Tuesday 15 October 2019

Dublin belief brings them to the big table

O'Donnell 'always knew what we're capable of' - now Blues aim to build on Galway glory

Eoghan O’Donnell limped off against Galway three weeks ago and is a doubt for Sunday’s preliminary quarter-final against Laois
Eoghan O’Donnell limped off against Galway three weeks ago and is a doubt for Sunday’s preliminary quarter-final against Laois

To the outside world, it landed like a thunderbolt: the Galway hurlers, catapulted onto the championship scrapheap by the middle of June.

After the initial shock came the follow-up thought: that is some statement of intent from Dublin.

The one group not thinking this way, it seems, was the Dublin dressing-room itself. Yes, the players were thrilled at the outcome and what it means for the preservation of their Liam MacCarthy dream. But surprised? Not at all.

"I think everyone outside the camp is building it up a lot more than we are," says Eoghan O'Donnell, "because we have beaten Galway over the years. I've beaten Galway in Parnell Park in the league, and a couple of the older lads have beaten them in a Leinster final.

"So, we have always known what we're capable of. And I think it's getting a bit of hype outside, which is great and very positive - but, inside, we have always expected that.

"We weren't surprised when we 'bet' them - in a hugely creditable way to Galway because they're one of the top teams, but we believe massively in what we're doing in Dublin and we believe massively in the team we have. We wouldn't be hurling if we didn't."

Reward

The reward for Mattie Kenny's team is a preliminary quarter-final date with Laois in O'Moore Park this Sunday (4.15). It could have been even better.

"For the first five or ten minutes after the game, there was a great atmosphere, we actually thought we were in a Leinster final," O'Donnell recounts.

"Then word came through that Kilkenny and Wexford drew, so it was kind of bittersweet. We were a small bit disappointed because at the start of the year our aim was to get to a Leinster final, it wasn't to come third but you have to reset then."

And recuperate. Sunday's trip to Laois comes three weeks and a day since O'Donnell limped off early with a hamstring injury against Galway: cue the proverbial race against time.

If the 1/10 favourites survive this banana skin, they will face Tipperary in Croke Park a week later. It's a selection conundrum for Kenny and his medics, but O'Donnell is keen to get back onto the pitch and with good reason: he has never hurled so late into the summer.

At only 18, O'Donnell was involved for Anthony Daly's swansong season but wasn't in the match-day squad as Dublin made a tame quarter-final exit to Tipp in 2014. A year later, when Ger Cunningham's team fell at the same fence to Waterford, he was in the '26' but didn't see any game time.

Since then, even as O'Donnell has established a reputation far beyond the Pale as a man-marking beast of a full-back, Dublin's status as a summer force has faltered. Until now.

"It's the first time in a long while (that Dublin have reached this stage) and probably the first time I've actually been part of a playing panel. So it's great for me, it's really positive," the Whitehall clubman, now 23, enthuses.

"We have a great balance of players at the older end of the scale and the younger age scale. You see how important Conal Keaney and Alan Nolan were to us (against Galway). Keaney was probably 'Man of the Match', and Nolan got a point from 110 metres which was just inspirational.

"Then you've Paddy Smyth who is probably the most consistent player in the whole campaign. He just hasn't put a single foot wrong; as a corner-back at that age it's just exceptional.

"Not to be 'bigging' him up too much, but when you're playing alongside someone of his calibre, it really gives you the freedom to go out and take risks because you know you're covered.

Risk-taking

"One of the big things that has changed is that there's a right balance. We're not too old and we're not too young. We have the balance of maturity and then the young risk-taking as well, so it's coming together nicely."

But, before Dublin can even ponder a shot at toppling Tipp, there's the small matter of Laois. On enemy turf - not even Fortress Parnell.

This is where old hands like Keaney and Nolan come into their own. "They're great for just focusing on the next task in hand," O'Donnell explains. "You'd be thinking of 'Oh, All-Ireland final' whereas they're saying 'Laois are Joe McDonagh winners, they're a quality side, this is what we have to focus on next.' They're great at just bringing that experience to the table.

"And, in fairness, we've such a good group of lads that nobody is getting ahead of themselves. We know what challenge is going to be brought next.

"We only got out of Parnell Park with a point to spare against Laois in the league," he reminds. "So, no one is under any illusions what kind of performance Laois will bring."

Dublin actually emerged from that quagmire battle two to the good, 0-13 to 0-11. But O'Donnell's cautionary note rings true: they have travelled too far to take their eye off the sliotar now.

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