Tuesday 16 January 2018

Within touching distance

Dublin hurlers' disciplined display last Sunday shows they are edging tantalisingly close to winning an All-Ireland title, says Dermot Crowe

JUST as it was hard to imagine him leaving Dublin after falling into momentary hell last year, it's almost inconceivable that Anthony Daly will quit having glimpsed heaven last Sunday. Winning is everything of course -- except it isn't, or can't possibly be, or we would have a very limited and disillusioned club of failures playing the games. There is performance and laying down markers and making meaningful progress. And Dublin hurling has made a serious leap forward in 2011.

Until Sunday last there were still creeping concerns about Dublin's constitution for days like this and doubts about their entitlement to share in the illustrious company of the elite counties. Beating Limerick, playing in bursts and relying on an uncharacteristic goal jackpot, did not dismiss the doubts or rid the air of those reflex reservations. More was needed to convince that the emperor had in fact some clothes.

They had been three years at it, let's not forget -- attempting to breach the barrier of the quarter-finals -- and a marvellously undeterred tyro like Liam Rushe or a reconditioned warrior like Liam Ryan would not consider progress to be anything less than standing up to a serious team like Tipperary deep into the championship.

It is one thing matching Tipperary puck for puck and stride for stride in Croke Park in a wet and wind-swept league match. Or in the poky and parochial Parnell Park as they did last year when sweeping them off the field. All of that is enormously beneficial to a developing team like Dublin but it is quite another day's work putting to the pin of their collar a Tipp team prized as highly as the one which took the field seven days ago.

Granted they were massively overpriced and there was such a huge weight of expectation on their shoulders that it made hurling without complacency a serious ordeal. In 1993, Michael Cleary warned after Tipp's slaughter of Clare's innocents in the Munster final -- an 18-point whipping -- that they would face a "juggernaut" in Galway in the semi-finals. Cleary was a man of good intuition and prescience. Galway were positively braying before they took to the field that day, queuing up behind their manager Jarlath Cloonan in the old tunnel beneath the Hogan Stand, and gave a muscled show of brazen defiance which the current inheritors of the maroon jersey would do well to study sometime. Tipp melted under the blazing heat of expectation and Galway aggression -- the current Tipp managed to survive something similar a week ago.

The Tipperary of today is prepared highly professionally and has a backroom team fit for a king. They would have tried every trick in the book to guard against that complacency and wire themselves up by any means available but it is a simple fact of human nature that the conditions militated against this anger. It is no small feat that they survived the ordeal and made it through to the final without looking near their best.

Unlike in previous matches where the odds were stacked against them and they packed their defence, Dublin looked like they could win virtually all through. Before Noel McGrath's lineball approaching the end of the game, Shane Ryan had slotted over a fine point with his first contribution since coming on. Dublin, two points down with a few minutes left and with a reputation for strong finishes, could have seized the initiative but that lineball in a frantic and physical match where scores were hard earned was the killer stroke -- as if silently declaring, 'that'll be enough for today lads'.

To those decrying the system Dublin employed, we cannot agree -- granted they sacrificed goalscoring penetration and asked Ryan O'Dwyer to play the role of two men. Sure, Dotsy O'Callaghan's best hurling was mostly well away from goal until they went for a conventional and orthodox structure in the second half. But this was part of the calculation and while Daly and his team took deserved criticism after the Antrim game last year, they are entitled to applause for getting last Sunday's tactics fairly precise.

They banked on long-range points and got some -- in the first half Callaghan, Joey Boland and the impressive Rushe all found the range from distance. But the shot from Paul Ryan for a goal -- an audacious and naive aspiration against Brendan Cummins -- showed perhaps a trace of desperation, possibly prompted by knowing there would not be all that many chances arising with the system being employed. Ryan, however, has been a revelation and the championship's top scorer.

Johnny McCaffrey had licence to go forward, too, and for this kind of game plan to work it placed a high premium on speed and decisiveness of thought and action. With Tipperary there had to be some element of playing the percentages and keeping in the game without totally relinquishing their chance of winning. A delicate balancing act like that needed enormous work rate and discipline from all concerned.

No, winning isn't everything -- not really. After the Leinster final those nagging doubts about Dublin's readiness, their qualifications as a serious contender, were raised again. Perhaps even in their own minds -- they had to be. And out of that disgust with themselves rose the temper of the performance last Sunday. Against Limerick, they had enormous pressure; last Sunday, they were in an entirely different place motivationally. But there was pressure to perform and stand up and be counted. And they responded breathtakingly well to that.

In spite of wretched injuries the depth of the panel was far greater than in previous seasons and the will and drive seemed to have moved up a few notches as well. Daly is anxious that the backroom team sticks together, in particular the physical trainer of whom he speaks so highly, Martin Kennedy. His work could start in little over a month and there will be players to introduce to weights programmes, such as Eamonn Dillon and Niall McMorrow off the under 21s.

The likes of Paul Schutte (19), who did a fine marking job on the more physically powerful John O'Brien, is a prime example of a player who can develop a great deal in the gym between now and next year. Conal Keaney is already doing some light gym work and even David Treacy, a player who has been tormented by hamstring injuries, is said to have started lifting. Time and money will be spent trying to do whatever is medically possible to earn Treacy the simple and uncomplicated joy of a lengthy injury-free run. He is believed to have been coming into serious form before his latest mishap and they had him earmarked for Paudie Maher, with the intention of aiming low or chest-high ball in his direction.

With their full squad back next year, and the additions that will come on stream, Dublin will be a serious challenge for any team. The team that finished or started last Sunday will not win an All-Ireland, but the one that finishes next year could. Their full-back last Sunday, the inspiring Peter Kelly, should win an All Star and their centre-back, Joey Boland, admittedly in a crowded defence, took home the

man of the match award despite a season skewered by injuries. Three first-choice defenders will expect to be back from injury next year to increase their options. Aside from Kelly, Keaney and Rushe should also land All Stars and there should be a few nominations to add to that. Where from here? Having won the league they have to be careful in a competitive Division One not to risk demotion. The obvious target is a Leinster championship. That will not be an easy task but with a full squad they are capable of it. Winning an All-Ireland is within their reach, in the next two or three years.

In the meantime, winning an All-Ireland minor would complete a wonderful year of achievement for Dublin hurling. Lack of goalscoring will have to be addressed as it separates them at present from Tipp and Kilkenny and forced them to compromise in the semi-final a week ago. If they can make ground there, have greater luck with injuries, and avail of the added experience gained in recent months, it could be the essential difference between winning and losing matches like last Sunday. But, for now, they're gone and we miss them already.

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