Wednesday 16 October 2019

Vincent Hogan: One small step for Daly, one giant leap for Dublin hurling

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Historical context is, maybe, the only relevant prism through which to view the miles travelled this year by Anthony Daly and the Dublin hurlers.

The last time they were National League champions, Adolf Hitler was only beginning to toss covetous glances in Poland's direction. James J Braddock had just been crowned heavyweight champion of the world; Jesse Owens was the fastest man alive.

In other words, anyone in Croke Park on May Day who claimed they'd witnessed Dublin's last victory in the competition would have been lying through their teeth unless now deep into their 70s.

Daly, mind, would be the last to claim some kind of miraculous transformation with the Dubs. The story of a big-city revolution has been brewing for a decade or so, with momentous investment into hurling workshops, seminars and full-time club coaches.

Little falling pebbles prefaced the avalanche. Dublin's Combined Schools won an All-Ireland Colleges title in 2006. The All-Ireland Feile Division 1 crown was claimed by Kilmacud Crokes in '05 and Castleknock in '07.

At a time when the likes of Wexford and Offaly suffer from a dearth of under-age success, Dublin have won three of the last six Leinster minor titles and three of the last five U-21s.

They are currently reigning champions in both, so it's not as if the great Clare man was stepping into an arid desert when he took on the Dublin project.

But in 2011, Dublin's seniors moved to a different place in the public consciousness.

They hurled with a physicality and confidence, neither of which were previously considered a natural condition.

Winning the league had done more than apply bunting. It announced the emergence of an authentic hurling force that looks primed to become a long-term story.

In Daly's first year (2009), the progress had been solid, but un-dramatic. After a six-goal Walsh Cup trimming from Kilkenny, the team found its feet to retain its Division 1 National League status and get to a Leinster final.

In year two, they regressed. The championship collapse against Antrim hurt Daly so grievously, he considered stepping down. It has been Dublin's (and hurling's) good fortune that he didn't.

From the outset, he had set his targets high. When he first met up with Richie Stakelum, Vincent Teehan and Ciaran Heatherton in Citywest in late 2008, Daly argued that the challenge wasn't simply to improve Dublin. It was to win an All-Ireland.

Stakelum had spent half a lifetime hurling in the city with Kilmacud Crokes and understood how the game had changed irrevocably from when he first arrived from Borrisoleigh.

Back then, club hurling in Dublin had a faintly lawless heartbeat.

"There was the perception that it was somehow second-rate and always in the shadow of football," he recalled last August.

"It was also seriously tough. No holds barred. There was liberal use of timber and you learned to move the ball pretty quickly."

If anything, that internecine fury tended to impede the development of a serious county team. While club hurling in Dublin bore a serrated edge, that very edge was conspicuous by its absence when the same players wore the blue of their county.

If anything, Dublin's recent history was one of a nice team, maybe lacking the requisite smarts to take on the Tipps and Kilkennys with anything but damage limitation on their minds.

And last year's loss to Antrim reinforced all the old prejudices about Dublin hurling. Essentially, they had folded the moment Dinny Cahill's men turned up the heat. Daly found himself wondering afterwards if, maybe, he had taken the group as far as they had it within themselves to travel.

He admits that he drove home to Clare afterwards and shut himself away in a hotel room, unfit for civilized company. It would take him weeks to find any reconciliation with the defeat. Once he did, he had come to the conclusion that Dublin needed a stiffer spine.

"I just felt we needed kind of hardening up a bit," he reflected in October. "That maybe training was gone a little bit stale last year. Fellas were just getting through it and maybe the odd few guys were ducking their weights.

"We all had to have a hard look at it. I suppose I had that kind of a Northern football theory in my head. That we just needed to bring more tackling into the training, that type of thing."

Physical training was put in the hands of Martin Kennedy, an Ironman competitor with a background of working in Australian Rules. Kennedy monitored everything and questioned everyone. One night, convinced that the players weren't properly tuned in to a session, he sent them back into the dressing-room.

"Come back out when you're ready to train properly," he told them.

Yet all the militarism in the world doesn't necessarily create a soldier. Dublin's new toughness would be measured in competition, not on training ground arithmetic.

The early signs were promising. They won the Walsh Cup and in a few challenge games against Fitzgibbon opposition found that their new lust for contact was leaving opponents vexed. In their first league game, against Waterford in Walsh Park, they spurned an eight-point lead to slip what looked a ruinous five points down.

When they rallied, Waterford seemed to bat them away with what seemed certain to be a match-winning Richie Foley point approaching time. Dublin's reaction was everything Daly yearned to see in them.

Stephen Hiney made a wonderful, barnstorming run up field and off-loaded to Conal Keaney, who scored the equaliser.

That moment got them humming. They beat All-Ireland champions Tipperary by a point under lights on their next outing, then went to Tullamore (a venue in which they'd leaked a chaotic 3-19 one year earlier) and thumped Offaly by 2-23 to 1-13.

It was a game that announced Ryan O'Dwyer as a central figure in the new Dublin, the former Tipp player scoring 2-2 before being taken off with 20 minutes still to run.

"I suppose the relegation end of things is put to bed now," said Daly. He had bigger fish to fry.

Wexford were easily dispatched next day out and if a single-goal loss to Galway then interrupted their progress, it would be their last defeat in the competition. Paul Ryan's late point helped them draw with Kilkenny under lights in Croke Park and they rounded off the campaign with an impressive away win in Cork. Dublin, quite incredibly, had qualified for the final.

Yet, even against a depleted Kilkenny (no Henry Shefflin, Tommy Walsh or Michael Fennelly), what followed simply flew off the radar.

Dublin won in a canter. More pertinently, their physicality needled Kilkenny. The team we believed was impervious to pain reacted spikily to being pushed around. Eoin Larkin was sent off in the first half and corner-back John Dalton was lucky not to follow in the second.

Everything we thought we knew was being tossed out with the bins.

They weren't to back it up with a Leinster title, but they made a pretty decent fist of trying. Offaly proved characteristically sticky in the opening round, but the Dubs then blew Galway away in a startling semi-final. Their momentum was growing -- but so too their list of casualties.

Having already lost Hiney for the season, they now watched Tomas Brady hobble out of the championship too. And, of course, a certain big Cat was waiting with an itch to scratch. With all their big guns restored, Brian Cody's men made mincemeat of a Dublin team that -- maybe for the first time all season -- looked almost deferential.

The score was 4-17 to 1-15. An 11-point margin -- just one point less than what they themselves had subjected Kilkenny to two months previously.

The seeming diffidence of Dublin's performance irked Daly and his players. They'd essentially returned to their past, playing a game that lacked the focus and intensity required to go toe-to-toe with hurling's big guns.

Next up, they'd face Limerick in an All-Ireland quarter-final. The venue was Thurles, just as it had been when Limerick evicted them at that same juncture in '09. Two days before the game, Daly's apparent propensity for driving over black cats returned. Keaney, fast emerging as a prospective All Star after his long-awaited return from the county footballers, was knocked off his motorbike, rupturing a cruciate. Yet another key man's season was over.

But Daly had a plan, placing Ryan O'Dwyer at full-forward and attacking Limerick down their central spine. And Dublin, the team that reputedly couldn't score goals, fired three in the first half alone, all coming from the stick of O'Dwyer. It was enough. A final score of 3-13 to 0-18 propelled them into the last four.

Their semi-final opponents would be All-Ireland champions Tipperary. A team that had just cut the opposition to ribbons in Munster, averaging almost five goals a game and playing hurling that was all but set to music.

Two minutes in, Lar Corbett found the net for his seventh of the championship. A portent for massacre surely. But that would be the beginning and the end of Tipp's dominance, defensive anchors Peter Kelly and Niall Corcoran gradually putting the shackles on Tipp's danger-men Corbett and Eoin Kelly respectively.

The Dubs eventually just came up short 0-18 to 1-19 but, in many ways, nothing became them quite like their eviction from the 2011 championship. For they got into Tipp's minds in a way that would previously have been impossible. In doing so, they affirmed their status as a top-four team.

The challenge now is to take this story further. To get Hiney, Brady and Keaney back on board and push on to a higher altitude. Dublin, after all, have not been Leinster hurling champions since 1961, a whole lifetime ago. Floyd Patterson hadn't even run into Sonny Liston's fists back then. Muhammad Ali was still Cassius Clay.

History's collar has been turned up for too long.

Irish Independent

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