Noel Hickey, winner of a record equalling nine senior All-Ireland medals stepped off the inter-county hurling stage at the weekend with the simple message: “I have done my time. I leave with no regrets.”
The dashing Dunnamaggin defender won a 9th All-Ireland medal with Henry Shefflin in the defeat of Galway in the All-Ireland final replay in September.
In a recent interview with the Kilkenny People, the 32-year-old looked back on the season just passed, and his career in general. Here we reproduce that interview and story by John Knox.
The casual sentiment is to think that things change, and that being a multiple winner is somehow or why different, almost life changing to a degree.
Noel Hickey was somewhat amused by the suggestion. As multiple winners go he is different, or as different as we want him and Henry Shefflin and Noel Skehan to be. The trio are winners of nine All-Ireland senior hurling medals.
Now that’s different. In the record laden 128 year history of the GAA only three men have won nine All-Ireland senior medals. All from Kilkenny!
Hickey, a no nonsense, manly full-back, or translated from GAA parlance, the sort of defender who can rough it, tough it or out-shine with silken skills – the latter which is too often overlooked – was proud of the place he has attained in history, but winning the 9th in Croke Park in September was like any other successful day.
“It was a good one,” he smiled; warm, friendly and without pretension.
The best way to relate the feeling of the story here is to let it unfold in print as it unfolded in real time when we spoke across a table in a comfortably, shaded corner of Shirley’s hostelry in Kells on a wet evening recently.
Do you feel different; is there an inner gratification about winning nine?
“I wouldn’t even think about it until someone says it to me,” he smiled; almost surprised that one would ask. “It doesn’t mean anything. I was happy to win another medal. That was it.
“It was nine or whatever. You move on. I might stick them up on a wall sometime, maybe.”
Where are the medals now?
Get medals together
A warm smile swept across his face. He laughed heartily.
“I would say the first few are in my mother’s house. The next half is in my own house. If I went home now to try and locate the nine of them I would be looking for a good while.
“Some day alright I will put them all together.”
The year 2012 was a good one for the Hickeys’. Away from the hurling, Noel and his wife Elaine (nee Farrell from Knocktopher) celebrated their first arrival in April and welcomed the bundle of fun that is their daughter, Aimee into the world.
Part of the private side of Noel Hickey, champion hurler!
In terms of his passion in sport, his hurling career delivered big this season too with a fifth National League/All-Ireland championship double adding to his stock. Noel wasn’t a first teamer all the way, but he was thrilled to get game time in the All-Ireland final replay against Galway to crown the success.
“Sport at this level is all about winning,” he said when he introduced us to the Kilkenny way of thinking about hurling. “We start out at beginning of the year and it is all about getting to the All-Ireland final and winning it. That is all that matters.
“It was a great year because we achieved what we set out to do. To capt it off winning the 9th medal added a bit to it.”
Was there pressure on Henry and himself because of the significance of the final, and what a Kilkenny victory would mean in terms of history?
“There wasn’t. Not a bit. I didn’t feel any pressure. I don’t know about Henry. It was just one of those things. You go out and play the match away. Afterwards when you look back you can say it was a great achievement, but there wasn’t any extra pressure.
“It is all about that moment when the final whistle sounds, how you feel in that exact moment. There and then you get the highest feeling, the feeling that only victory can bring. It is about the final whistle.
“Even when you go back in training in February and March it is all enjoyable. It all leads towards the All-Ireland final, we hope. When the final whistle goes and you are in front, the collective joy is super. It is the end of a massive journey together.
“It was great to get on the field in the All-Ireland final. You can’t beat being out on the field. Everyone is part of the win, but getting out there was great.
Croker is amazing
“Croke Park is an amazing place. All-Ireland final day is an amazing day. When you play in a stadium with over 80,000 people in it, and you are performing for your family, your club and county it is special, very special.
“When you are parading around the pitch before the start it is hard. I know that takes only a short time, but it can feel like 10 minutes or more. It is a real nervous time. That is when the real nerves are at you.
“Then during Amhran na bhFiann it can be hard to hold things together. Once the game gets going you are grand; there is no problem at all.
“It is a fantastic feeling running out on the field with the crowd cheering and everything. Hitting the noise for that first cheer is a great feeling.”
He has sampled that buzz in finals against all the big names – Cork, Tipperary, Galway, Waterford, Limerick, Clare and Offaly. He has tasted sweet victories against them all too.
“We have enjoyed a great run,” he admitted. “We were lucky. A lot of the players are super; the most gifted hurlers who ever played with Kilkenny. It is great to be able to say you played with the likes of Henry (Shefflin), Tommy (Walsh), J.J. (Delaney), D.J. (Carey) and all the others.
“Hurling is big business now. You see all the young lads wanting to play. You can see it in Kilkenny, all the young lads. The game is massive.
“You see young lads three or four and they are out with the hurley in their hands. It is great to be part of it. I really, really enjoy it.”
While September brought another golden opportunity and success, easily the season could have gone cold on the Cats. The defeat by Galway in the Leinster final threatened to diminish what had been achieved through strong victories over Cork in the League final and Dublin the first round of the championship.
“After losing the Leinster final to Galway some people were saying we were fading,” he said when he casually took up the story, no drum beating; no ‘we will show them’ sort of attitude. “People have written us off at times over the last few years. We got back on track after that. Things work out well.
“Galway gave us a serious beating in the Leinster final. We were well and truly beaten all over the park. We met up the week after to have a chat. Lads had a serious look at themselves. The general feeling was that that level of performance wasn’t acceptable at all.
“Everyone realise that if they upped their performance things could be turned around. You don’t become a bad hurler over night. It was only one game. We had a great League final and opening championship game against Dublin behind us, so everything couldn’t have gone on us in a short few weeks.
“That has been the thing with this group; the ability to rebound. There is a fierce competitive nature in the lads, and a fierce will to win. That’s what Kilkenny are about these times. Those qualities carry us through.
“If you lose, the drive the lads have to come back and make up for it is unbelievable. Look at what happened in 2011 after losing the bid for five in-a-row the previous season? It wasn’t revenge against Tipp. It was we wanted to be winners again.
“After being written off after the Leinster final the lads came back and showed what they are made of. The dynamic within the group exploded. Brian Cody looks for that in players, a fierce will to win. It starts and ends there.”
He said players don’t come into the Kilkenny camp for a year and be happy if they win an All-Ireland. There is more, much more to it than that. They want to be the best they can be every day they go out.
“Even if it is a League match and a lad has a bad game, he is bursting to get the chance again to try and make up for it,” the Dunnamaggin clubman explained of the driving attitude. “You have to have that quality, whatever it is. The lads have it. That is why we have won so much.
“You can’t relax one day and turn it on the next. Anything we approach all over the years, any game we are playing, we want to win. Every day you go out you know that if you don’t perform then someone else is waiting to come in.
“That is the nature of sport at the highest level. That is what keeps such a drive in the team.”
There was never a contest in life. Hurtling was always going to win the heart of Noel Hickey. In his home there were five other brothers and two sisters. The ash was flying every day after school, and Sunday was a big, serious hurling game.
“When I was growing up there was no other sport, only hurling,” he told us. “I was lucky enough they were pretty good at it at home, so I developed a love for it.”
His brother, Tom was captain of the Kilkenny senior team beaten by Offaly in the All-Ireland final in 1998. The seeds of ambition were sown so when his eldest brother, Jim played with the Kilkenny minors in 1991.
His mother, Anne, the inspiration, the leader, the ???? after his dad, Andy died when the children were all young, brought them all to Croke Park to watch Jim.
“Sitting in Croke Park watching Jim playing minor, and then the senior team coming out and the big cheer inspired me,” he recalled. “Even then you would be mad to be involved. I knew nothing but hurling all up along. Things worked out for me.”
He played at under-18 level with the county in 1998, losing the All-Ireland final badly against Cork, before captaining the under-21 team to All-Ireland victory in 1999 against Galway. That day in Tullamore he stood at full-back against Eugene Cloonan. His opponent arrived with a massive reputation, the sort no youngster should be asked to shoulder.
Hurled him well
Do you remember that day, I asked? I did! It was the day the name Noel Hickey entered the ‘remember it’ category.
“I remember it alright,” Hickey smiled with a mischievous grin; pride and contentment written all over him. The eyes went up towards the ceiling.
“I remember it alright,” he smiled a second time. No words needed. One understood!
The flattery in the media didn’t help young Cloonan. Hickey hurled him well, very well actually.
Kilkenny, as a unit, arrived in Tullamore on a mission. The seniors had lost the All-Ireland final to Cork the previous week.
Future seniors like Hickey, Michael Kavanagh, Aidan Cummins, Sean Dowling, Richie Mullally, Jimmy Coogan, Henry Shefflin and Eddie Brennan left as winners.
“We were training on the Tuesday after the senior final in Tullamore and Henry and Michael Kavanagh came up,” Hickey recalled. “That meant a lot to us. I remember the build up. There was such a huge disappointment in the county having lost the senior finals back to back.
“I felt there was no way we were going to be beaten. I remember running out the tunnel in Tullamore and the Kilkenny over 40s’ team had been playing. They lined up as we ran out through them. All those little things made a difference.
“Everyone got stuck in. We refused to be beaten. That win, I know I have nine senior wins now, but that victory is up there with any of them. Definitely! Not because I was captain. Being captain added to it. We broke the losing Kilkenny run. The feeling we got from people before to urge us on all added to the memories.
“It was the first All-Ireland I won. I had lost a minor final the year before. That was a fierce disappointment. Then to be captain the following year and getting another chance to win an All-Ireland final was wonderful.”
A lot of his colleagues came through from that team. The rest, as they say, is history.
Noel Hickey’s first game at senior level was in Nowlan Park in 2000. He was picked at corner-back against Seanie McGrath of Cork.
“I think I did okay,” was his assessment. “Cork had beaten us in the All-Ireland the year before. There was serious hunger in our dressing-room. Again I was nervous at the start, but once the game got going it was another game, another give it your all effort.”
He was picked for the next match. His senior career was up and running.
The dynamic he saw that first day continued.
Hunger is vital
“It is in the lads; a hunger,” he said in an attempt to explain. “The thought of losing, the bad feeling you get from it, is a killer. That is what Brian (Cody) looks for in lads. You have it if you want to be successful.”
The dynamic within the group is strong. They have a great craic. There is a great spirit within the group. On holidays they “have a great old laugh.” The players know when to be serious, and when to laugh too.
“That is why Kilkenny are successful,” Noel said. “If there are divisions in the team or camp things won’t work out.”
So then, were any of the All-Ireland wins special? The first one in 2000 was great. Then he enjoyed 2006 a lot, beating Cork to end their three in-a-row ambitions.
In between his career might have come to a premature end when he picked up a virus which attacked the membrane around his heart. The muscles around the heart were inflamed.
“I wondered would I ever get back,” he said of that experience which robbed a year from his career.
He had been training away, and everything was grand. He remembered the weather was nice and warm at the time. He got a savage headache one day, a bout of shivers and a pain in the chest. He couldn’t contact the team doctor so he rang his sister, Catherine Power, who is a nurse.
She insisted he go to St Luke’s hospital. He was kept in, spent a week in the cardiac ward. The patients had to sleep from 1 to 3pm each day. One day Noel woke up and there were “four white coats around me”.
“I remember thinking, this isn’t good,” he laughed. “They told me the rest of the year was gone. I was lucky I went into hospital that night. I did what was right. There was shock and fierce disappointment to miss the season with the club and county, but what could be done?”
That was the worst of the problems he faced during his career. Hamstring strains and groin injuries grounded him from time to time too, but he always battled back.
The year Kilkenny faced Limerick in the All-Ireland final (2007) threw up a moment of wonder for me. Hickey was racing to a ball in front of Hill 16 and the hamstring gave way. The brakes were applied. He, and the team, was vulnerable. The hurling brain flashed through the possibilities.
Threatening situation...vulnerable...danger…possible score…danger…plan...risk…outcome. He drew across the posterior of his opponent as he raced by. An easy call for the referee! Give a free. The play ran on. The Limerick player shot wide.
Hickey was booked. Kilkenny escaped the loss of a goal. Job done!
He has always played at full-back. He loves the position; loves the games and the training, even if the most demanding of it comes during his busiest time as a farmer.
“Sure what else would I be doing,” he said as a broad smile swept across his face again.