IT’S NOT quite 10 years since the Dublin County Board launched a new plan for hurling in the county: Blueprint for Change and Success was prepared by the Dublin Hurling Review Group, chaired by former county manager Michael O’Grady, and contained several lofty aspirations.
Part of its mission was to make hurling the number one Gaelic sport in Dublin by 2010, to ask dual players to commit exclusively to the game, and also to win a national senior title within 10 years. At the time many people felt it was mostly outlandish and yet with an uncanny sense of timing many of those aspirations have now been reached.
So watching Dublin’s victory over Kilkenny in Sunday’s Allianz Hurling League final – their first such title in 72 years – O’Grady could afford himself a warm smile of satisfaction, on several grounds.
He’d soldiered on the sidelines during the lean years of the 1990s but never lost hope, backing other ventures such as the Friends of Dublin Hurling, and was strongly committing to the blueprint when it was first announced in November 2001.
“When that blueprint was launched one of our main aims was that Dublin would win a national title in 10 years,” says O’Grady. “To be honest I know it was really only an aspiration, at the time. And there were quite a few fellas in Dublin saying it was pie in the sky.
“But I suppose we are bang on schedule. And if you include college finals and minor and under-21 Dublin hurling has achieved an awful lot in the last 10 years. But even in 2001 a lot of things were happening, and I think there was even more put in as a result of that report, structural changes, etc.
“Winning has played a big part in getting the whole thing up and going. A lot of good hurlers are being turned out. And, in fairness, with proper funding from Leinster Council, Croke Park, and the Dublin County Board. But genuinely I did feel that the way things were going it could happen, because the work was being done to make it happen.”
O’Grady managed Dublin from 1996 until Kevin Fennelly took over in 2001 – and understandably ranks Sunday’s win as Dublin’s finest moment of his hurling lifetime: “You always need that bit of luck on the day as well to win, but Dublin certainly deserved it big time on Sunday. They could have won by more, if anything.
“The reality now is Dublin have a serious team, and a serious panel. They’re not just depending on 15 players. They have 23 or 24 serious hurlers.
“But I felt on Sunday morning that Dublin would beat Kilkenny, even if Kilkenny were at full strength. The future for Kilkenny really is to build a new team, although I don’t think that will happen this year.”
As for making hurling the number one Gaelic sport in Dublin, some might say that too has already happened – given the Dublin footballers lost their league final the previous Sunday: “Well obviously rugby has made big progress in Dublin in the last 10 years too.
“But you just have to look at the clubs that were represented on Sunday. Kilmacud, Ballyboden, Palmerstown, Lucan; these aren’t the traditional hurling strongholds. Many of these were football clubs, but are now playing hurling as well. A lot of kids in Dublin have a hurl in the hand now, irrespective of what they play. Again a lot of good coaching at schools and club level, the games promotion officers, and having a successful senior hurling team is definitely a big help too. Conal Keaney back in the team as well. I singled him out a long time ago as massively important for Dublin hurling.”
Asked to single out a turning point for Dublin hurling over the last decade, O’Grady somewhat surprisingly points to last summer: “I really believe the defeat to Antrim in the championship last year has made the biggest difference this year. They were so sickened by that, I think they just made their minds up, and as a result, they’re much tougher now, mentally more than physically.
“Last year they were scoring less and conceding more. This year they’ve got much more physical, and if anything are playing the Kilkenny brand of hurling, which is taking the man on, putting the body on the line. Every time. So sometimes it really is true, that you learn more from defeat than victory. The Antrim defeat last year really stood to them on Sunday.
“The other difference now is consistency. In my time we’d a fairly good team, but we’d beat Galway one day, by eight points, and lose to Antrim the next, by five points. Hot and cold, hot and cold. This present team, I believe, will never be cold again. Because Anthony Daly has real options now on the sideline. No players are invincible. They’re on their toes, and they all have massive commitment.”
Which leaves one final question: How soon before Dublin win the All-Ireland outright? “I’d say they’ll win one in the next five years. They are approaching something of a pinnacle.
“What Kilkenny did in recent years is not doable anymore. Tipp will not win four-in-a-row. They might win two. Because keeping the appetite is almost impossible. Kilkenny also had a soft Leinster championship for a few years.
“They’ve now Galway and Dublin to contend with. So I think the whole thing has changed, and Dublin are in the frame to win an All-Ireland in the next five years. And that would be wonderful.”