THE look of devastation on the faces of the Dublin hurlers said it all. And it tells us everything we need to know about Dublin in 2011 that they can be so disappointed about a year which ended in a four point semi-final defeat to the All-Ireland champions just six weeks after Tipp had delivered one of the most sensational displays ever seen in Championship hurling. This was no ordinary year for Dublin hurling, hence the prevailing sense of an opportunity lost. When you consider the miserable exit to Antrim in July of last year that looked, to some, like the end of the road, it’s hard to believe this is the same team. Contrast 2010 with a victory in the Walsh Cup final, a first league crown since 1939, a second Leinster final appearance in three years, and a first All-Ireland semi-final since 1948.
And yet, Anthony Daly’s ashen faced expression told a different tale – so too a dejected Joey Boland accepting the man of the match award off RTE.
History will record this as mission accomplished for Tipp doing what they had to do to reach another final. But the reality is that the champions haven’t been made look so ordinary in a very long time and this wasn’t down to under performance or taking opposition for granted, it was a testament to Dublin’s excellence at stopping Tipp from playing. The problem for Dublin was that when they had exhausted themselves at containing Tipp at one end, they hadn’t enough match winners at the other end to make the most of their chances.
Ryan O’Dwyer was a lone striker up front and had two or three Tipp men for company. It was at those moments that the team cried out for the leadership and craft of Conal Keaney. But to their credit not once this year have the Dubs hid behind the very obvious holes that have been ripped in their squad. Stephen Hiney, Tomas Brady and Keaney are not just excellent players, they are men who lead on the field by example. It’s akin to Kilkenny being without Henry Shefflin, Tommy Walsh and Noel Hickey and we’ll never know what might have been had Dublin had a full deck in the Championship. Tipp’s class eventually told when they were backed into a corner and delivered a telling response. Noel McGrath, Conor O’Mahony and Paudie Maher were at sea in the first half but all produced stellar displays in the second half. Lar Corbett got crumbs but was devastating with what he did with them. Eoin Kelly was a passenger in play but untouchable from placed balls. Moral victories no longer sate the Dublin appetite. There was a chance here to do something spectacular and it slipped through the fingers.
Sadly, one flaw in the Dublin team has been a lack of goals – especially against top quality opposition and if there is one issue to be addressed, that is sticking out. The heartache is that there are no guarantees about next year. The Dubs are now seen as a scalp in their own right. They’ll be hard pressed to retain the Walsh Cup never mind the league or make an impression on the Championship. But you have to believe that the experience of 2011 will have a lasting positive effect on this young team. Anthony Daly has made a massive commitment to Dublin hurling but the job is not finished and his character, charisma and class is still needed. Conal Keaney has had his cruciate operation and the hope must be that he, Tomas Brady and Stephen Hiney will be back in full competitive action at the end of the 2012 league.
The Dublin minors under Shay Boland are in an All-Ireland final for the first time since 1983 and there are several players in their ranks who look capable of making the step up given the time and conditions. Before then the U21s under John McEvoy head to Newry this Saturday for an All-Ireland semi-final clash with Antrim and are fully capable of kicking on for another great Dublin hurling day out.
There were barely 1,500 at Parnell Park on the day Dublin won the Walsh Cup. There were just over 14,000 at the Leinster clash with Offaly. There were over 43,000 with a sizeable Hill 16 at Croker last Sunday. As time has passed this Dublin team have won new friends and admirers and they’ve seen enough to come again. When Dublin were narrowly beaten by Tipp in the 1961 final they couldn’t possibly have thought that 50 years would pass without a Dublin team reaching September again. There are no guarantees and that’s why this defeat hurt more than any other. But remember how Tipp blew a golden semi-final opportunity against Waterford in 2008 and then left an All-Ireland behind them against Kilkenny in 2009 before winning in 2010. Dublin need to be patient and continue the hard work. There is no reason why Gary Maguire, Peter Kelly, Joey Boland, Liam Rushe, Johnny McCaffrey, Ryan O’Dwyer and Paul Ryan cannot build on their excellence of this season. It’s the end of a season. But there’s been enough done in Dublin hurling this year to insist that it is actually the start of an era.
by Cian Murphy