More young players are taking up the game in a traditional football area
March 12 2017, 12:01am, The Sunday Times
How far has Dublin hurling travelled in the last decade? Where next? Not all of the metrics are obvious. Consider this one. About 10 years ago, when Tommy Naughton was the Dublin senior hurling manager, he happened to be working in Cork when the Fitzgibbon Cup was in town. He went along out of curiosity rather than any compulsion to go scouting.
Who was there for him to see? In the Fitzgibbon Cup programme every panel in the competition was named, including teams not competing in the Fitzgibbon weekend. Rooting around he found two Dublin players. Two. This year? Four Dublin universities or institutes competed in the Fitzgibbon Cup; subtract the usual quota of players from all over Leinster and elsewhere and there were still more than 20 Dublin players. A colony of Fitzgibbon Cup hurlers.
DCU and UCD were both beaten in the quarter-finals this year but UCD were forced to make do without a handful of Cuala players while the Dublin champions were en route to the All-Ireland club final, a road never travelled by a Dublin club before.
Ten days ago, though, the DCU Freshers won the All-Ireland with eight Dublin players in their starting fifteen. It was their second year in a row to reach the final. Twenty years ago Nicky English cut his teeth in management with the DCU hurlers when they were competing in the second tier of competition with a team led by Sean Og O’hAilpin. On that team there was only a sprinkling of Dubs. DCU established itself as a Gaelic football university and proceeded to make a big noise in that sphere.
Now? Five of those DCU Freshers are training with the Dublin seniors. Their Fitzigibbon team rattled UCC. In Paul O’Brien they have a passionate, full-time hurling officer. There must be something in all that.
After Anthony Daly stood down as manager of the senior team there were questions about Dublin’s future; he had built the most successful Dublin team of the last 50 years but they had reached their peak without reaching the summit and managing their descent was always going to be tricky for whomever came next. That process has been calcified by personality clashes and culls.
The future of Dublin hurling, though, couldn’t depend on the personality of the senior manager. The question was roots: had the game spread? How many clubs had renounced their antipathy to hurling? The good news that Daly and his team had generated for Dublin was worthless unless there was some tangible dividend for the future.
For generations hurling in Dublin was an enclave sport; the pockets of loyalism didn’t change very much from one decade to the next. That is the biggest change since the turn of the century: the geography of Dublin hurling has altered radically. Cuala, Ballyboden St Enda’s and Kilmamcud Crokes have won the last 10 Dublin titles between them, all clubs from the south side of the city where, essentially, Faughs had flown the flag for 100 years with honourable assistance from CualaBut it goes deeper than that. Young Eoghan Conroy, who was man of the match against Cork in the League last month, comes from a small club in north county Dublin who have climbed from Division Seven of the Dublin leagues to Division Four. They never had a Dublin senior hurler before. Hurling barely existed there 15 years ago.Eoghan O’Donnell, the outstanding full-back in this year’s League and one of breakthrough players of 2016, hails from Whitehall Colmcilles a club with a negligible hurling tradition. Donal Burke? He comes from Na Fianna, the club of Dessie Farrell and Jason Sherlock and Pillar Caffrey. A football club by reputation and preference. Yet they have won four of the last five minor hurling titles in Dublin. There were eight or nine Na Fianna players on the Dublin under-21 panel last year and there will be a similar number this year.
Burke only played in fits against Waterford last Saturday, just two days after playing in the Freshers All-Ireland final with the extra-time that went with it, but the attitude and maturity that Burke showed in Pairc Ui Rinn was exceptional for a teenager. Though it is early days there were traces in that performance of what Liam Rushe produced for Anthony Daly in his first year as manager and David Treacy too.
For Dublin to reboot and come again as a force in the championship there needed to be another generation of ambitious, talented, undaunted players. Maybe they’re coming.
The immediate issue for this season is how that transition has been handled. In the absence of the Cuala players for the League, Dublin simply couldn’t afford to lose so many of their experienced players all of a shot. Some of them jumped, some of them walked the plank. All of it seems irreparable.
But there is a future and the makings of a new team. The new roots are strong.