Anthony Daly. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
IN JOHN Costello’s annual report to convention, he called it “an annus horribilis”, “the year from hell”, and “a reality check of the most sobering variety”.
Anthony Daly endured every second of it, took every metaphorical kick in the groin harder than anyone else, felt every stinging arrow of criticism pierce deeply.
He wanted the Portlaoise earth to part and gulp him down the day Kilkenny ran riot, Conal Keaney hobbled off and his players’ heads dropped.
He felt lower than the road the night it ended in Ennis, hadn’t a clue where to go next.
Dark nights in a dull year.
Reasons for the Dublin hurler’s swan dive in 2012 were like cruciate injuries amongst the squad: everybody seemingly had one. Although one in particular enjoyed more airplay than most.
Dublin were, according to the experts, too big. Physically, their awesome conditioning was having an opposite and equal reaction on their hurling and the more nimble, far sharper, cold and clinical exhibition from a less bulksome Kilkenny team in Portlaoise that night was the proof page on the thesis.
“All it took was some hack on The Sunday Game to say he couldn’t believe how big some of these fellas were,” Daly says now. “But sure, if we were winning something, people would be saying: ‘will you look at the size of them?’ and mean it in a good way.”
He explains that they were following a definite programme with Martin Kennedy. One which brought them plenty of success in 2011 when their physical make-up was adorned with nationwide praise.
“When results don’t go your way,” he points out, “everyone is jumping on this bandwagon.
“I know myself from running up and down hills in Shannon … everyone will tell you that that’s pre-historic and barbaric now … but at the time, everyone was doing it because we were getting success.
“We did our weights, we did our hurling. And some lads got bigger than others. If you look at Alan McCrabbe, he probably didn’t get a whole lot bigger from the start of the year to when we finished up in Ennis.
“Rushie (Liam Rushe) was the case in point. He was Young Hurler of the Year so he was naturally going to be scrutinised, and he got bigger and stronger again.”
So where did it go so, so wrong then?
Hurling, as Daly muses, never stands still. It might seem it alright, because the same team win the big prize almost every year, but it is constantly moving on.
You win a league title one year and a bit of bad luck or a couple of eyes not quite trained on the ball a year later, you’re relegated.
An undetected five per cent drop in the group’s focus or a couple of slightly swollen egos, and the chasing pack overtake in a furious blur.
“We probably got a little bit carried away with the relative success we had. With the footballers winning as well, a lot of the lads were feted along with the footballers and it does affect fellas,” he said.
“Living down in West Clare, I possibly didn’t notice what was going on as much,” he admits. “There was a lot of endorsement work going and I’ve no problem with any of that, but I think there is probably a time and a place for everything and we might have handled that a bit better in hindsight.
“The players know themselves that we lacked a little bit of the focus of the year before.”
So he went away from Dublin after the Clare fall-out. Thought about it.
Thought about little else for a while, and felt there was more to give to the group and more there to get from the group.
He got back involved in the media side of things in the lead up to the All-Ireland final and kept in contact with his lieutenants, Richie Stakelum and Ciarán Hetherton, both of whom knew Daly well enough at this stage to gauge his mood.
The players met and came back with a few ideas, but crucially their roadmap had Daly’s name imprinted on its cover and so he resolved to go again.
“I was anxious that the players had that meeting,” he explains.
“If they felt that they needed a fresh voice, I would have had no problem stepping aside.
“I certainly think some of the situations we have seen in counties over the last few years could have been avoided if the manager had realised and said: ‘I’m not wanted here.’
He was just putting plans in place for the New Year when Martin Kennedy got in touch and said he was going to accept an invitation to train the footballers. He aired his frustrations at how it was handled, got a new trainer (Ross Dunphy) and went on.
Then Tomás Brady got in touch. “Disappointed,” doesn’t exactly cover it.
He felt Ruairí Trainor was being prised from his grasp, too, by the new football set-up and was disappointed neither dual minors Cormac Costello or Eric Lowndes attended the meeting of the new provisional squad but … c’est la vie, it happens.
“Getting your head around it is one thing … learning to accept it is another thing,” he groans drolly.
“I’ve often had this conversation with the underage guys in Dublin, who have revolutionised the whole thing. I’ve told them, look, we will lose guys from time to time.”
He would have loved Ciarán Kilkenny to try both had he stayed and see was it possible, but he has long become accustomed to the sadistic practice of watching some of the best underage hurlers in Dublin pursue other pastimes.
“You have to look at it like this: Rushie could have picked either. Danny Sutcliffe could have picked either. Paul Schutte probably could have picked either so for every one you lose out on, you might get a Danny Sutcliffe in return.
“My attitude to the lads is, all we can do is present the best set-up possible and do thing as well as we can and if fellas still are lured by the glamour the football brings and the chance to play in front of a large crowd in Croke Park, then we’re not going begging anybody.
“You can ask. I’m not a man for going down on my knees and promising fellas this and that. A fella wants to play hurling for his county or he doesn’t.”
He is already completely switched on for Next Year, though. Dublin have been training and he’s been looking around noticing subtle differences and trends.
“You won’t do anything completely different,” he says about the lessons learned from 2012 but says he is anxious to play more of a role on the training paddock.
He talks of going “back to basics”, “targeting every game”, and “getting back into the winning habit”.
Division 2 isn’t the hurling wasteland it used to be. They’ll have some tough days away from the relative glamour of Division 1 but momentum and confidence are the first required construction blocks and they’ll be put in place as quickly as possible.
He has a notion to revert Rushe back to midfield. He looks at Martin Quilty’s utter devotion to his cruciate recovery and gets an immediate spark of positivity. He sees Dotsie O’Callaghan “mad for road” again after a difficult year and his mind wanders back into its optimistic default setting.
“Last year is gone now,” he says sternly. “It’s over and we can’t do anything about it but we can learn the lessons and make sure it doesn’t go so badly again.
“But the main thing is to get back at it,” Daly adds. “The lads are mad keen to go at this one more time so we’ll all drive on again.”
– Conor McKeon – Evening Herald