Noel Hickey is still delivering for Dunnamaggin
By Cian O’Connell
Noel Hickey vividly recalls watching the 1991 All Ireland minor final as his brother Jim was part of Kilkenny’s victorious team against Tipperary.
Sitting in the old Upper Cusack Stand something struck Hickey. This was a place and arena in which he wanted to make a mark or an impression.
That was achieved during a glittering career in the black and amber with nine All Ireland and Leinster medals collected.
On Sunday, though, particular pride and satisfaction will be derived when Dunnamaggin hurl in the AIB All Ireland Junior decider against Castleblayney.
“I played here a lot of years with Kilkenny, it was fantastic winning All Irelands with them, but to come up with your club will be even better,” Hickey admits.
“You start off with your club. I won my first medal when I was 11 years of age with Dunnamaggin so to be going on to try to win an All Ireland is brilliant.
“In a year or 10 years time or 20 years time I will still be meeting the same lads in Dunnamaggin. Hopefully we will talk about the day in Croke Park when we won an All Ireland. With Kilkenny it was brilliant, but you drift away from some of the lads where you will always be a Dunnamaggin man.”
Reflecting on his playing career Hickey acknowledges that it has been some journey and a return to GAA headquarters is fitting. Hickey’s last appearance at the Jones Road venue was as a substitute in the 2012 All Ireland Final replay win over Galway.
“The first time I remember being in Croke Park was in 1991, my eldest brother Jim was playing when they beat Tipperary in a minor All Ireland,” Hickey reveals.
“I remember being up in the Upper Cusack Stand with my mother looking out thinking it would be great to play there. We went to games in the years following that watching Willie O'Connor and John Power, lads like that.
“I always thought in the back of my head that I'd love to play out there, wouldn't it be brilliant. Luckily enough I got the chance at underage with Kilkenny and I finally got to play in Croke Park as a minor in 1997 and 1998.
“Unfortunately we lost the semi-final in 97 and the final in 98. I think when we won the All Ireland Under 21 in 99, (Brian) Cody brought in a few off that panel, who got to Croke Park for a good few years.
“It was brilliant. I always had it watching other teams that I would love to be out there. Luckily enough I got the chance.”
That is why earning a medal this weekend would mean as much as any of the previous silverware gleaned in the past couple of decades. “It would, whatever one you win at the time is usually the best,” Hickey laughs. “I'll be meeting lads from Dunnamaggin every week for as long as I'm alive.
“You will only get one chance with the club unless you are like the (Ballyhale) Shamrocks, who get chances every year. Clubs like Dunnamaggin or Castleblayney will only get one chance so you have to make the most of it. Hopefully we will.”
Back in 1997 a 16 year old Hickey was a late call up on the morning Dunnamaggin triumphed in the Kilkenny Senior decider. Now, 22 years on, the passion and desire for sport remains very much the same.
“That is a good while ago now, I was only 16 at the time,” Hickey remarks. “That was the only game I played for the club that year, it probably went over my head a bit I was so young. I heard that morning I was playing, I played that match which was great.
"At the time I probably didn't appreciate it as much as I appreciated the Junior County Final. I just appreciated it more. That was great for the club in 1997 so to be still going winning another County Final with the club, I'm happy enough with it.”
In the intervening spell Dunnamaggin drifted back into the Junior ranks, but they are on the rise again which encourages Hickey. “We were Junior for years and years, but then in 1994 they won Junior, Intermediate in 95, Senior Semi-Final in 96, won it in 97,” Hickey states.
“We had a great bunch of players then, we were going well, but it is like anything. You go through phases where there wasn't that many players coming through and we started dropping off a bit getting tight on numbers.
“That is natural, we got relegated then in 2017 from Intermediate down to Junior. You think it is the worst thing in the world, but in January when you start training for the Junior we had great numbers there.
“We are after winning a County Final and are heading up to Croke Park now for an All Ireland. The time we got relegated was the worst thing in the world, we kind of hit rock bottom, we had to pick things up from there. It is like anything you have good days, bad days, but hopefully this will be a good day for us now.”
Glory was attained in the striped jersey when Kilkenny ruled the hurling world, but the pleasure of playing the game with Dunnamaggin still matters deeply. “I started with them and I owe so much to Dunnamaggin from what I got out of it hurling with Kilkenny. If I can give anything back at all to the club I will do.”
Hickey, an inspirational figure, has certainly accomplished that mission.