While a breakthrough was threatening for years, it was the 2006 Dublin Colleges team claiming the All-Ireland that helped set the current senior team on its path to success. On the day before the stone was rolled away, here’s where Dublin were. The 2006 Division One and Two league finals were played in Thurles, but the level of cheek required to call it a double bill that afternoon would have made Don King blush. Dublin v Kerry was so far down the card below Kilkenny v Limerick you could have mistaken it for the terms and conditions. Endure one game to get to watch the other. In the end, Dublin came through by 0-17 to 1-6, but nobody pretended that the cup Ronan Fallon lifted bore any great significance.
When Tommy Naughton said afterwards that their level of performance certainly wouldn’t do come the championship, even he couldn’t have guessed how right he’d be. Dublin departed Leinster at the first fence to Westmeath before losing all three round-robin qualifiers to Offaly, Clare and Limerick. They hurled into July, but it was dispiriting stuff. Where were they? To the naked eye, they were nowhere. Lost, with little but hope for a map. That said, hope wasn’t nothing. It was an article of faith that few counties were putting more into their underage toil than Dublin. They’d won a Leinster minor title the previous year for the first time since 1983, had made the final in 2004 as well. But it was straying into cliché territory by this stage to say that breakthrough was inevitable. The hurling world was tapping its watch.
Hope needs success like the crops need rain – a little few spots here and there just won’t do. Dublin longed for a cloudburst. When it came, it was small and it was huge. It was a goalkeeper who didn’t want to be in goals playing the game of his life. It was a midfielder who was as much a footballer as a hurler waltzing through the day, standing out as most people’s man of the match. It was a free-taker who missed nothing all afternoon and has gone on missing next to nothing since. On a May Bank Holiday Monday in Carlow, it was the combined Dublin Colleges team beating St Flannan’s of Ennis, 1-11 to 0-11, bringing the Croke Cup back to the capital for the first time in the process. You wouldn’t say it changed everything, but changed plenty. For what they needed, it changed enough.
Tom O Donnell stood on the sideline one afternoon in the early ’90s watching a game that was going better than he’d expected. A Clonmel schoolteacher who’d been blown on life’s breezes until he’d landed in St David’s in Artane, he had taken the school team to Kilkenny for a challenge match against St Kieran’s. With 10 minutes to go, David’s were matching the famous school point for point and O’Donnell was starting to think he might be getting somewhere. “Then they brought on two subs and they changed the whole pattern of the game completely. By the time it was over, we were beaten out the gate. I subsequently found out that the two lads they put on were Charlie Carter and DJ Carey.” It couldn’t go on, not like this.
Dublin schools hurling was grand for what it was, but useless for what Dublin needed it to be. Because of the size of population and sheer mass of schools, a Dublin equivalent of a St Kieran’s was impossible. It wasn’t that the players didn’t exist, just that they were dotted hither and yon. A thousand hurlers in the naked city, but no natural way to weave them into one good story. They played an A championship within the county, but the winners always went into the B championship at provincial level. Anything higher wouldn’t have been fair. O’Donnell hit on the idea of forming an amalgam under-16 team out of players from his school and Ard Scoil Rís in Marino. They entered the 1992 Leinster championship, but got tonked by St Kieran’s in the semi-final. He put a proposal to the Leinster schools council asking that from the following year, Dublin would be allowed enter a combined schools team into the senior A championship. “There was no problem at all getting it through,” he says. “It just passed very easily. I suppose nobody really saw any threat from it at all.”
O’Donnell leant on parents, on schools, on clubs even. He went around selling a simple idea – get the best young hurlers in Dublin to use the schools competition as the same engine for progress that hurlers from every other county did. Get them playing at a level where the ball came quicker, where the hits were harder, where mistakes had consequences. It took the best part of a couple of senior cycles, but by 1999, they had made a Leinster final. St Kieran’s took them by eight points and repeated the dose the following year, but it was something to dig their fingers into. In 2001 a team featuring Conal Keaney, Stephen Hiney and Dotsy O’Callaghan took their first Leinster title beating Good Counsel in the final under coach Colm Mac Séalaigh. O’Donnell’s vision was taking shape.
VINNY TEEHAN is an Offaly man, a history teacher who pitched up in St Declan’s in Cabra. By the time he took over the Dublin Colleges side along with John McEvoy and Declan Feeney in 2005, the experiment had worked, but only up to a point. The momentum from the 2001 success had leaked out somewhere along the way. Of that team, Keaney, O’Callaghan, David Henry and Paul Griffin were all intercounty footballers now and while the Dublin Colleges hurling team was competitive, Teehan got the sense that it was a bit of a drag for players. “Colm Mac Séalaigh had done an awful lot of work without seeing the fruits of it,” says Teehan. “By the time the three of us came along, it was more popular to play hurling in Dublin than had been the case. But even so, I had a lot of trouble getting lads to play that first year. They just didn’t want to. Quite a good few of that minor team that won Leinster in 2005 didn’t play with us. I think they just thought they had enough on their plate between the minors and the Leaving Cert and a few of them were playing football as well.” Teehan was involved with the Dublin minors at the same time so he decided to have combined training sessions. The age group at colleges level is under-18½ so although there was a fair amount of crossover, there was still a good dozen or so players who had a few months on the minors. Those sessions had a fizz and an energy now, a crack minor team infiltrated by the likes of Ross O’Carroll, Shane O’Rorke and Peter O’Callaghan. And in that mix, a stylish midfielder from St Vincent’s called Diarmuid Connolly. “Connolly was a fantastic hurler,” says Teehan, who these days is one of Anthony Daly’s selectors with the Dublin senior side. “He still is. He has incredible speed when he gets going. He was toying with playing hurling and football this year because he had been dropped off the football team last year, but we didn’t just get him. In the end, he made his decision and just went with the football. But he was very close to joining us. Very close.” They took care of St Peter’s, Wexford, and St Brendan’s, Birr, but lost the Leinster final to Kilkenny CBS. No matter.
The back door meant they got a second chance against Harty Cup winners Midleton. Paul Ryan had a glorious day, shrugging off a first-half penalty miss to score the late goal that sent them to the All-Ireland final in Dr Cullen Park. Everyone threw into the pot that day but the names that rung out loudest ring out still. Simon Lambert was only doing goals under sufferance. Teehan and his management team didn’t fancy him as an outfield player yet, although he did end the year playing full forward for the county minors. But that day in Carlow, he was Brendan Cummins in an oversized shirt. Three outstanding saves kept Dublin Colleges in the match. Others did their bit too. Connolly was outstanding in midfield alongside Shane O’Rorke. Cian McBride scored his second vital goal of the campaign 12 minutes into the second half, Ross O’Carroll kept tabs on Flannan’s centre back Séamus Hickey, who’d played for the Limerick seniors the previous day and would be young hurler of the year within 18 months. Paul Ryan scored six points, four from frees. In the end, they had McBride’s goal to spare.
“Belief is so important,” says O’Donnell, “and it goes through the whole system. Early on, we were good enough to win, but I don’t think enough people believed we could win. “We lost numerous Leinster finals and numerous league finals purely because we didn’t have enough belief to carry us over the line. The likes of St Kieran’s and Good Counsel had done it all before. We hadn’t. That all changed when we won.”
What changed in Teehan’s eyes was the ease with which he could get players to come and join up in subsequent years. That, plus the fact that schools from some other counties began to get sharp elbows and sharper voices. Not all of them, but the occasional one here and there. “There was plenty of resistance,” says Teehan. “You can see their point. In fairness, all those schools are putting out teams with two dedicated teachers or three dedicated teachers who were setting out at the start of the year to win an All Ireland with what they had whereas we were picking and choosing. So I don’t blame them.
But you would have had to be in Dublin to see what the situation was at schools level. It was better for hurling overall.” O’Donnell began to catch plenty of flak and he catches it still. But his conscience is clear. This wasn’t about creating a Dublin schools juggernaut, it was about getting better hurling into talented young hurlers. To that end, there are now three Dublin teams in the Leinster A competition now – Dublin North, Dublin South and one lone school trying to stand on its own two feet, Coláiste Eoin. Dublin Colleges won one AllIreland and two Leinsters, but they have so much more to show for the experiment. O’Donnell estimates that of the three Dublin teams who will play Leinster finals in the coming weeks at senior, minor and under-21 level, close on 90 per cent of the players will have played for Dublin Colleges at some point. Oisín Gough and David Treacy were on the bench that day in ’06, Liam Rushe joined up the following year. The year before had Johnny McCaffrey and Tomás Brady. Wave after wave came through and found a challenge unlike anything that was available to them at club level.
If their presence was annoying people, they were probably doing something right. “We were aware of the unease from other schools the more success we had,” say O’Donnell. “But our objective – and we’ll always fight this point – was not to win titles. That’s not the reasoning behind this. We’re in it to provide as much top-quality hurling as we can to young players. If you’ve only got one team, you can only have 15 players out on the pitch experiencing that top-quality hurling. If you have three, that’s 45 players. Bit by bit, you’ll raise the standard.” What you put in, you get back. While Teehan is standing in the thick of it beside Daly on the sideline tomorrow, O’Donnell will find a corner of a bar in the Algarve where he’s on holiday and watch the latest step along the road unfold. He finds hurling people from all counties congratulating him these days on what Dublin hurling has become and finds himself waving off their praise for the role Dublin Colleges played in it. “I don’t for a minute see that it was the main factor,” he says. “But I would say it was a contributory factor.” It was enough
Malachy Clerkin– Irish Times