THE PROBLEM with lighting up the sky is that everybody sees it. They see it and they talk it out and they ladle their own layers of meaning across it.
Anthony Daly knew for sure the league final had changed things when friends started asking him would his Dublin side beat the handicap against Offaly. Not would they win but would they beat them by more than five points. It’s one thing having to defend a poor team; he’s done it plenty of times. It’s quite another having fend off chatter about a good one.
“Jesus, I was running a mile from that kind of talk,” he says. “If ye want to put on money, put it on but don’t be coming to me with talk about beating the handicap. And the amount of texts I got afterwards giving out that we didn’t! That stuff seeps in, you know? It can get in on the subconscious, especially with young lads.”
In the scheme of things though, it’s a first-world problem. They were third world long enough. When he walked through the door three years ago, Daly found a downtrodden bunch whose place in the world seemed pre-ordained.
Oddly enough, he was okay with that for a starting point. Well, maybe not okay but he could see how it made sense and he could make a human accommodation with them being stooped and crooked and weighed down. Nothing in their history had ever showed them how to stand up straight.
What he couldn’t abide or forgive was the level to which they themselves were okay with it all. Where was the rage? Where was the impatience? How many among them were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore? If he’d started a count, he mightn’t have made it as far as a second hand. This was Job One.
“The boys are at the stage now where they’re starting to think to themselves, ‘I don’t want to just be an inter-county hurler. I want to be more than that’. That wasn’t always in them, definitely. There was definitely an element of being happy to get the gear, happy to be on the team, happy to live away in the shadow of the footballers.
“The footballers have all the pressure, they have all the hype and the Hill and all that. Whereas the hurlers had a grand oul’ life, you know? You’d nearly get a holiday out of it at the end of the year however well you were going.
“You had to be seen as being treated the same as the footballers. That was something you’d notice straight away from the start. There’s a comfort zone in losing as well. There’s that fear of winning, a fear of the line you have to cross.
“Look, we have a lot of work to do before we can say we’ve crossed that line. But I’d like to think that the league final was a day where even if the rest of the year doesn’t go well, we’ve made a start on it.”
We forget, don’t we? We join dots with the straightest lines and end up making out that a Dublin breakthrough was inevitable. Leinster minor titles in 2005 and 2007. Leinster under-21 titles in ’07 and last year. They all point to a cloudburst in or around now.
But just because Dublin were coming doesn’t mean it necessarily followed they would arrive. This didn’t have to happen. All their shiny underage success didn’t count for very much when Antrim bounced them from the qualifiers last July. It mightn’t have counted for very much at all if Daly hadn’t done some fairly brutal stocktaking.
“It’s like anything in life that shakes you up a bit. Maybe you need it to happen even though it was fairly painful to have to go through it. Because when we came back at it then afterwards, we knew we had to basically do an audit of the whole thing.
“We had to ask ourselves where this was going. Was there any point in us keeping at it? We needed to have a root-and-branch look at what we were doing.
Were you close to walking?
“Yeah, I’d say I was pretty close. It was like a bereavement, really. You take a while for life to come back to normal and for your head to clear. I went away down to Kerry to coach Kilmoyley and I actually took the club under-13s just to keep the hand in. But the main thing that probably kept me in the circle was that I was still a selector with the under-21s. I took the week off after the Antrim defeat but then I had to be back up to be with the under-21s. So that got me back on the horse a little bit.”
When they came back, he tuned up a little in some places and insisted on an overhaul in others. There’d been some wiggle room before when it came to players doing their weights programmes. Nothing officially-sanctioned, more “a bit of ducking and diving” that was waved away as a venial sin.
If he was coming back, Daly wanted his team tougher and brawnier than they had been. He brought in Martin Kennedy, a physical trainer who’d spent three years with the Western Bulldogs in Aussie Rules. The wiggle room disappeared, the weights programmes were stuck to.
This new edge wasn’t just to be fostered from within either. If it was available for import, he wasn’t fussy at all about its origin. Selector Richie Stakelum had his Tipperary ear to the ground and heard Ryan O’Dwyer had moved to Dublin. Daly was familiar with O’Dwyer’s work and remembered it especially from a challenge match one Sunday morning about five years ago when he was managing Clare.
Ken Hogan was over Tipp at the time and Daly pulled him aside beforehand and said he’d be playing about 10 new faces.
Hogan said fair enough, he’d do the same. They wouldn’t be lacing daisies in each other’s hair but there’d be no need for the Guns Of Navarone routine either.
“So we started playing the game anyway and Im standing on the sideline watching this fella in a red helmet, timbering away all round him. Ryan O’Dwyer. I knew his name – you’d know all the good minors – but I was going, ‘Who does this f**ker think he is?’ He hit one of the young fellas from my own club a good slap and I was ready to kill him!”
That was then. The world turns and your needs evolve. For the Dublin Daly was trying to create, O’Dwyer was perfect. Broad, rangy and tough, and a better hurler than he was generally given credit for. A bit cranky too and maybe, having missed out on Valhalla with Tipp, itching to prove a point. He took some convincing to transfer from his club in Cashel but Daly persuaded him in the end.
He turned Conal Keaney eventually too. One of the first things he’d done each season since he took over Dublin was phone Keaney and ask him to come and join up. For whatever reason – maybe because his place wasn’t a given with the footballers anymore, maybe simply because he fancied a go with his friends from Ballyboden – Keaney bit this time. Patience and persistence had landed the one catch Daly had been after from the start.
“He’s a savage ball-winner in hurling,” Daly says. “I would have regarded him as more of a scorer in football, a great left peg. Right from the start with us, he was such an example. First to training every night and getting everything out of each session. Then he played well from the start too, in Walsh Cup and in the league.”
Maybe for the first time, Daly saw pieces start to click together like Lego. It turned the tables on him too. The comfort zone in losing doesn’t just apply to players.
Having the panel he wanted getting into the shape he wanted, it was up to him then to lead them. If there’s one thing he’s done his whole life, it’s bring people with him. Doesn’t mean he can just turn it on and off though.
“You have to keep thinking how you’re going to perform, what you’ll say to them tonight. You can’t always be bringing the same old shite with you every time you walk into a room. You have to prepare, you have to have an angle. That’s something I would have learned off Loughnane.
“Loughnane had an angle for everything. He’d have an angle for a Tuesday night, never mind a Thursday night. ‘Today is f**king Tuesday lads, we hate Tuesday! Tuesday is one bastard of a day, lads. We’ll drive Tuesday into the ground out there now!’ He was the king of that sort of thing. It wouldn’t be my style at all now but the principle is the same. You have to be fresh, you have to prepare.”
Leadership is an odd talent to try to understand. Part of it is agitation, a refusal to accept that the way things are is the way they must be. But then an agitator without a personality is just an irritant. So part of it must be charisma, part of it ego too. Daly managed his first under-12 team when he was 15. He captained Clare at 22, lifted Liam MacCarthy at 25 while at the same time overseeing a county minor title for Clarecastle alongside Ger O’Loughlin.
He managed the seniors at 33 and nobody suggested he might have been too young for it. Although he worked as a bank teller starting off, he left in time to open a sports shop and later a pub. All just because it felt more his thing to be a leader than a follower.
“It felt natural enough, I suppose. You wouldn’t think about it. I’d still be one of the lads. Back then, I’d be first out to the pub on Monday after a game. I don’t want this to come out the wrong way but with Clare I would have been as comfortable going for a game of golf with Jamesie as I would heading off for a few pints on a Thursday night with a few of the lads who, we’ll say, wouldn’t be as clean-living and dedicated as Jamesie. You know what I mean? I was happy in everybody’s company.
“Some fellas won’t like you, some will think you’re a bit cocky after a while. Once we won, it changed things. You have to learn to say no to a couple of things and people take that the wrong way. I took a bit of a leap opening the shop and I knew there were people looking at me and going, ‘Who does yer man think he is? He’s only a pup from a council house in Clarecastle and he’s going opening up a shop?’ There was a bit of that, alright, and it bothered me for a while, I have to say.”
Not enough to keep him away from it though. Not remotely enough. He is, he reckons, “addicted to the smell of dressingrooms”, dragged ceaselessly into them by the endless possibilities behind their chipped-paint doors. Spring brought the finest tale Dublin hurling had seen or heard in 50 years and the summer is a padlocked box just now. Find the key tonight against Galway and the wonders inside could be glorious.
“Things have been going well. I couldn’t say they haven’t. In every game since the start of the year, be it championship, league or Walsh Cup, we’ve put in a reasonable performance. We didn’t win them all but we performed.”
For Dublin, that’s a new world. Now all they have to do is find their place in it.
Written by Malachy Clerkin
Article Source: IrishTimes.com