Gutting defeat. Like 2013, you’re left with the feeling that we’d have won had we kept 15 men on the pitch. Unlike then, no blame can be laid at the ref’s door on the game’s critical moment - Crummy left him no other choice, was arguably a red by itself. A very harsh lesson he’ll have to absorb.
Talk of it being unacceptable to be out of the Championship on the first weekend of July is unfair and illogical in my opinion. It was always going to be thrown at whoever lost last night. The truth is that our prospects of advancing beyond this stage are largely determined by which ball is drawn out of a pot. Last year we got lucky by drawing Laois and that allowed us restore a bit of confidence after a bad defeat. This year we got drawn away to a Munster side which was always going to be a much tougher assignment. That only happened once under Daly and we lost then too, despite us having the numerical advantage for a good chunk of the game. The only rational way to access the ‘acceptability’ of a defeat is by the opponent, venue and circumstances of the game. And I can’t accept that Dublin hurling is at a level where losing to Cork by 3 points on Leeside after playing with 14 men for most of the game is ‘unacceptable’.
I also disagree with the notion that starting Madden was always going to backfire. Why so? The lad doesn’t lack talent. Maybe the occasion got to him last night and you might argue that it was too big a game to throw in a first time Championship starter but by that logic you’d also have left our best player last night on the bench. A manager can’t really tell if a lad is going to sink or swim without throwing him into the pool. Like Lehane, Alan Cadogan is a talented but streaky player, he could just as easily have failed to score last night as run amok as he did. As regards switching him earlier, Cadogan didn’t actually touch the ball until the 19th minute and the goal came in the 25th minute after he’d won a couple of balls and pointed, hardly conclusive grounds for a change up to then. Also, I’m only going by what was visible on TV but O’ Donnell seemed to be marking Cadogan on the goal. We weren’t exactly chock full of corner back alternatives either – Gough was apparently injured (and would have struggled with Cadogan’s pace anyway), Schutte and Kelly are unavailable and the fact that he started a debutant over Niall Corcoran suggests he knows Niall isn’t up to it anymore but felt that at least he wouldn’t be fazed by the occasion.
Bennett was outstanding and it’s a pity we couldn’t get more ball to him. Trollier took his goal well but again when he was really needed in a crunch Championship game we saw far too little of him. Let’s hope Mark Schutte can rediscover his mojo because all year he’s been a shadow of the player he was last season.
That inability to execute some basic skills and our propensity to make really basic errors that I mentioned after the Kilkenny game came back to haunt us last night also. Trollier’s poor striking off his right side cost us an easy point that would have put us ahead late on and given us vital momentum. Plunkett’s chance illustrated perfectly the good and the bad of him, his incredible pace made a clear scoring opportunity out of nothing but he didn’t back himself to shoot when he was in the clear and the chance was lost. Barrett failing to gather a routine ball led to their goal. A minute later Rushey gifted Horgan a point with a terrible pass. Little things that swing big games.
So where do we go from here? I’m undecided as to whether Cunningham should stay on another year. On the one hand I feel we need our best players on the pitch and it’s clear there’s a problem between Sutcliffe and Cunningham that’s preventing that happening right now (I don’t believe any other player that’s currently fit but not on the team would improve us) . On the other I think he’s implementing changes that will accelerate the development of the players on whom we’re going to be depending 2-3 years from now. That this policy has discommoded some great servants to Dublin hurling is unfortunate but probably necessary.
One thing that I feel Cunningham hasn’t been given credit for (and in fact shipped a lot of stick for) is the lengths to which he has gone to try to eradicate that tendency we developed under Daly to utterly capitulate in games with annoying frequency. Every time this happened we, both management and support, seemed to just scratch our heads and put it down to a bad day. Players might get dropped to the bench in response but would usually be back on the team within a couple of games. Nobody ever seemed to pay for these gutless surrenders with their Intercounty careers. And then we were surprised when it happened again.
The first time this happened on Cunningham’s watch was the replay against Galway in Tullamore last year, something that I think shocked him as much as the ‘startled earwigs’ shocked Gilroy. He reacted differently, clearly holding individual players directly accountable. 7 were dropped for the next day (some to the bench) and in retrospect it’s clear that rightly or wrongly he decided Lambert and Nolan were among the most culpable. While Paul Schutte clearly wasn’t match sharp that day, I felt Nolan was poor on the critical first two goals. Evidently Cunningham, who whatever anyone thinks of him is as well qualified as anyone to assess goalkeeping performance, did too and replaced him with Maguire. I think it’s fairly well known that Nolan reacted furiously to this and they had a bust up. That any player could feel his place wasn’t under threat after such a humiliating defeat speaks volumes of the sense of entitlement and that had permeated through that team by the end of Daly’s tenure. I believe it’s an attitude Cunningham felt was the biggest reason behind these non-performances (or at least the one he was most able to influence) and has faced it head on, even though it has brought him into direct conflict with players. Little wonder than that Nolan wasn’t asked back this year – I think this was Cunningham sending out the message that if you think you’re entitled to start for this team regardless of your performance, you can think again.
Something similar happened in our first league game this season. And again Cunningham’s post mortem seems to have placed Joey Boland and Paul Ryan at the back of the queue for future selection. You may disagree with this approach or feel that the wrong personnel are being scapegoated. But I’m glad he has the balls to address it in some manner other than the shrug of the shoulders the previous management team applied. And it is perhaps starting to have the desired effect, as bar the dead rubber final league game against Kilkenny we haven’t failed to show up in any game. There’s been little wrong with our attitude this season and maybe that’s down to the fear of being the next Simon Lambert or Joey Boland if you don’t put in the expected level of effort.
Something similar applies to the Sutcliffe situation. Obviously we all want him back on the team but what would the effect have been on the group dynamic and morale if a player wasn’t disciplined (and it was that two week suspension that’s the root of the discord between him and Cunningham) for disobeying the instructions of the medical team? Danny reacted like an absolute diva in my opinion and if he’s to get back to being the player he can be, regardless of who’s managing us, he’ll need to accept that rules are rules and apply to everyone. I want him back but not at the price of accommodating a prima donna.
Maybe it’s going to take a manager with a more conciliatory approach to get the best out of what’s currently available to us. But if whoever comes in next inherits a group of players where that complacent attitude no longer exists then Cunningham will have done us a great service quite apart from the young players he has introduced. And anyone returning to the panel will have to buy into that too.