent rise in the numbers hurling in the 8-12 age bracket in the last 12 months, a phenomenal increase in that space of time. The overall numbers now playing that category is almost 7,000, with football, understandably, higher on around 8,500. O'Shaughnessy
says around 90 per cent of all Dublin clubs are now running a dual mandate, with both games getting equal priority. He also highlighted the range of clubs on last year's Dublin minor hurling team as indicative of the spread of the game to a broader demographic.
Seven Ballyboden players ended up on the field last Sunday – the bigger clubs still carry a major influence – but the pattern is changing and that will manifest itself at senior level in time.
At the presentation last Sunday the old and the new were merged when Jimmy Gray, from the 1961 team, handed the Bob O'Keeffe over to Johnny McCaffrey. It is natural to look back at times like this and appreciate the full weight of the achievement. Down on the pitch moments after the game Conal Keaney, the life and blood of this Dublin hurling team, was already looking ahead. That is his nature. Let us remember what he said in 2005 when he left the hurling squad.
"It's not a decision I'm going to make for life. I'm definitely going back to hurling. It's just that I hope the situation will be different, that things will be resolved, that Dublin will have the best team out. I think if they have the best players available there would be a huge improvement."
It was hard not to doubt him at the time but he has proven to be, by any standard, a man apart.