The decision to appoint Ger Cunningham as Dublin hurling manager will be a popular one with the players, if the sentiments expressed by Danny Sutcliffe shortly in advance of its confirmation were broadly reflective of that constituency.
There had been support within the hurling community for an in-house appointment, particularly someone with an intimate knowledge of the players Dublin need to develop in the next few years. Shay Boland, with recent experience of managing underage sides, looked a strong runner from that category but the board ultimately appears to have been swayed by Cunningham’s profile.
This makes sense in that whoever succeeded Anthony Daly was unavoidably following in the footsteps of a charismatic figure, who had held the position for six years. The impact of Daly’s personality was significant and the vacuum his departure leaves is not easily filled. In terms of meeting those criteria, Cunningham, while bereft of much actual management experience, has proven credentials as a former All-Ireland winner and is a highly respected coach.
If Cunningham isn’t vastly experienced in top flight inter-county management, there are enough successful precedents to question its relevance. When he took over Kilkenny, Brian Cody’s biggest management venture amounted to a spell with James Stephens; Nicky English went into the Tipperary job with virtually no management experience. Both proved inspired choices. Cunningham has previously been linked to Limerick and was seen as a credible candidate for Cork, but his perceived closeness to players prominent during their divisive strike periods is believed to have damaged his prospects. Not that he is unaware of the requirements, having served with Jimmy Barry Murphy for two years and also had a stint working with the successful Cork teams of 2004 and 2005.
The decision to give him three years also suggests Dublin have more than a quick-fix solution in mind. They challenge now is to bring in new players and freshen up the squad. Dublin have a large contingent of hurlers at or nearing the tail-end of their careers and it remains to be seen if some will drift into retirement before the new season begins. Cunningham’s appointment is likely to encourage some of those, at least, to continue if he sees them as being part of his plans. He has certain advantages over Daly in that he will be more familiar with the nucleus of the side at his disposal given Dublin’s high profile over the last six years.
The challenge is essentially two-fold: to bring new players into the system and be brave enough to risk experiment through next year’s National League, even if it places Dublin’s Division 1 status in jeopardy; and to develop a vibrant style of play, especially attacking play.
The new manager can look forward to having Paul and Mark Schutte fit again – both were sorely missed at crucial times this summer – and Sutcliffe, too, whose season was disrupted by injury. They have two high-quality goalkeepers to choose from, and a core of proven campaigners like Peter Kelly, Shane Durcan, Liam Rushe, Michael Carton, Conal Keaney and Ryan O’Dwyer.
This year’s championship in Dublin has seen Ross O’Carroll in impressive form for Kilmacud Crokes, a player with proven potential and past experience, whose career has been stunted by injury. Another name from the past, Daire Plunkett, has also been standing out in a midfield role for St Brigid’s, a player who shone for a while under Daly before losing his place on the squad. Cian O’Callaghan has league experience from last season and should feature more, while Chris Crummy of Lucan, the captain of the minor team that reached the All-Ireland final in 2011, Oisin O’Rourke, a nippy forward from Crokes, and Cian Boland of St Oliver Plunketts are others on the radar.
Sutcliffe’s contention that a high-profile manager was needed to encourage dual players to opt for hurling might be a curious assertion in light of the failure of Daly to work much magic in this field. If someone of Daly’s standing could not swing it, then Cunningham is unlikely to have better luck.
Tommy Dunne, who has already worked with the Dublin hurlers as a coach, is tipped to join Cunningham’s backroom team. The others have yet to be decided but it is imperative they nail a good Dublin-based selector with an understanding of what resources are on offer beyond the established players.
The goal is to win things, naturally, and already the challenge has been set in terms of next summer: the championship draw pitting Dublin against Galway in the Leinster quarter-finals. But there has to be an organic approach and a patience among all concerned to take the time needed – and the pain – to cultivate a new team and a new brand of hurling. Cunningham is likely to have his own ideas on this and that is where his strengths, talent allowing, will eventually come to the fore. Dublin have lost a fine manager. They have replaced him with a manager with the ability to make his own mark and the hunger to prove he can.
Sunday Indo Sport