The years when you don’t win the All-Ireland never leave you. I’ve said it before here – the likes of 2010 and 2013 will always be etched into my memory, for all the wrong reasons. Years we failed, years we wish did not exist. I was lucky to have great days in the black and amber jersey but the bad ones contaminate them.
I hate to say it like that. I know it shouldn’t be the case. I know I should be able to say the good far outweighed the bad. I know that in sport you can’t win everything. I know that it’s probably not very healthy to fixate on the ones we lost when we won so many. But that’s just me. That’s how I am built.
How do I banish those thoughts? Truthfully, I don’t think I ever will. I have worked at it and trained my mind to restrain them but I don’t think they will ever go completely. All-Irelands are what we as players and ex-players are measured on in Kilkenny. We are held accountable for our actions and performances in that jersey.
When Kilkenny people have a conversation about a certain year, how Kilkenny did isn’t far from the thought process. It almost shapes that year. Was it a good year? Well, sure, we won the All-Ireland so it can’t have been bad. Either that or we didn’t win the All-Ireland so let’s not talk about it. Shite weather we’re having, isn’t it?
If you’re a Kilkenny hurler, you feel this in the air. This pressure to succeed. There’s no point pretending you don’t. It’s the opposite, if anything. By acknowledging that it’s there, you give yourself a baseline to aim at. If you don’t do enough to hit that baseline, somebody else will. So you don’t really have a choice in the matter.
I remember going around the schools in the county with the cup in September in 2009. I got talking to a teacher during one of the visits and he was laughing, saying that the class we were in front of started school in 2006. To them, Liam MacCarthy visiting for the day was just a normal part of being back in school in early September. It meant no class for the afternoon and no homework that night. They knew nothing else.
Things like that bring it home to you. The normal, everyday run of peoples’ lives depended to some extent on what you did in a Kilkenny jersey. People were always telling me that they had the Monday after the All-Ireland booked off work from back in February. It was an unofficial bank holiday in the county and it was down to us to make it a good one.
I'm only bringing all this up now because I get a sense around Kilkenny that the pressure is starting to ramp up again. Winning the league is being taken as a sign that the good times never went too far away. Even though the wins over Dublin and Offaly haven't been overly impressive, it's two wins from two and nobody else has that under their belt. Now they're going to play Galway in Salthill and the expectation levels are rising.
After two mediocre enough performances, I would think this is the perfect game for Kilkenny now. Apart from anything else, if they play like they did against Dublin and Offaly, it’s going to be a long afternoon for them. But there’s more than just the need for improvement feeding into this game.
When you don’t win the All-Ireland, the first order of business the following year in Kilkenny is to get your hands on whoever did. We were always bulling for the team that had won the previous year’s All-Ireland if it wasn’t us. It was always more than a normal run-of-the-mill league game.
If it was a league game away from home, so much the better. We beat Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in 2005. We went to Thurles in early 2011 and did the same to Tipp. That was a big statement game, almost like a psychological stand. It was a flexing of your muscle to the enemy. Don't think we've gone anywhere, lads. We're here and we're ready, all day and all night.
We had them lined up from a distance that night. Tommy Walsh and I had even spoken about it briefly at the All Stars function the previous year. Me standing there fairly full with a vodka and Red Bull in my hand, leaning against the bar in the Citywest Hotel wishing the game was the following week. But it wasn't, so I had to eat humble pie for the night. It tasted like shit!
When February came around, we were bringing war to Thurles that night. No need for a team-talk, Brian – just pick the team, give us the jersey and open the dressing room door. Management could have stayed in the Newpark Hotel after our pre-match meal, we would have hitch-hiked to Thurles in our gear that evening.
We gave Tipperary a guard of honour under the floodlights before the game. It boiled our blood. It turned my stomach. I gave three claps and couldn’t bring myself to clap anymore. That’s my All-Ireland ye have, lads. Three claps is probably three too many.
In my time, we only ever lost our first game back against the reigning All-Ireland champions once (out of four times). It was against Clare in the league in 2014 and it still irks me that I got done for a crucial free near the end of that one. I was coming out for a ball and got a pushed in the back but Brian Gavin didn't call the free. Instead, he whistled me for lying on the ball.
I was raging. I probably did lie on it half a second too long but I definitely got a push. It should have been my free. I said it to Brian a couple of years later and he remembered it alright but said he didn’t see any push. It ate me up for four or five days afterwards. The two points in the league didn’t really matter one way or the other. It was losing the chance to put Clare back in their box.
That’s what this Sunday is for Kilkenny. They haven’t had that luxury of getting their hands on Galway so far this year but it is coming down the track fast. A Galway train building nicely, on a bye week last week, at home, fresh from a week’s recovery after sticking five goals past Offaly. Galway didn’t beat Kilkenny last year but they are still the All-Ireland champions. They took over and dominated the hurling world. Kilkenny can’t allow that to stand.
Galway dominated Leinster, won an All-Ireland and threw in the league for good measure. That’s a recipe to drive a sane man mad watching on from the sidelines. This is Kilkenny’s first chance to set the record straight. It doesn’t matter that Galway didn’t beat Kilkenny last year – they kept Liam MacCarthy for the winter. That’s enough to get a nice sick feeling in Kilkenny stomachs.
They're envious of hearing about Galway. Of looking at them at the All Stars last year. Of the image of David Burke lifting the cup. Of seeing them on The Late Late Show, the Toy Show, in the papers, on the news. Of them doing any promotional work in the GAA world. Sick it's not the Rose of Mooncoin playing through the winter.
The current Kilkenny team has a lot of lads who have no All-Ireland medal so you might think they’d find it hard to muster up that jealousy. Or that it might be hard to be offended by someone else having possession of the title when you haven’t been up those steps yourself.
Don't believe it for a second. Roll the names of the leaders off your tongue – Eoin Murphy, Paul Murphy, Cillian Buckley, TJ Reid, Colin Fennelly, Conor Fogarty. I guarantee you they're in training this week talking about how Galway have their All-Ireland. Everybody else has to take their lead from them.
Life is short. Life in an intercounty set-up is even shorter again. Players come in and think they're doing well and then they get overtaken by someone else who is just that bit more desperate for it or who is learning that bit quicker what it takes. Ollie Walsh isn't even on the panel anymore and he was starting league games only a couple of months ago. That happens every year.
Every intercounty set-up that is going well is generally made up of four subsets. There’s the older lads hanging on for a last year or two, doing their best to get themselves right first and foremost. There’s the shy lads who are happy enough to fulfil their role without any fuss. There’s the young lads, full of energy and good intentions, making mistakes and learning the ropes.
And then there is the core group of lads between 24 and 29 who are driving everything. For Kilkenny, that's Cillian, TJ, the two Murphys, the lads mentioned above, basically. You are never sure of your place under Brian Cody but there's always a handful of players who know that if they're right, all things being equal, they're at the front of it.
They’re hungry and cranky and used to the pressure that always hangs in the air in Kilkenny. They will shield those young lads from it all. Just row in behind us here, lads, and pick it up as you go along. But most of all, they’ll be in the team meeting on Friday night, on the bus to Galway, in the dressing room, out on the pitch, in the huddle, driving home the message – they have our All-Ireland. No more.
This is no reflection on Galway – they celebrated and rightly so. But they will be spoken of and thought of in the Kilkenny camp this week with contempt. These players have come up in a culture that says you should be All-Ireland champions every year. It doesn’t matter that that’s unreasonable, that’s just how it is. Every year without an All-Ireland is a waste.
That’s what we grew up with, that’s what we know. Cody’s team talk will be a short one.