There are those who believe that if Daly has Dublin in peak physical condition for the Leinster final against Kilkenny, their touch sharp, their fitness spot on, his job is done. But that’s only the start, that’s only the coaching element; the major challenge facing Anthony Daly, as manager, is to get inside the heads of his players, to convince them that they can in fact overcome the overwhelming odds against them, and take down a Kilkenny team that has lost only once in Leinster since 1997.
“There’s a bit of that in it,” he agrees. “Kilkenny’s reputation is massive and it’s a reputation that’s deserved. I don’t think anyone has beaten them in Championship since 2005, that’s a long time, and I don’t think anyone has got close to them save for the last day against Galway (Leinster semi-final, four points). But no one keeps winning – even the great Kerry team didn’t keep winning forever so someone is going to catch them at some time. It could be this week or it could be two years’ time.”
No fear, that’s what the former Clare captain will be preaching; respect, but no fear. That was how Clare eventually overcame their own decades-long hoodoo in Munster in 1995, that’s Dublin’s only chance of success this Sunday, their first provincial senior hurling final since 1991.
“We’re lucky,” claims Anthony, “Because what have we to fear? It’s great to have this chance and there’s great freedom in it. I’m telling them to have a real lash off it. We could get beaten by 20 points and people won’t be surprised. If we do very well and push it close we’ll be doing better. We’re going to try to get the best out of ourselves and try to perform ourselves – that’s the key from out point of view and we’ll see where that takes us.
“It’s a huge mountain ahead of us and we’re mad to have a go at it. There’s great freedom in it. There was no great freedom going down to Nowlan Park to play Wexford (Leinster semi-final win) because we had to get over them. That was the real monkey on the back – though as somebody said to me during the week ‘What about the gorilla now?’! And it is a monstrosity, they are – absolutely awesome.”
That Wexford game was indeed a must-win game for Dublin; twice already, in 2007 and 2008, they had fallen to Wexford at the same stage in Leinster, and each time it was an opportunity left slip, a game the Dubs could have won. A third loss in a row, and especially under their new, high-profile manager, would have been a body-blow to Dublin hurling, a real set-back. In the event, however, Dublin managed a merited if nervy win – monkey gone, as Daly said, gorilla now aboard. So, pressure off, or even more pressure on?
“I would say pressure off. We’re through to the All-Ireland quarter-final at least and we’ve a Leinster final to look forward to. That was the target all year. It’s fantastic. If you think of the likes of David Sweeney, Kevin Flynn and Liam Ryan and the service they have given over the years and this is their first time playing in a Leinster final – from that end, it’s great.”
Was that the target though, back in January, getting to a Leinster final, or was it staying in NHL Division 1 (which they managed with some comfort), thus ensuring some top quality hurling again at the start of next year, when Dublin should be really pushing for top honours?
“It’s a cliché, but we didn’t look ahead of what was ahead of us, if you know what I’m saying. We tried to take the League games as they came; we set ourselves a target of staying up and once we did that, we wanted to get into the League final. We didn’t do that and we were very disappointed because we were very close to it and it would have been a great experience.
“After that we just focused on Antrim (Leinster first round) and after that we didn’t know what the draw was. We were focusing on Antrim for six months and then we had to focus on Wexford. We had very little time – we went from six months to six training sessions. We did our best to get around it, and then we had to think about Kilkenny.”
It’s been a bit helter-skelter recently for the Dublin manager, right enough. Antrim, Wexford and now Kilkenny have all followed very quickly on one another, this game particularly. There are advantages and disadvantages; very little time to be overawed, but very little time either to prepare a winning game-plan. “I would have liked another week ideally. Going back to my own time playing, the first week after a match you have to come down a bit. It was hugely emotional for the lads to get over Wexford because that was the game they kept losing – when we were in Clare it was never All-Ireland finals we were losing, it was Munster finals. So for the lads it was Leinster semi-final after Leinster semi-final.
“Then you have to get back on the Monday night and try to focus on the final. It would have been nice to have had a few days and let them have a few pints, but we couldn’t even do that. We had a bit of a chat in Carlow on the way home and tried to get the heads around it fast.”