IAN O’RIORDAN of the Irish Times talks to Dublin’s absent stars on how they are dealing with injury as the big game looms
ONE OF them is slowly adapting to a knee brace, the other still on crutches, and the third just about to start the truly serious rehab. It wasn’t meant to be like this – the Dublin hurlers preparing for their biggest championship match in 50 years, while watching from the sidelines are three leading players, comparing the size and depth of the scars across their knees.
For many counties it’s already been the summer of wounded knee, but for Dublin, three severe cruciate injuries – first to captain Stephen Hiney, followed by full back Tomás Brady, and then by forward Conal Keaney – has left manager Anthony Daly pulling his hair out. What did they do to deserve this?
It’s a cruel and unusual twist to what has been a mostly memorable year for Dublin hurling.
Worse still, Oisín Gough and David Treacy are also sidelined for Sunday’s showdown with All-Ireland champions Tipperary: Gough broke a bone in his hand at training last week, and Treacy tore his hamstring over the weekend – leaving Daly without five first-choice players.
Yet all three cruciate victims are being as philosophical as they can be about their absence, and particularly Keaney, who knows that luck might actually have been on his side when he was knocked off his BMW 650cc motorbike, two days before Dublin beat Limerick in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
“It’s been very tough,” says Keaney, who was hit by a van en route to work, at the Avon Rí resort in Blessington, crashing on to his left knee and tearing his cruciate and lateral knee ligaments in the process.
“It was always on my mind to come back and play hurling. We were making real progress this year, making an All-Ireland semi-final, and then this happens. That’s tough. But I can’t dwell on the negatives. It could have been a whole lot worse. Plenty of people get knocked off motorbikes and do a lot more damage that I did. I’m lucky enough, really, that it was only my knee.
“It’s a long road to recovery, in a brace for a minimum of six weeks, before the rehab even begins. But I’m nearly three weeks in already. All going well I’ll be back next year, so there’s nothing more I can do now, only help push the lads on in whatever way I can.”
Indeed Keaney attended training in Parnell Park on Tuesday night, his first time out since the accident on July 22nd, and sensed Dublin’s spirits were still high, despite the rake of injuries: “Yeah, they were flying it on Tuesday. We’ve been getting knock after knock all year. But we just get on it with it. The panel is so strong we have lads to come in and do the job as good as us, if not better.
“The skill level throughout the panel is so much higher than it’s ever been in Dublin. The same goes for the under-21 panel. That’s all down to the underage work and development panels over the last few years, and something we’re only seeing at senior level now. Obviously I don’t like watching games from the sidelines. I much prefer to be playing.
“Watching the Limerick game was very hard. But now is the time to produce the big performance. Even our league final showing wouldn’t be good enough. We need to surpass that performance again, and know the areas we need to improve. But it suits us Tipp are red hot favourites.”
At 28, Keaney knows he has a few years ahead of him still, provided the rehab goes to plan. He’s no fear either of getting back on his motorbike, and hopes to be back at work very soon.
“Avon Rí have been very good, even though it’s our busiest time of year, but I hope to be back in the next few weeks. It’s no fun sitting around the house all day. I still haven’t seen the motorbike yet. I don’t think it was badly damaged. I wouldn’t have any fear about getting back on the bike. But whether I’m allowed or not I don’t know. I’d be more fearful if the accident was my own fault. But I’d no control over it.”
Keaney could be feeling further hard done by given the Dublin footballers, with whom he had previously committed to as a senior, have progressed to their All-Ireland semi-final in exceptional style. “No, no regrets at all,” he says. “I made my decision, but of course the footballers are going well. I think Saturday’s performance against Tyrone was as good as I’ve ever seen.”
In the meantime, Keaney, Brady and Hiney have been consulting each other on the various stages of the cruciate rehab process: Hiney sustained cruciate, lateral and posterior ligament damage in a league match back in March, and only underwent surgery three weeks ago, as the muscle tissues needed to heal first. Brady, who tore his cruciate in the Leinster semi-final against Galway, is now off crutches and about to start the rehab – and all three of them still face a long winter of recovery.
“Well I was the first to go,” says Hiney, “and in some ways have been hit hardest. But you can’t dwell on it. You have to dwell on the lads who are fit to play, because they’re the ones who’ll be out on the pitch on Sunday.
“Of course it’s not ideal. But things rarely are at this stage of the championship. Nearly every team will be down a few players. Okay, maybe we’re down a few more than usual, but the lads who have come in, taking over my position and the others, have done brilliant jobs. Because without a shadow of doubt this is the strongest squad we’ve ever had, for a Dublin hurling team anyway.”
As team captain, Hiney still finds some role to play, even if it’s a small pep talk before games: “Yeah, that’s the extent of my involvement, to say a few words. But you have to be positive about it. It’s the only way you can be. There’s no place worse than sitting in the stand, injured, watching your team. I’d love to be out there, even to be togged out.
“The first few games were the hardest, but I suppose I’ve got a little used to it now. Or rather more used to it. There’s no denying it’s been hard. You get different nerves when you’re watching, when things are out of your control altogether.
“Tipperary are raging hot favourites. In that respect there’s no pressure on Dublin. We’re just putting pressure on ourselves. We have progressed from last year, and we want to continue that mindset, about delivering on the day. That’s what we strive to do, every day we go out. Like in the league final, we just went out that day feeling we weren’t going to be beaten, and we’re getting back into that frame of mind for this weekend.
“Of course Tipp are such a star-studded team you can’t concentrate on one or two players. You have to take it man by man, and back your own team as well. There’s no doubt they have some of the best forwards around, but you still have to attack them, give it everything. It will come down to lads working extremely hard, covering back as much as possible, again and again, and in that sense I think the mood in our camp is excellent.”
So the Dublin hurlers, while down on their luck, perhaps, are certainly not yet out.