There I was of a Saturday evening. While idling around the house, I decided to turn on twitter to take a look at the National Hurling league results for the evening. Glancing at the screen I didn’t at first fully capture the significance of what I saw before me, but focusing in I saw the figures in sharp print. Tipperary 1-24 Dublin 1-8. In the first round of the league, Tipperary had not only beat the Dubs at home, they had dished out a proper hammering.
If you were a Dublin hurling fan, the news must have been seriously deflating, if not entirely surprising. Now evidently, losing to Tipperary, the current All-Ireland champions, in the first round of the national league isn’t necessarily a disaster. On their day, Tipperary can wipe the floor with any team. Most notably, they did so in the All-Ireland final against Kilkenny last year. There’s also the fact that Dublin were missing some of their finest hurlers in the shape of Cuala’s triumphant club contingent, and had a seriously young side on display featuring 3 players fresh out of minor. So, while it’s no disgrace, necessarily, to lose to Tipperary in February, the scale of defeat must have caused a few raised eyebrows.
Ever since the late 90’s, there has been a concerted effort to improve the standing of hurling in the capital. Given the size of the place, it’s inarguable they should be one of the country’s leading sides. Such work didn’t bear fruit for a number of years, but when Anthony Daly arrived as inter-county manager in late 2008, something changed. His tenure as Dublin manager wasn’t entirely successful, consisting, as it did, of 3 years of progress (2009, 2011, 2013) followed by 3 of stagnation (2010, 2012, 2014). But at the very least there was advancement. From a situation where the county had not reached a Leinster finalin 18 years, they won their first provincial title in 52 years and their first National League in over 70.
Given those honours, when it was decided in late 2014 that Daly would step down as manager, there was a palpable disappointment in the air. It had been an admirable attempt, but after 6 years at the helm, Daly had won no All-Ireland and, at that stage, no longer looked like winning one. So when it was decided that the management set up was going to be changed you felt that maybe a big name, with new ideas and a fresh voice, would rejuvenate the dressing room. And what they got was Ger Cunningham.
2 and a bit years into his tenure, you’d be tempted to say things haven’t gone entirely to plan. Cunningham followed up a moderate opening year, with a stinker of a second. Admittedly in 2015 the side scraped through to an All-Ireland quarter final, where they were beaten by a resurgent Waterford. That season may have been deemed a pass grade. The following one though merited far less.
You may say that, given the fact Dublin were drawn away against Cork in the qualifiers last year after being easily swatted aside by Kilkenny in the Leinster Championship, they were dealt a difficult hand. Considering though, that Cork were beaten by Wexford in the following round of the qualifiers, who Dublin had already hammered by 13 points in the Leinster Championship, it suggests they weren’t the greatest force. Despite being away, it was a game Dublin could, and should have won. If they had, another All-Ireland quarter final place was attainable and you could have argued some sort of progress was being made. As it was though, the season ended on a distinctly underwhelming note.
But it’s not just the results that have caused questions to be posed about Cunninghams’s tenure. There is also the very real question of the Danny Sutcliffe situation. One of the best young hurlers in the country, never mind Dublin, has notably been marked absent from the panel for the past 2 seasons.
Now you could argue that in both years Sutcliffe had a justifiable reason for opting out. In 2016 he said he wanted to concentrate on his studies. Nothing wrong with that. Being a senior inter-county hurler is a massive commitment, and can definitely affect other priorities in one’s life. This year Sutcliffe has chosen not to play as he wants to take the year off to go travelling. Again, for such a young lad, you would be loath to criticize him. Sure, he wants to go off and travel the world as anyone would. Joe Canning did something similar in his first year out of minor.
Then again, if we are to be pernicious, there’s another way of viewing the situation. Namely, would another ambitious county have allowed their most promising youngster and an All-Star from 2013 to leave? Well, I sincerely doubt if Sutcliffe were from Tipperary or Kilkenny, he’d have taken 2 years out. There’s also the fact that even last year, where he was nominally out of the inter-county set up, he was still involved in the county’s under 21 backroom team and was hurling for his club St Judes. So it’s not as if he didn’t make time for hurling last year. It was just the idea of the Dublin senior panel wasn’t appealing enough.
The notion that the decision for Sutcliffe not to play this year was purely a lifestyle one was called into question by Conal Keaney in a recent RTE Interview where he remarked “I know he was thinking of really trying to get back involved last year, but I think personalities really came into it and they [Cunningham and Sutcliffe] just clashed” http://www.punditarena.com/
Then again, it’s not only Sutcliffe who has been a notable absentee from the Dublin panel of late. Over the past couple of years they’ve lost the likes of Peter Kelly, Joey Boland, John McCaffrey, Paul Ryan, Niall Corcoran for various reasons, not to mention Keaney himself. The side that played on Saturday night was unrecognizable from the one that won the Leinster title 4 years prior. Now all those cases are different and, given the age profile and desire for squad regeneration, you could argue there were valid reasons for their departure. But the replacement of experience with youth has not been a seamless transition.
Another man to depart, Michael Carton, gave a revelatory interview last year where he declared the atmosphere in the squad to be toxic http://www.the42.ie/michael-
Last week’s result casts a further cloud over Cunningham’s work. Sure, you could say it’s only the League. Maybe the squad just need extra time to train and gel, and there’s nothing to suggest that anything will happen to the manager in the springtime. But from being the champions of Leinster in 2013, they’re now in a situation where they are at least the third, if not fourth best side in the province, behind a resurgent Wexford. And it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.
In fairness, Inter-county management is a massively difficult job. One would never argue otherwise. Ger Cunningham was an excellent hurler and has had an admirable coaching career. But his first steps into inter-county management have been lukewarm to say the least. After Anthony Daly left, Dublin chose to go for an unproven inter-county manager over one with experience. He took on a difficult job, and 3 years down the road, you couldn’t really say things are getting easier for him.
Maybe in 2014, when the Dublin county board appointed him, there was a feeling that he was the best man Dublin could get. But considering what has happened in the last few years, they may be starting to doubt that decision. There may also be a legitimate question asked of who else is out there.
For a start, I can think of Ger’s namesake Anthony Cunningham. It was only two years ago that he was bringing a team to within 4 points of an All-Ireland victory and this, three years after drawing another final. Cunningham was discarded ruthlessly by Galway post 2015, but he has a great track record, and has never suggested he was not willing to come back in some form.
As another option, Nicky English coaches UCD and, though he has always resisted the temptation to step back into the inter-county scene since 2002, he could be approached at least. Or what about Liam Sheedy, who is also a capital resident and has experience of winning an All-Ireland himself? Could he be tempted back with the right offer? What about John Allen or Donal O’Grady? Maybe even Anthony Daly would fancy a comeback. When he left, it was probably the right time for him to go. But three years on, if you were a Dublin hurling fan, would you take him over the current incumbent? Or Cuala’s Mattie Kenny? Or anybody else?
Perhaps all this talk is unnecessary and inappropriate. It would be churlish to write a team’s season off after one disappointing league game. Then again, we’re not just talking about one game, but almost 3 seasons of simmering discontent. Given GAA customs, Ger Cunningham will likely see the year out. But unless a vast improvement is made, this is likely to be his last one.