In hurling’s new world, Anthony Daly always knew that even the greatest inferno of desire could only be a launch-pad, not a destination.
Dublin wanted to grow, but so did everyone. The day last October that himself and Richie Stakelum sat down with a stranger in the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Blanchardstown, they’d already spent nearly four hours with Gary Keegan at the Institute of Sport.
To some degree, they were scrabbling for the unknown.
Keegan and Billy Walsh had created the High Performance environment out of which Irish amateur boxing now, routinely, stockpile medals.
Daly wanted to retrace every inch of that journey now. To understand what made the boxers different.
They were drained leaving Keegan. The conversation had been intense and they wouldn’t have been unhappy calling it a day. But someone else was now waiting to meet them.
It was Denise Martin, who suggested they go talk to Martin Kennedy.
In Daly’s first two years as Dublin manager, their physical preparation had been overseen by the renowned Jim Kilty. But Jim was unavailable now and Denise, a Tyrone woman, who did statistical analysis for the team, suggested she might have a solution.
“He was with the ladies’ footballers last year … ,” she began.
“Lovely, Denise,” said Daly, already disconnecting. But then she mentioned Kennedy’s background in Australian Rules. And, now, she had Daly’s ear.
Stakelum says they knew within minutes of meeting him that Kennedy was their man. The remarkable strides taken by Dublin hurling since can be attributed to many people, but, for Stakelum, Kennedy was what he calls “the X factor”.
Tonight in Thurles, Dublin go in search of their first All-Ireland U-21 hurling crown. Already, the seniors have the National League title and, last weekend, the minors were beaten All-Ireland finalists. The game is alive in the city.
Yet a year ago, after their hollow-eyed retreat from Croke Park following defeat to Antrim, Daly considered his options. All the goodwill in the world couldn’t overcome a sense that Dublin had, as the traditional hurling counties would always have predicted, been found to have a glass jaw.
If he was staying, that jaw needed to be addressed.
“I just felt we needed kind of hardening up a little bit,” says Daly now. “Something had gone stale and I couldn’t really say what it was. But fellas were just getting through training and, maybe, the odd few 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. We knew we were too soft against Antrim. In general, we were too soft throughout the year.
“We needed to get to another level.”
Kennedy had no background in hurling, beyond playing up to U-14 level with Naomh Mearnog.
When they met him in Blanchardstown, he made it clear that he’d need their advice on appropriate drills. Instantly, they warmed to his inquisitiveness and humility.
Kennedy grew up in Portmarnock dreaming of being a Dublin senior footballer, a dream that remained unfulfilled. He’d played a year at minor and two at U-21 but, by 2004, was one of those wannabes on ‘The Underdogs’ TV series, hoping to get noticed. Mickey Ned O’Sullivan and Jarlath Burns saw enough in him to appoint him team captain of a group containing Pearse O’Neill and Kieran Donaghy.
But three concussions in relatively quick succession meant he played the Underdogs’ final against Kerry in Tralee wearing a scrum-cap and, in his own words, “looking ridiculous.” Dublin never called.
So, Kennedy took himself off to Perth in Western Australia, where he’d previously gone for work experience with West Coast Eagles as part of a Sports Science course.
Now he booked himself into Edith Cowen University to take a Masters in Exercise Science and returned to the Eagles on a self-financed internship.
To pay for it, he worked in an Irish bar and took himself down Kalgoorlie mines.
The mining work, Kennedy says, “toughened” him. He was employed, essentially, to educate the miners on health and fitness — and that was a hard sell.
Most of them were too sore and tired to contemplate exercise after 12-hour shifts underground. Their evenings tended to revolve around dinner and industrial quantities of beer.
On his first day, he was sent to the pub — essentially — to recruit men for tennis and other sports activities. They looked at him as if they’d seen an alien.
“Got plenty of abuse,” he chuckles now. “There were a few hard nuts and a lot of them would have gotten out of the city to get away from things at home.
“They’d fly in for 10 days, work from 6.0am to 6.0pm. Their routine would be just mine, eat, go to the pub. They were earning good money, but they’d be in darkness for 12 or 13 hours a day. A lot suffered from back pain. So, I would go down with a physio, prescribing training programmes.
“It broke the ice when they heard that I was involved with the Eagles because a lot of them would have been supporters.
“(It) just gave me a little credibility”.
Kennedy came home in ’07, stopping off for six months in London, where he was player-coach (and full-back) of the team edged out by Leitrim in the first round of the Connacht Championship.
Then, soon after returning to Dublin, he ruptured a cruciate and went on to re-injure it within a year.
And that was when Martin Kennedy decided that, maybe, the best place for him was outside the whitewash lines.
In January of ’08, he set up the National Athlete Devlopment Academy (NADA), which now has its base in the Aviva Stadium.
Daly admits that there was “a real feel-good factor” for the Dublin hurlers stepping into the state-of-the-art venue for some of their winter gym work.
Yet, in Stakelum’s mind, the night that Kennedy set his stamp on Dublin hurling was “a dark and dank” one in O’Toole Park.
“The lads were doing a bit of a warm-up, maybe going through the motions a little and he called them in together,” recalls the Tipperary man.
“Martin never ever raises his voice and he just said to them very calmly ‘Right lads, this isn’t the preparation of champions.
“‘Back into the dressing-room and, when ye’re ready to train properly, come back out’.
“There was a kind of a shocked silence. They didn’t know whether to walk, jog or run. But they got off the pitch. Now we don’t know what was said inside, but clearly it was something along the lines of, ‘f**k, this is different.’
“To me, that was the night the Rubicon was crossed. When the players realised this was a different world.”
The intensity of Dublin’s sessions flew to a different level.
In a sense, Daly aspired to see his team hurl the Kilkenny way. He wanted them to all but seek physical contact rather than avoid it. To become impervious to pain.
Daly loves that side of Kilkenny, because it defines the sheer manliness of what they do. So, when he sat with Kennedy that October evening in Blanchardstown, that was the template referenced.
It was November by the time Kennedy first addressed the Dublin players. They met in the Castleknock Hotel and, as luck would have it, the All Blacks were staying under the same roof. He didn’t speak for long because he knew respect would need to be earned.
But he did allude to the culture of New Zealand rugby and the respect the Blacks showed their jersey. That was something, he suggested, Dublin might do well to replicate.
Daly recalls the change in the team as incremental.
“He just brought this attention to detail that meant there was nowhere for guys to hide,” he says of Kennedy.
“Lads went on the weighing scales before and after training. Everything was based around the ball and done with a real intensity.
“No one was going to cod him.”
Stakelum says a few early challenge games against Fitzgibbon Cup teams identified the change in Dublin. They were upsetting people. “Teams were getting kind of narky, looking for the protection of the referee,” he says.
“But what the lads were doing was perfectly legitimate. It wasn’t bravado stuff. Just the way Martin had them conditioned to give the hits, fellas on the receiving end were really hurting.”
Dublin’s physicality would become the story of spring and early summer.
When they beat Kilkenny to win the Walsh Cup, it was dismissed as an aberration.
Then they won the league for the first time since 1939, this time devouring the Cats in the final. Again, the story was asterisked by Kilkenny’s absentees.
“There was always a caveat,” says Kennedy.
Kilkenny eventually took revenge in the Leinster final and Dublin’s season finally ground to a halt in the All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary. But they hit the then champions so hard, Tipp’s back-room reported after that it took their players maybe 10 full days to recover.
For hurling, it felt as if the earth’s plates had shifted.
Even with cruel injuries along the way to marquee players like Stephen Hiney, Tomas Brady and Conal Keaney, Dublin had morphed into, arguably, the game’s most physical team. But the next trick was always going to be more difficult.
“The goalposts have shifted, totally,” admits Kennedy. “There’s now a need to set the bar higher again. What we did this year isn’t going to be good enough next year.
“Being very physical is just one part of the equation. The next piece is what are you going to do with the ball when you get it? How effective are you going to be?
“That’s the next frontier for Dublin. To win and to win consistently against the top teams, the Tipps, Kilkennys, Corks and Galways.”
Daly agrees, insisting, that Dublin’s hurling needs to come up “another notch or three.”
But more than hunger propels them on their journey now.
Tonight in Thurles, they hope the city can win a first hurling All-Ireland since the minors’ victory of ’65. Beyond that, standing still will constitute death.
For a man with a start-up company whose wife, Mairead, is now heavily pregnant with their first child, Kennedy knows his days are getting seriously pressed. But Dublin’s story has an unfinished feel.
So, upping the ante again is, yet again, the Dublin gospel. You ask him is this reasonable for amateur sportsmen?
“No it’s not,” he says unequivocally. “I sometimes wonder do people actually realise what these guys do, what they put themselves through.
“We go to Croke Park expecting to see them perform like professional athletes. The fact they’re at that level is phenomenal.
“Now they do it because they love it. But the sacrifices are extraordinary. I just have absolutely total respect and admiration for what they put themselves through.”
Critically for Dublin hurling, the feeling is reciprocated.
– Vincent Hogan