Here is how it was. By the spring of 2011, Dublin had played 22 games under Anthony Daly in league and championship. Their record going into the league that February read Won 9 Lost 12 Drew 1 – and if you thought that seemed reasonable enough for who they were, you wouldn't have been alone.
The numbers weren’t terrible and they weren’t great either. Two of the league wins were against Cork and Limerick, both of whom were wading through swamps of familial strife at the time. Their only victories in the Leinster championship were against Antrim, Laois and Wexford. They’d played Kilkenny four times and lost four times. But again, this was Dublin. What did you expect?
When the odds were drawn up for the 2011 league, there was no stampede of punters looking to take the 66/1 on them. Indeed, the closing paragraph of The Irish Times league preview declared "arguably the most important battle will be at the bottom of the table, where Dublin, Wexford and Offaly will try to retain their places".
Maurice O’Brien had been on the panel a couple of seasons at that point. Transplanted from Limerick, for whom he’d played up until his mid-20s, the main differences he’d found after the move were tied up in exactly those perceptions.
"I came in from Limerick where we were in an All-Ireland final in 2007. I came to Dublin to find the hurlers were every bit as good but they didn't consider themselves contenders the way Limerick did. Limerick would always have thought they were in the hunt no matter what had happened the previous year. Whereas Dublin didn't really have that when it came to the crunch.
“That winter was the first time we had
on board. He did a lot of psychological work with us and got us into the frame of mind that we were as good as what was out there. Why shouldn’t we be able to compete? Maybe before that, we didn’t really have the belief. We definitely didn’t have the psychological work done.
“Declan had a massive impact on us straight away. The way he put it was that once you got beaten in the championship, you were going to be down in the dumps anyway so why not aim high? What’s the worst that can happen? I remember thinking that it was the first time anyone had said it, the first time anyone talked about us being contenders.”
Along with Coyle, they would add Conal Keaney and Ryan O'Dwyer as well. They drew with Waterford before beating Tipperary, Offaly and Wexford to stand top of the league unbeaten after four games. Their sole defeat came against Galway but they rounded out the group games with a late-snatched draw against Kilkenny and a one-point win in Cork on the last day. When the radio confirmed Galway had lost by a point to Waterford, it meant Dublin were into their first league final since 1946.
“Finn McGarry was the sub-goalkeeper at the time,” says Daly, “and I remember him running down along the sideline and he came over to me and went, ‘Waterford are ahead!’ It was nip and tuck between ourselves and Cork at that stage but we got the result we needed. The dressingroom afterwards in the Páirc, the buzz of it – that nearly springs to mind as much as the final itself. You were just thinking, ‘We can have a real go at this thing now.’”
That it was to be Kilkenny in the final would have shivered the timbers of plenty of young teams but Daly saw his chance. They could make the game about winning a national trophy or they could make it about playing Kilkenny – in the end, he reasoned, what would be the point of focusing on one or the other? It was going to be a big deal either way.
Daly's first game over Dublin had been a Walsh Cup match in Parnell Park in January 2009. Kilkenny came to Donnycarney with only six of the team that had dismantled Waterford in the previous September's All-Ireland and barely broke sweat in dishing out a 6-12 to 0-12 hiding.
Since then, Brian Cody’s various selections had beaten his by two, six, four and 19 points. Whichever face of the mountain he was going to go climb, Kilkenny were always going to be a pass that had to be negotiated. This was as good a chance as they’d have for a while to carve out a route that they might be able to use again in the future.
“The day of the league final, there was a great sense of freedom,” says Daly. “The boys knew that they could have a cut and they went out to do it and see where it took them. They were a bit flat on the day, Kilkenny . . . . And our lads came in very positive and relaxed.
“Our strength in the air was something that sticks out. Playing Kilkenny in matches previous to that, they cleaned us in the air. And that was the first day that I thought we found a way to get the ball. Before that day, they were always able to do it to us – sure they were always able to do it to everybody. That day, we competed in the air very strongly . . .”
Dublin started well but when Eddie Brennan nailed his usual early goal, it looked like a movie we'd seen a thousand times before. Not this time though. Dublin scored the next eight points unanswered. Paul Ryan was having a day from the gods, Keaney was unstoppable. Kilkenny had Eoin Larkin sent off before half-time and went in 0-11 to -12 behind at the break.
O'Brien had missed the whole of the league with an ankle injury but when Joey Boland went down early in the second half, Daly turned to him and said he was in. He figured they'd reconfigure the half-back line and find a spot for him there but instead Daly told him to go in at centre-forward. A position he'd never played, other than in training. Jackie Tyrrell as welcoming party. O'Brien ended up with two points against his name as Dublin prevailed by 0-22 to 1-7.
“By the end,” says O’Brien, “everything we hit went where it was supposed to. That very rarely happens. Keaney hit a crossfield ball near the end to pick out Johnny McCaffrey and everyone went on about his magical vision. But sure he didn’t even look! He just hit the ball across the field and McCaffrey was moving onto it! When things are going well for you, that kind of thing happens.
“I actually don’t think the mental block was as severe in Dublin when it came to Kilkenny as it was in other counties because they have such a good underage record against them. Like, Kilkenny beat Limerick in the 2007 final and they beat us early . . . . there probably was a mental block there for Limerick when it came to Kilkenny. I never beat them until I played for Dublin.”
In a way, the result changed Dublin’s world. Kilkenny filleted them in the Leinster final later that summer and when 2012 collapsed in on top of itself, it looked from the outside like any credit built up by winning the 2011 league had been wiped. In fact, it was a deposit that was still earning interest.
“After 2012,” says Daly, “We weren’t sure we were coming back. But when we did, we went through everything . . . And when we went through it, 2011 was crucial, absolutely crucial.
“Because without 2011, I don’t think there’d have been a 2013. Even though 2012 was crushing, it was still very fresh in our minds what we were capable of if we came at it right. And not only was it fresh for us, it was fresh for the players.”
They knew they could win when it mattered. They knew they could beat Kilkenny when it mattered.
They know it yet.