In 2005, Dublin won the Leinster Minor Hurling Championship for the first time since 1983. 32 years ago was the sole victory following a 1965 triumph at the grade. But in 2005, things were different. In the preceding years, the Dubs were in chaos.
Little publicised players’ strikes, poor training attendances, and unequal treatment to the footballers meant that the hurlers were in a rut.
However, times were changing. The supporters group, Friends of Dublin Hurling was established. Efforts at underage for equal treatment with football, and development squads meant that things were finally being done right. This time around, a triumph at minor level was not going to be a flash in the pan.
There was a striking image captured of the Dublin side celebrating in front of an empty Hill 16. But this was all going to change soon. Dublin hurling had just produced its first golden generation. Johnny McCaffrey, Conor McCormack, Joey Boland, Shane Durkin, Tomás Brady, Ross O’Carroll, and Kevin O’Reilly looked to be the future.
Defeat to Laois by four goals at the Senior grade that summer, followed by qualifier defeats to Waterford and Clare by a combined margin of 40 points did not dash hope. The future was bright.
Underage success continued, with further minor and u-21 Leinster titles, with no side ever fully being able to make the breakthrough at the All-Ireland stage.
Four years later, the Dubs finally made headway at senior level, in Anthony Daly’s first year at the helm. A great league campaign, followed by a victory over Wexford in a Leinster semi-final saw them reach the promised land of a Leinster Final. Narrow defeats to Kilkenny and Limerick meant Dublin were finally competitive on the big stage. Things continued to grow, and despite low ebbs in 2010 and 2012, things peaked in 2013.
A first Leinster Championship in 50 years meant the good times were back on Liffey-side. An All-Ireland semi-final date with Dublin as bookies’ favourites for Liam McCarthy left hopes high the big one would be captured sooner rather than later.
Sunday’s loss to Waterford was chilling, but there was a real silver lining. This writer has been following the Dublin hurlers the length and breadth of Ireland for the last 10-15 years, and Sunday was the biggest away following for the Boys in Blue in that period.
It would not be audacious to estimate that almost 10,000 traveled from the capital for the game. This may not sound like much to those from Munster counties, but it is a step in the right direction for a county yet to fully embrace a hurling culture.
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In the aftermath of Galway’s victory over Galway, Johnny Glynn artistically dispelled a myth surrounding the Tribesmen. In fairness to the man, he, and other forwards around him, were indirectly insulted with every praise lapped upon Joe Canning, and it came to the fore in a passionate interview.
The myth that Dublin are merely ‘manufactured hurlers’ could be similarly disregarded. For a team which has not been to an All-Ireland final to win four all-stars in the last few years is an achievement in itself. Peter Kelly, Danny Sutcliffe, Alan Mc Crabbe and Liam Rushe are classy hurlers, and spent every day of their childhoods hurling imaginary All-Ireland finals up against their back garden wall, just like Henry Shefflin, Joe Canning, or Lar Corbett.
To suggest that Dublin hurlers have simply been moulded to play a rigid game-plan, and to stifle the opposition, is, to coin a phrase, ‘F****** Bull****’.
As for the on-field action, heads are being scratched up and down the county. 2014 was a no-show, but this term, Dublin hurled well at times but ultimately came up short. Dublin’s first golden generation of hurlers are not good enough, and an injection of new talent is badly needed.
Conal Keaney, Johnny McCaffrey, and Joey Boland struggled badly on Sunday, and looked shadows of their former selves. Gary Maguire, an all-star two years ago, made some poor decisions. The Dubs will need four or five new players if they are to be serious contenders in 2016.
All is not lost. The u-21 panel had several top class hurlers, some of whom have not yet broken into the senior squad. Seán Treacy, Cian MacGabhann, and Paul Winters are just some of those who could really add to Ger Cunningham’s hand.
The stream of underage talent is flowing rapidly in Dublin, but there is an age-old problem which is blocking the county’s full potential.
On the Dublin football team at present, there are a host of players who would start for any hurling side in the country. Ciarán Kilkenny, Cormac Costello, Tomás Brady, Eric Lowndes, Diarmuid Connolly, Rory O’Carroll, to name but a few. This is not a recent phenomenon. The perennial thorn in the Dubs’ side has been the footballers, where many hurlers are lost to.
Granted that many of the current hurling side have opted for the small ball instead of joining Jim Gavin’s squad, but nonetheless, they need the best hurlers in the county playing hurling for the county. The ‘Fair City’ is churning out top class hurlers year after year. If Liam McCarthy is to winter by the Liffey in years to come, things need to change.
It is generally assumed that Dublin will win an All-Ireland Hurling Championship in the coming years. But this may never come to fruition. Galway, for each of the last 27 years without an All-Ireland, have been in and around third favourites to capture the big one, but have come up short on every occasion. Dublin do not want to assume the roll of the ‘nearly men’, like Galway or Waterford.
Things are bright for the small ball in the capital. Ger Cunningham’s maiden year in charge has brought promise, but more consistency is needed. Dublin have fallen asleep in too many games this year. They switched off in league ties against Cork twice, Kilkenny, Clare, and a championship game with Galway. Consistency is the key.
Looking to 2016, they are well-placed. Life in Division 1A of the league proves that. Some point out that the top tier does not necessarily hold the best teams. However, it is no coincidence that in 2015, the last six sides remaining in the All-Ireland series were the six Division 1A sides.
However, being well placed with a potent side is one thing, delivering upon that promise is another. There are obstacles, but those in and around Dublin hurling live in hope that 2016 can finally be the breakthrough year.
Brian Barry, Pundit Arena
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