Midway through the second half of the recent Leinster hurling quarter-final in Croke Park, Conal Keaney picked up possession out near the Hogan Stand sideline and the antennae of more than one Offaly player were raised instantly. They had their moment.
Eanna Murphy, a late replacement, was in first, driving hard with a shoulder that momentarily destabilised the Dublin man. Others followed.
It was clear, as it had been earlier in the game, that Offaly players had Keaney on their mind for some extra physical relish.
Maybe it wasn’t pre-planned, but there were mental notes made in every corner of the dressing-room beforehand. Keaney had to be central to any disruptive practice.
Keaney’s colleagues in the vicinity reacted quickly and they too became immersed in what was essentially the game’s main flashpoint.
When it had all died down four players went into John Sexton’s book, two from each side. Keaney picked himself up, dusted himself down and got on with the business of driving Dublin into the next round.
As a 1-16 to 1-10 lead at that stage extended to 1-20 to 1-12 over the next 11 minutes it was significant that Keaney’s hand was in three of those four scores.
First there was a deft cross-field pass for Shane Durkan’s point, then the supply for Dotsy O’Callaghan and, finally, a free by Paul Ryan following a foul on Keaney by yet another Offaly player testing his resolve, this time Derek Molloy’s high challenge earning him a second yellow card and subsequent dismissal.
When the game went back into the melting pot for the final 10 minutes as a bruised Offaly closed in, it was Keaney who had the presence of mind to step back into his defence and command the area with a calmness that would quickly permeate through the team. The 2010 Dublin players may not have reacted in such a manner to such pressure. In 2011 they did. The difference?
Why Keaney should have been such an object of Offaly interest is obviously based on the influence he has had since committing to the hurlers earlier this year.
But to physically try to unnerve him at every opportunity? Was there a point to it?
Anthony Daly has had many things to admire about Keaney since finally winning him over and one of them is that physical resolve he carries.
“Footballers tend to be more physical anyway,” reflects Daly. “Their body shape is different. They’re more used to giving and taking hits. And when they come back to hurling they have an advantage. I saw it with Shane Ryan last year. They can ride the tackles, they can make their space with their physical presence.”
Daly finds it ironic that Keaney the footballer was looked upon as a stylist and a finisher best suited to the inside line.
“Jaysus, you couldn’t keep him in now. He always wants to be in the thick of the action. He has his hand up for everything.”
Keaney’s previous Dublin hurling manager Humphrey Kelleher first got an insight into the resolve, that saw him run the gauntlet against Offaly, at a training session for Ballymun Kickhams in 2004, his final year as a dual player before he committed exclusively to football.
“It was the first time I saw a Dublin hurler really approach a hurling session with such intensity. His attitude was ‘I don’t give a s*** about what’s around me.’ It was a ferocity of engagement that I hadn’t seen before and it really opened my mind. It was a lesson to be learned,” Kelleher says.
“It was a will to win. Conal Keaney at that time didn’t just want to hurl for Dublin, he really wanted to win for Dublin. And no more than myself at the time, he just knew he wasn’t going to win with Dublin hurlers. I could see why he left.
“And I can see why he would become such a physical barometer for other players. It’s the same with Kilkenny’s Tommy Walsh. They know they can be as tough as they want with him. They know they can go far with him.
“He’s been out of the circle for six years, but last January he slotted in as if he had never been away.
“Honestly, I saw him coming to pick a ball at one of our first sessions and you just knew he was a natural. What he did in the Walsh Cup and against Waterford in his first league game back. Phenomenal.”
Daly had pursued him before each of the three years he has been in charge, but knew his best chance was last autumn.
“People might say why would you turn your back on the big crowds that follow the footballers, but sure he had the big crowds and he wasn’t certain of his place. Bottom line was he wanted to play.”
He had clubmates involved with Dublin which, Daly suspects, would have made it a little easier even if those clubmates weren’t sure if he was going to make the move or not. He doesn’t wear his thoughts too publicly, it seems.
His departure, or perhaps the failure of the football management to hold on to him, was highlighted vividly by Ciaran Whelan in the wake of Dublin’s league final defeat when frees that suited a left-footed kicker like him were spurned at critical times.
Those who know him feel they know a more easy-going Keaney now that he has moved across the divide. His mood is lighter, the serious look that was almost a trademark has evaporated. The regiment and structure of the Dublin football camps that he knew are a marked difference to an environment now heavily defined by the force of the manager’s personality.
Kelleher isn’t surprised that he has adapted again so seamlessly.
“I’d say in the six years he was away there wasn’t a day when the hurl was out of his hand,” he says. “That’s the difference possibly with Shane Ryan. Conal’s game was always hurling, first and foremost. In Dublin the game didn’t always satisfy his demands. Now it does. And I think he is setting the bar and bringing everyone’s performance up.”
For Daly, his attitude is reflected in his timekeeping for training. “Since we started, I don’t know has there been a session when he hasn’t been first there. Himself and Davy Curtin, always first there. Even the few morning sessions we’d have on the all-weather in Clontarf. You’d call it for 6.20 start, to be away by 7.30, but ask everyone to be there by six.
“I’d always try to be there before anyone else and I’d have a 5.15 call, but you’d be coming across and you’d be thinking, ‘will Keaney be here before me.’ I’d be fierce impressed with his attitude all round. It’s the same in the gym. I’d call up once a week during the winter. Now I wouldn’t be one to do much more in the gym than fold the arms, but I’d visit Ballyboden and they’d be flat out, Conal leading the way. He’s not one to chuck words out of his mouth for the sake of it. He’s quiet, but he has awful intent.”
Keaney has essentially been the sticking plaster to bind all the loose strands of Dublin hurling together this season.
He has provided real presence across the Dublin half-forward line, even if Kelleher suspects his natural desire is to be a No 6.
He finished the Offaly game with just a point to his credit, but no one was in any doubt about how he had influenced it. Least of all those kamikaze opponents who had thrown themselves at him.
– Colm Keys
Article Source: Irish Independent