Early success steals youth away from even the most gifted


Tipping Point:My, my. What japes we had on Saturday night in Croker. Not so much a game of two halves, more like a night of six sixths or seven sevenths.

At times it seemed as if the pitch was on an axle and every once in a while someone (possibly a Central Council delegate gone stone mad with the power) decided to tilt it so that one or other of the teams was playing downhill.

Scores came in cloudbursts, Stephen Cluxton missed a penalty and Ger Brennan’s grip on his marbles slipped for just long enough to earn him a red card.

Mayo looked heavy-legged towards the end but saw little enough to fret about on the road back west. Ger Cafferkey got a severe chasing from Bernard Brogan all right but you’ll have that sometimes.

Better to be skinned in March than scalded in August or September.

In amongst the carnival lights, Ciarán Kilkenny quietly and unobtrusively put spark to his own candle. Smuggled into the starting line-up as a late replacement for Diarmuid Connolly, this was his first league game as a Dublin senior.

Anyone expecting to see the cartwheeling fizzbomb who put up 2-10 against Carlow in an under-21 match the other week might have left wondering what all the fuss is about. Kilkenny didn’t take a shot at goal all night.

That wasn’t what he was there for though. His job for the night was to process ball from out around the 45 into the full-forward line. Time after time, he arrowed 30-yard kick passes into Brogan, Paddy Andrews and later, when he came on , Kevin McManamon.

The best of them came in the second half, soon after Brennan had walked and Cluxton had seen his penalty saved.

Kilkenny arced a gorgeous pass down the sideline under the Hogan Stand, putting McManamon away for the goal that gave Dublin a lead they never lost. It wasn’t so much play-making as quarter-backing.

Earlier last week, Kilkenny turned up in Croke Park for one of the publicity gigs of which we’ve all become so fond. It was his first outing since his love letter to the GAA back at the start of January and for as long as we came up with questions, he leaned against a desk off to the side of the GAA Museum and happily came back with answers.

He talked about life and passion and teaching and all that good stuff, every once in a while throwing in a seanfhocal that made a fair portion of the hacks cough and shuffle and stare at our shoes. The dread thought struck that if the football and hurling didn’t work out for some reason (God forbid), this lad could be GAA president by the time he turns 26 (seriously God, forbid).

Kilkenny is 19, won’t be 20 until July. He is at that stage just now where every mention of his gifts comes accompanied by a reference to his birth cert. Saturday night was his first league game only because he was studying for his Leaving Cert this time last year. Yet when you watch him play and listen to him speak, his age becomes worth remarking upon only for how little he seems to act it.

Talent will do that. The better you are, the shorter your youth.

You’ll still be young but being young only implies youth, it doesn’t guarantee it. When Kilkenny spoke to us last week, he fell back on a few stock phrases that he’d obviously rehearsed beforehand – stuff like not being able “to hide the love and passion I have for the games”. When he talked about the statement he released at the start of January, he told us that he’d got a bit of help from a former teacher of his when he sat down to draft it.

Mixed in with admiration for the work he’d done in preparing to meet the outside world – infinitely more than we had done ahead of meeting him, of course – you still felt it was a bit of a shame that this is what a 19-year-old was doing with his time. But then, that’s the world he’s walking now. Ciarán Kilkenny didn’t create it but if he’s going to be as good as everybody thinks he is, he’s 100 per cent right to face it on his own terms.

Fadó, fadó – actually, it’s only just over four years ago but it feels like a lifetime – this column sat in the bar of Holywood Golf Club across the table from Rory McIlroy. He was then, like Kilkenny is now, just a few months short of his 20th birthday and was still without a win on the European Tour.

Two things have always stuck with me from that day. The first was that every old-timer who came over to say hello left with the words, “Tell your Da I was asking for him.” The second was that McIlroy couldn’t rightly remember the last time he had played the course out the window, the one he had grown up on.

Talent and success will give you a great life but they are boats that sail you away from your youth with every passing wave. Last Thursday night, the Sky Sports golf commentators gushed after a fairly nondescript interview with McIlroy.

“He’s just so normal,” said Robert Lee. Poppycock. McIlroy is a good guy in a mad world but normal left the building a long time ago. Normal doesn’t walk off the course with a toothache.

McIlroy will get his game back, maybe even in time for Augusta. But his youth is gone, young and all as he is. He’s never looked older than he did on Friday. Success did that. His life is pretty much everything he hoped it would be but it’s not the life of a 23-year-old.

Ciarán Kilkenny could be anything. Above all, it would be nice to think he could be young for just a while more.

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