Time flies. Remind David O’Callaghan that Dublin and Galway meet on Sunday nearly 10 years since the landmark Leinster final and he almost sounds surprised. He didn’t know it at the time but Dublin’s 12-point win and first provincial title in 52 years was the destination and not a staging post.
“I was happy. Ten years is hard to believe. I was hitting into my 30′s and would have hoped that we could get back to that stage, another All-Ireland semi-final and maybe a step farther.”
Yet it was intoxicating, that summer – a mad surge through the province that went from nearly losing to Wexford to hammering the champions in the final. In between there the defeat of Kilkenny, a first since the 1940s and the last since, also after a replay.
“Trollier [Eamonn Dillon] got a goal down in Wexford and we were very flat that day and just about survived,” he remembers.
Kilkenny were the litmus test. In manager Anthony Daly’s third year, 2011, Dublin had beaten Kilkenny in the league final, a first national title since 1939 but the following championship came with retribution, as did 2012.
“People were looking at 2012 as the big chance for Dublin and Kilkenny just rolled over us. In 2013 we just went about our business, getting promotion and building up to playing them again.
“You’re gauging yourself off them. I’d say 2014 was particularly disappointing because we had broken through the year before and there was an urgency because a lot of us were getting on. But the record since hasn’t been brilliant either.”
A feature of Dublin’s championship 10 years ago was that they played every week for five weeks because of replays needed against Wexford and Kilkenny. O’Callaghan believes the constant match play benefited the team and he would love to be playing in the current round-robin format.
“If you’re part of a sports team, there are times you hit patches and things are humming – everything’s right. That was how it all came together in those weeks.
“In championships gone by, there could be huge gaps and I loved playing week on week. In 2013 we played five weekends running. It was great and gave the team cohesion.”
The sense of the semi-final was that Dublin’s chance had gone after they hadn’t taken the chance to win on the first day. Kilkenny clawed it back and they had such a good record in replays to say nothing of the record against Dublin during the Brian Cody era, by which point it was seven out of seven by an average of 14 points.
O’Callaghan was to the fore in the replay victory, scoring 0-4 from play as a goal by Danny Sutcliffe, who is still playing, defined the difference in the end and the All-Ireland champions were consigned to the qualifiers.
“It was like a weight off us,” he says, “having been on the receiving end of beatings by Kilkenny, who were the top team in the country at that stage.
“The games built the momentum. We should have beaten Kilkenny the first day but they got a late equaliser. There was a bit of a now or never attitude on the part of the players about Kilkenny before the replay. They had a great record in replays but we knew it was time. They were there for the taking.”
The crazy scheduling careered on with provincial champions Galway next up. Dublin’s record in the fixture was positive, as they had defeated them in 2011 but the team had disappointed in the past after winning a big match.
“There was the risk that we had to go out and play a Leinster final seven days later but we smelled silverware and everyone was tuned in. That week there was a ferocious training session as well – no holding back, no easing off and it set the tone for the final.
“You’d never have it now. It would be all about recovery but management knew that we had been prone to following a big victory by falling flat. The confidence beating Kilkenny had injected into the squad, was huge.”
He starred in the match when it needed to be won, providing the assist for Paul Ryan’s first goal and stitching together three points before half-time to build an eight-point lead, 1-12 to 0-7 and he remembers the day fondly.
“The morning of the Leinster final, my nephew was born – I remember that and we were all so positive. We played well.”
Had they imagined that they weren’t going to win the match?
“I don’t think so. That Galway team went on to win the All-Ireland and they got a couple of goals. I remember Conal [Keaney] dropping back to win some super balls. We managed to kick on and Paul [Ryan] got a nice goal.”
The celebrations were heartfelt and flavoured with optimism as much as pride but in the All-Ireland semi-final, they came up narrowly short against Cork and never really rediscovered the confidence and brio of 2013.
On Sunday, Dublin play Galway again with an outside chance of reaching the Leinster final and a guarantee of advancement in the All-Ireland. O’Callaghan feels it’s a free shot, an opportunity to put in a performance against one the contenders in what is turning into a very open championship.
Asked whether he is regretful or happy with his own career, the answer is positive.
“It’s not all about winning but it was nice though for that generation of Dublin hurlers to get the recognition that comes with silverware.”