THE first time Luke Swan pricked the wider GAA consciousness was the 2018 Leinster minor hurling final when he torpedoed Kilkenny with 3-1 from play.
The tally was all the more impressive again considering that Swan was still U16 at the time. It clearly wasn’t just an isolated performance either because, for both the Dublin minor hurlers and footballers, Swan amassed a whopping 13-7 across both Leinster championships in that 2018 season.
What was noticeable about Swan at that time was his huge size and physique for a 16-year-old and he has continued to display that ferocious power. Despite playing against defenders two years older than him, Swan was still dominating defences in this year’s Leinster U20 football championship.
It’s unknown if there will be a U20 hurling championship later this year but, if there is, Swan should be one of Dublin’s standout players.
He is an immense young talent but the next question for Swan is what happens next?
Over the last decade, Dublin have produced some brilliant young dual players, but the hurlers have invariably lost those custody battles: Ciarán Kilkenny, Cormac Costello, Eric Lowndes, Con O’Callaghan and a raft of others picked football when they had the ability to be a star at whichever code they chose.
The possibility of dual players is a dead argument in every county now, but the conflicts still go on, especially at underage level.
Swan is almost unique because dual minors and U20s in Dublin have been effectively flushed out of the system over the last few years. That hasn’t come as a directive from the county board, but players have been discreetly encouraged to make a choice at development squad level.
If they don’t the frustration is only compounded when those talented dual players are forced to make a choice after, or even before, minor.
At the outset of the 2018 season, eight Galway minor dual players were told to make a decision, and to choose either football or hurling; seven went with the hurling squad, and while Galway won the All-Ireland minor hurling title, the one dual player who went with the footballers couldn’t regret his decision – Cathal Sweeney was named Minor Footballer of the Year that season.
Galway lost that minor football final, which underlines how difficult it is to achieve a double in both codes. Galway almost pulled off the double again last year, but the footballers lost to Cork after extra-time, two weeks after the hurlers had won their third title in a row.
When Tipperary lost All-Ireland minor hurling and football finals in 2015, hurling manager Liam Cahill issued his players an ultimatum for 2016 — play hurling or football, but not both.
“I’ve no issue with the dual game in Tipperary once they’re not drawing from the same pot,” said Cahill after Tipp won the 2016 All-Ireland minor hurling title. “It’s been tried, it’s been tested, it’s failed.”
No senior squad has dual players anymore but 30 years on from when Cork completed the senior double, it’s hard to see when and where, or if, that achievement will ever be repeated.
A couple of teams have gone close in the meantime; Cork won the hurling but lost the football final in 1999; Galway were crowned football champions in 2001, two weeks after the hurlers lost the final to Tipperary.
Seán Óg Ó hAilpín and Alan Kerins (he came on as a sub in the football decider) played in both of those finals in those years, but the dual player is effectively extinct now, particularly in those counties challenging for the top honours in both codes.
Four counties had an opportunity to achieve a double in the last decade (Cork 2010, Dublin 2011 and 2013, Tipperary 2016 and Galway 2018) but Dublin in 2013 (the hurlers lost a semi-final to Cork) were the only county who could realistically have pulled off that feat.
The days of a county like Offaly having that opportunity (they won the hurling title in 1981, before losing the football final two weeks later) seems like a distant fantasy now.
It’s only a largely populated county, strong in both codes — like Dublin, Cork and Galway — that can really harbour dual All-Ireland ambitions anymore.
The other side of that dual coin is that when a county becomes sporadically strong in both codes, sustaining that level is never easy for counties who don’t have a modern tradition of success in one of those codes.
Wexford reached an All-Ireland football semi-final in 2008 but they’re now a Division 4 side; Tipperary had more underage success to draw on but four years after reaching an All-Ireland football semi-final (the same year the hurlers won the All-Ireland), Tipperary are in Division 3 and have never come close to reaching that 2016 level since.
As the years and decades pass, Cork’s double in 1990 seems all the more glorious. It could yet be repeated but, it’s almost certain that the achievements of Denis Walsh, and particularly Teddy McCarthy, won’t.
He was an incredible player, but McCarthy also needed the ball to hop in a certain way for him to sustain a brilliant dual career.
When McCarthy won his first All-Ireland hurling medal in 1986, the only hurling championship match he played that year was the final.
When McCarthy played in three successive All-Ireland football finals between 1987 and 1989, the hurlers didn’t get out of Munster in any of those seasons.
In 1990, McCarthy was injured in the first round of the hurling championship against Waterford and he didn’t appear again until September.
In any case, we’ll never see his like again.