Jackie Tyrrell: Dublin miles away from winning Leinster title
Thorny questions and negativity surround Dublin ahead of the Kilkenny opener
Dublin manager Pat Gilroy and coach Anthony Cunningham. What’s the dynamic there? Is Cunningham calling the shots during a game or is the manager? Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
Going into the championship no team has more question marks hanging over them than Dublin. At the start of the week you would have been hard pushed to name any more than maybe 10 of their team for Sunday’s game against Kilkenny. Whatever 15 Pat Gilroy puts out, it will be their first time playing together. That’s not ideal when you’re starting your championship, regardless of the opposition.
The questions aren’t just about personnel. What sort of shape are they going to play? How are they going to link up from one line to the next? How does it work during games on the sideline? What influence does Anthony Cunningham have once the whistle goes? They are working these things out as they go.
You look at the Dublin team now, and what you see is a squad that was mismanaged in the years after Anthony Daly left. The result is that there’s a load of young lads on the panel and a group of older players who have come back in, and a massive gap in between them. I heard Conal Keaney talking recently about how they believe they can win Leinster. To me they’re a million miles away from that.
Gilroy has been left with a massive task, having to forge some level of unity and cohesion in a group that has been surrounded by negativity for a few years now. He obviously set out from the start to offer everybody a clean slate, but you have to wonder was he nearly too generous in giving so many lads a chance at making the panel, especially some of the older lads who were clearly at the end of their careers. That looks like desperation to me.
The downside of trying out that many players is that you reach this point of the year still searching for your team. Kilkenny tried out a fair few in their league too, but by the time they got to the final you had lads nailing down their place. They have a few big names to slot back in, but they know where they’re going. I don’t think you can say that about Dublin.
On a high
Kilkenny also have the advantage of ending their league on a high. Dublin’s league fizzled out with a desperate performance after a great start against Tipperary. The way they were reeled in that day made them look like a team with no leaders and no confidence.
The worst of it was the Tipp didn’t need to do all that much to catch them despite Dublin blitzing them in the opening stages. They just had to tip away and Dublin lay down and let them.
The sense I got from Dublin that day was that they didn’t believe they deserved to be at this level. It was as if they got a glimpse of it and thought, ‘oh no, this is Tipperary’s place in the world. We don’t belong here.’ If you get a start like that in a game you need to use it as a springboard. Kick on and take encouragement, put the game out of reach. Dublin looked to me to be a team that was waiting to get caught.
This didn’t happen overnight. The Ger Cunningham era was clearly a disaster. The only positive I can see out of it is that he did bring in so many young lads. They’ve had a couple of seasons of trying to get used to senior intercounty hurling, they have a good bit of experience now. But it’s hard on them too having to take on so much responsibility and at a young age.
Can anyone really predict what Dublin are going to bring to this championship?
In the Daly years, any time we played Dublin we knew they’d have something up their sleeve. We felt we would have a bit of an edge when it came to pure hurling ability, but we knew they’d have a plan for us. And that Daly would be bouncing up and down on the sideline forcing them to drive on and fully commit to their game plan.
They had such unity. I always remember a vivid image that stuck with me in 2013 after we played them; Dotsy O’Callaghan ran and jumped into Daly’s arms as if he was a long-lost kid who hadn’t seen his father in years. You could see that these guys had a serious bond. You looked at them, and you knew you wouldn’t break them with a couple of early goals. They were going to keep fighting for each other, keep pushing each other.
They aped the Kilkenny model in a way. They brought so much intensity and physicality. They took a few risks here and there as well. They beat us in a league final and won Leinster in 2013, and they were a serious team with a clear game plan.
In this year’s league Dublin adopted a sweeper system for a while, kind of out of nowhere. It looked from the outside like they decided after taking a few beatings that they would be better off sticking in a sweeper. Then they seemed to move away from that again. You couldn’t say for sure what way they will line up this Sunday.
The biggest shame in all this is that there’s no doubt Dublin have the hurlers. The work that has been done over the past decade and a half has been phenomenal. When I was playing schools hurling with St Kieran’s College we came up against a Dublin colleges selection. Now they’re Dublin North and Dublin South. On the club scene, Cuala are back-to-back All-Ireland champions. There’s no shortage of hurlers.
By all accounts only four of the Cuala lads have come into the Dublin panel. I know Con O’Callaghan and Mark Schutte have gone in with the footballers and Paul Schutte is injured, but surely the likes of Oisin Gough and Colm Cronin could be in there fighting for a place. It’s not a great sign when those lads and Darragh O’Connell are not in the panel for whatever reason.
Gilroy’s first task will be to build a spirit and a unity. If they lose to Kilkenny but there’s evidence of that then they might be on the right road. But if it’s like the Tipperary game – if they just roll over as soon as the heat is turned up – then they’re in big trouble.
Because what that will tell us is that they’re not going to have the fight and togetherness to overcome their other shortcomings.
In the background you have to wonder what sort of pressure is on Anthony Cunningham as the hurling man in the Dublin set-up. In this day and age, is one hurling man on a management team enough?
My instinct would be that it isn’t. I’m not saying hurling people have all the answers – Michael Dempsey is a football man and he’s a vital part of the Kilkenny set-up. But everyone around him is a hurling man, whereas Gilroy and Mickey Whelan are football men alongside Cunningham.
I’ve met Anthony Cunningham a good few times, and he has a very shrewd hurling brain. He has gone from being the main man at the helm of Galway to being part of a coaching set-up with Dublin. But what’s the dynamic there? Is he calling the shots during a game or is the manager? Is it up to him to spot everything that is going on, and then communicating it up the chain? Has he a veto over switches and that kind of thing? There are just so many questions.
Pitch is tight
Dublin do have one major thing going for them this weekend – Parnell Park is a very tough place to go no matter what state Dublin are in. The pitch is tight, and the atmosphere can be intimidating. They’ll be chomping at the bit for the team to get stuck into Kilkenny. Especially in the first game of the championship, that gives them a chance.
But I would fear for them if they don’t find something to take out of Sunday. Their biggest game this summer is a few weeks down the line against Offaly. It’s worth saying at the outset that I don’t think it’s right that a Leinster team gets automatically relegated while the bottom team in Munster gets the second chance of a play-off. Any bit of common sense would tell you it should be one rule for both provinces, and that’s something that needs to be changed at the end of this year.
However, Dublin have to play what’s in front of them now. And Offaly too. There’s a high likelihood that the bottom spot in the Leinster table will go to whoever loses between those two teams at Parnell Park on June 3rd. Ideally, both sides would love to pick up points here and there before that game, but realistically it’s hard to see where they will come from.
For Dublin to have any chance they need to find some leadership, some structure and some unity. The few positives they’ve had this year have come from Danny Sutcliffe and Chris Crummy – you’ve seen both of them standing up at different times, both of them getting involved in physical battles and showing their teeth a bit. But you need it from more than two lads in a squad. They shouldn't stand out like sore thumbs.
I really hope I’m wrong about all this, and that the Dublin team that shows up on Sunday is a different entity to the one that was finding its feet in the league.
But we can only go on the evidence of what we’ve seen so far this year, and at the minute all I see when it comes to Dublin is negativity, questions and a lack of cohesion.