It’s late June in 2013 and it’s almost 9pm. My head is in my hands and I’m looking at the floor of the dressing room in O’Moore Park. Beads of sweat from my forehead are dropping to the floor below me.
With droplets from an ice pack strapped around my quad also falling to the ground, a nice pool of water has formed by my feet. I’m a broken man - mentally and physically. We’ve just been dumped out of the Leinster championship by Dublin. It’s their first championship victory over us in 71 years.
We can hear the Dubs rejoicing in their victory down the corridor as the door of our dressing room swings open and Anthony Daly, the Dublin manager, steps into our broken world. I remember him telling me some time later that it was like walking into an A&E on that night in Portlaoise - bodies of broken men all over the place, multiple sets of crutches scattered about, bloodied jerseys, bags of ice.
It’s like a scene from Inglourious Basterds. Credit to Dalo and his Dublin team, they had taken us down after we brought the game to a replay. That still doesn’t make it any easier to take. They had won by only three points but, more importantly, they were more than three points better than us on the night.
Anyway, Dalo comes in and gives the usual post-match speech you'd hear from an opposition manager. He speaks eloquently about how proud he is of his own team. But he also speaks about his admiration for Brian Cody and the rest of us, about what we are all about and what we stood for, about the standards we have set. It means little to me. They had still caught and surpassed us.
They’re the ones that are now preparing for a Leinster final. He has nice words to say about us but they’re not resonating with me. They’re meaningless to a numb body and vacant mind.
But then he says something that hits me like a glass door. It doesn’t just resonate with me. It shakes my aching bent-over body into an upright position. My slumbering mind is awake and alert.
“Look, no better team than yourselves to pick it up for Tipperary coming to town in seven days’ time,” he says.
Excuse me. What did he just say? Did I hear that right? Can he run that one by me again? I seek out my nearest teammate so he can set me straight on this.
Lester Ryan is sitting beside me so I ask him, "Have we Tipp next week?"
He confirmed it. We were due to play Tipperary in Nowlan Park the following weekend.
Kick in the arse
Only a few seconds ago, I was at my lowest ebb. I now have something to latch on to. I have something I need, something I didn’t know I needed. I don’t know exactly what that something is. Maybe it’s a razor sharp focus. Maybe it’s a kick in the arse for feeling sorry for myself. Maybe it’s just a non-refundable reason to do everything in my power over the next seven days to make sure I’m right to go to war again with our fiercest enemy.
I hadn’t given any attention or focus to draws or qualifiers in the lead-up to the Dublin match. My quad was giving me trouble and I was trying to get it right. So, this is major news to me. But our panel is experiencing a bad run of injuries at the moment. During all my years with Kilkenny, I have never seen us as stretched. We’ve been decimated and had to bring in a number of under-21 players to make up the numbers for internal games behind closed doors at training.
Henry Shefflin has broken a bone in his foot and had a plate inserted into it. TJ Reid has a hamstring problem. Paul Murphy rolled his ankle a few days ago and has torn ligaments as well. I tore my quad three weeks ago and I'm just after tearing it again against Dublin. You'd want three doctors to assess everything that is wrong with Eoin Larkin.
But in the terrifying and beautifully uncertain moment when Anthony Daly utters those words, it’s like a lightning rod has hit the dressing room. That one line has stuck in our heads. We will be ready in seven days. We don’t know how and we aren’t going to be 100 percent right for it, but we will be ready.
And we were ready. We emptied our bodies and minds that following week as we prepared for Tipperary. There are big games in a player’s career and then there are huge games like league and provincial finals. They mean everything to you and your teammates. And then there are major games like All Ireland finals and county finals. Then, there is a very small number of games that define you.
They don’t define you, or the team, from a skill or tactical point of view. They define you as a man, as a character, as a group of individuals. They find out what you are really about when your backs are to the wall and when it matters the most.
Players need to reach deep into the dark place of their souls this week to find what they can
Sometimes groups need to regroup together in order to send a message that will stick in people’s minds for years. The games that follow those moments define a team. That qualifier against Tipperary in 2013 was ours. It was a day of reckoning for the panel and it will always stick with us. Age and personnel don’t matter on days like these. You have to find the leader and balls within yourself and you need to drag it out. You need to do everything in your power to find it and you need to drag it out of everyone around you, too.
We didn’t win the All Ireland that year but, by God, does that game live inside me and every other Kilkenny supporter. I didn’t do a lot of work in the week leading up to the game other than a lot of physio sessions to help get my body right. I checked my journal after the match and I could see that I got my quad treated 14 times across the week. I sat in ice baths at 11.45pm. I bluffed my way through a fitness test to secure my place on the team. Many more did the same and more.
Henry came on in the last few minutes of the game to contribute and he still had a lump of metal in his foot. You don’t go missing in moments when you’re needed the most. This was that moment. We eventually saw out the game and won by three points.
It all came back to me when I heard the draw for the qualifiers on Monday morning and Clare and Wexford were drawn together. This is huge, I thought. This is defining. With all due respect to the provincial finals, the teams involved will have another chance to prove their worth. For these two teams, this is their day of reckoning. For Davy Fitzgerald and Brian Lohan, this is year-defining and it may even define their times with their respective groups. It is that big.
When teams lose, they can break up, managers can move on and that’s the end of their journey. That’s the magnitude of the situation for Wexford and Clare.
Both sides have only six days to get their heads around that and around the other team. They know each other very well, having met in last year’s championship and in the league earlier on this year, so they’ll need no introductions. That league game in particular heightened a brewing rivalry to boiling point. It’s now ready to erupt.
First of all, there is the sideline battle between two guys that don’t like each other. Throw into the mix the controversial identification of Clare players as close Covid-19 contacts from earlier on in the year and then consider how Clare ended Wexford’s year in 2020. Add in a hint of the politics between the Clare administration and Brian Lohan for good measure. There are multiple layers of stuff to add into the mix. It makes for a toxic concoction that both sides can eat into as they tear each other apart in Thurles.
They may not have the traditional rivalry that exists with Kilkenny and Tipperary, but they have an edgy tension that exists between their managers. That will transfer to the players all this week and will eventually spill out onto the pitch. They just really don’t like each other and broken bridges will not be mended on Saturday.
Sometimes games aren’t about elite individual players or tactics or managerial switches. They can be about simplistic madness of mind and body and pushing both those facets to do crazy and supernatural things.
Players need to reach deep into the dark place of their souls this week to find what they can. And when they do, they’ll need to bring it to Thurles at lunchtime on Saturday before letting every fibre of it out.
Folks, hang on for the ride. This could be a wild one.