Danny Sutcliffe back to his best and leading Dublin by example

Former All Star revelling in captain’s role as Kenny’s side reach first Leinster final since 2014

With the clock just having turned the hour in Dublin's league match against Laois back in May, Danny Sutcliffe was back on his own 20-metre line, rifling for ball, hunting for work.

Dublin were four points ahead at the time, a watery sort of margin given their superiority in the game. Laois had stayed in touch with a goal just before the water break and the game was in a kind of stasis period where the next score would do a lot to draw the map for the journey home.

Sutcliffe sniped in and emerged with the ball, immediately whipping a stick pass that split the apple on Dónal Burke’s head from 50 metres. Burke turned and nailed his point from distance.

Three minutes later, Sutcliffe made a 40-metre run back to win dirty ball in midfield and turned to find Burke on-hand again – same combination, identical outcome. Two interventions when it mattered, two points that allowed Dublin to freewheel home.


Only a league game, yes. Only Laois, yes. But given that Dublin had lost their opener against Kilkenny already, it was a timely demonstration of leadership from the Dublin captain. It was also, as plenty of Dublin followers have pointed out, the kind of thing Sutcliffe wouldn’t always have been known for.

“Danny always tracked back from wing forward,” says one former team-mate. “He was always very good to come back and maybe bring an opposition wing back with him so as to leave a bit of space down that side.

“But if he got the ball, more often than not he would just set off on a solo run with it. It got to the point where a lot of us would just stop running once he got possession. Because you knew that the one thing he had in his mind was to go on a solo run and have a shot.

“You watch him now – and especially since he has been made captain – and he seems to be taking the right option so much more of the time. He has matured a lot. You can really see it in his play. He looks to find the man and tries to bring the others into it.”

So far in Dublin's quietly surprising run through Leinster, Sutcliffe's form has been one of their mainstays. In the opening half against Antrim, they established dominance through Sutcliffe's link-ups with Alan Nolan under the Dublin puck-out. When Galway threatened to find a way back into the semi-final through Conor Whelan's goal in the 43rd minute, it was Sutcliffe who popped up with the next point.

Indeed, that score was another case of supreme timing from the Dublin captain. Whelan's goal had left just two between the sides and there followed a period of scruffy shooting at both ends. Whelan and Joe Canning missed bad ones for Galway, Riain McBride made a hames of a two-on-one for Dublin.

Fervent hopes

It was all getting very sloppy until Sutcliffe demanded a pass from Burke out on the right and seeing that Canning of all people was his closest marker, proceeded to scythe inside him and nail his second of the day. It was the settler Dublin needed and when Chris Crummey buried their goal a few minutes later, Galway were toast.

As Dublin arrive at their first Leinster final since 2014, it’s probably no great surprise that Sutcliffe is at the centre of everything good about them. Since he arrived fully-formed as a 19-year-old in 2011, he has been the forward upon whom their most fervent hopes have rested.

In the past 30 years of the hurling All Stars, Dublin have the same number of forwards who have picked up statues as Down. Sutcliffe’s nod in 2013 makes him the only Dublin forward to win one since 1991 (and a shiny penny to anyone who correctly shouted Gerard McGrattan’s name as the Down wing forward named on the 1992 team).

Though Conal Keaney was well within his rights a couple of weeks back to rail against Donal Óg Cusack's indictment of Dublin forwards going back the years, those numbers are pretty unsparing.

And Keaney knows better than anyone how these things are judged. Dublin have had plenty of good forwards – Keaney himself chief among them. But if you don’t win the big ones, you’re easy to ignore. You are who you are until you change who you are.

“Until you win something, people don’t rate you,” Keaney told The Irish Times a while back.

“People don’t care about Dublin, to be honest. The most annoying thing is, people would love to see the Dublin hurlers win something but they hate to see the Dublin footballers do it. Because the hurlers don’t win anything. We want to get to that stage where people don’t want to see the hurlers win.

“You get sick of these taps on the back and people saying you’re doing well. You have to keep producing. You have to take it on the chin. Until you win something, you can’t have much of an argument back. But there’s all this bullshit about Dublin – we don’t have wrists, manufactured hurlers, all that stuff. Until you win, you can’t go back and say anything.”

Sutcliffe was 21 when he won his All Star but the shoot-the-lights-out Dublin career everyone had him down for after it quickly faded from view. Teams got wise to his run-run-shoot style in 2014 and when Ger Cunningham took over from Anthony Daly in 2015, there was an almost immediate disconnect between Sutcliffe and the new management.

He played through the 2015 season under Cunningham but was increasingly unhappy and unproductive. He played well in defeat against Waterford in round two of the qualifiers but it was his first decent showing of the summer. By mid-winter, he had dropped off the panel.

Some dismay

At the time, Sutcliffe’s decision to leave was the source of some dismay among the team-mates he left behind. Plenty of them reasoned that if they were prepared to put up with the new man – however little they felt he was bringing – it was nearly a dereliction of duty for Sutcliffe to absent himself. Just because they understood why he was leaving, it didn’t mean they agreed that he was doing the right thing.

“Danny is a great lad but there was a part of him in those days that was all about Danny,” says a member of that Dublin panel. “He suited himself and that didn’t suit Ger. He and Ger didn’t get on, everyone knows that. But in fairness to him, when he left, he didn’t go bad-mouthing Ger around the place. He just f**ked off and let that be that.

“The thing with Danny was that he had been hurling, hurling, hurling since he was at school. He was in with us straight out of minor. He didn’t play the league in 2011 but he was in with us for championship once he was done with the Leaving Cert. So all his mates from school did their stint going travelling, having a laugh and whatever but Danny never had that.

“So it wasn’t any big surprise that he got out when things weren’t going well with Ger. He needed to step away, to be honest about it. He needed to get out and see a bit of the world and just do something that wasn’t hurling.”

Sutcliffe has always maintained that it wouldn’t have mattered whether he got on with the Dublin management at the time or not. He had planned for an extended trip to the US in his mid-20s and Dublin hurling wasn’t going to keep him from doing it.

“I was going regardless,” he said a couple of years later. “I do everything on my own terms. Whether I was going well or the team were going well or if I was playing poorly. You only have one go at it. So I made my mind up going into college that I’d take [a break]. At the end of the day people forget in Ireland hurling is a hobby. You can’t let that dictate your plans or your career. I was going regardless on my own terms.”

He missed the whole of the 2016 and 2017 seasons, albeit that he did turn out for the New York footballers while he was over there. When Pat Gilroy took over Dublin in 2018, he wasn't rushing to join back up. Had his visa been extended in New York, he would almost certainly have stayed for another year. But the Trump administration was cracking down on immigration at the time and Sutcliffe had to come home. Gilroy brought him back in.

He did well for his new manager and when Gilroy moved on, he did even better for Mattie Kenny. On good days he was good – a terrific four-point haul in Nowlan Park in 2019 stands out. On bad days, he was generally pretty good as well – during the Laois disaster that summer he stood out as one of the few Dublin players who didn't malfunction.

When Kenny made him captain the following winter, it's fair to say he wasn't the most obvious candidate. Goalkeeper Alan Nolan had been around since the mid-2000s. Liam Rushe and Chris Crummey were obvious on-field generals. Eoghan O'Donnell was quietly assuming officership over the rest of his defence.

Natural choice

Any of them would have been a natural choice for the gig. Whereas Sutcliffe had generally been considered, in the words of one ex team-mate as: “A lad who sometimes said stuff to be seen to be saying stuff”.

And yet, here he is and here they are. Nobody had them down as Leinster final candidates – any upsets predicted for Leinster this year had Dublin on the other side of one in the Antrim game. But in the roll-call of players who have stood up and carried them through that game and the Galway one, Sutcliffe has been at the head of affairs both times.

Away back in another life, it was his eye-catching displays against Kilkenny that announced him to the world in 2013. If he can pull off something similar tonight, he could very well end the evening belting out a speech on the steps of the Hogan Stand. It hasn’t been the most linear process, granted.

Once he has a microphone in his hand, however, the roundabout route won’t matter a damn.