The Bord Gáis Energy Legends Tour Series gets underway for another year this weekend as former Kilkenny hurler Eddie Brennan leads a behind the scenes tour of Croke Park Stadium on the eve of the Leinster Hurling Championship final on Saturday, July 5.
In my formative years in school, hurling just wasn't the be all and end all for me. My father, Joe, was hurling-mad and the family was steeped in hurling, but in my early years it just didn't stimulate me.
Interview: Brian Murphy
Brennan leads the first tour of the 2014 season and will be followed by in the Bord Gáis Energy Legends Tour Series by Tony Browne, Brendan Cummins and Maurice Fitzgerald amongst others.
The Graigue-Ballycallan clubman served his county at senior level for 12 years after being called to the panel in late 1999 by Brian Cody after making his name with the county's All-Ireland winning U21 side. Brennan went on to play under Cody for his entire time in the Kilkenny senior jersey.
Club titles: 1
Leinster titles: 10
All-Ireland titles: 8
All Stars: 4
In a glittering career, Brennan won an impressive eight All-Ireland medals with the Cats, as well as 10 Leinster hurling titles and four Allianz Leagues. He has also been honoured with four All Stars.
Incredibly, Brennan only lost one Leinster Championship match - against Wexford in 2004 - in his entire career and won an All-Ireland senior medal with Kilkenny in 2000 before he had made his championship debut for his club, Graigue-Ballycallan.
Brennan is now putting his vast knowledge of the game of hurling to use as an analyst on RTE’s The Sunday Game.
We spoke to Eddie at length about his career and life as a media pundit ahead of the tour. Click here to book a place on Eddie's tour.
I had no real underage career with Kilkenny. I suppose my first taste of the big-time was to make the St. Kieran’s College team in my Leaving Cert year when we were beaten in the Leinster final. After that, it was the Fitzgibbon Cup where I would have first found my feet and that was the same year that I broke into the Kilkenny U21s in 1999. That’s my background with county hurling.
It’s odd when you look at the Kilkenny team that I was part of. Derek Lyng, Henry Shefflin and Martin Comerford are three fellas who didn't have big underage careers – neither Derek nor Martin played minor for Kilkenny and Henry only broke into the Kieran’s team in his final year in 1996 – so we were different in that regard. I think what we showed is that with hard work you can make it. All too often we see the lads that make it all the way up through the years are the ones that get the opportunities but I think if you were to look at the strike-rate of fellas who were very successful at 13 or 14, it doesn't always follow through for them.
A lot of the time, there are different styles of play at underage level and whether or not you would stand out was down to physicality. If you were bigger, it tended to make it easier for you. I would have felt that I never got the opportunity, but to be fair it might have been six of one and half dozen of another because I would have been a bit timid or maybe wouldn't have gone into as much back then.
I was mad about hurling but wasn't determined enough really and it was only as I got older that I got into it. You develop other aspects of your games as you grow – you see that you have to be aggressive in your pursuit of the ball, and I mean that in the right sense. You have to be determined and understand that you are going to get hurt, which in my early years I probably wasn't prepared for. It was only when I realised that that things started to happen.
THE RELUCTANT HURLER
There’s a story about me hiding my hurley before I walked in the school gates, and it’s true. In my formative years in school, hurling just wasn't the be all and end all for me. My father, Joe, was hurling-mad and the family was steeped in hurling tradition in the club at home. But in my early years it just didn't stimulate me. It wasn't for me. There’s a lesson in there I suppose in that you can’t force kids to do something they don’t want to do.
It wasn't that my parents were trying to force me to do it, but naturally they were keen to have me follow in their footsteps and to have me involved because every other young lad in school was hurling. I see it myself, having two kids now, the expectation is ‘Look, your father played for the county, sure you will do the same’. I won’t be applying that to my own kids. The more you force someone into something it can often have a negative effect.
It’s strange, but I played senior championship hurling for Kilkenny before I played in the championship for my club, Graigue-Ballycallan. We won the county title in 1998 but I didn't get on at any stage and then in 1999 I hurled right throughout the league and managed to break my collar bone in the U21 All-Ireland final against Galway and subsequently missed the club championship. It was only then, after playing my first couple of championship matches for the Kilkenny senior team in 2000, that I played my first Kilkenny Senior Championship game for the club, having come off the bench and scored a goal against Offaly in an All-Ireland final with the county!
A KILKENNY HURLER
I made my senior debut against Kilkenny in 2000 and it was a case of mixed emotions really because I was as sick as a dog the night before. I got sick, the whole lot. It was probably down to pre-match nerves and something I ate as well. My memory of the game is that I was marking a friend of mine from the Gardaí, John Finnegan from Dublin, and I had no energy at all in the first half. I could not move. In the second half I came around a little bit and managed to get a goal. So it was a debut of real mixed emotions, but certainly one that I will remember anyway.
We went on to win the All-Ireland against Offaly and it was mad stuff really to think that’s how far I came in 12 months, from winning the U21 All-Ireland. I came on in the final at a stage when the game was dead and buried – I like to argue that it wasn't! – but it was still very special to get in and get a goal and I even managed to get the sliotar at the end of the game.
We won the county final with our club as well that year and went on to play Athenry in the All-Ireland club final so those two years were just crazy. Being so young at the time, I maybe took them for granted a little but, but looking back at them now they were great days. It was pure enjoyment, we were on the crest of a wave. Life couldn't get any better.
AN EPIC JOURNEY
I'm trying to think back on my mindset at the time. There was a lot us at the same age who came in to the panel off the U21 team. I think we enjoyed it so much, winning All-Irelands in 2002 and 2003, and we were at that stage of our careers that we lived from day to day and didn't have time to reflect or to look too far down the line. The psychological and mental side of the build-up to games didn't bog us down too much. I think it was only really in subsequent years, when we were beaten in 2004 and ’05, that a lot of us around that age – Derek Lyng, Henry, Kav (Michael Kavanagh) and Noel Hickey – thought it might be the end of the line.
I can recall vividly going to the official team photograph out in Mount Juliet in 2009 with Derek Lyng and just chatting in the car. He just said it was mad what happened over the previous few years because we felt that after 2005 if we could have gotten one more All-Ireland we would have been happy. To think that we went on and put four of them back-to-back was just crazy stuff. Brian Cody has often used that word – ‘crazy’ or ‘mad’ – to describe that run. I think it was just the culmination of a bunch of like-minded players coming together who bought into a philosophy that Brian instilled in us. Brian always told us that we had a very narrow window of opportunity and that we had to squeeze the last drop out of it. We were able to park every year that was behind us and move on, and that was really the most important aspect.
PROVING THE DOUBTERS WRONG
There are always people who will question your ability. It comes down to how strong-willed and determined you are. I spent a lot of time on the sideline in 2006, but it was a life-changing thing for me because I came very close to packing it all in. I had to decide what was important to me and if it was important enough to go at it then I had to give it my all. I was given the challenge of going out in the half-forward line but if Brian had said to me to go back corner back I would have gone there too. The penny dropped with me. I could have argued that I wasn't getting a fair crack but the reality is the buck had to stop with me and I had to make him pick me.
No player will ever tell you that they want to get recognition but it is satisfying as well to know that you held your own, you played well and performed on the big stage - that I did it when it counted. That was something that ate at me - that I hadn't performed massively in All-Ireland finals. I was mad to prove it to myself as much as anything else but if I did hear negative stuff in the media then I tried my best to turn it into a positive, a challenge and something to drive me on. There were question marks and maybe my family had to listen to that a little bit more in the stand, but it does filter through too.
It was hugely important that we stopped Cork in 2006. That’s what rivalry is all about. We had to come back and beat the best team, and Cork were being talked up as the best team around in a long time. They had put a system of play together that seemed to be unstoppable and we would have been looking to find chinks in their armour. I remember we played Galway in an All-Ireland quarter-final in Thurles and they played Limerick on the same day. We saw areas that could be worked on and little areas we could exploit.
It was hugely important for us. Lots of people will tell you that it wasn't the motivation because they beat us two years earlier in the final and stopped us doing a three-in-a-row in 2004. But it is still in the back of your mind and that’s what sports people are about – a challenge. Are we good enough to take them on? We didn't have the answers but we certainly weren't going to shy away from the challenge. There was no guarantee we would beat Cork, but we embraced the challenge of taking them on and the challenge of stopping them was something that appealed to us.
I remember marking Wayne Sherlock a few times and I found it very hard to get any change out of him. I marked Brian Murphy as well and he was a hugely tough competitor. They all brought unique challenges. From 2005 onwards, I started looking at fellas I was marking to see if there was an area I could expose. I think hurling is a very simple game: get to the ball first and once you are in possession you are the master. I think that philosophy still holds true today.
The nickname came from a physio I worked with called Alan Kelly, and I’ll kill him for it because it stuck. I went up to Alan – or ‘The Great AK’ as he likes to refer to himself! – in Tallaght and my flexibility at the time was shocking for someone who would have been seen to have a lot of pace. I never stretched or anything like that so I went up to AK for a few sessions and he opened me up and gave me ‘a new pair of legs’, as he likes to say himself. It made a real difference and it opened my eyes to another side of hurling, training properly and things like that. I had been suffering from tight hamstrings and unless I did what I did I was going to run into a lot of trouble.
The League final back in 2009 is probably where it all took off again. We had good battles with Tipp in the 2002 and 2003 All-Ireland semi-finals, but the rivalry goes back further to my father’s generation and beyond that, because for years Kilkenny would have been seen as having a poor record against them. In the league group game in 2009 we gave them a fairly heavy beating and they came to the league final with a different attitude.
For me, it was one of the most personally satisfying victories of my career, a stand-out success and one that I would be very proud of. When you look at the Kilkenny team that finished that day it bore no resemblance to the team that won the All-Ireland later that year or even the year before. We were short so many fellas and that was the ultimate testament to the Kilkenny squad that Brian Cody had assembled. He called on five or six fellas that day and they all came in and did a job. Richie Hogan and TJ Reid were absolutely phenomenal, two fellas of just 21 years of age, and it was the day most of them grew up and found out what county hurling was all about.
The rivalry we had with Tipperary over the three years brought the best out of us. There were a lot of us playing with clubs in north-west Kilkenny – Urlingford where you had ‘Taggy’ (Aidan Fogarty) and Derek Lyng; in Johnstown you had JJ and PJ Delaney and myself and James Ryall from Graigue-Ballycallan, which is right on the border with Tipp. It brought the best out of us, but they were perceived as the up-and-coming team and we relished that challenge. If they were the challengers, then no bother we would take them on. We embraced every and any challenge that came our way and fed off it.
THE DRIVE FOR FIVE
The whole Henry saga took on a life of its own in 2010 and I often heard Henry say that he would never have known had he ruled himself out of the game. But you would have to wonder in hindsight could he ever have been right after an injury like that? I'm sure that Brian Cody would look back on other things that happened that year and wouldn't have allowed them again. It is often little things that can add up. There was so much hype about the five-in-a-row and history would show that it is so hard to do let alone put two back-to-back. Putting five together was a huge thing and there were little things that happened that year that contributed and by the end of the year they all added up.
Ultimately, hunger and freshness are such key elements in any success and you would have to say that Tipperary had both those things on the day, and they were hurting from the year before. Did they get the breaks on the day? I certainly think so. They missed chances in 2009, but that’s what happens in sport and you have to make your own luck. There are certainly things we could have changed to put ourselves in a better position, but that’s history and there’s nothing you can do but learn from it the following year, which I think we did in 2011.
GOING OUT AT THE TOP
From a personal point of view I would look back on 2010 as a bad year because the head just wasn't right. I had said privately at the start of the year that if we could pull it off that would be it. But then I might have put pressure on myself to put in big performances all year long, which is hard when you are thinking like that. You just have to play game by game and I went back in for the 2011 season with an open mind. I went in saying: ‘whatever happens happens and if it works out it works out’. I decided not to worry about what would happen at the end of the year. I think you can only live your life as a sportsman from match to match because you just don’t know what’s going to happen on any given day.
2011 would have to go down as definitely one of the best. A lot of the lads would say 2006 was very, very special but I think 2011 was a great way to sign off. It gave me the choice to have to go out after it and it was very satisfying how that match finished. I knew in my heart and soul that day going to Croke Park that this was going to be it and I was at ease with that. It helped that I was able to go out and perform with a bit of freedom then. I think when I came off the pitch that day there was a weight lifted off my shoulder – ‘that’s it, I've gotten an awful lot of myself and I'm ready to sign off’.
I struggled with my form from early in the year. A work-related thing contributed to that. I spent a week working 12-hour shifts when the Queen visited and that certainly had an impact on me. Other lads got in ahead of me and that’s the way the panel evolves with competition for places, which we have always seen in the Kilkenny squad. When someone is not playing well there are two or three lads ready to come in and that’s just the nature of it. Colin Fennelly and TJ Reid got in and were hurling really well, but when the opportunity came I had to be ready to do the business. Fortunately for me, I was recalled for the final and it all worked out.
POACHER TURNED GAMEKEEPER
Moving into media work after my career ended was weird. The paper article with the Sunday Times was what I found the most difficult because you can say things and qualify them on the TV, but when something is written down in black and white it tends to read differently. A word here and a word there can have such an impact on what way the article is interpreted. I have no doubt that Brian Cody viewed some of the stuff that I wrote with suspicion and thought that I was talking out of school a little bit.
I would like to think that anything I gave was honest and true. Sometimes it is hard to comment about former team-mates because they are fellas you are friendly with. It’s very hard because you might not be as hard or as consistent in your analysis when it comes to judging friends. It’s difficult, but the longer I am removed from it the easier it gets. You can be stronger in a criticism but criticism is something that I don’t believe in too much knowing well what players go through. I certainly wouldn't be afraid to give an opinion on an incident that happens because there is the right and the wrong of it. The big thing is that I still think from the players’ point of view and even that can prove difficult at times.
The Bord Gáis Energy Legends Tour with Eddie Brennan takes place this Saturday, July 5, at 2pm at Croke Park. Admission includes a visit to the recently-refurbished GAA Museum, which is home to many exclusive exhibits, including the original Sam Maguire Cup, first presented to Kildare in 1928.
For further information and booking:
GAA Museum, Tel 01 819 2323
E: firstname.lastname@example.org or check out www.crokepark.ie/gaa-museum
Prices for the Legends Tours are as follows:
Adult €15, Child €9.50, Student (Under 16) and Senior €10.50, Family (2+2) €40.00
Other Legend Tours which will follow in the 2014 series include Tony Browne, Brendan Cummins and Maurice Fitzgerald.