Tony Browne still finds it hard to let it go

The former Waterford star will be in the stand against Cork ... and he hates it

Waterford’s Tony Browne celebrates his injury time equalising goal in the 2010 Munster final against Cork. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Waterford’s Tony Browne celebrates his injury time equalising goal in the 2010 Munster final against Cork. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

It was a couple of weeks after he announced his retirement that Tony Browne set about the odd- jobbery and elbow-greasery that a man sometimes feels he ought to be attending to around the house. But when he dragged the lawnmower out of hibernation to give the grass a short back and sides, he found himself with a less-than-willing dance partner.

A rip, a pull, a tap and a tinker later, he gave up and went back inside. “I’m going for a run,” he told his wife. “I’ll just do 5k.”

The last bit was delivered in the sort of tone most men use when they say they’re heading to the local just for one. This, after all, is a man who spent the last few years of his career making sure he had an 8k run done before training so he’d be properly warmed up. But she was wise to it and reminded him he didn’t have to do that anymore, that part of this new life was supposed to mean cutting back.

Few weights “I decided she was right,” he laughs. “So I went out and started tricking away at the lawnmower again, trying to get it going. But sure I only lasted about another 10 minutes before I came back in and said, ‘Listen, I’m going to take a spin into the club here and do a few weights.’

“I was still in that kind of mindset. I still am. I can’t just stop. I wouldn’t want to.”

Not a bad gravestone line, that. Here lies the man who can’t just stop. For the first time in 23 years, Tony Browne finds himself at a loose end the week of a Waterford Munster Championship game. He’s not checking his hurleys, he’s not cleaning his boots. He’s not closing the door to the outside world so he can think about the man he’ll be marking. He’s not doing any of that. And he hates it.

“It’s a very emotional time once you do make the decision. Obviously I had been thinking about it for a while and I knew in my head I was comfortable with the decision and that it was the right one. But still at the same time it’s very, very difficult to let go of something that you love doing.

“It feels very strange this week. When you’ve been involved as long as I have, it’s a whole new way of being. It feels odd not to be getting ready. There’s no doubt I’d love to be in that dressing-room on Sunday and I’d love to be spending this week fine-tuning the small little things to get ready for it.”

He’s had a while to get his head around it, but he’s not entirely sure he’s quite there yet. He was going to announce it during the league, but when Waterford’s results starting going awry, he didn’t want to land more attention down on Derek McGrath’s head so he held off.

He got it done eventually last month, but soon realised there’s more to it than just putting out a statement through the GPA. Life flips and if you’re not careful you can forget to flip with it. Rehabilitation “Retiring isn’t easy. You make the decision and you have to stand by it and that’s just the way it is . . . I’ve said it to people recently that this period almost feels like rehabilitation . . .

“It’s like you’re entering back into normal life in a way. You’ve been doing something for so long that you feel a bit lost without it. It’s a very emotional time, it’s a difficult time inside your head. You go through a couple of days in a daze, to be very honest about it.”

Tomorrow, the fog clears. He hopes. Waterford versus Cork in Thurles. He doesn’t have a ticket yet for the simple reason it never occurred to him until the other day there wouldn’t be an envelope dropped into the pocket of his gearbag one night at training. Reckons he’ll head to the stadium and find one somewhere along the way.

The same stadium where he made his championship debut 22 years ago next weekend. He’d played in the league before Christmas that season but this was his first Munster Championship game, on a half-hearted day of drizzle and dreck in front of a crowd of 6,000.

Waterford had drawn with Clare the previous week and for the final three minutes of the replay, Tony Browne scooted in off the bench to replace full- back Damien Byrne.

The Irish Times left the “e” off his surname. “I remember it well,” he says. “I came on for three minutes at the end. I spent the game sitting in the stand just engrossed in the game. I was with my mates and sure we were only children at the time. I was only 18. I had never lifted a weight, I knew nothing about diets. It was just a different world to what it is now.”

By the time he retired, he’d seen some of Waterford’s greatest hurlers come in and watched them go out. He went through eight managers and hundreds of teammates. He won four Munster titles, three All Stars and was Hurler of the Year in 1998, one of only two to win it without playing in that year’s All-Ireland final.

That Waterford never made it to Narnia is something he’s had to make his peace with. One All-Ireland final and a hammering therein isn’t the return they thought they’d end up with. But he believes they went as hard as they could for as long as they could. It wasn’t enough and that’s a killer. But he has no trouble looking in the mirror.

“The dream was to chase and All-Ireland and to win an All-Ireland. I’m that kind of person, I’m very competitive. And you do wonder when you get to the end not having won it, did you do enough? But I must say that in the days after I announced it, I got phonecalls from players from other counties who I’d really respect and it took me aback to be honest . . .

“In my head I was going, ‘Well, maybe I didn’t win that All-Ireland medal but I did gain that respect to be in that club amongst those players who contacted me.’ It was a big thing for me. I didn’t expect it.

“But look, the 2000s was an era of hurling where I think you had some of the greatest teams to ever play the game. First that Cork team and then Kilkenny. I think if we came along now, we’d win a couple of All Irelands at least. I have no doubt about that.” Immortal phrase It’s 10 years since the Munster final of Munster finals against Cork, during which Ger Canning famously uttered the immortal phrase, “Tony Browne, coming towards the end of a wonderful career”. Canning has taken endless abuse for it, undeservedly so as it happens. Browne was very much thinking of knocking it on the head around then and very nearly did.

“I definitely thought about giving it up about 10 years ago. I gave it serious thought. I’d say a big part of my thinking was the same way as a lot of managers think now – that you get to 31 and it’s time to go. But the more I thought about it, the harder it was to find a reason to stop.

“Sometimes in a person’s career, their body tells them it’s time to stop. The body physically can’t do it anymore. But I was lucky in that my body was saying, ‘Hang on a minute here – I can still do this. I want to still do this’.”

And so he did. Through another two All Stars and another two Munster titles, the last of them as a 37-year-old. He’ll be 41 in a few weeks. No longer the ageless Tony Browne, just another civilian trying to get by.

“It’s funny to think that way, to have to think for yourself now. I was driving to a game recently and I realised on the way that I had no idea where the ground was or how to get to it.

“I’ve spent years on buses just with the head down, thinking about the game. I never looked at roads, never looked at where we were. And here I was driving to the game with herself and I got totally lost. Hadn’t a clue how to get there.”

He found his way in the end. Just like always.

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