Dublin hurling's brave new world comes face to face with reality
Cunningham has presided over period of change but there is little optimism about team's hopes
Ger Cunningham: nearly 20 players have left since he took over as Dublin manager. Photograph: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
For many Dublin hurling supporters this weekend’s opening championship match against Galway is viewed with the same enthusiasm and sense of resignation as troops getting ready to go over the top at the Somme – except few expect an inconclusive outcome.
The mood music around the county has been sombre and in the spring the team lost its place in Division 1A of the league.
It is 10 years since Dublin lost a first championship fixture but that’s a gap likely to be bridged against opponents that are a few weeks on from winning the league and thrashing All-Ireland champions Tipperary in the process.
Since Ger Cunningham took over as manager nearly 20 players have walked away, whether through retirement – forced and voluntary – or disinclination to remain involved.
Five of the 20 who featured against Cork in last year’s championship exit are gone, as are 15 of the 20 who played in Cunningham’s predecessor Anthony Daly’s last championship match, the All-Ireland quarter-final defeat by Tipperary in 2014.
Some left in recrimination, Michael Carton describing the atmosphere in the camp as “toxic”. Some were high profile, such as former All Stars Peter Kelly, who had also been plagued by injury, and Danny Sutcliffe, seen as the marquee loss even though his form had been poor at the time of his departure. Many were simply near the natural end of their playing careers.
Speaking in the aftermath of last November’s new panel announcement, which saw several established names cut – including 2013 Leinster winning captain Johnny McCaffrey – team captain Liam Rushe was unfazed by the controversy. “Managers pick their panels and things move on. People have different opinions on it and that’s the way it is.”
Most observers accept that the panel needed to be rejuvenated after Daly’s term, which had been the most successful for the Dublin hurlers in 70 years, but would question whether some experienced players might have been useful for mentoring the younger talents.
In the absence of Cuala’s David Treacy and with Paul Ryan no longer involved, Donal Burke, just out of minor, was the team’s primary free taker during the league. Burke did very well in some matches – including a dazzling win over Cork, which now looks even better in the light of the latter’s taking down Tipperary last week – he is still finding his way at senior level.
Former Dublin manager Michael O’Grady took time out from organising a golf classic for Friends of Dublin Hurling on Thursday to speak up for Cunningham.
“If guys don’t want to play for Dublin, they don’t want to play for Dublin. That’s the end of it. We’re talking about wearing a Dublin shirt. You’re not playing for a manager; you’re playing for your county. I think Ger’s a very good coach and he has 35 on the panel and they’re all very happy campers. They won’t be writing themselves off.
Young person’s game
“It’s a young person’s game nowadays and if you’ve eight or nine seasons on the panel that’s normally as much as the body can do. Very often older players are the last to know that it’s time to go. Twenty of his panel of 35 are 20 years or younger. Surely that’s the way to go. It’s disappointing that players who have gone for any reason would be sniping at the manager.”
Cunningham is not a confrontational individual but he isn’t regarded as a great manager and dislikes the spotlight. Although he has been a prominent coach, Dublin was the first inter-county management job he took.
Ironically in the light of what would happen, this was after a delegation of players – none of whom are still involved –approached the county board to press the case for another high-profile appointment to succeed Daly rather than an internal candidate at a time when there was speculation that Shay Boland, who had taken the county minors to two All-Ireland finals might be in contention for the senior post.
Even the one genuinely historic achievement of the year – Cuala becoming the first Dublin winners of the All-Ireland club championship – came with a price tag for the county. In Cunningham’s November panel there were eight players from the club selected (two others Colm Cronin and Seán Treacy had left earlier in the year) and so the pressure on the team in a cut-throat Division 1A was intense.
Five made themselves available in the fortnight after St Patrick’s Day for the relegation play-off against Clare, which was lost. The two who didn’t were the Schutte brothers; Paul who is still available but recovering from injury and Mark who has confirmed that he won’t be involved this year and has since turned up at a Dublin football training session.
Cunningham is due to step down at the end of the county’s championship season and for all the talent assiduously cultivated in recent years, the county board don’t expect to be inundated with applications to replace him.