The pre-season competitions have been played, and Dublin, for instance, got a run-out at Croke Park against Kilkenny as a result.
A Walsh Cup final with a decent crowd streaming in for Kerry-Dublin afterwards. Valuable enough, says their manager.
“It was welcome,” says Anthony Daly, “because you’d be playing a challenge game if you weren’t facing Kilkenny, and after a challenge you’re standing around saying to each other, ‘did we learn anything there at all?’
“When I managed Clare and knew the lads better, something like the Waterford Crystal was really only an exercise in trying to find a couple of young lads. With Dublin, though, it’s a bit different.
“A couple of years ago when we won the league, Declan Ryan, who was over Tipperary at the time, said we were going well very early, and I said there was no time, really, that Dublin couldn’t be going well.”
It’s all momentum and building confidence. “And it still is. Fair enough we’ve a league won, a Leinster championship, but there’s no value in not pulling out victories.”
They’ve had some underage success with those senior titles, but Daly is keen to stress it’s a process, not a dynasty. As he says, Dublin must keep working all the time.
“The reality about Dublin hurling — and maybe the worrying thing — is that if you took Cuala, Kilmacud Crokes and Ballyboden St Enda’s out of it, we wouldn’t have a panel. Literally. I don’t think any other county is in that situation. And there are huge chunks of Dublin with nobody. Dotsy O’Callaghan is from Tallaght — one player from a place bigger than Limerick. Nobody from Finglas.
“The footballers get players from every part of Dublin, but for us, the northside, which means the traditional clubs, have slipped back a bit. At underage level the likes of St Vincent’s, O’Tooles, Craobh Chiarain have suffered with population decline. Okay, the likes of Na Fianna are strong, and Clontarf are starting to show, but those three southside clubs I mentioned are supplying the bulk of the talent, particularly at underage level.
“It’s hugely important that Dublin hurling doesn’t take its eye off the ball.”
The Leinster title shows kids that they can win something with the hurlers, he says, but too many clubs are only “dabbling” in the code.
“There’s too much, ‘look, now we’re playing both where we used to only play football’. But that’s still only dabbling.
“The coaching is very strong and it’s great to have lads like Johnny McCaffrey and Dotsy and Simon Lambert coaching, but they have to keep on it all the time as the football is so strong.
“I see the flow of talent in Clare, and the big three, with the number of clubs they have, are competitive even if they’re not going well, while Galway are always very competitive underage. Always.”
That’s outside the county. Within its borders there’s another factor — take Ciarán Kilkenny, who’d be a huge asset to the hurlers, but he’s playing football.
“I’d be happy enough with the strength of our squad,” says Daly, “But when you look at the Dublin minors who drew and lost the minor replay to Tipp, a lot of the better guys on that team are lost to football.
“That’s disappointing to the people who worked so hard on their hurling — Ciarán, Cormac Costello, Eric Lowndes, Emmet Ó Conghaile.
“I’d have asked Eric, Cormac and Ciarán about giving the hurling a go, and Cormac and Eric ruled it out straightaway. I’d say Ciarán would have a love for it but look,it’s hard to walk away from the All-Ireland title in football.”
This year brings a different set of challenges, now that Daly’s native county blazed their way to the big prize with that free-running, free-scoring approach. He doesn’t envisage a huge tactical revolution, however.
“Clare’s display against Galway was very different to how they played against Cork. You can’t underestimate the confidence you get from winning a quarter-final or semi-final. Even our lads grew in huge confidence over a couple of games — there was no comparison, for instance, between how they were for the replay with Kilkenny and the Wexford game, even though there was only a couple of weeks between those games.”
They rode that improvement to a first provincial title in half a century, of course. He was emotional on the day. Not so much now.
“It’s probably been diluted a bit, even allowing that it was important to us: last year you had three Munster teams in the semi-finals of the All-Ireland and the two who got to the final hadn’t won the Munster championship.
“In the semi-finals we felt we were in a good position and we felt we were the best team left in it. Though I’m sure Clare, Cork and Limerick felt the same!
“We did play well, it was one of those games where I thought we were getting a real handle on it just when Ryan (O’Dwyer) was sent off, but nobody knows. Until Cork got their goal I thought we were right there for a draw, even, and while you could point to the couple of missed frees, I often think that’s a mistake. Why? You could point to a blockdown in the very first minute as being as important as the miss in the very last minute, and we wouldn’t be blaming Paul Ryan for missing frees that day, he’d hit unbelievable frees for us all year.”
Daly acknowledges that for all the work a manager does, something can always happen that no-one’s foreseen.
“I saw Eamon Fitzmaurice’s interview in the Examiner a couple of weeks ago about their All-Ireland semi-final with Dublin. You can do all the planning you want, but who can plan for something like the flick Michael Dara McAuley pulled out to set up Dublin’s goal in that game?
“In our semi-final against Cork Ryan (O’Dwyer) came onto a ball that I’d have said, ‘tap-over point here’, but he went for goal. Now, I back any of our forwards in that situation if they go for it, because you can’t say to fellas, ‘no, don’t go for goal in this situation’. If it’s on they have to go for it.
“It’s the same with the moves you make. A lot of our moves worked out during the year: they must have, because we made it to the All-Ireland semi-final, but the mistake people make is that they think that’s all the manager or the selectors making the calls during a game.
“The success of the moves goes back to the training sessions, and the buy-in from the fellas who know they’re not going to be starting the game. If they’re not on board and contributing to training then none of it works.”
Could he have done anything differently? Of course, he says. Everyone always thinks that.
“You’d always say you could have tweaked things. We’d have thought that after losing to Cork. I’d say Jimmy (Barry-Murphy) and the lads thought the same after the All-Ireland final, Anthony Cunningham the same after Clare put a sweeper in front of Joe Canning.
“If you win everything isvindicated. The All-Ireland and the replay are what lives in the memory, and there’s an aura around Clare because they won it — and they’re entitled to it, because to the victors go the spoils.
“I’d say Clare would be happy with getting things right against Cork in last year’s final — Cork kept Tony Kelly pretty quiet but Stephen McDonnell would have been pulled out of the centre a fair bit to mind him.”
So, creating space in the middle is the way forward? Not so fast, says the Clarecastle man.
“You play to your strengths. If Henry (Shefflin) is back fully fit, then I’d say Brian Cody will be telling the Kilkenny backs to let the ball down on top of his head, for instance. I don’t think tactics have gone bananas, it’s very much a case of finding out what suits your players and playing a game that suits them, whether they’re a fast team, or a big team or whatever they are. I take my hat off to Fitzy for coming up with his own way to play, a different way to play, and doing it differently a couple of times last year, but the main thing I’d take out of it is that I think the days of aping another team’s style are gone, and you have to find your own style.”
This weekend that search begins all over again.