The coach in Dublin who excels for Laois


ONE DAY recently Eamonn Cregan walked on to a hurling field in Marino, the heartbeat of the GAA in Dublin. Seventy or so sets of inquisitive, Bambi like eyes studied him, this legend of sorts: a man who scored 2-7 for Limerick in an All Ireland final and still ended up on the losing side.

None of the wide eyed kids had seen him play. They weren't even born in 1980 when Cregan scored so frequently he was singlehandedly responsible for leaving the Croke Park scoreboard operator with aching limbs.

But they had been told. Just like the times when Babs Keating and Joe Dooley, or Conal Bonnar and Nicky English and others, visited the Dublin Hurling School of Excellence, the course coaches had informed the young city slickers of the deeds of these sporting heroes. Shown them pictures. Told them stories.

When Cregan, former Limerick star, current Offaly manager, took a sliotar and proceeded to bounce it on the heel of the hurley, the young Dubs thought he was a magician. The David Copperfield of hurling. But they went home that night and tried to do the same.

So did one of the coaches, Niamh Leahy, a member of the Kildare junior camogie team. "I managed to do 38, eventually," she says, proudly. The fun side of hurling is being instilled into young minds. A sense of challenge.

When one lad asked Babs Keating why they wrapped tape around a burley, he told them there was no reason. Mere decoration. The next day the aspiring hurlers arrived en bloc with the tape stripped from their sticks. Copycats, imitating heroes. Hurling heroes.

Hurling is enjoying something of a renaissance throughout the land. In the nation's capital, though, it requires extra help. It is 58 long years since the Dubs last won the Liam McCarthy Cup, 35 years since the Leinster title was lifted.

Tomorrow, Dublin are very much the underdogs in their Leinster semi final encounter with Wexford at Croke Park. The second match sees Laois take on defending champions Offaly. Ironically, one of the Laois players is the man on whom the future of Dublin hurling depends, to a great extent.

Cyril Duggan is a Leinster coaching director, with special responsibility for Dublin. His mobile telephone rings constantly. A man in demand. A man of ideas. The Laois defender has brought a professional approach to the city in his quest to rekindle hurling dreams. Walkie talkies. Clipboards. Water bottles. Portable goals. And so on. Synchronised coaching to help the creme de la creme of Dublin's young hurling talent take on and, eventually, beat their country cousins.

Duggan is a pioneer. The Dublin Hurling School of Excellence is a pilot project - "A baby, but one which means a lot to all of us, according to fellow coach Josephine Rogers - something which in time could be extended to other regions. Croke Park, the Leinster Council and the Dublin County Board have all thrown their respective weights behind the scheme, which sees venues at St Vincent's, in Marino, on Dublin's northside, and Ballyboden, St Enda's, on the southside, become the magnet for the best 13 and 14 year olds from around the city to learn to improve their skills. The best will be gathered into elite training squads in the autumn.

"This is the future," says Duggan, matter of factly. It is certainly impressive. The crackle of walkie talkies fills the north Dublin air. In the far corner of the field, behind Aras Naomh Uinsionn, Vinny Murphy commands one station, putting young dreamers through their paces.

There are five stations in all, each with its own coach. The emphasis is on skills, and ground hurling. And discipline. Each coach liaises with the others regularly. The Motorola handpieces are mighty useful.

Aside from the intensive stick work regime, the young players attend a lecture each afternoon. The perils of smoking and alcohol abuse are related to the teenagers, along with guidelines on diet and nutrition, sports injuries, fitness, team management and sportsmanship.

It is all a far cry from the old days. Duggan himself is a product of a different system. Times are changing, though. "There definitely wasn't as much coaching in my time," he admits. "However, we were out playing hurling all the time. I remember we won two national Feile na nGael titles in a Portlaoise team that included myself, Niall Rigney and Paul Bergin. So, I suppose, it shows you lads do come through. But the Feile was really all we had. Nowadays children have so many different outlets."

Back then, Brother Somers had a huge influence on developing Laois underage hurling. Just like many other religious and teachers around the country. Such an influence is diminishing.

"That is a fact of life," says Duggan. "Not as many teachers are involved as was the case in the past. But the GAA, in fairness, has recognised the problem. I'm sure people are not generally aware that there are now 30 full time coaches in Leinster, 11 in Dublin alone. The GAA has taken the bull by the horns."

Dublin's lack of success at intercounty level is deceptive. The city is by no means a hurling wasteland. Even Duggan shakes his head and wonders why hurling silverware doesn't find a home in the city. "I watched an under 14 club final a couple of weeks ago and, I'll tell you, the standard was as good as you'd see anywhere. Great skills. Great heart," he says.

"And I don't agree that tradition is a factor. Not really. The numbers are here in Dublin to make the county a force. It is a matter of harnessing it and I think the development plan, which is in place, will be responsible for helping many of these elite young hurlers to progress.

"The main difference between Dublin and other hurling counties is that there are elite systems in built in other places," he says. "Take Kilkenny. You have St Kieran's College. I mean, any young hurler who shows promise is sent to Kieran's. The same with Good Counsel and St Peter's in Wexford. In Offaly you had Birr Community School, a tremendous nursery. But there is no hurling school, as such, in Dublin. That is why this School of Excellence is important."

Duggan hails from a "dual" club, where hurling and football are treated equally. In Dublin, though, the dual player problem is something which has hampered hurling. Too often, the promising hurler ends up concentrating on football. A mere 50 yards away from Duggan is a perfect example, Vinny Murphy imparting his hurling skills to a young army who know of him as a footballer.

"The plan is for Dublin's top young players to play against top country teams, and we should ultimately see progress. Let's say they lose by 10 points at under 14. By the time they are under 16, the margin should be down to five. By the time they are minors, they should be competing as equals. Hopefully."

These are dreams for young Dubs. But Duggan entertains dreams of his own, starting with tomorrow's match with neighbours Offaly.

As the corner back prepares to trot out onto the Croke Park sod tomorrow, it is ironic in a way that the arrival of Babs Keating as Laois hurling manager reflects, in a way, his own arrival on the Dublin coaching scene. There is a noticeable buzz, a belief that things are happening.

"All we are looking for is a performance against Offaly. We don't want to let ourselves down," says Duggan. "Babs has definitely added some spice. But it is even more than that. There were never less than 20 players at training, which is a change from last year, when sometimes we only had 10 or 12. But if guys don't turn up at training now, questions are asked. And that's as it should be."

Laois have already gloried in the role of giant killers once this season, beating Kilkenny in the National League quarter final. "That was probably put into perspective somewhat by their defeat in the championship," suggests Duggan. "But if we can improve on our League semi final defeat to Tipperary, we will be doing well."

Yet, underneath it all, there is the feeling that Laois are enjoying the softly, softly approach. The underdogs tag suits nicely. And Duggan, for one, will have some extra support in Croke Park in the sound of young voices from the School of Excellence who, normally, would only cheer for Dublin. But, on this occasion, they'll make an exception to the rule.