Questions for Dublin hurling as Eoghan O’Donnell makes the big leap

Frank Roche

On the last Saturday in January, Eoghan O’Donnell stood on the steps of the Hogan Stand and lifted silver to the heavens.

OK, so it was only the Walsh Cup – but allow yourself to imagine how Dublin’s newly appointed hurling captain, one of the most highly regarded full-backs in the game, may have mapped out his 2022 ambitions in that moment.

Dublin had just laid waste to Wexford, a first full league season as we emerged from Covid’s grip looming. O’Donnell will have craved bigger challenges, tougher opponents, more cups. At 26, he wasn’t quite old enough to feature when Dublin made Leinster SHC history in 2013; but why not seek to bridge that nine-year gap? Why not aim even higher?

Yesterday morning, dropped the bombshell that Eoghan O’Donnell has joined up with the Dublin football squad in preparation for their All-Ireland SFC quarter-final on the last weekend in June.

What a difference five months can make. The Whitehall powerhouse might yet get to realise lofty All-Ireland ambitions this year – but it won’t happen with the hurlers.

What’s occasionally forgotten in these code-hopping sagas is that no amateur GAA player is ever contractually obliged to one panel in preference to another. The secret is in that one word: amateur.

Moreover, especially in the absence of any official confirmation via the Third Secret of Fatima that is Dublin GAA, we can only speculate on what this means.

For starters, any reference to O’Donnell “leaving the Dublin hurlers” to join Dessie Farrell’s county footballers would be entirely misleading. The hurlers are finished for the year. We can’t even be certain who will be managing them next season, let alone who will be captain.

But the story still qualifies as big news not just because the Sky Blue footballers are so box-office, or because O’Donnell is no ordinary hurler, but because it’s symptomatic of the challenges that dog every attempt by Dublin hurling to maximise its potential.

What happens if his summer football internship proves an unqualified success? Given the unfeasible demands of juggling two codes at inter-county level, might another great white hope be lost for good?

O’Donnell was a Dublin minor footballer coveted by Dessie Farrell when he was U-21 boss before hurling took over his sporting life. He still plays club football for Whitehall – as a forward, even if the suspicion is that Farrell may be looking at him more as a potential back.

“This is not the first time, it’s not the last time,” says former Dublin manager Humphrey Kelleher, citing previous examples going all the way back to the 1960s and ’70s, and through more recent examples of Conal Keaney, ‘Dotsy’ O’Callaghan, Shane Ryan and Tomás Brady.

“If I was involved in a county set-up, if Eoghan O’Donnell wants to go play football, let him go off and play football … Dublin hurling is bigger than any one player. And don’t get me wrong – Eoghan O’Donnell is the captain, he’s a fine player.

“But somebody else will come along, and a lot of times you don’t blame these lads.

“But it is a bigger question that we must answer in Dublin hurling, and this reflects it sadly. I don’t think we’re coaching the proper way at schools; I don’t think we’re giving all the attention to hurling as we should.”

Kelleher is secretary of the ‘Friends of Dublin Hurling’ – a group that followed the less glamorous code through the historic highs of 2011 league success and 2013 Leinster coronation. There has been less reason to cheer this season, as that Walsh Cup cakewalk gave way to league and Leinster campaigns that both withered on the vine of promising starts.

Last Saturday week, the dream was snuffed out for another year. Blame Wexford, if you like, for having the audacity to ambush Kilkenny in Nowlan Park, fast-tracking Dublin’s demise via scoring difference … but really they had no one to blame bar themselves.

Mattie Kenny’s men had won their first three round-robin fixtures but when the bar was raised by Leinster’s standard-setters, Kilkenny and then Galway, they flunked the litmus test.

Back in February, at a time when the hurlers were motoring far better than the footballers, O’Donnell himself cautioned that Dublin were “not in the leading forefront” of All-Ireland contenders.

But he clarified: “We certainly are in the close pack. We fully believe in Dublin that with a few extra per cent, and a few more consistent performances, on our day we can beat anyone in the country.

“If you didn’t fully believe you were making progress and nearly achieving something, we wouldn’t be able to keep it going … ”

Where he goes to next will fascinate all Dubs – and leave their hurling fraternity just a little fearful.

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