Daly faces biggest battle
Huge ask for Dublin boss to lift morale after Cats' mauling
SURROUNDED by dictaphones, besieged by questions for which he had no immediate answer, Anthony Daly cut a confused and devastated figure under the main stand in O'Moore Park on Saturday evening.
By now - two days after the living nightmare that was Portlaoise - one presumes Daly has got his head around Dublin's meek capitulation to the greatest hurling team known to man.
For the short and perhaps even medium-term future of Dublin hurling, this better be the case. Daly's dressing-room is in a grim place right now; the charismatic Clareman faces the steepest challenge of his generally uplifting four-year tenure in the Sky Blue hotseat.
He must restore morale and get them hurling again with the conviction of last year, not the error-strewn subservience of last Saturday.
If this is sounding like a one-sided lament for the 'death of a revolution', apologies to Kilkenny: they were every bit as powerful and polished as we have come to expect from Brian Cody teams entering the summer fray.
They won this Leinster semi-final - as most of us had expected. They played with an authority that brooked no argument - again, did we expect anything less? It's just that we expected Dublin to argue their case with a whole lot more resistance ... instead of reprising a Groundhog Day version of Ireland against the All Blacks.
True, unlike Declan Kidney's startled earwigs, Dublin made a contest of it for 15-odd minutes. But once TJ Reid accelerated away from a thicket of midfield bodies, then played a defence-splitting one-two with Richie Power en route to scoring a stunning 17th- minute goal, the narrative of this Leinster semi-final changed forever.
Paul Ryan's retaliatory free proved the most fleeting of ripostes. Kilkenny claimed the next 1-4, Power's 27th-minute goal delivering the last rites to Dublin's fading dream of recording a first championship victory over Kilkenny for 70 years.
When it was all over, the half-time differential of 10 points (2-10 to 0-6) had extended to an 18-point chasm. How can you possibly dress up a 2-21 to 0-9 rout? Answer: you can't, and Daly didn't even try. "To get beaten by Kilkenny is not a shock to my system or anybody else's. It's a shock how poor we were on the day," he admitted.
His players now have just 12 days to get over the shock and -- as Daly described it -- "put a bit of respect back in the Dublin hurling jersey" when they enter the qualifier bearpit on Saturday week.
That isn't much time to restore battered morale. It isn't much time to repair wounded bodies either - the luckless Conal Keaney departed with a hamstring injury inside 15 minutes, while Joey Boland came off in the dying seconds at a time when Dublin had long since emptied the bench in desperation.
Naysayers who don't believe all this rich talk about the capital's small ball renaissance may now ask why all the fuss about Kilkenny trouncing Dublin? Four years running, Daly has seen his Leinster ambitions thwarted by carnivorous Cats, the original six-point margin in 2009 subsequently stretching to 19 points, 11 and now 18.
The Dublin doubters have a point - but that doesn't excuse the paucity of their latest capitulation which, performance-wise, was even worse than 2010. Nor does it explain how proven top-class hurlers were so demonstrably poor when it mattered most.
How do you explain it when such a sticky, ultra-reliable corner-back as Niall Corcoran has to be hauled ashore inside half-an-hour, his fingerprints attached to 1-4 of Kilkenny's mounting haul between fouls, assists and a Richie Hogan point?
How do you explain it when a current All Star, Liam Rushe, the man who plundered two brilliant goals against Laois a few weeks back, struggles to impose any influence -- either at full-forward, centre-forward or midfield?
How do you explain the glut of Dublin errors? All those handling mistakes, misplaced passes, aimless wides - 12 in total, the one area where they matched Kilkenny!
More to the point, how do you explain Dublin's acquiescence? "I admire their players," Daly said of Kilkenny, "but I don't see why you wouldn't have a real cut at them."
Dublin's propensity for error, coupled with Kilkenny's more pronounced hunger, was encapsulated in microcosm by their second goal.
Here, typically, we had Kilkenny forwards hunting down pressurised Dublin backs in the left corner. Here, untypically, we had a miscued handpass by Tomás Brady who was dispossessed by Eoin Larkin, who passed inside to Colin Fennelly, who burned Corcoran before locating the glorious un-marked Power. Cue the inevitable. Power was unchallenged, of course, because Brady had been caught in possession and thus out of position.
Kilkenny fed off Dublin's vulnerability but they also capitalised on some questionable tactics. The underdogs persisted in raining high ball into their full-forwards even when it was obvious that JJ Delaney & Co were mopping up.
It is no coincidence that arguably Dublin's best point came via an alternative and more precise route: an intricate necklace of passes from Brady to Rushe to Alan McCrabbe and onto Ryan O'Dwyer, who pointed from 60 yards.
By then, however, it was a case of damage limitation - and Dublin had negligible success here too, scoring just 0-3 in a depressing second half.
So, what now? Well, unless Dublin can bounce back with a redemptive 'back door' run, 2012 will have to be judged as a massive failure and people will start asking difficult questions about what real progress has been made in the past four years.
That would be gratuitously unfair on Daly, who has energised Dublin hurling like no manager before. However, there are worrying signs that this year is starting to resemble his 'difficult second album' campaign of 2010, which culminated in Croke Park disaster against Antrim.
In the wake of Saturday, a less flattering light is being cast on their league campaign -- suffering relegation is forgivable if it's all part of a summer master plan focussed on producing one Herculean effort against Kilkenny.
Instead, Hercules came to town dressed in black and amber.