Tuesday 23 January 2018

Reaping fruit of revolution

Dubs' success stems from radical changes at schools level in '90s, writes Marie Crowe

THERE was a time in Dublin when hurling was referred to as the country man's game. The club scene in the capital was similar to today's scene in London and New York.

But in the early years of the last century, Dublin were winning All-Irelands. By 1938, they had six titles, even if they always had a generous helping of imported talent. Any player who moved to the capital to live and work could join a Dublin club and then walk onto the county hurling team.

As the city expanded and a new generation started hurling, things slowly began to change. In 1961, Dublin got to an All-Ireland final and although they lost to Tipperary by a point, they only had a sprinkling of non-natives. There was a feeling that Dublin would always know times such as these. As things turned out, that was as good as it got.

The game stagnated and as the failures mounted, it became the norm that players would concentrate on the club game, to the detriment of the county. The tide may now be turning, but the upsurge in fortunes has not happened overnight. You have to go back to the mid-1990s to when the first seeds were sown.

It didn't happen by accident. It took hard work and investment by the Dublin County Board, Croke Park and many volunteers. In 1994, the Combined Colleges hurling team was formed by secondary school teacher Tom O'Donnell and so began the revolution.

"I was teaching in St David's of Artane, we had good teams but we were never able to compete at 'A' level in Leinster," says O'Donnell. "When I first came up with the idea it started with ourselves and Ard Scoil Rís. We started off in the junior level of the competition at 'A' level as Artane Marino and out of that grew the whole combined colleges. We put a motion through at Leinster Council to enter a combined Dublin secondary schools team into the 'A' division and they agreed."

Although the combined colleges weren't instantly successful, progress was steady and in 2001 they won a Leinster Colleges title. The victory came after successive final defeats at the hands of St Kieran's of Kilkenny.

They met St Kieran's in the semi-final in 2001, winning in extra-time, and then defeated Good Counsel in the final. The team, which featured Liam Rushe, Stephen Hiney, Dotsy O'Callaghan and David Curtin, was captained by Conal Keaney. Tipperary captain Eoin Kelly, Offaly star Brian Carroll and a host of Kilkenny players were among their opponents in the semi-final.

Around this time a strategic plan for hurling was developed by the Dublin board, introducing development teams working in conjunction with the combined colleges. In some ways, a centre of excellence for young hurlers evolved.

Dublin copied many of the structures that had been had introduced in Kilkenny, installing good coaches in schools and at underage level and getting former inter-county players more actively involved.

It was in fact a Kilkenny man, Diarmuid Healy, who was one of the first hurling development officers in the capital. Healy, who had All-Ireland success as a manager with Offaly, Kilkenny and St Kieran's, is largely responsible for laying the foundations which led to the phenomenal development of hurling in Dublin.

In 2004, the county board launched a strategic development plan for both football and hurling. The aim was to revitalise Gaelic games in Dublin, particularly at juvenile level. The new programme cost €7m to implement over a three-year period; the Government provided €1m a year and the shortfall was made up by Croke Park, the Leinster Council and the Dublin clubs themselves.

In 2005, the hurlers beat Wexford in the Leinster minor final. Captain was John McCaffrey and also playing were current panel members Shane Durkin, Joey Boland, Tomás Brady and Declan O'Dwyer.

The combined colleges won an All-Ireland title in 2006, beating St Flannan's. Dual star Ross O'Carroll excelled, even though he was tasked with marshalling Limerick senior hurler Seamus Hickey. Dublin hurlers no longer needed to consider themselves lesser beings.

The following year Dublin won another minor title, this time toppling Kilkenny, as more players emerged: Paul Garbutt, Barry O'Rourke, Oisín Gough, Peter Kelly and David Tracey all shone.

Next came the breakthrough at under 21 level. In 2007, they convincingly defeated Wexford in the Leinster final and last year they repeated that feat. Sean Lane was the manager and is also involved with the UCD freshers team. He has seen huge dividends from the work that has been done over the last decade.

"They had a great foundation underage and could hold their own," he said. "They were playing top level up through the ranks and then the minute they came out they were still at the top level, playing Division 1 hurling against the best teams in the country."

A few years back, Dublin hurlers were a novelty on Fitzgibbon teams but recently that has changed too. Players like Boland, Rushe, Brady, O'Dwyer and O'Callaghan have all been involved with Fitzgibbon teams, and playing at that standard alongside some of the country's top hurlers has added another dimension to their game.

"When I was going to college there were very few Dublin lads playing colleges hurling," says Lane. "But if you look at the Fitzgibbon teams at the moment nearly every one of them has a Dublin player. I see them coming through UCD every year, they are getting great exposure to another level of the game which is probably better than under 21."

While all the development was going on, a senior squad was taking shape with the help of Anthony Daly, who was appointed manager in 2008. Daly instantly had the respect of the players and he added gravitas to the set-up.

Dublin's main advantage as they look to build on progress is their raw material. They have an abundance of young players who want to hurl. And if you look at the players lining out for Dublin at inter-county level now, not only are they bigger and stronger than before, but their first touch and skill level is much improved. Ultimately they have benefited from the quality coaching they have been exposed to.

Dublin now have three teams playing senior 'A' colleges hurling: Coláiste Eoin, along with Dublin North and South. They have an All Star from 2009 in Alan McCrabbe, a top-class manager in Daly and a League final to play for today.

The question now is can Dublin move to the next level, or is this as good as it gets?

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