In 2014, we were staring down the barrel of a gun. I knew it, most of the older lads on the Kilkenny panel knew it. The panel had a core group of players who had been there since the early noughties. We had given a lot of miles, blood, sweat and tears for the sacred jersey. But now it was coming near the day we all dreaded.
The previous year had been a struggle on lots of fronts. This new evolving game gave us problems and not alone did we lose our Leinster and All-Ireland titles but our ageing panel was starting to rust. The WD-40 was not enough anymore to patch up the injuries - and that was the most telling thing.
Our bodies, which we had used as battering rams for 10-to-15 years up to that, were coming near the end of their natural usefulness at the top of the intercounty scene. It was a bit like in a game of Tetris - we were running out of space at the top of the screen and the pieces that were coming in weren’t a fit for the spaces we had. Our bodies were breaking down, basically. Everyone reaches that point eventually.
In my mind, at the start of 2014, I felt the game was moving to a different orbit. The rebirth of teams like Clare and Cork saw them get to an All-Ireland with performances born out of speed, pace and movement. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure where Kilkenny’s game of tenacious tackling, physicality, wearing teams down and route one long ball fitted into this new world. Did it still hold the same currency?
He knows as well as anyone that there comes a point in every career when you have run your course
On the face of it, the obvious answer was no. The wide spaces of Croke Park and Thurles were now being used to the maximum and this was going to be the new way of things. You looked around the Kilkenny defence and you saw JJ Delaney, me, Tommy Walsh and Brian Hogan all the wrong side of 32.
It didn't take a genius to work out that Brian Cody wasn't going to keep togging out all four of us in the same defence at the same time for much longer. We had served him well but our team was coming near the end. Being realistic about it, I had it in my head that Brian definitely wouldn't play all four of us and on certain days, maybe not even three or two.
There would always be one - JJ's place was never in doubt. But when Tommy got moved to the forwards during the league, you could smell it. I was played in bits and bobs. Henry Shefflin started struggling a bit for game time at the other end of the pitch. Everybody knew that time was passing. There was more of a chance of one of us getting offered a sponsored spot in a nursing home than being tapped up by any sporting brand.
It is a scary time when you realise the end is near. It creeps up on you. It isn’t just the idea that this might all be over soon, although obviously that’s a big part of it. But it’s also a change in how you see yourself. For years, you felt invincible. You knew that as long as you put the work in, you were bulletproof.
Now, suddenly, there were limits. It didn’t matter how hard you trained, you weren’t going to get any faster. For me, a sure sign was when a forward ran away from you and you were not even within a hurl’s length to hook. You could lift all the weights in the world and not be as strong and limber and athletic as you were when you were 27. That simple transaction of getting out what you put in didn’t tally up any more.
Fear of the end can be a positive, though. It can make you roll up your sleeves and push for ‘The Last Dance’. In the end, 2014 turned out to be a brilliant year for us and the knowledge that it was going to be the last one had a lot to do with that. We didn’t say anything but we knew it all deep down.
We needed this more than any year. At least that's how it felt. That's what we drove ourselves with. JJ had one of his best years, I had a decent season, Hogie got dropped but fought his way back to win his place. Tommy, Henry and Taggy Fogarty showed huge leadership throughout. I remember in an internal A v B game in the run up the All-Ireland where the B team had a half-forward line of Henry, Richie Power and Tommy. Scary when I look back.
That year has sprung to mind for me watching Tipperary this summer. I look at Paudie Maher, Brendan Maher, Bonner Maher (before his injury), Noel McGrath, Seamus Callanan and to a lesser extent Bubbles O'Dwyer and I see a group of players who I'd bet will never start again together in a Tipperary team after this year is done.
I’m not retiring any of them, definitely not. They may all play for Tipperary again from 2022 onwards but not all of them together at the one time. It just won’t be feasible. The game won’t allow it. It has moved on again.
They have all given serious service to Tipperary since 2008 and will be remembered for many huge things they have done for Tipperary. And they're not done yet, that's important to remember. They have Waterford tomorrow and if they come through that, Kilkenny in the semi-final. Is this their 'Last Dance', like 2014 was for us?
Can they pull together now? Can they this weekend look at each other without saying a thing, knowing that things will never be the same again after this year? Is it in them to decide together to go out with a bang?
Liam Sheedy has been with them all the way through. He will back them. Maybe they won't all start this weekend but they will all see enough game time in some capacity to make the difference if they want it.
Waterford will test them but there has to be some security in knowing that they can pull out a big performance. They’ve done it plenty of times down the years and they are bound to have a level of defiance in them when they run out in Páirc Uí Chaoimh tomorrow. They will need more than just that, of course. But it’s no harm having it in the locker.
I am sure Liam would have liked to have helped them out by this stage. I have no doubt that when Tipperary were winning those under-20 All-Irelands in 2018 and 2019, Sheedy would have expected that by the summer of 2021 there would be at least three or four of them absolutely demanding starting places in the senior team. But other than Jake Morris, nobody has really stepped up.
There could be any number of reasons for this. Maybe those under-20s just aren't good enough. We have all waited patiently for them to break through and plenty of them have got chances but none have done enough. Maybe Liam Cahill overachieved with them. We've seen just how good a manager he is with the Waterford seniors so maybe it's simply a case of him having gotten the very best out of an ordinary bunch.
Or maybe they’re better than that and Liam Sheedy has just been reluctant to move on from the guys who have served him and the rest of the Tipp management so well down through the years. Liam is very loyal to these guys and why wouldn’t he be? They have rarely let him down.
This is the big question he faces now. He knows as well as anyone that there comes a point in every career when you have run your course. Father Time is undefeated, as they say in American sport. Only Liam can really make that call - he is the one who sees them day in and day out. He is the one who has the best view of what they’re capable of.
Hard calls have to be made. I’m sure Liam would say he has been making them all along and the older guys have come out on the right side of them, fair and square. But if I go back and compare it to the way Cody dealt with us in 2014, you got the sense that he would prefer to move the older fellas on too early rather than too late. He had huge loyalty too but he didn’t let it get in the way. I wonder if that loyalty could end up being Liam Sheedy’s downfall.
Waterford have the potential to over-run teams that don't match their athleticism. Look at how they did that against Galway, particularly down the right side of their attack where Jamie Barron and Calum Lyons seemed to really press high up the field. If they run all day like they usually do, the needle is bound to start going into the red for some of Tipp's older warriors.
Ultimately, Tipperary are what they are. I don’t see any big development in them this year - they look a lot like the team of 2020 and 2019. The lack of fresh talent forcing its way in means they are a known quantity.
But remember - that known quantity has won three All-Irelands in the past decade. Just because they haven’t developed new weapons doesn’t mean the old ones are obsolete. Plenty of teams would love to be able to call on the wealth of experience and skill Tipperary have. I wouldn’t write off the class of 2021 just yet.
As Florence Welch puts it, it's always darkest before the dawn.