Dublin putting the building blocks in place for the summer
Mattie Kenny will be pleased by his side’s solid progress to the league semi-final
Dublin’s Oisín O’Rorke in action against Tipperary’s James Barry. The Dublin forward has been a revelation during the league. Photograph: Tom O’Hanlon/Inpho
It got lost in the undergrowth by the end of the year, buried beneath the thousand roots and branches and straws in the wind that made up Dublin’s eventual summer.
Having given Kilkenny, Wexford and Galway their fill of it in the championship, nobody had time or reason to remember the league quarter-final against Tipperary in Croke Park. Given that Pat Gilroy’s side lost by 11 points in front of a quarter-full stadium, there was no reason to.
Nothing is wasted, though. Only reproduced. For the opening quarter-hour of that game 12 months ago, Dublin played their best hurling of the year, a spell to rank up there with anything produced by anyone else in 2018. They led by 0-10 to 0-2 after just 12 minutes, with Danny Sutcliffe, Fiontán McGibb and Paul Winters in plunder mode.
The fact they were reeled in and passed with comparative ease once Tipp shook themselves ultimately told them how far they had to go. But equally, the fact that they were able to storm the barricades with such ready vigour and destruction had to give them a sense of what could be achieved once they got there.
So maybe it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise when they led from pillar to post against Tipperary in Thurles last weekend. Okay, they hadn’t beaten Tipp on home soil since 1946 but if they were going to do it, maybe these were be perfect conditions. Undervalued and under-fancied, not taken seriously until it was too late.
Under Mattie Kenny, Dublin had quietly been having as impressive a league as anybody. Because it’s a year with no relegation or promotion, it went generally unnoticed that they finished top of Division 1B. For each of the previous four years, the team in that position went on and won their quarter-final, each time as underdogs. But it was Dublin playing Tipp in Thurles so everyone just assumed it wouldn’t happen again.
Peter Kelly got married Friday week ago and while ploughing on through the second day of celebrations, he and some of the other old soldiers from his time with Dublin were keeping tabs on things via Twitter. The battle wounds have sealed over by now but you don’t forget these things. Not even as the finest of times roll around you.
“Johnny McCaffrey was at the wedding and we were just chatting about the times we got hidings down there. Even the league semi-final down there in 2013, we got a right hammering by 15 or 16 points I remember. It was never a good place for us to go.
I wasn't so surprised by the Waterford win because traditionally, Parnell has always been a horrible place to go for any team
“But you go through this team, a lot of them are young enough that they don’t have those bad memories of going to these different venues and getting beaten. They seem to be just going down there with confidence and knowing that it’s just another pitch. That’s a brilliant thing, you want that in a new era – just that air that they don’t fear anybody.
“The biggest surprise was that Tipperary’s best performance of the league came the previous week against Cork. They looked to be getting into their stride but then they unravelled the week after. Dublin beat them by being ahead the whole way through and even with Danny [Sutcliffe] getting sent off. So it was somewhat comfortable really.”
Kelly was Dublin’s full-back for their last two league semi-finals, back in 2015 and 2013. Though the first one ended in that thumping by Tipperary, they only lost out by a single point in an epic against Cork four years ago.
Both years, their strong league campaigns were underpinned by a spotless record in Parnell Park. As it was again this time around, including a rip-roaring 1-26 to 4-15 win over Waterford last month. So it was, so it ought to be, so it has to be.
“I wasn’t so surprised by the Waterford win,” says Kelly. “Because traditionally, Parnell has always been a horrible place to go for any team. I’m never surprised when Dublin get a victory against any team in Parnell.”
It’s been a typically shrewd and piecemeal first campaign for Kenny, building on the groundwork laid by Gilroy last year. He has used 30 players so far, with Conal Keaney and Mark Schutte still to return. With the exception of some experimentation in the win over Laois, the spine of the team has been virtually unchanged throughout.
Alan Nolan is the nailed-down goalkeeper and despite Waterford putting four past him that day in Parnell, his last-minute penalty save won the match for them. Eoghan O’Donnell and Seán Moran are the foundation stones of the defence at full-back and centre-back, with Chris Crummey and Paddy Smyth fixtures at wing-back and corner-back.
Darragh O’Connell has returned under Kenny and Rian McBride has become a mainstay around midfield, with Sutcliffe, Eamonn Dillon and Oisín O’Rorke the key forwards. Top scorer O’Rorke has been a particular revelation, an overnight success after five seasons on the fringes of the panel.
“Oisín was around in my time,” says Kelly. “He was somebody you would fear as a defender if you were going over to mark him on a hot day on hard ground. He’d run you ragged in the right conditions. The problem for him back then was that he’s nearly an identical player to Dotsy O’Callaghan and, in all honesty, there’s really only room for one of those small, quick, turn-on-a-sixpence forwards in any team these days.
“Dotsy was that player in our team and Oisín was sort of waiting his turn. But if you watch him in this league, he’s going and expressing himself with total freedom. He’s being his own player rather than having it in his head that he could never be a part of the team as long as Dotsy was there.
“That bit of breathing room means he can be the player he is, getting in and around the play, being lightning on the ball and hard to catch. When the summer comes, he could do a heap of damage. He’s getting confidence at the right time in the year. He kind of has his jersey for the summer now and he’ll be looking to hold onto it and really nail it down.”
Whatever happens against Limerick tomorrow, the league has done what Dublin and Kenny needed it to. The basic bone structure of their championship team is established now and there are some big beasts in and around the place to add heft when needed.
They will go into the Leinster Championship confident of beating Carlow, relishing a trip to Nowlan Park and delighted to be bringing Wexford and Galway to Parnell Park. That’s plenty to be taking out of the league.
“They have options now,” says Kelly.
“If Eoghan O’Donnell gets hurt, Cian O’Callaghan can slip in. If Seán Moran is out, Chris Crummey can move across one. Up front, Conal Keaney and Mark Schutte still haven’t played yet. Liam Rushe has been in and out. The competition for places in the summer is going to be huge and that’s the one thing they need. Look around the teams they’re going to be playing and depth is something they have. They’ve been light on that in other years.”