herald

Saturday 21 April 2018

Dublin coach's Tribal wars a thing of past

Cunningham's 'dream come true' if they could pinch O'Callaghan

Dublin selector and coach Anthony Cunningham at the launch of the Bord na Móna Walsh Cup in Tullamore. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Dublin selector and coach Anthony Cunningham at the launch of the Bord na Móna Walsh Cup in Tullamore. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

In the near future, Anthony Cunningham will find himself on a touchline, peering over to the opposition dugout, and he'll recognise lots of familiar faces in equally familiar maroon tops. "You can't hold grudges in life," he stresses. "That chapter is well and truly over."

Cunningham made his Dublin 'media debut' yesterday, in Bord na Móna O'Connor Park - the venue where, as Galway manager in June 2015, he oversaw a 13-point demolition of the Dubs.

That was Ger Cunningham's first of three deflating summers as Dublin boss, and it didn't get a whole lot better thereafter. Yet it transpired to be his namesake's swansong campaign with Galway - despite leading them to an All-Ireland final that September.

You know what happened next - the player heave that led, after a lengthy impasse, to his resignation that November.

But now Cunningham is back, as a key plank of Pat Gilroy's management team, and a brave new world beckons for the recently freefalling Dublin hurlers.

Yesterday he was in Tullamore for Leinster GAA's launch of their upcoming pre-season tournaments, with Dublin facing Meath (away, January 3) and Antrim (at home, January 7) in Group 3 of the Bord na Móna Walsh Cup.

But, not surprisingly, the questions soon veered towards the fact that Galway (as defending Allianz League, Leinster and All-Ireland champions) are now the ultimate benchmark for Dublin.

The same Galway, by and large, who moved against him two years ago.

So, with encounters looming in Division 1B (Parnell Park, February 25) and the climax of Leinster's new round-robin format (Pearse Stadium, June 9), what happens when you play them?

"Just another game," Cunningham stresses. "Always another game.

"I'm a Galway man. I was delighted that Galway got through this year - a relief," he expands. "You always have a sense of pride there that you contributed in some way to Micheál Donoghue and his players getting through. That's for sure.

"There'll be competition and we'll be planning their downfall - they are the team to beat but, for me, definitely I had a huge part in a lot of that team. I had even at U21 level for two or three years ...

"I saw them develop and grow. Now I'm trying to say 'Can we beat them?' because that's what everyone wants to do."

The next question is who might be part of the Dublin team trying to do that? Given all the player upheaval under the previous regime, speculation over comebacks (of former players who left or were discarded) was inevitable. Equally so, given Gilroy's football connections, the possibility of dual-playing Dubs reverting to the hurlers.

Cajole

Cunningham had some snippets of news yesterday, including the fact that former captain Johnny McCaffrey and former All Star Peter Kelly could be poised for Sky Blue comebacks in 2018. They would love to cajole Mark Schutte back from the football fold and likewise enlist his brother Paul (whenever Cuala's latest All-Ireland odyssey ends). In an ideal world they'd love to get Con O'Callaghan too, albeit that looks a wish too far.

"You would hope to have Mark Schutte back," he confirms. "Paul, you know ... nobody is going to touch the fine work that they're doing and they'll be left on their own (with Cuala)."

Mark Schutte missed Cuala's entire Leinster club campaign through injury.

"Everyone hopes to see him play in the All-Ireland semi-final (against Liam Mellows) and he's going to get his break now and that will be a huge plus for Cuala to get Mark back - and then hopefully on to a Dublin stage.

"Other guys will be looked at," he says, name-checking McCaffrey who is back involved. "Peter Kelly has a long-term injury. He will still be given time to ... he's back doing some pre-conditioning work, not on the field yet. Any of the players there, we will look at everybody."

Any chance of coaxing O'Callaghan?

"Everyone will leave Con alone and he will concentrate with Mattie Kenny and all the Cuala boys to win an All-Ireland back-to-back. He'll be playing hurling up to the end of March (if they reach the club final). That's not too far away from Leinster," he points out.

"Every hurling person in the country would love to see Con O'Callaghan play Kilkenny and Wexford in Thurles or wherever. I'm no different. He is a special talent. Very humble young man with a great family background with his father Maurice. It would be a dream come true, but that's for others to decide."

On the question of a potential divide between hurlers who stayed or departed during the previous regime, Cunningham was emphatic. "Absolutely not," he says.

The Galway man's effusive praise for Gilroy's managerial acumen and pedigree (in both GAA and business) helps to explain how he got involved in this intriguing "project". Gilroy himself has cited a return to hurling's top-four as a key ambition - one that is "really challenging," Cunningham concludes, "but there's no reason why it shouldn't (happen)."

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