They watched last year’s Leinster final in the pub but the build-up this time has been ideal
It was this weekend last year when the last stones in the avalanche came falling down on Dublin’s heads. After the first wave had hit a fortnight earlier when Kilkenny left them prone and fighting for air, Clare didn’t need to bring much extra to smother them. First Saturday in July and they were gone. Only Laois, Westmeath, Antrim and Carlow preceded them to the graveyard.
The wake was nearly worse. On the Sunday they came together and said goodbye to the summer the way every beaten team does. A few stools, a few tables, a few beers. What was different about this though was the Leinster final that was going on above on the TV. Galway as water cannon, Kilkenny washed clean away. If they thought they were nowhere before, confirmation didn’t exactly come soft-peddled.
So now that they’re here, the last thing on their mind is bellyaching. Five games in five weeks gives them ample room for excuses if it doesn’t work out against Galway tomorrow but the very idea doesn’t compute.
Peter Kelly sits down in the corner of a Dawson Street coffee shop, any suggestion of tiredness laughed off from the outset. They spent other years buckled under the weight of injury crises but not this time. For the fifth week in a row, Anthony Daly’s larder is fully-stocked. Fresh ingredients wherever his eye falls.
“Look, it’s brilliant,” says Kelly. “It’s nearly like being a Premier League footballer. You’re playing every week and you’re training once or twice and aiming everything at it and getting straight back into it. We found out last year that championship can be over very quickly.
“And we’re able to appreciate it because of the disappointment of last year. We played three games and our summer was over just like that. It was over before the Leinster final was even played. We watched the Leinster final in the pub. That’s some difference in a year and that’s why everyone is arriving at training with a smile on their face.”
Kelly has landmark status in Dublin’s full-back line, a high-catching Eiffel who looks like he will own the number three jersey for as long as he stands upright. In his original incarnation though, he was a forward. After initially making a breakthrough out of minor in Tommy Naughton’s last year, he had struggled to catch Anthony Daly’s eye.
But a league game against Tipperary on the last day of February in 2010 changed everything. He played wing-forward alongside Liam Rushe and Shane Durkin – both of whom would be repatriated in time as well – and between the three of them they delivered five points from play in a nine-point win. Kelly crowned the day with its stand-out score, a lovely point off his stick on the run after catching a puck-out.
“That was literally the turning point for me,” he says. “That day was the one where I realised I could cut it as an intercounty player. It was that simple. Up to then, I wasn’t sure at all. That was the second match of the league that year and the previous week we had played Waterford down in Walsh Park.
“And I was shite. I was taken off. I played wing-forward that game as well and I was gone by half-time. And I just came away thinking, ‘That’s my chance gone now for the league.’ But Daly started me again the following week against Tipp and I went out that day drumming it into myself that this was my last chance. Make or break, like. And it went well for me that day and I’ve never looked back since. That was down to him.
“So that was the first step. I proved to myself that I had what it took to make it when it really mattered. And I knew the things I had to improve on. But even though I knew them before that day as well, now I was working towards something I knew I could reach. Rather than working towards something that I was afraid was out of my reach.”
He played that whole championship in the half-forward line but by 2011, Daly had him moved back. In the beginning, it was a fire-fighting measure. He went to centre-back to cover for Joey Boland and Stephen Hiney and then when Tomás Brady was left in a heap six minutes into the Leinster semi-final against Galway – incredibly, yet another cruciate – it was Kelly who got the job of marking Joe Canning.
Canning had just stuck Galway’s first goal away and Kelly had never played full-back in his life. Yet he stood tall and caught the first two balls that came his way. By the end of the year, he’d kept reasonable tabs on not just Canning but Kevin Downes andLar Corbett as well and it was really only the four goals that Kilkenny whipped past them in the Leinster final that kept him from an All Star. He hasn’t moved from in front of the goals since.
It’s no stretch to say that Kelly has been their best player through the four games so far this summer. He’d have been man of the Match in the first Wexford game only for Jack Guiney’s late equaliser and when the Dublin forwards were taking their time finding their range in the replay, he it was who galloped forward to show how it was done before half-time.
There was small irony then that it was also him who couldn’t hold on to the last Kilkenny puck-out in the drawn game, leading to the skirmish from which TJ Reid score the equaliser. Not that he – or they – dwelt on it any longer than they needed to.
“It was a strange feeling because we knew that we had played well. And even the manner of the draw wasn’t too bad, in that we got a point to go ahead when it really mattered. That was the winning of the game. They took the puck-out and if we had managed to clear the ball anywhere down the field, the referee would have blown it up there and then.
“But the whole thing came down to the break of a ball and when it broke their way, they got the equaliser. To us, it just so happened to be a draw. It wasn’t like we threw it away. So the initial disappointment was fairly easy to put aside. It was gone by the time we got on the team bus.“Obviously you are going to be replaying things in your mind, saying, ‘If only I had gone for the break.’ But it didn’t all come down to the last minute of the game – there were 70 minutes before that as well.”
So here they are. In a Leinster final, almost without knowing it. The big advantage of a rocky road is that you only have eyes for the bit in front of you. The destination is another day’s work, to be worried about when it arrives. Dublin have learned that lesson the hard way, staring at a pub TV with their drinks turning to vinegar.
“We know what we fell down on last year. We bought too much into the build-up. We know we did and we know the effect it had on us. This time we just focused on ourselves. That’s what we have to do, we have to be about Dublin and not the opposition.”
It’s the only way that works. Always has been.