Ex-Dubs boss confident switch is the boost hurlers needMICHAEL O'GRADY was "over the moon" when told yesterday's breaking news. Conal Keaney in a Sky Blue jersey may be a very familiar sight, but from now he'll be carrying a hurl too.
O'Grady departed his post as Dublin senior hurling manager in 2000. Keaney was only a minor at the time, "but even then I thought he was Dublin's best prospect for a long time - I would say the best hurler Dublin has produced in the last 30 or 40 years. He was going to be exceptional. He would have made centre-back or centre-forward."
That qualifying phrase, "was going to be", can be explained pretty easily. In 2004, Keaney tried unsuccessfully to juggle two different-sized balls as a Dublin senior hurler and footballer. From 2005 on, he has devoted all his inter-county energies on the big ball.
Until this week, that is, when Keaney informed Pat Gilroy that he was forsaking his football career for another shot at the sport where he first achieved national prominence. Gilroy's loss is Anthony Daly's gain.
"This is just the boost that Dublin hurling needs after the disappointment of losing to Antrim last year. We needed something extra to lift the team," O'Grady declared.
"I believe it's a great move for Dublin and a great move for him. I believe it would have been a shame if he hadn't given hurling his last few years. It would have been such a massive loss, even for his own sake.
"He is one of many in football but, in hurling, he is one of very, very few," added the Limerick native, while conceding that "maybe I'm biased".
The down side, of course, is that Keaney hasn't hurled at the elite level since 2004. The previous year he had received an All Star nomination ("I felt that I should have got the hurling All Star in 2003," he once suggested in a Sunday newspaper interview) but the game has moved on dramatically since then and the player himself will know this.
His Ballyboden St Enda's club manager, Liam Hogan, has already cautioned fans not to expect instant miracles, saying: "It's still going to take him a while to get back to where he was."
However, unlike fellow prodigal Shane Ryan (who made the same switch 12 months ago) Keaney has been exposed to plenty of top-class club hurling in recent years. His last big outing -- a Leinster semi-final against O'Loughlin Gaels -- may have ended in defeat, but his class shone through that day.
The Firhouse Road men got edged out, 1-21 to 3-11, after extra-time in the home of the Cats - Nowlan Park.
And according to O'Grady: "Most guys won't catch up after six years - I think it's too long to miss out.
"This guy is such a good hurler, I believe he will be able to catch up on what he missed.
"He mightn't be (the player) he would have been if he hadn't played football but, because of his outstanding skill and hurling ability, he won't be far behind."
O'Grady reckons that Keaney, 28, could have another five years of top-level hurling in the tank. And whereas Hogan has suggested a full-forward posting for Dublin's latest prodigal son, O'Grady would like to see him in the half-forwards, or rotating between there and midfield.
Suffice to say, coupled with the recent acquisition of Ryan O'Dwyer from Tipperary, Daly can now boast some welcome selection headaches up front. "You must have classy forwards and these two will add an awful lot," O'Grady suggested.
"He (Keaney) doesn't know when to stop. He has a big, big heart. A fabulous ball striker, left or right. I think he's a winner by nature, as he showed in the football and with the Ballyboden hurlers. And he's very strong -- he doesn't stand back from anything.
"Antrim was a big setback for us, but maybe it's the making of the team now," added the former boss. "The players fell asleep in the last 20 minutes -- that's the bottom line.
"I think the team would have been resolute anyway because of what happened but, with these two on board, it's going to be brilliant."