KEITH DUGGAN on how the Galway-born defender has taken to the cause with gusto since getting the call to be part of Anthony Daly’s revolution
WHEN NIALL Corcoran first joined the Dublin panel, it didn’t take him long to understand that what he was signing up for was a cause. It happened almost by accident; Damien Byrne phoned him and casually asked if he would be interested in having a few sessions with the side. This was in 2008: the hurling sky in the east was black and amber and Tommy Naughton was in charge of a fitful Dublin renaissance.
Corcoran had only just begun to adjust to the idea of hurling as a vibrant undercurrent in the city; that kids who looked like skateboarders hanging outside the Omniplex on Saturday afternoons played the game; that if he looked hard enough he might see youngsters carrying hurleys on the footpaths of leafy, well-tended suburbs, see them carrying hurleys at bus stops, see hurleys jutting out from gear bags dumped under a table in fast food paradises.
After graduating from college in Athlone, Corcoran had secured a position as a hurling coach with Kilmacud Crokes and this was an eye-opener. City hurling was not comparable to his boyhood experience in Clonfert, on the south Galway-Offaly border, where the plains made the game irresistible. In Dublin, hurling was less obvious and the attractions for potential young hurlers myriad but he could see the future and he could hear it.
So when the phone call came to run with the Dublin seniors – the most visible and important brand of the Metropolitan game but still, making no bones, an obscure force in comparison to the heavy, traditional glamour of the football brethren – he wasn’t going to say no.
And don’t think there wasn’t some sacrifice on Corcoran’s part. This, after all, was someone who at 25 had already achieved more than most young Gaelic sportsmen: an All-Ireland minor medal with Galway and two seasons at Under-21; the kind of form that pointed to a senior future in maroon. It didn’t quite happen that way and, by walking into Parnell Park, Corcoran had to privately admit to himself it never would.
One thing he couldn’t have known at the time has made his decision easier. Niall Corcoran talks easily and lightly but you can hear the seriousness in his voice when he tells you this: “To be honest, this Dublin team is probably the best bunch I ever played with.”
Take yourself on to the field in Páirc Uí Chaoimh a few weeks ago. Only three thousand and a few stray souls in attendance at the game and Cork men wandering towards the dressingroom with their minds already turning to the championship but this was history nonetheless. For Dublin hurling people this was an afternoon of private ecstasy. Sixty four years since a pale blue hurling team had last hurled themselves into a spring final.
Corcoran enjoyed the obvious delight of his team-mates, but he could recognise it too in the voices of the supporters, the true blue hurling people who followed the hurlers when the idea of a Division One hurling final would have been nothing more than fantasy. The immediate trick for Dublin is to acknowledge what they achieved without disregarding the fact that they have come to expect this sort of performance from themselves.
And as the schools broke up for the holidays and Corcoran prepared for the Easter camps he is organising, he admitted that those few moments after the final whistle, when he felt that they had made it but had not had confirmation, were spine-tingling.
“It has been sensational, to be honest. When word came through that Waterford had won, just the joy on everyone’s face was phenomenal. People had been waiting for this for a long time and you could see that on the field when we met people. And around here, there has been a huge buzz. We have won nothing yet and it is a league final and it is great to get there. But we are looking forward to it.
[box]“It took about 30 seconds for it to sink in. I think I asked someone about the Waterford game and that was it. It meant a lot to us and you could see that. It probably wasn’t our best performance. We were tense in the first half and maybe a bit nervous but to get the result in Cork was great.”[/box]
“It took about 30 seconds for it to sink in. I think I asked someone about the Waterford game and that was it. It meant a lot to us and you could see that. It probably wasn’t our best performance. We were tense in the first half and maybe a bit nervous but to get the result in Cork was great.”
Afterwards, in the dressingroom, Anthony Daly told them to be recognise what they had done and take pride in it and then forget it. Daly was probably more thrilled himself than he expected to be but he kept insisting: it will be a league final against the best; brilliant preparation for the championship.
It is becoming one of the great GAA stories, Anthony Daly and Dublin. The most vocal and independent of Loughnane’s Clare apostles has taken up the latent talent developed by men like Tommy Naughton and Humphrey Kelleher and he has introduced to it the voltage that is all his own. And with him Richie Stakelum, captain of Tipperary when the regal county awoke from its 16-year slumber in 1987.
What was it Stakelum said in Killarney that day?
“The famine is over.”
It is no bad thing for Dublin to have men with a keen sense of impoverishment about them. Along with Vincent Teehan, they have the Dublin hurlers ready to break through walls for them.
“The confidence they introduced is very important. We all feel that they came from a place where Dublin is at now, trying to make that breakthrough. Anthony is a phenomenal personality. He is great with players, be it a kick up the bum or to put an arm around you. He is very colourful and is brilliant for motivation. Dublin is like a second home now and he has bought into it.”
Corcoran has too. In Galway terms, Corcoran comes from Lynskey country. His home club is Meelick-Eyrecourt, which in the 1980s gifted maroon hurling with Brendan Lynskey, who tore through reputation and legacy with absolute abandon.
Later, Lynskey was over the club team when he began to make an impression at senior level and he was a selector under Loughnane when Corcoran was among those honoured with the gruelling autumn purges on a race track around south Galway. He doesn’t know how many miles he put down with the others during those weeks except that he was there for three months and it was exhausting.
If you want to know just how absurdly difficult it can be to get a crack at playing for Galway, Corcoran’s experience is revealing. Here was someone who came through the feted underage system and whose potential had been spotted early. But a single half of a challenge match played against Offaly in November was the sum total of his senior Galway career.
“Then, in January, I was cut.”
Even then, he felt that it was over. In a hurling county like Galway, even the most promising grow up fast. He was 22 and just felt that door quietly closing. When he looks back, he doesn’t blame anyone and he can half -understand how these things happen – that in a county which produces voluminous quality hurlers, the competition is constant. It is like an open audition, all the time. Sometimes, talent will get missed.
“I felt a bit pissed off because I probably knew that was it. I am not sure how much influence Brendan had on the panel and he gave the three of us – Brendan Lucan and Declan McEvoy from the club were there also – great advice. We were happy to be involved but felt it was a bit of a raw deal. But that is what happens. Minors are always coming through with medals in their pocket. Managers are spoiled for choice and you only get one crack at it. In Dublin, I got a couple of games under my belt and went from there. Galway do have a very strong panel now, to be fair, but there are probably a few players who could make it if they were given a chance.”
Corcoran had to admit something to himself when he decided to transfer to Kilmacud Crokes. For two years, he attempted to balance a working life in Dublin while retaining the hurling friendships and loyalty of his boyhood. But it was killing him.
“Seemed to spend half my life in my car.”
He spoke to his family and friends and once he had their imprimatur, he requested a move to hurl in southside Dublin. And in doing so, he officially removed himself from the equation of Galway hurling. In 2000, Corcoran belonged to a gilded minor bunch that included Damien Hayes, Tony Regan and Ger Farragher.
Now, he was striking out. To his surprise, when he reappeared on the inter-county radar, the reaction from home was jubilant. People backed him and after Dublin qualified for the league final he received another series of well-wishes.
“Phone calls and texts, the support I have got has been great. And whenever I am home, people will always ask about it. I suppose when you grow up with close friends, it is hard to leave that behind. You will get one or two guys who didn’t like the decision but the majority of my friends and family have been behind me.”
The most difficult day has already been faced. He knew that running out and seeing the Galway team – his former team-mates – waiting there would be the oddest sensation.
But after a few minutes, all that melted away and he was just busy holding down his corner of the field.
“You have to think of them as another team. There will always be an edge there; I will always want to do well playing Galway. But that is it. As it turned out, it was the one game we definitely left behind this year. We dominated them for the most part but couldn’t put the ball over the bar. Last year, we wouldn’t have been making those chances.
“And if you told us then we would make a league final without Stephen Hiney and Joey Boland and Alan McCrabbe, it would have been hard to believe. But their injuries have given players like Ronan Walsh and Paul Schutte and Darragh Plunkett an opportunity. The squad has become stronger this year. And they have one goal and that is to succeed. They are a very, very driven group.”
This is a special week in Dublin. For once, there will be no talk of “only the league”. Niall Corcoran spent the last few days coaching the next wave of metropolitan hurlers. The hope is that by playing Kilkenny in Croke Park for a national final they can turn a few more young heads. The Dublin footballers, the Leinster of O’Driscoll and Heaslip; the hurlers are up against all of the lights, all the time.
“Any 11-year-old who sees a full house in Croke Park is going to be attracted to it. As far as I am concerned, that is where Dublin hurling needs to get to.”
But Corcoran believes in this project. You should hear him talk about the work that is going on in the city. A friend told him about being at a Crokes-Vincent’s match not so long ago and at half time, kids raced onto the fields and they were nearly all carrying sticks.
“And this was a Crokes-Vincent’s football match,” Corcoran says with satisfaction.
The return of Conal Keaney to hurling, the recruitment of Ryan O’Dwyer of Tipperary; piece by piece it is coming together for Dublin hurling. They are still outsiders. Tomorrow, they face tradition and the novelty and pressure of being in a league final for the first time since the smoke from the second World War still drifted over Europe and they are playing against the greatest team the old game has known. So they are still up against it. But no matter what happens, they will go out with no fear. Niall Corcoran is certain of that much.
“Anthony has this saying: ‘Just go out and express yourself’. And we try and do that.”
Article Source: irishtimes.com