SUCCESS can seem fleeting - even for a man with seven All-Irelands to his name!
That was the opinion of teak-tough defender J.J. Delaney, who admitted that he was keen to savour the buzz that surrounds All-Ireland finals for as long as possible.
“You have to enjoy the build-up to big games like these because there are no guarantees anymore,” he said. “When you see what happened to Michael Rice in the semi-final you have to say it could happen anytime. Enjoy the build-up to the final - it could be your last one.”
Delaney knows what Rice will be feeling, having missed the 2006 final himself through a cruciate ligament injury.
“I probably took the finals from 2002, ’03 and ’04 for granted a little,” the Fenians (Johnstown) man admitted. “When you’re younger you say to yourself ‘this is great, this happens every year’, but then 2006 came. I was on the field, looking around at all the celebrations and said to myself ‘if I ever get back here I’m going to make the most of the feeling and enjoy every minute of it’.
“That’s why you play the game of hurling; to enjoy times like that,” he said. “A lot of people talk about the pressure, but you have to enjoy it too; go out and express yourself as much as you can. In that way 2006 taught me a lot. I’ve learned from it and driven on as much as I can.”
Delaney cut a disconsolate figure after the game, almost lost in the bedlam of the celebrations that were flowing around him. He felt just as bad before the game.
“It’s a difference experience (sitting out a final),” he said. “Even if you’re not starting you’re togging out and you always think you’re going to come on when you’re a sub. It’ll be the same for Michael on Sunday morning, when he’s not getting his gear ready, when he’s going down to the bus without his hurls. That’s when it’ll hit him, but that’s when we have to get around him and help.
“The Sunday morning was the moment for me,” he revealed. “I went out on the field and was just looking around without a hurl in my hand - it hits home then that you’re not going out playing.”
Talk of 2006 brought up an interesting statistic. Even though it’s only six years ago there have been wholesale changes to the Kilkenny panel since the win over Limerick. Delaney is still there, but knows that others are fighting for his place.
Hurl at the top
“You can only hurl at the top for a certain length of time,” he said. “When you’re 21 or 22 years of age you think you’re invincible. You become a little more realistic when you’re 27, 28 but when you get to 30 if you have a bad game everyone is talking of retiring you! You have to enjoy it.
“As for the panel Brian has made no secret of it that once you’re in there you’re going for your place,” he added. “If you get a starting place you have to look over your shoulder all the time as you have to do your utmost to stay in the team. I’ve done that so far but you can feel that challenge coming all the time!”
Delaney’s season was blighted by a broken finger suffered in the Leinster semi-final against Dublin. Like the Kilkenny supporters who travelled to Croke Park, he sat uneasily in his seat as he watched Galway take their provincial crown.
“I couldn’t believe the intensity they brought,” he said of the Tribesmen. “We might have outscored them in the second half, but after the opening 10 minutes they put in there was only ever going to be one winner - the pick of Ireland wouldn’t have beaten them.
“The teamwork they brought was very impressive - they were pinging balls left right and centre. They were all fighting for each other too, the way all Galway teams should be.”
Delaney was one absentee, along with Kilkenny’s regular starting midfielders, but he reckoned nothing would have stopped Galway’s charge that day.
“I don’t think it would have made much difference,” he said. “Galway came with such an intensity, scoring 2-8, 2-9 in the first 10 minutes while we had nothing on the board. That tells a tale in itself - missing a full-back and two midfielders didn’t make much difference, although Michael (Rice) helped when he came into the game.
“The 15 players that Galway put out were swarming everywhere,” he said. “They won every ball, they were on top of everything in the first half - it wasn’t just one lad but two or three who were winning everything. They had their tactics down to a tee, but they’ve been doing that all year. They beat a good Cork side and Offaly earlier in the championship - they’ve played to their strengths.”
From his position in the stand Delaney picked out some of Galway’s star performers. Damien Hayes was one, roaming the pitch looking for possession.
“I wouldn’t say he’ll be stuck in a corner for the final,” said Delaney. “He’ll be buzzing around after the ball, which is his strength. If I was a manager with Damien Hayes in my team I’d tell him to get on the ball as much as he can as he he’s a game-changer. He draws fouls and makes scores as well.”
There was no surprise that Joe Canning was another player who got top marks from Delaney.
“Joe is a fabulous hurler - you can see how he has stepped it up a notch this year,” he said. “He’s fulfilling the potential. He was always very good, but he’s stepped it up again. You’d always need help against someone like him - if there was a transfer market in hurling everyone would be going for him. He’s an unbelievable hurler.”
Delaney and Canning have crossed swords several times over the years since Galway crossed into the Leinster championship. With the Bob O’Keeffe Cup in their possession the move has paid off for them, he reckons.
“They’ve had a lot of good games over the last few years,” said J.J. “You can do all the training that you want, but championship games are what it’s all about - they’re better than five or six training sessions.
Do or die
It’s all about the mental preparation and strength,” he added. “When you’re going in to training you’re going to train - in matches it’s do or die. They’ve benefitted from that, but they’ve also benefitted from some good minor and under-21 teams that have come through. It’s no fluke that Galway are a coming team - it was only going to be a matter of time before they got to the final given their minor and under-21 success.”
So what’s the difference?
“Their manager is very shrewd on the line. Galway have always had skilful hurlers, but he’s been able to get a young team together to pull in the right direction.”
Kilkenny have also used their fair share of younger players in the last few years. Delaney was once of those, but has been there to pass on advice he received on his call-up back in 2001.
“When I came into the panel I was travelling to training from Waterford with Peter Barry,” he recalled. “Peter was a great help. We’d chat on the way back to Waterford and he’d give you a piece of advice. I talk to the likes of Richie (Doyle) and Paul (Murphy), chatting away but they’re fabulous hurlers. If I can help them in any small way I will.”
That quote highlights the defensive bond in the panel.
“You rely on your colleagues behind you,” he said. “We have a tight unit in there, but in training if you ran up the field with the ball one of the other lads wouldn’t think twice about coming to meet you with a challenge - and I’ve been on the receiving end of a few!”
A long-time member of the half-back line (Delaney has played seven finals in the No 7 jersey), Sunday should see Delaney start his second final as full-back. Despite his versatility, he’s just happy to be in the side.
“I was playing full-back for the club as well so I got used to it,” said Delaney. “You don’t mind as long as you get some training in that position. Full-back is a place where you have to be playing all the time - if you were thrown in there for a match it’s a different story.
“Once I’m in the starting six of the backs I don’t mind where I go,” he added. “If Brian told me to go over and stand on my head in the corner I’d do it! I’d do anything to be on this team - it’s a privilege.”