O’Callaghan looks back on the days of promise for Dublin senior hurling

By Stephen Leonard

TITLES have been few and very far between for Dublin senior hurling, making that occasional success all that more momentous for the Blues’ faithful.

Yet in 2011 a crop of young players from the Capital sparked hope of a serious revival in the county's fortunes on this front when they landed the National League crown for the first time since way back in 1939.

Dublins David OCallaghan in action against Lee Chin 1

David ‘Dotsy’ O’Callaghan from Tallaght was part of a Dublin Senior Hurling team that brought some long-overdue success to the county

Two seasons later they followed that up with a first Leinster Championship title in 52 years, but there were, throughout this short and long-overdue purple patch for the Dublin hurlers, plenty of troughs as the county sought to establish a place among the powerhouses of the sport.

David ‘Dotsy’ O’Callaghan was an integral part of that rollercoaster ride for Dublin after opting to focus on inter-county hurling following a spell with the Dublin footballers that saw him pick up two provincial medals on that front in 2005 and ’06.

At club level, the Tallaght man had enjoyed success with St Mark’s as they scooped the Intermediate hurling title in 2005 followed by the Senior B Championship in ’06.

And just as he had done with a team that did not figure among the traditional giants of club hurling, O’Callaghan was to help Dublin reassert itself among the best of inter-county competition, if only for a short while.

Speaking to The Echo in what was a poignant week for St Mark’s GAA Club with the sad passing of founding member and club stalwart Larry Murphy, O’Callaghan recalled the success and struggles that came with being a dual player before he decided to commit completely to the cause of Dublin senior hurling.

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O’Callaghan played his part in National League and Leinster Championship title wins

“When I was 16, I think myself and Sean McCann were on the Minor Hurling squad and I had been asked out to the football, but I was just happy to focus on the hurling.

“I remember getting to the Leinster '[Hurling] Final in 2000 [against Offaly] and being absolutely daunted by the occasion. I was just completely overawed and a nervous wreck. I couldn't hurl at all. It was a disastrous day.

“The final [which Dublin lost 0-13 to 0-8] was in Croke Park and I was young and it was my first time playing there.

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David ‘Dotsy’ O’Callaghan

“The following year I was minor hurling again and the footballers were on to me to go out, so I went out for a few trials and it went really well. I was flying it and I had a brilliant year with the footballers.

“We had won the Leinster Colleges Hurling that year as well and had made a real breakthrough on that front.

“I ended up playing Minor football and we got to the Minor All-Ireland Final. I was playing really well myself and we lost out to Tyrone in a replay, so I suppose that was my lead-in to football and it put me in the football spotlight a little bit.

“I started to pick up a lot of injuries then at that stage, a lot of hamstring injuries, so I was missing out on bits.

“I was kind of playing Under 21 and bits of senior and I was toing and froing from one to the other [hurling and football].

“And I think even management teams at that time were weighing it up and saying I think it's better if we have a lad here focusing on one rather than both. But look, once I was pulling on a blue jersey I was happy. That was the goal and then to try and push on.

“The football, I was there in '05 and '06 and I came on in the Leinster Final in '06 and featured a bit, so I was getting a taste of that as well.

“Then in '07 I stepped away. There was a bit of an urge to travel and I suppose I felt with the football team, the management was kind of rigid. They had their exact formats and systems laid out and I probably didn’t think I was right up there in their plans.

“I had been playing pretty well the previous two summers and I probably hadn't seen as much action as I thought I probably should have.

“But I suppose deep down I had always envisaged that I would come back and play hurling at some point.

“Put it this way, if I didn’t have that desire to go on and play hurling I wouldn't have been walking away from the Dublin football squad. There were lads looking at me as if I had two heads.

“They were saying 'are you mad?' But I knew what I was doing and I probably wanted a break from it.

“I had a little opportunity to do a bit of travelling which I love and I got that out of my system.

“I remember coming back in in 2008 then into the hurling set-up and during that previous summer in '07 the Dublin hurlers had made progress, winning the Minors and 21s and so the goal was to be part of a Dublin senior hurling team that was going to be successful, because to me that was really something to strive for and to be a part of. The idea of missing that would have scared me.

“We put a huge effort in then in 2008. You had Tommy Naughton there who had done a good job and then in 2009 you had the Anthony Daly factor coming in. Such a huge hurling character and figure. He would have brought a lot of excitement to the whole thing and there was a real buzz there with lads wanting to play hurling for Dublin.

“I had experienced the glamour of the football and, while it's not about that ultimately, at the end of the day you have to try and generate interest and it's up to the squad to generate interest in it and Anthony Daly would have helped a lot with that.

“He wouldn't be shy of a camera and he would have been good with the media and he would have helped in just upping the profile of it and I think the county board were keen to do that as well with younger players coming through.

“It was a serious effort to get up and be challenging to win things.

“There were ups and downs the whole time and you'd be questioning yourself sometimes driving home from Thurles after getting a trouncing, but you stick at it and you'll get your days where it goes well and it all clicks.

“We were winning Walsh Cups pre-season and dogging out wins, building confidence as we were going.

“In 2009 when Daly first came in we had made our first Leinster final since, I think it was '91, and we had put it up to Kilkenny although we weren't really ready to beat them.

“They were pretty much a monster around that time, but we put it up to them and we lost out in an All-Ireland quarter final. But you could argue, lovely, we were progressing here.

“But in 2010 we fell completely flat on our arses against Antrim in Croke Park. This was a disastrous result.

“We had beaten Clare in Croke Park in a back door game the week before and the Under 21s had won the Leinster on the Wednesday and we came into Croke Park against Antrim and our heads were up our arses to be honest. That's not taking away from Antrim, but we lost out in an absolutely disastrous day.

“After really striving to get somewhere, I remember I walked out of Croke Park and I jumped in a taxi and I got it to the Belgard Inn and I remember just going into the Belgard and just drinking pints.

“That had felt like a major blow. You're putting so much into it and when you're expected to win and progress, it was just soul destroying. You're questioning everything then.

“So 2011 kicked off and the management came back really really strong. They had a great team in place. They got Declan Coyle involved, a really popular sports psychologist.

“Then in the panel, you had Conal Keaney coming back and that was a massive lift to everyone. He showed a huge desire from the off and he'd a good run with the footballers.

“You had Ryan O'Dwyer moving up to Dublin and he was flying it with a point to prove maybe. He had left the Tipp' squad. And there were a few other lads coming back into it so the squad had been bolstered and there was a new look to it and a new look to the management. It was real professionalism they had brought in. They weren't going to get caught out.

“So we just stormed through the league then. We were really right up there and we had a great win down in Cork to get us into a League final.

“I had great memories of that. It went well for me. I'd never seen my father smile as much. The relatives were there and they're all from Cork, but they were cheering on Dublin.

“So we beat them and I remember doing the warm-down and I remember we had just heard that we were playing Kilkenny in the League Final.

“We were in such good form and I remember saying to Keaney warming down 'we're going to hammer Kilkenny here. We’re going to hammer them!' It just felt like that.

“We went out in Croke Park then and Kilkenny might have been down a few bodies with injuries, but sure you'll never get a weak Kilkenny team, and we blitzed them.

“That was a really savage day, hammering Kilkenny in Croker, May Bank Holiday. It was just a really brilliant day.

“From that, we got great confidence in the squad and we went on to beat Galway in Tullamore in a Leinster semi final, a cracking game.

“That led us into a Leinster Final where we would have fell flat that day against a Kilkenny who were probably seeking a bit of revenge. We didn't hurl particularly well and we got back through the quarter final and got to the semi final against Tipp'.

“We were down a few lads through injuries for that, but we hurled well and put it up to them, but we just fell short.

“But there was a real sense that we were on the right path here. National title and into the All-Ireland semis, the first semi final in I don't know how long.

“So when 2012 came it was like 'right here we go again', but we had a poor year again.

“There was a lot of expectation and I don't know if that got to us. Sport is sport. It doesn't work in a straight line.

“I suppose we didn't approach it in the right manner. A bit of cockiness maybe crept in and once you start taking your eye off the ball at that level, you'll be found out.

“That just turned out to be a poor year all round. My own father had just passed away that year just after the league as well. It was tough.

“We had put so much into it. 2012 we were training flat out, twice a day, mornings and evenings. You're putting all that in to get somewhere, but we fell flat.

“We had been relegated in the league so then 2013 we were back to Square One. So it was just a case of game by game and building it back up, digging in and seeing where that could take us.

“We got promoted in the league and that gave us a bit of confidence and we went on to have a magical run that summer, which didn't particularly start great.

“It took us a while. We drew with Wexford twice and those games would have stood to us.

“Then we had Kilkenny and we drew with them. We probably should have beaten them the first day and there was that belief that Kilkenny don't lose replays. They have an unbelievable record on that front so I think we were being wrote off.

“But I think for that group of players, there was an opportunity there and we kind of smelt blood and I think we knew we could go on and win this year. I think, as a group, we had to do that to maintain any sustained progress ultimately. And we did.

“We hurled well and we went on to beat them. It was lovely to be a part of that. I think that was the first time in 71 or 72 years that Dublin had beaten Kilkenny in the Leinster Championship.

“It's a frightening statistic because Dublin would be playing Kilkenny a lot in the Leinster Championship, so that was just brilliant to be a part of. There was a brilliant buzz around Portlaoise. There were tears of joy that night.

“But we had to come down quickly because we'd the Leinster Final the following week against Galway and it would have been an absolute crying shame to win that and not go on and win a championship title.

“So I think the heads were ready for the Galway one and we would have ripped into that. We were flowing well then and the games had stood to us and the momentum was there. I think we had an edge on Galway that way.

“So the first half we were up a level and we managed to build a bit of a lead. They did come back at us, but we managed to push on again and win it.

“It was just marvellous to be in Croker and going up the steps again as a hurler and looking down at Hill 16, the buzz around. It was just super.

“I suppose we would have always thought that this is great, we're making huge breakthroughs here. We were hoping that that would be becoming maybe the norm.

“You look at the footballers and what they've done after getting over the hump of winning the All-Ireland in 2011.

“So we were hoping that once we got over that [the Leinster title win] it would become maybe a bit more normal and we'd be back there regularly.

“The All-Ireland was there for the taking that year. It was really wide open, but we didn't manage to go on and win it.

“I know it would have been absolutely superb to go on and claim that, but we didn't do it and then again we were kind of flat after that in 2014.

“Ger Cunningham had come in then and he was always going to change things and I suppose that whole process didn't go particularly smoothly or well.

“That probably stagnated it from where it was at and it was just a transitional period for a few years then.

“It's been disappointing. I don't think they've been in a Leinster Final since 2014, but there's a squad there now and team just waiting to emerge. They've been very unlucky the last few years.”

While it was difficult to walk away from inter-county hurling after such unforgettable peaks, O’Callaghan quickly came to terms with the inevitable as injuries began to mount up and take their toll

“I had put a lot into it over the last couple of years and I felt I had been playing really well.

“I had always had a real desire to get back into it each year, but the last few years the injuries were starting to pick up as well.

“Stepping away from it was really hard when you've put so much into it, but at that time it was nearly such a relief to say 'right, it's time to get away from this'.

“I had some marvellous times, but, from a personal view, I think you know when it's time to step away.

“With the intensity of inter-county, you don't want to be holding back or seen to be looking for breaks here and there, so I just felt it was time to step away.

“I think there's the basis of a new squad emerging. They've been right there or thereabouts and there's great talent in the squad and I don't think it will take a whole lot for them to push on and get Dublin back up there winning things in Croker.”

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