There is no denying the historic impact nor the merit of Dublin’s victory in last Sunday’s National Hurling League final against Kilkenny, writes SEAN MORAN
IT’S INTERESTING how often teams making a breakthrough in hurling lose all inhibitions at the approach of the final whistle. Dublin ransacked Kilkenny for six points from play in injury-time in last weekend’s hurling league final. That surge of self-belief was never more appropriate, given the circumstances of defeating a county that eight months ago was on the verge of winning the fabled five-in-a-row.
The most celebrated examples of breaking into the light before Dublin at the weekend were Wexford in the Leinster hurling final of 1996, stretching a one-score lead, 2-17 to 2-14, by taking Offaly 0-5 to 0-1 in the last five minutes courtesy of late fireworks from Martin Storey and Tom Dempsey and lifting the Bob O’Keeffe Cup for the first time in almost three decades.
A year earlier Clare, after losing countless Munster finals over 63 years including the previous two, out-pointed Limerick 0-7 to 0-1 in the closing 13 minutes to stretch another three-point lead, 1-10 to 0-10, into an emphatic triumph.
Dublin’s feat isn’t in the same register as the above because championship breakthroughs are always more impressive but there was no denying the historic impact nor the merit of the win.
For all of their injury problems Kilkenny had an established track record of getting on with it in the league. On the previous three occasions Kilkenny had lost All-Ireland finals they had bounced back the following spring to win the league and introduce some fresh faces into the team.
This time around the absences were particularly severe. Two hurlers of the year – Henry Shefflin and Tommy Walsh – were injured, and two more departed during the course of the match, as Eoin Larkin got red-carded and JJ Delaney injured his hamstring. Throw in Michael Fennelly, a hurler-of-the-year nomination last year, and Richie Power (among other things, Shefflin’s back-up free taker) and any team would struggle.
Kilkenny, however, haven’t been just any team and are likely to be restored to something closer to their formidable selves by the time summer is fully here, even if there is clearly blood in the water after their last two national finals have been lost by an average margin in double digits.
The importance of this to Dublin doesn’t have to be laboured. In an historical context it is the culmination of decades of effort to try to produce an indigenous hurling presence in the capital, a project that dates informally from the 1950s and which in football proved so successful in establishing a home-grown team that became, and has largely remained, a strong presence in the game.
Outside influences have always been a part of Dublin hurling. If there was irony or coincidence about the fact manager Anthony Daly’s uncles had played for the Clare team that defeated Dublin after a replay in the 1946 final, the Clare connection was also present when the county last won the league, four months before the second World War and 72 years ago to the weekend, with Bill Loughnane lining out at left corner forward.
Also on the 1939 team were luminaries such as Mick Gill, who won All-Irelands with his native Galway as well as Dublin, Laois’s Harry Grey, Tipperary native Mick Daniels and Cork-born Mossie McDonnell.
If influences from the country were commonplace in the 1930s and ’40s they haven’t entirely disappeared.
Daly has been a primal force in doing what he was brought in to do for Dublin – take the county to a new level. Familiar with how counties come in from the cold and the insecurities and self-doubt that plague such journeys, he has improved the players and the team.
Physically they were able to take on a Kilkenny team that has always forced opponents to fight for the right to hurl and composed enough not to be addled by effort.
Neither has it all been an exercise in bulking up: Ryan O’Dwyer looks a more vital and a better hurler than he did with Tipperary – a knowledgeable Tipp man pointed out to me yesterday that such a transformation has to be to the credit of Daly and selector Richard Stakelum.
Daly wavered last summer after the enormous setback of losing to Antrim and said publicly this week he had considered his position very carefully before coming back for this season. Dublin chief executive John Costello urged him not to give up on the county and he didn’t.
Which brings us to the credit due the county board – with sizeable financial assistance from Leinster Council and Croke Park – for its perseverance in planning and implementing blueprints; for all the incremental progress at under-age, provincial titles at minor and under-21 and the success of the combined Dublin schools team, how must Costello and other officials have felt when the senior team ran into road blocks like last summer, of which there have been plenty down the years.
The wider implication is significant. Kids coming up through the ranks now have a genuine choice about which way to go in their intercounty careers. Conal Keaney took the plunge this year and now has a national league medal, which Bernard Brogan doesn’t as yet. Hurlers won’t have to become footballers to pursue excellence.
For the country at large there is the assurance that hard work and investment in a game that had become an almost unrecognisably poor relation can bring about results.
The future isn’t guaranteed – it can’t be in competitive sport – but the confidence a success like last weekend’s instils in a team is massively important in a game as skilful as hurling. Players will address challenges and setbacks in that light.
Just remember last Sunday’s injury time and let fly.
Article Source: irishtimes.com