Wednesday 20 February 2019

Cunningham: 'We want to create a surprise or two'

Coach hails skill level of Dublin's emerging new crop

Dublin coach Anthony Cunningham. Photo: Sportsfile
Dublin coach Anthony Cunningham. Photo: Sportsfile

Even long-term projects have short-term goals. For Dublin hurlers, Everest is that Liam MacCarthy summit in the scarcely visible distance. But that doesn't mean you can't conquer Carrauntoohil in the meantime.

Anthony Cunningham, as a manager who led Galway to a couple of senior All-Ireland finals, probably doesn't view this latest mission on a scale with climbing the world's highest mountain. So, he goes for an ancient architectural metaphor instead.

"Rome wasn't built in a day," says the Dublin selector/coach. "But having said all that, we want to create a surprise or two this summer, that's for sure. That's what we're in the game for."


And that's why he said 'yes' to Pat Gilroy when invited to join the latest phase of Dublin's recently becalmed hurling revolution.

Gilroy has managed the Dublin footballers to a breakthrough All-Ireland in 2011. Cunningham has led his native Galway to All-Ireland hurling finals in 2012 and '15, suffering a brace of agonising defeats to Kilkenny. Also on board is veteran coaching guru Mickey Whelan, another former Dublin football manager.

TOP TALENT: Dublin’s Ronan Hayes pictured in action against
Adrian Touhy of Galway during the Allianz Hurling League Division 1B Round 4 match at Parnell Park last February. Photo: Sportsfile
TOP TALENT: Dublin’s Ronan Hayes pictured in action against Adrian Touhy of Galway during the Allianz Hurling League Division 1B Round 4 match at Parnell Park last February. Photo: Sportsfile

Cunningham has flourished in both codes, managing two clubs to provincial football titles. Whelan has led his native St Vincent's to All-Ireland club football glory but was most recently involved with their senior hurlers last year.

Sunday will represent the first litmus test for Dublin under this eclectic regime. Their maiden Allianz League campaign contained a hotchpotch of poor-to-decent performances, but it's only fair to reserve judgement given (a) Dublin's post-2013 results graph; (b) the major squad overhaul undertaken; and (c) the absence of their Cuala trailblazers thus far.

But now, as Kilkenny loom into Parnell Park view, the next frenzied month of Leinster SHC round-robin action will tell us a whole lot more.

This 'project' may, of course, take several years to bear fruit - but will Gilroy's management be given the required time?

"I would say they'll probably get the time. Definitely," Cunningham surmises.

"I would hope that the powers-that-be - the John Costellos & Co and the Dublin county board - would be happy with the progress on that.

Donal Burke of Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
Donal Burke of Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile

"But I think all of the players around the table, all of the coaches and all of the underage, minors, U21s and seniors, need to have an overall plan.


"They can get there - I'd be confident of that. And I think Dublin needs a strong hurling team as well, because I think you'll have a lot of football players in Dublin not getting on an inter-county team."

Cunningham worked with many of the gifted young Galwegians who would grow, in his absence, into champions last September. He has been hugely impressed by Dublin's young crop too and reckons their skill level is higher than previous Sky Blue generations.

"They're probably closer to a Galway or a Tipperary player or a Jason Flynn," he reckons.

"Take the likes of Ronan Hayes, Fergal Whitely - their skill level is really high and will stand to them, most definitely.

"That's testament to more coaching going on in Dublin. You definitely can see that a lot of these players have played more hurling at underage. And that's no disrespect to the former players that have gone.

"Donal Burke, Eoghan O'Donnell - I mean, they're top colleges players in Ireland now. Eoghan would have been marking Jason Forde in the Fitzgibbon final. So, to have five or six players even sitting at that table is huge. And they have a nice U21 team coming through."

Still, getting the mix right is key. Dublin's opening league night against Offaly - a 13-point calamity - was instructive.

"The majority of the team that night were very, very young," Cunningham reminds. "First time playing for quite a lot. You do need experience, and you need to get the balance right. It's great to have young players coming through, but you do need the (Conal) Keaneys and the Danny Sutcliffes and the Cian O'Callaghans, these guys who are around the block.

"Physicality as well is huge now, and being of the proper strength to play. It's probably a bit like Galway in 2012 maybe ... it took a few years for them to get stronger."

In the meantime, though, there's a championship to play. Starting with a familiar oppressor.

The former Galway boss insists that he wasn't surprised by Kilkenny's latest league title.

"They've won nearly the same amount of minors as Galway and Tipperary have over the last ten or 12 years. They've won more colleges finals than any other county in Ireland," he points out.

"I think some people got carried away that maybe their U21s didn't compete as strongly in the final last year. That was a once-off game; they were still in the final and everyone spoke highly of Limerick.

"So their conveyor belt is very strong. Their club hurling is extremely strong. And with a backbone of Pádraig Walsh, Cillian Buckley, TJ Reid and Wally Walsh - they're four massive players to build around."


But he still promises a "huge intensity" from Dublin this Sunday. Beyond that, is a top-three spot in Leinster the goal?

"Absolutely," he confirms. "Whether you qualify first, second or third, it mightn't matter! But you have to qualify.

"We're no different than anyone else. We want to qualify, nick a home win and the last match or two could be very interesting then."

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