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Demons buried as hurlers land elusive trophy

Keaney late, brilliant point forms an exclamation mark on a statement of intent by Daly's boys in blue

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Dublin’s Peter Kelly solos past Kilkenny’s Colin Fennelly (l) and Eddie Brennan, during the Allianz Hurling League Division 1 final at Croke Park in May 2011

Dublin’s Peter Kelly solos past Kilkenny’s Colin Fennelly (l) and Eddie Brennan, during the Allianz Hurling League Division 1 final at Croke Park in May 2011

SPORTSFILE

Dublin’s Peter Kelly solos past Kilkenny’s Colin Fennelly (l) and Eddie Brennan, during the Allianz Hurling League Division 1 final at Croke Park in May 2011

"When we met up in St Vincent's before the league final in 2011, there was too much tension and anxiety hanging in the air.

"On the bus journey into Croke Park, I felt I needed to do something to puncture the pressure. Before we got into the dressing-rooms, said to myself, 'I'm going to lighten the mood.'

"I always have swimming goggles and blue shorts in my bag because I often go for a swim when I stay over. So while Martin Kennedy was getting the warm-up area ready and the players were loosening out before the warm-up began, I began stripping off. I didn't go as far as the boys in The Full Monty. I left the shorts on, but I looked like the 'Dave' character in that film because I'd a nice fat belly on me at the time.

"So in I walked with the goggles and the swimming hat and the look of someone who had just walked out of a lunatic asylum. As soon as I'd opened the door there was this exasperated look that said 'Who the Jesus is thus?' I remember catching Alan Nolan's eye and he nearly keeled over. Once I knew that the players realied it was actually me and not some poor fella who had escaped from an institution, I summoned the best Limerick accent I could manage.

'Whaare's the poooool?' Iz dare no pool here at all?'

"Then I turned on my heels, walked straight back out the door and put back on my tracksuit. I wasn't too sure how it had gone down but I was certain it hadn't done us any harm. When I made my way back into the dressing-room, there was a general grin. Lads were still sniggering. Kennedy was shaking his head, half exasperated with my actions.

"Then I addressed the players as the Dublin hurling manager, not as some Tommy Cooper impersonator. 'Look, lads, that stunt was just to lighten the mood. Let's go out and play with freedom. Cut loose. Express yourself. That's when we played our best.'

"And we did."

- Anthony Daly from 'Dalo, The Autobiography'

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Where you see the beginning of the story of this victory depends on whether you view it more as a success for the Dublin senior hurlers of 2011 or the wider entity of Dublin hurling.

In the context of the latter, it was a first national trophy since the 1961 Leinster title, a success soured for those who remember it by what happened afterwards.

Dublin lost that year's All-Ireland final by a point to Tipperary and haven't graced that exalted stage since.

Worse. They had Tipp on the run.

"We were the luckiest team ever to win that All-Ireland," admitted Tipp midfielder Theo English in 2011. "We won against the run of play, a medal I always say we should never have won…Dublin deserved to win that day."

For Dublin, the defeat was soaked in regret for all sorts of reasons. There was a disputed point, the concession of two soft frees, two missed goal opportunities and two players who weren't there who could viably have changed the result: Norman Allen had emigrated to America at that stage and Kevin Heffernan wasn't selected given his allegiances with the footballers.

It's impossible to know precisely how a Dublin All-Ireland win in 1961 would have affected the sport's appeal in the capital.

But it could hardly have made it any worse.

Dublin won a minor All-Ireland in 1965 but had disappeared as a force by the turn of the decade.

The explosion of football detonated by Heffernan in the seventies buried hurling further in the Dublin sporting consciousness.

And for all glass ceilings shattered by Dublin schools and underage teams through the first decade of the new century, the counties with seats at top table at senior level weren't exactly handing out dinner invitations.

None of which may have entered the thought process of the Dublin hurlers of 2011.

But the League final of that year and their presence in it was heavily pregnant with all that history.

It wasn't exactly an All-Ireland final.

But given where Dublin were coming from, who they were playing and how long they'd been away from a national final in Croke Park against one of the game's aristocrats, it felt much weightier than the crown of League champions.

For the team itself - and especially their charismatic manager - a win offered something that seemed miles away just nine months previously.

Complete rehabilitation.

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When Daly arrived in 2008, Dublin might have considered Antrim their peers on the fringes of hurling's foremost forces.

But quick progress was made in his first season. Dublin began crashing shoulders with the elite. Those who were invested in their rise presumed Antrim and their likes had been left for dust.

In his second year, Dublin beat Clare in the qualifiers.

That game was in Croke Park, they won by 16 points, and it represented a first Championship victory over Munster opposition since 1938.

Yet more evidence of their suitability for the big time.

Eight days later, inexplicably, they let a six-point lead slip and lost to Antrim by a point, thus precipitating a nuclear winter for Daly.

In his book, quoted above, he recalled how he couldn't bring himself to go home that evening, so he took the turn off for Galway instead and with a baseball cap pulled over his eyes, booked into a city hotel and "stole away to the bedroom like a convict on the run".

A day later, driving down by the Clare coast, Daly was feeling little better.

"Walk away from this," a voice in his head said. "Go back and run your shop and pub, you eejit."

Eventually, the darkness lifted and Daly reconciled the depth of despair he had felt with the emotional investment he had made with Dublin.

Reward for his perseverance came quickly.

A raw, abrasive former Tipp player Ryan O'Dwyer came into the setup after joining Kilmacud Crokes and would have an profound effect on the team for almost a decade.

Then, early in January, Conal Keaney upped sticks from the Dublin footballers and trained with the hurlers for the first time since 2004.

Daly had attempted to woo Keaney in both 2009 and '10.

But clearly, from his performance on the League's opening afternoon in Waterford, Keaney hadn't come back to waste his time.

That draw in Walsh Park set a tone for a Division 1 campaign in which Dublin finished atop an eight-team group, losing just once - to Wexford - in seven games, pitting them against second-placed Kilkenny in the decider.

And on a day when all of Dublin's planets aligned, it was symbolic of their swift progress that Keaney would score the point of the match.

Three minutes into injury time, with Dublin seven points up, he took a pass inside his own '65.

A quick scan of the terrain in front of Keaney revealed no obvious recipient so before anyone could get close enough, he took aim, opened his shoulders and launched over a monstrous score into a rapturous Hill 16.

By then, Kilkenny were operating with 13 men. John Dalton and Eoin Larkin had both been sent off for separate clashes with Conor McCormack.

But Dublin were totally dominant.

Just two Kilkenny players scored from play and in all, their tally of 1-7 was the lowest return of Brian Cody's spectacularly successful reign.

"It isn't too long since we were over in the Cusack Stand dressing-room (after the Antrim loss) totally despondent after training hard for two years and wondering where we were going," Daly noted afterwards.

"It didn't look like we were going too far."

Now, very clearly, Dublin were a force again. They'd buried their Antrim demons. And most significant of all, they had - finally - a trophy of real significance.

SCORERS - Dublin: P Ryan 0-9 (5f), C Keaney 0-3, R O'Dwyer, M O'Brien 0-2 each, J McCaffrey, C McCormack, D Plunkett, D O'Callaghan, D Treacy, S Lambert 0-1 each. Kilkenny: TJ Reid 0-5 (5f), E Brennan 1-0, P Hogan (f), M Rice 0-1 each.

DUBLIN: G Maguire; N Cocoran, T Brady, P Kelly; J McCaffrey, J Boland, S Durkin; A McCrabbe, L Rushe; C Keaney, R O'Dwyer, C McCormack; D Plunkett, D O'Callaghan. P Ryan. Subs: M O'Brien for Boland (44), D O'Dywer for Plunkett (54), D Treacy for McCrabbe (63), S Lambert for Rushe (66), S Ryan for O'Callaghan.

KILKENNY: D Herity; J Dalton, B Hogan, N Hickey; P Hogan, J Tyrrell, JJ Delaney; TJ Reid, M Rice; J Fitzpatrick, M Ruth, E Larkin; C Fennelly, E Brennan, R Hogan. Subs: M Kavanagh for Delaney (55), J Mulhall for Fennelly (58), P Murphy for Ruth (65).

Ref: M Wadding (Waterford)