Eoghan O’Donnell insists the mood in the Dublin hurling camp is buoyant as they prepare to open their Allianz League Division One campaign against All-Ireland champions Tipperary this weekend on the back of a turbulent winter.
Manager Ger Cunningham has taken a sledgehammer to the panel put together by his predecessor Anthony Daly since assuming the reins in 2014 and another raft of players was deemed surplus to requirements over the off-season. Among them were former captain Johnny McCaffrey, former All-Star Peter Kelly, and Niall Corcoran, with Kelly expressing the view that the man in charge had eroded a successful squad and one that had brought rare league and Leinster honours to the capital.
However, O’Donnell only has good things to say about the set up.
“Yeah, it can only bring you closer, that kind of thing,” said O’Donnell who is one of the many from the younger generation drafted in by Cunningham.
“It is natural that county teams change over the years. Dublin is no different.
“A lot of young lads have come through, they haven’t known any different in the set-up. They are just buying completely into what we are showing them.
“It has been brilliant, the enthusiasm. When you are younger all you do is dream of playing for Dublin.
“For a lot of people this is their first chance, so they are absolutely gunning for it. They are delighted to be there, it is a hard thing to recreate that energy. It is brilliant, it has been very enjoyable so far.”
The regeneration process swept the backroom, too. The other Ger Cunningham — of Newtownshandrum and University of Limerick fame — has been brought in as coach. Former Dublin minor boss Johnny McGuirk is the other main arrival, with the focus up to now on ball striking and first touch.
O’Donnell is hoping the fruits of that labour will be apparent at Croke Park early on Saturday evening but, with so many old heads now departed, it will be just as fascinating to watch how that drained leadership pool will be filled.
O’Donnell seems to be one natural officer. Though only a cadet at 21, he speaks with an impressive ease and authority, while Chris Cummy, captain of the minors and U21s in times past, will be another needed to assume command within the white lines.
The absence of the Cuala contingent as they concentrate on the upcoming All-Ireland semi-final against Slaughtneil is another backdrop that could be painted as a negative. O’Donnell framed it as a plus, in that it will propel the team even further down the evolutionary road.
There were nine U21 players involved in that very process last season and the integration of youth has continued already this term with a handful of those who featured in the recent Walsh Cup not long past the cut-off point for the minor grade.
Na Fianna’s Donal Burke is one of those rookies of whom much is being hoped of so soon and, though O’Donnell talks with the wisdom of a veteran in having to put a sheltering arm around some slim shoulders, there is no denying that league hurling marks a major step up.
“It’s not something you can easily prepare for. You are thrown in at the deep end and most of the time you swim. Lads have been playing at the highest level all the way up and this is no different. There’s no reason why they won’t be able to do it at this age either.”
O’Donnell can remember his own debut well. Tipperary were his first opponents, too, and on a soaking wet day at Semple Stadium.
That went “okay”, but he is phlegmatic about opponents or venues in remarking that there is no ideal time or place to start a senior career.
Cunningham was reinstated as manager last August when he spoke of the existence of a gap between the country’s top-four sides and the likes of Dublin, Wexford, Cork, and Limerick. The aim in 2017, he said, would be to ensure that the bridge needed to span it didn’t get any longer.
If there are any specific goals set for the season ahead, then O’Donnell wasn’t for revealing them but, with everything considered, it would be no small thing to approach the summer’s Leinster opener against Galway with their status in Division 1A guaranteed for another year.
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