From the clinical to the almost clinically dead
Despite their crushing defeat, Dublin have made real progress, writes Dermot Crowe
EARLY indications point to Anthony Daly remaining as Dublin manager for a third season -- good and relieving news for the capital's hurling development plan in the wake of a major setback eight days ago.
Having seen off Clare emphatically, losing to Antrim after sweeping into a six-point lead was something of a horror story. Afterwards, a blanched Daly did actually look like he had just seen a ghost.
He might in that moment of sunken and rueful realisation have longed for escape -- to a cajoling pub by the sea, perhaps, with some lively fiddle music and a sign over the entrance declaring 'no hurling talk'. But that it were so simple. The more you invest, the more it hurts. The thumping headaches of regret and torment which followed can only be imagined. Only now there is a level of co-dependency: he may need them as much as they need him.
Were they complacent? Is it possible that all the words of warning did not fully remove the impression that, having beaten Clare a week before in fine style, Antrim seemed a bonus prize? But a glamorous All-Ireland quarter-final, with Cork as it would have transpired, was needlessly squandered in another public exhibition of self-harm and not knowing how to win the matches they should. There is no hiding from the calamitous end to a disappointing sequel to Daly's first year in charge.
There were calls made on the line, a series of substitutions when Dublin were in the ascendancy, that suggested the management had jumped the gun and fallen for the same trap. When Antrim came rallying, the team lacked enough leadership and maturity to deal with the challenge, yet one of the gilt-edged chances that might have saved the day fell to an experienced player, Liam Ryan. You have maybes: had they held out until extra-time, then maybe; had Ryan's shot gone inside the post, maybe; had Declan O'Dwyer shown a steadier hand shooting for a point near full-time, maybe. But there is no consolation, no cure, nor any answers to be found there.
For all that, it is important sight is not lost of the progress that has been made from the bottom up. This is still a young team learning hard lessons in a small field of realistic competitors. Four days after beating Clare, four of those hurlers were in action in the Leinster under 21 final, defeating Wexford at Parnell Park. At the same venue in 2007, Dublin's under 21s had a thrilling provincial final win over Offaly. A siege on the home goal was eventually lifted by an end-to-end move and rocket finish by Peadar Carton. The rafters duly rose that evening to acclaim the county's first under 21 triumph since 1972. This is but one useful reminder of progress: after 1972, the next final the county contested at that grade wasn't until 1998. Since 1998, they have contested nine finals, winning two, both of those in the last four years. Dublin followers present when they lost the 2002 Leinster under 21 final to Wexford will vouch for the regenerative powers of the human spirit to overcome heartbreaks like Antrim eight days ago.
So, to be positive without being deluded, we need to look at the following; in recent years Dublin have gone from a whipping boy with hardly a shred of dignity, offensively patronised by the powers that were in their own county board, to achieving some genuine respectability among the hurling peers. They have maintained their Division 1 status at a time when counties like Wexford, Clare and Offaly have failed in that task. In springtime they've beaten the likes of Galway, Waterford, Tipperary, Limerick and drawn with Kilkenny. In Daly's first year, they managed to turn over Wexford in the Leinster championship, and gave a decent account of themselves in the Leinster final against the overwhelming favourites and the greatest assembly of hurling talent of all time.
Gaelic football doesn't have the same fascist stranglehold it used to, yet it can still meddle and trespass. The loss of Ross O'Carroll, and indeed his younger brother Rory, to the senior county football panel dealt a large morale blow. There were efforts to lure others away as well. Encouragingly for Dublin hurling, those raids that would most likely have worked a few years ago now tend to be politely but firmly repelled -- there is a new generation of unapologetic Dublin hurler who believes there is something worth staying around for. If they hold fast to that belief, they will have their reward.
Daly must believe that too and once the desolation of losing a match he knows they should have won has eased, he will realise that some progress was made in his second year, if not as much as he would like. There is also the matter of the under 21s having an impending date with Galway; he is part of that management team headed by senior selector Richie Stakelum.
Dublin have demonstrated that they can hurl against most teams but obliteration of the infuriating tendency to alternate between the clinical and the almost clinically dead is the challenge confronting Daly next season, should he stay on. Steady as she goes, in other words. They've come too far to turn back now.