Sunday 17 December 2017

A few good men

Conor McKeon examines how Anthony Daly assembled the backroom team that has helped transform Dublin

David O'Callaghan, Dublin, celebrates with mentor Tony Griffin after the Leinster SHC final. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
David O'Callaghan, Dublin, celebrates with mentor Tony Griffin after the Leinster SHC final. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

IT was a Sunday at the start of February in Bellefield, Wexford GAA's secondary ground, as Johnny McCaffrey lifted the Walsh Cup for the second time in Anthony Daly's tenure that word circulated of Tony Griffin's presence in official-issue blue and navy regalia.

It was the culmination of a couple of years of persistence from Daly.

"To tell you the truth, I knew he was based in Dalkey," says Daly now. "I knew he was doing a bit of training with Cuala. So I asked him would he play for a year?"

Through his work with the Tony Griffin Foundation and SOAR, the group inspired by the late Jim Stynes' Reach Foundation in Australia, Griffin hadn't the time to resurrect an inter-county career he had abandoned four years previous. Yet a seed was sown with Daly and before the beginning of this incredible season, he went back to his old teammate with a different role in mind, even if he has heard some loose definitions issued publicly by some of the Dublin players.

"What were they? 'Life coach' and all this sort of stuff," laughs Daly. "I certainly didn't give them any of them anyway. 'Spiritual advisor'!"

Instantly, it seems, the players took to Griffin.

"He's a bit like what Bernard Dunne is with the footballers," explains corner-back, Niall Corcoran. "He helps us to get the best out of ourselves."

Initially, Daly thought Griffin might be selector material but again, time constraints were the issue.

"I asked him what role he could see himself fulfiling," Daly recalls. "He said: 'I can see myself helping a few lads. Maybe with their confidence and a few different things.'

"Like, down in Portmarnock, he'd jog down the end of the beach and they would all sit down on the sand and ... I don't think he says too much. I think he just gets them to talk."

Dotsy O'Callaghan, a player whose form has spiked spectacularly this year, describes Griffin as "an interesting character" and "a good man to have a chat with", while Johnny McCaffrey reckons his greatest selling point is his familiarity with the plight of the inter-county hurler.

"Sometimes," explains the Dublin captain, "you get sports psychologists in who haven't played the game and they're saying good things but it's hard maybe to relate to what they're saying. But Tony knows what's needed."


WHEN Martin Kennedy contacted Daly last September and told him he was going to accept an invitation from Jim Gavin to hitch his wagon with the footballers after two years as the hurlers' strength and conditioning coach, the Clareman was frustrated. He had lost players to the footballers before and would do so again. Yet Kennedy was different and the manner of, as he saw it, the poaching left Daly sore with Gavin.

He understood absolutely that Kennedy was from a football background and furthermore, he accepted that – from a purely professional point of view – Gavin and his management team were in for at least three years, whereas he had only just agreed to do one more.

'MK', as he was known to the panel, had built up a strong rapport with the Dublin players.

The story goes that on the first night he arrived to training in O'Toole Park and watched them undergo a casual warm-up, he called the group together and informed them, in his own characteristically calm way: 'This isn't the preparation of champions. Back into the dressing-room and, when ye're ready to train properly, come back out.'

It was from that moment, Daly felt, that Dublin's intensity climbed into the stratosphere of hurling's aristocracy. And by the time they played in the All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary that year, they were being labelled the most physically fit and visibly strong hurling team in Ireland.

"An awful blow," Daly described his departure at the time.

Ross Dunphy, a Wexford man who coached the Tipp hurlers last season, was one of six interviewees in the hunt to replace Kennedy.

And over the course of two meetings with Daly and Richie Stakelum, he was shown a document drafted by the players who, upon asking the management team to return for 2013, had identified specific areas of preparation where they required improvement. It was replete with scenarios and in-training situations he might, were the job to materialise, be forced to deal with.

Now, 10 months later, we've lost count of the number of times Daly has described Dunphy as "a breath of fresh air", but it's certainly well into double figures.

And given how Dublin thrived on each of the five weeks of their epic Leinster coronation, despite predictions of physical weariness, it seems that Daly made the right choice.

"Essentially, we did only one training session those weeks," explains Dunphy now of that process, hardly one he would have encompassed at the start of the year when planning out his season's work.

"We never drop intensity, we drop time. These guys don't want to train at pedestrian pace, they want to train at three-quarters pace. If you're working on tactics, then obviously you don't want to work flat out."

It was Dunphy who suggested the now famous Bere Island trip to Daly way back, but insists now: "It's such a small percentage of what we've done. I think people overestimate its relevance.

"There probably isn't a right time to do it but we had to organise it from months out and our aim, for that period, was to get back up to Division 1A, which we'd done."

Studious observers of Dublin have noted how some of their number have shed the bulk of last year, when much of the commentary of their demise identified that very brawn as reason for their malaise.

"I think that's a bit simplistic," says Dunphy. "I think they were probably flying fit last year, it just didn't happen for them.

"You want hurlers to be very mobile and flexible upper body-wise, you want to be able to take hits but be able to move quickly from it. Football is a slower game. While there's a lot of rucks in hurling, the ball is still moved a lot quicker and you're hoping they will move a lot quicker. In football it's quite slow and the contact is quite slow.

"Speed of hurling will naturally come on in the summer months," he adds, "and you're concentrating much more on that."


IF the role of strength and conditioning coach is specific by its name and nature, and that of lifestyle and performance coach is, by virtue of its terms of reference, somewhat vague, a selector can, quite literally, be anything.

Vinny Teehan had been there since Daly formed his initial management team, also containing Stakelum and Ciarán Hetherton.

"Vinny was outstanding for us. Vinny has been outstanding for the Dublin project," says Daly, who singled out the Offaly man for mention in his post-Leinster final RTé interview.

A year later, John McEvoy came aboard, bringing the Dublin Under-21s to an All-Ireland final in 2011.

"We've seen the 21s over the last couple of years since Johnny had to step away," says Daly of the losses to Laois and Carlow, both in Parnell Park over the last two years, "so maybe that was a mistake."

"But we just felt we needed a fresh voice ... and we took our time, to be honest."

Shane Martin had played for Dublin in the Leinster Intermediate hurling final in 2008 alongside the likes of Damien Russell and Tim Sweeney, but come January 2009, upon Anthony Daly's first selection as Dublin manager for the annual Evening Herald/Dublin Bus Dubs Stars match, he was back in the senior fold alongside the other two, and stayed embedded in the squad until the end of 2010.

"We didn't ask Shane until after Christmas," explains Daly. "But he's been great in terms of enthusiasm and wanting to do other stuff.

"He loves the video work. He eats up that side of it. Whereas I'd prefer to be outside with a whistle and stopwatch and telling fellas to go faster. But he'll look at that sort of stuff and come back and that has been a great help because, Hedgo is different and me and Stakelum are the same, probably."

Again, his familiarity with the players has helped ease Martin into the set up.

"I hurled with Shane when he was hurling for Dublin," says O'Callaghan. "He was a hugely talented player as well.

"When Shane came in he put his stamp on things and the lads would have huge respect for him as well because he soldiered for Dublin over the years."

Says McCaffrey: "Shane has been brilliant. From a player's point of view, being able to relate to him – because Shane would have played with a lot of us over the last couple of years so, he knows our game inside-out and we know where he's coming from as well. It's great being able to feed off that."


THERE have been others complementing the Daly, Stakelum, 'Hedgo' triumvirate.

Michael Carruth has been the team's masseur for the past two years. Dave Sweeney has helped out on the statistical side of things.

And this season, Tommy Dunne, has been present at training once a week during the summer.

One thing is absolutely certain: the greatest material change between the Dublin hurlers who failed so spectacularly in 2012 and those who have achieved so much thus far in 2013 is on the management side of things.

"This time last year," recalls Daly, "I didn't know if it was worth it for us on our side of the table, Richie, myself, Hedgo. And for the players ... would a fresh voice be the world of good for them? Because I know they are good lads.

"I mean, they wanted us to stay and we wanted to stay," he concludes, "and we're glad we did now."

Imagine if they hadn't...

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