Der­mot Crowe

Bally­bo­den suc­cess the lat­est il­lus­tra­tion of how far the small-ball game has come in the cap­i­tal

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - DER­MOT CROWE

Grow­ing num­bers hurl­ing across Dublin are ev­i­dent right through the age ranks. In the last ten years player num­bers in the 8-12 age group have gone up by 95 per cent in hurl­ing.

WHAT­EVER fate awaits Bally­bo­den in Car­low to­day, club hurl­ing in Dublin has turned a sig­nif­i­cant cor­ner. For 36 years Crum­lin stood alone as the only Dublin provin­cial cham­pion, hav­ing reached the sum­mit in Athy in 1980. Two years ago Cuala matched that feat; it led to a se­ries of firsts. They be­came the first Dublin club to go on and win an All-Ire­land. The first to re­tain a provin­cial and na­tional ti­tle. The first to reach three Le­in­ster fi­nals in a row.

Cuala were an es­pe­cially gifted team, romp­ing through the provin­cial and All-Ire­land se­ries the first year. But the hard­est matches they en­coun­tered were in Dublin. When Cuala won their last two county fi­nals, Kil­macud Crokes were within a goal of them each day. This year Crokes, hugely mo­ti­vated and un­der the man­age­ment of An­thony Daly, put them out of the cham­pi­onship in the semi-fi­nals.

And Crokes, hav­ing achieved that, had to en­dure the agony of fall­ing to Bally­bo­den in the fi­nal, a match that went to a sec­ond day. Bally­bo­den haven’t breezed through to to­day’s Le­in­ster fi­nal against com­pe­ti­tion spe­cial­ists Bal­ly­hale. But they are there on merit and have shown a re­silient streak of char­ac­ter to see off fierce chal­lenges from Clonkill and Coold­erry, in both cases need­ing ex­tra-time. They also de­feated Cuala in the group stages in each of the last two sea­sons.

Most en­cour­ag­ing is that the Dublin club teams be­ing pro­duced now are fun­da­men­tally home-grown. Faughs still lead the county se­nior hurl­ing cham­pi­onship roll of hon­our by a dis­tance, but their last ti­tle win was in 1999 and over the years they were a recog­nised home-from-home for coun­try play­ers. Only in rel­a­tively re­cent times did they re­alise that this de­mo­graphic no longer guar­an­teed a plen­ti­ful sup­ply of play­ing ta­lent and that they would have to build from within. Now Faughs have an ex­cel­lent un­der­age sec­tion and are pro­duc­ing county play­ers and a se­nior side of which the vast ma­jor­ity is indige­nous.

Paudie O’Neill, the Tip­per­ary-born coach who up to re­cently chaired the Na­tional Hurl­ing Devel­op­ment Com­mit­tee and man­aged Bally­bo­den win­ning teams of the past, has seen the trans­for­ma­tion in Dublin hurl­ing over three decades.

“If you take a real long-term look at this and go back lit­er­ally 30 years, we (Bally­bo­den) con­tested a cham­pi­onship fi­nal in 1988 and I was on the team,” he says. “Four­teen of our starters that year were non-na­tives in­clud­ing my­self. If you take a longer frame look at it, what you see with our place and a lot of other clubs in Dublin is that you have had this 30-year tran­si­tion whereby — and this is an in­ter­est­ing statis­tic — we have 31 play­ers on our se­nior panel at the mo­ment and 30 of them have come through the ju­ve­nile sec­tion of our club. The only ex­cep­tion, and he has been with us for years, is Malachy Travers who played for Wex­ford. And he is very well in­te­grated. I think that is the first kind of el­e­ment I would say as re­gards look­ing at the whole pro­gres­sion.

“And I think the same has been repli­cated in many of the Dublin clubs. When I first started hurl­ing in Dublin you went out and you were meet­ing fel­las that you played against in Tip­per­ary and that has di­min­ished greatly.”

It hasn’t been easy at times. In 2000, ’04 and ’05 UCD won the Dublin se­nior hurl­ing cham­pi­onship. In ’04 they de­feated Bally­bo­den in the fi­nal, St Vin­cent’s the year after, with an as­sort­ment of in­ter-county play­ers from out­side Dublin. At a time when win­ning Dublin was the only game in town, the pres­ence of UCD led to fierce re­sis­tance from Dublin clubs, cul­mi­nat­ing in a threat of boy­cotting the county cham­pi­onship un­less the Belfield team was re­moved.

O’Neill, teach­ing in Dublin since the 1970s, was then man­ag­ing Bally­bo­den. “We just had to suck it up. You couldn’t say much about it. But look­ing back on it now, it was — I wouldn’t want to use the word trav­esty — but it was a very un­fair play­ing field when we were try­ing to win our first cham­pi­onship with a group that at that stage was home-pro­duced. Over a pe­riod of 15 years a lot of peo­ple put in a sav­age amount of work to get play­ers up to that level and then you come up against UCD, an All Star out­fit, and you just couldn’t beat them.”

UCD reached Le­in­ster fi­nals each year they won the Dublin cham­pi­onship in that decade. In 2004 they lost to James Stephens by a point, be­fore the Kilkenny side went on to win the All-Ire­land. The next year they fell again to James Stephens, this time by four points, hav­ing led by nine in the first half. None of this was of any ben­e­fit to Dublin hurl­ing. The cap­tains of seven se­nior teams, in­clud­ing Bally­bo­den, signed a pe­ti­tion seek­ing an end to UCD’s in­volve­ment, claim­ing it was stunt­ing the growth of club hurl­ing in the cap­i­tal.

The di­rec­tor of sports in UCD, Brian Mullins, strongly re­jected the charge and pointed out that in 1961 UCD won the county cham­pi­onship and Dublin still reached the All-Ire­land fi­nal. He main­tained that UCD should be a mo­ti­vat­ing fac­tor for the Dublin clubs rather an im­ped­i­ment. Ul­ti­mately, UCD with­drew, but Bally­bo­den were about to launch a pe­riod of dom­i­na­tion in any event. They won five in-a-row from 2007 al­though they were un­able to add a provin­cial ti­tle, their near­est bid com­ing at the first at­tempt, when they reached the fi­nal and lost to Birr by a point.

“We were in a Le­in­ster fi­nal against Birr back in 2007 in Tul­lam­ore, I think maybe we were a point down with ten min­utes to go play­ing with a strong breeze,” re­calls O’Neill. “I just felt at the time that was a won­der­ful op­por­tu­nity be­cause that was also the first year that we won the cham­pi­onship in Dublin. Guys were on a high. They didn’t have cu­mu­la­tive bad ex­pe­ri­ences be­hind them.

“I re­mem­ber sit­ting with a friend of mine, Paddy Cor­ri­gan, and I turned to him with about ten min­utes to go and said, ‘Paddy, we could we wait­ing a long num­ber of years to get back to this po­si­tion.’”

While Bally­bo­den, Cuala and Kil­macud Crokes have won the last 12 Dublin se­nior cham­pi­onships, St Jude’s con­tested two re­cent fi­nals and Lu­can Sars­fields an­other. Na Fianna have been threat­en­ing to re­ally chal­lenge for a se­nior ti­tle after turn­ing into a pow­er­ful un­der­age force, win­ning four of the last six mi­nor cham­pi­onships. St Vin­cent’s, fre­quently knock­ing around the busi­ness end, are not far off the mark. O’Neill cites this year’s mi­nor fi­nal be­tween Bally­bo­den and Crokes as an ex­am­ple of the ris­ing qual­ity of the hurl­ing on view. “I would say it was as high a stan­dard as you would see in any county. It was ex­cep­tional. A fi­nal score for Novem­ber of 2-21 to 2-16. An ex­cep­tion­ally high stan­dard.”

The game has spread too, with growth in ar­eas tra­di­tion­ally deemed al­most in­ac­ces­si­ble to hurl­ing. This year’s Dublin mi­nor hurl­ing team con­tained a lib­eral spread of play­ers from lower-light clubs like St Olaf ’s, Round Tow­ers Clon­dalkin and Fin­gal­lians, with a no­tice­ably low per­cent­age of starters from the tra­di­tional heavy­weights.

“There are maybe eight clubs in Dublin now in se­nior hurl­ing who are re­ally well up there,” says O’Neill. “I would at­tribute a lot of it to the fact that Dublin has put a very good games pro­gramme in place. I man­aged our club mi­nor team in 1994-’96, we won three mi­nor ti­tles in suc­ces­sion. That time you prob­a­bly only got seven or eight games a year, you had to go chas­ing games, go down the coun­try or what­ever. Our mi­nor teams, both in hurl­ing and foot­ball, were in the mi­nor cham­pi­onship fi­nals in the last cou­ple of weeks. They had a pro­gramme where in hurl­ing and in foot­ball each will get 14 games. That’s a re­ally good games pro­gramme. And most who play in Dublin are dual, they might make their choices after mi­nor. So that has been a big im­pact as well.

“Devel­op­ment squads have also played a role in Dublin in ex­pos­ing guys to good prac­tice. Dublin have the ad­van­tage as well in that over­whelm­ingly all their play­ers are based at home.”

Bo­den’s mi­nor win in 1994 was their first mi­nor A cham­pi­onship win and spawned a run of suc­cess at the grade in sub­se­quent years. “It’s funny, go­ing back, in 1996 I man­aged the Dublin mi­nor team,” says O’Neill, “we went to a Le­in­ster fi­nal, I’d say we only had five clubs re­ally sig­nif­i­cantly rep­re­sented. In terms of hurl­ing devel­op­ment you look at Dublin mi­nor teams in the last few years where you are pulling in play­ers from north county Dublin, from clubs that would be un­heard of. But I think that is go­ing back to the games pro­grammes, more and more clubs are play­ing hurl­ing be­cause they are get­ting games.

“But in terms of the over­all devel­op­ment of hurl­ing in Dublin there has been a lot done in terms of up­skilling coaches. And what I would find about Dublin coaches, I am giv­ing a course tonight, I think there is an open­ness to learn­ing in Dublin. A grow­ing mind­set. An open­ness to new ideas.”

The more open-minded tend to pros­per. “For ex­am­ple in our club,” says O’Neill, “25-30 years ago, when we were start­ing ju­ve­nile hurl­ing and even up to about seven or eight years ago young lads had to choose be­tween hurl­ing and foot­ball. Now most clubs work a model in their nurs­ery whereby they will do 40 min­utes hurl­ing and 40 min­utes foot­ball. That meant that it broad­ened the base. And again go­ing back to my ex­pe­ri­ence in the mid-’90s the to­tal num­ber of mi­nor hurlers, 17-18-year olds, in Dublin at that stage would not have ex­ceeded maybe 300. What has been done over the years is that crit­i­cal mass is now be­ing de­vel­oped.

“Within clubs where you have for­ward-think­ing peo­ple they re­alise that a proper games pro­gramme, with hurl­ing and foot­ball, will keep boys in­volved longer and it is right to give them ex­po­sure to both. We had to over­come a fair bit of re­sis­tance, back in time in our own club, but after a while peo­ple re­alised, hey lis­ten, play both, it’ll all add to the thing.”

Grow­ing num­bers hurl­ing are ev­i­dent right through the age ranks. In the last ten years player num­bers in the 8-12 age group have gone up by 95 per cent in hurl­ing. The im­pli­ca­tions for the county team of a healthy feed­ing sys­tem of or­gan­i­cally pro­duced play­ers, with con­stantly im­prov­ing stan­dards, bodes well for the county side.

“I was at the Dublin games this year,” says O’Neill, “they were within a hair’s breath of beat­ing Kilkenny. They were lead­ing Wex­ford I think at the end of nor­mal time. They beat Of­faly. And they were ok against Gal­way even though I know it was a dead-rub­ber. The fact that the club hurl­ing is at a high level is ab­so­lutely go­ing to help it. Now there’s no guar­an­tees as you know, but they are not far off.”

I think there is an open­ness to learn­ing in Dublin. A grow­ing mind­set.

Photo: Sam Barnes

Bally­bo­den St Enda’s man­ager Joe For­tune cel­e­brates with Conal Keaney fol­low­ing their Le­in­ster Hurl­ing Se­nior Club Cham­pi­onship semi-fi­nal vic­tory against Coold­erry.

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