GAVIN CUMMISKEYof the Irish Times on how the sure and steady work at club, colleges and development squad level is beginning to pay dividends for Dublin
WE NEEDED proof that hurling in the capital city has changed irrevocably. We needed to see it.
It’s August 2011 and the long- suffering, yet enduring group known as The Friends of Dublin Hurling sought to organise an open training session nine days out from the All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary.
Anthony Daly acquiesced.
Entering Parnell Park we estimated numbers in the high hundreds, spread along the far terrace. As Daly’s charges wind up a fairly intense practice game, the late arrivals swell the ranks to well over a thousand.
Kids. Teenagers. Dads. Dubs. Streaming in the gate on a clear Friday evening. This was an event. No Man Utd jerseys or Leinster tracksuits. Dublin garb everywhere.
Of course, the hurlers are wearing helmets which makes them difficult to recognise. Liam Rushe’s white mask and lateral strides across midfield make him easy to pick out. Others prove more difficult to identify. Even when head gear is discarded. To us adults that is. Their adoring followers know them.
A tiny boy returns to his father’s side with a beaming face and a looping scribble on his hurley. “Who’s that?” Dad inquires. “Tomás Brady!” son guffaws indignantly. The Dublin full back tore his cruciate when twisting to catch hold of Joe Canning on June 18th. He has been pinned against the dressingroom wall for at least an hour. And the autograph hunters are only getting started.
It feels like the dawn of a new age but so much of the work was done in the black of night.
“There have been development squads on the go since the late 1990s,” explained Colm Burtchaell, Dublin’s hurling development officer.
Success was relative back then. “The Dublin colleges’ team went a good few years without even winning a match. Then we had reasonably good minor teams at the start of the decade, reaching a Leinster final or two and got in a backdoor to an All-Ireland quarter-final, which was all new ground for us.”
So it was the colleges and development squads that turned things around for Dublin hurling?
Wrong. They did contribute enormously but the real growth of hurling in Dublin came primarily from the clubs.
Tom O’Donnell is one of the Friends. He is also a driving force behind the colleges’ amalgamation in 1994 and his current role is as a Leinster Council development officer for Gaelic games colleges in Dublin and north Leinster.
He is a Tipperary man, but tomorrow he can’t lose – 26 years teaching in St David’s, Artane, gets Dublin under your skin. “It is remarkable what is going on but I’m on record as saying the colleges experiment or project, call it what you like, is not responsible for all this,” said O’Donnell. “It is a contributory factor. You have got to remember the work being done in the clubs.
“Don’t believe me, just drive down the Mobhi Road on a Saturday morning and see the fields covered with juveniles with hurleys. I’m sure the same can be said out in Ballyboden or Kilmacud.”
So-called super clubs like Na Fianna, Ballyboden St Endas and Kilmacud Crokes deserve a mountain of credit but the epidemic has spread to all corners. “Clubs like Whitehall Colmcilles and Castleknock are also coming through now with huge numbers,” says O’Donnell.
Burtchaell sings a few notes from the same hymn sheet. That’s the thing about success; everyone gets on the same page.
“If I was to put it to anything it would have to go back to the clubs like Ballyboden and Kilmacud and Cuala really getting their acts together by getting really big numbers in their gates. And started coaching them well.
“Dublin is a bit different to most other hurling counties in that a lot of the work in other counties is done by the schools. Whereas, in Dublin, the clubs would have the kids from four or five years of age, twice a week, teaching them how to hurl.”
So it is the southside giants that have driven this forward?
No again. It is everywhere.
Burtchaell elaborates. “In the last three or four years, the power base has started switching back to the northside in the younger age groups, from under-15 back and development squad level, the northside would definitely be stronger and that would be driven by Na Fianna. Whitehall Colmcille would be doing a lot. We are also getting players from clubs like Castleknock, Clontarf, Fingallians, St Maur’s and Skerries in north county Dublin – places we would not have got hurlers from before.
“The reason why the north side are getting stronger than the south is there is such a spread of clubs. But we are getting hurlers from all over now. Eric Lowndes is on the Dublin minors, he is from St Peregrine’s out on the west of Dublin. Liam Rushe is St Pat’s Palmerstown.”
There have been false dawns. Those present at the 2002 under-21 Leinster final will understand. The tide turned with Johnny McCaffrey’s fearless group. The current Dublin captain led his minors to a breakthrough Leinster title in 2005. Then the under-21 citadel was ransacked in 2007.
All-Ireland’s didn’t follow. Nor have they. Not yet. Rushe and the current under-21s look like a genuine prospect. Antrim are seven days off in an All-Ireland semi-final. The winners face Limerick or Galway in the final.
But a national title was claimed in 2006 when the Colleges beat St Flannan’s, the mighty Ennis hurling factory, in an engrossing All-Ireland final in Carlow.
O’Donnell and The Friends were there. Diarmuid Connolly was one of the hurlers that day. Paul Ryan too.
John McEvoy is a Dublin selector. He doubles up as the under-21 manager. He is a Laois man. He was also colleges’ coach for a few seasons from 2004.
“From 2006 onwards the development squads really started to show fruition,” said McEvoy. “Guys started to step up to the plate. You had David Treacy, Paul Ryan in particular, Oisín Gough was on the panel, you had Simon Lambert, Finn McGarry.
“We sensed we could do it that year. Those guys had a confidence amongst themselves.
“There were a lot of strong personalities. There were guys like Peter O’Callaghan, who has been unfortunate with injuries, and Diarmuid Connolly.
“The one thing I have to say about them was how serious they were about it. They rarely, if ever, missed training. They demanded things off themselves, they demanded the tough sessions. They were very, very hungry and to this day they remain that way – there are 15 or 16 of those guys who have come through to the senior panel.”
O’Donnell: “Once they realised they were as good as the fellas on the Kilkenny teams and the Munster teams there was no fear.” Sustainability. That remains the priority. “There are more numbers playing now from under-eight up to under 16,” says Burtchaell. (Hurling teams have risen in these age brackets from 546 to 602 – a 10 per cent leap from 2010 alone).
“This isn’t a flash in the pan. I’m looking back at development squads and while I wouldn’t say we are the best we are certainly competitive from under-17 down to under-13.”
Even against Kilkenny? “They’d be better than us one year and we’d be better than them the next. There or thereabouts with them all the time. Which is where we want to be.”
O’Donnell tells a story to prove the point. “I was at an elite coaching camp recently with many of the senior Dublin hurlers involved coaching lads. Over a period of four, five weeks, 250 of the top hurlers in Dublin from under-14 to under-16 were exposed to this.
“Afterwards I was talking to Paul Ryan and he remembers when he was at that age and he noted that only three or four fellas would have the skill that the majority of current kids now have.
“So I think the future bodes very well for Dublin. There is a huge conveyor belt of hurlers coming through. If we can keep it together I don’t see any reason why, in the next couple of years Dublin can’t win that elusive All Ireland.”
When Daly’s session in Parnell Park finishes, helmets come off and it becomes a free for all for the fans. It’s late Friday night when the hurlers turn for home. Tipperary are tomorrow, another championship challenge Dublin hurlers must acclimatise to. Looking around Parnell Park that night you realise there is plenty of time. Tough days may be ahead but the worst suffering, the kind nobody sees, seems to be over.
Dublin hurling the breakthrough years
1994 A combined Dublin Colleges team enters the Leinster colleges A championship.
1996 Minors lose Leinster final to Kilkenny.
1998 Under-21s beaten by Kilkenny in Leinster final. Minors also defeated by Kilkenny in replayed Leinster final.
1999 Dublin Colleges lose Leinster final to St Kieran’s, Kilkenny by eight points.
2000 Minors lose to Offaly in Leinster final. Dublin Colleges lose Leinster final to St Kieran’s, Kilkenny by six points.
2001 Dublin Colleges win Leinster title. Under-21s lose Leinster final to Wexford.
2002 Despite the brilliance of Conal Keaney, the under-21s are agonisingly defeated by Wexford, after extra-time, in a thrilling Leinster final.
2003 Dublin beat Kilkenny in Walsh Cup final at Parnell Park. Under-21s well beaten by Kilkenny in Leinster final, 0-12 to 1-4.
2004 Dublin County Board strategic plan restructures juvenile coaching. Minors beaten by Kilkenny in Leinster final, 1-15 to 1-4.
2005 The Dublin minors, captained by Johnny McCaffrey, end a 22-year gap to last Leinster title, beating Wexford 0-17 to 0-12 at Croke Park. Kilmacud Crokes win All-Ireland hurling Féile (under-14) becoming only the second Dublin club to do so. Under-21s lose Leinster final to Kilkenny 0-17 to 1-10.
2006 Under-21s lose another Leinster final to Kilkenny, 2-18 to 2-10. Dublin Colleges beat famed St Flannan’s, Ennis to clinch the Dr Croke Cup in the All-Ireland final.
2007 Minors win the Leinster title for the second time in three seasons, beating Kilkenny 2-14 to 1-10. Under-21s, led by McCaffrey, win their first provincial title since 1972, beating Offaly 2-18 to 3-9. However, they are no match for Joe Canning’s Galway in All-Ireland final.
2008 Dublin Colleges win Leinster Championship beating Kilkenny CBS in the final. Colleges split into north and south teams (Coláiste Eoin from Stillorgan also qualified for the ‘A’ section to ensure a third Dublin competitor in Leinster).
2009 Kilkenny have six points to spare on Anthony Daly’s senior team in the Leinster final. Experience works against them in All-Ireland quarter-final against Limerick in Thurles.
Under-21s beaten by a flawless Kilkenny performance in Leinster final at Parnell Park. Alan McCrabbe selected at midfield in the All Star team, becoming only the third Dubliner to be recognised since the awards’ inception in 1971.
2010 Under-21s win Leinster title, beating Wexford in final. Kilkenny minors beat Dublin by 13 points in Leinster final.
2011 Seniors win Walsh Cup, beating Kilkenny in final. McCaffrey becomes first Dublin captain to collect a National League since Mick Daniels in 1939 after overcoming an understrength Kilkenny in final.
Daly’s men are well beaten by Kilkenny in the Leinster final but overcome Limerick at Thurles to reach the All-Ireland semi-final.
Minors beat Kilkenny in Leinster final, 1-14 to 1-11.
Under-21s retain their Leinster crown for the first time, beating the hosts, Wexford, comprehensively in Wexford Park.
– GAVIN CUMMISKEY