IN ANOTHER hurling era he was a star, a headline maker. He would light up an arena as he galloped with the speed and grace of a gazelle across the lush turf with sliotar glued to camán.
Liam ‘Chunkey’ O’Brien, winner of four senior All-Irelands between 1972 and 1979, plus four All-Star awards and the Hurler of the Year gong in 1975 had that undoubted star quality.
These times he looks on and admires, enjoying hurling history unfolding before his eyes. And he loves it……watching his beloved Kilkenny take the ancient game on to a whole new level.
“They are some group of players,” Chunkey offered when asked for his view of the Cats as they prepare for yet another showdown, this time in Leinster. “The set-up is bordering on profession the way everything is done. It is a different ball game than in my time.
“Everything is planned to perfection, and it has to be 100%. That is not just in Kilkenny, but Kilkenny are the market leaders. For a man like me who loves hurling and seeing the county being successful, the success being enjoyed by the county now is unreal.
Always do right thing
“Kilkenny always seem to do the right thing when you look at what they did to Dublin recently. The way they are able to turn out one strong performance after another is astonishing. The level of performance never drops.”
The proud James Stephens clubman worked the trenches with such luminaries as Jim Treacy, Frank Cummins, his midfield partner in three of the All-Ireland winning years, Phil ‘Fan’ Larkin, Pat Henderson, Mick Crotty and even Kilkenny boss, Brian Cody, but he never thought he would ever see the likes of the success being enjoyed by the county at the moment.
Last year’s All-Ireland final was a case in point. He was staggered by the way Kilkenny stormed back after being beaten in the final the previous year.
“The backs were terrific that day,” he said when his thoughts returned to Croke Park in September. “During the opening 10 or 15 minutes they closed out the opposition. They had a right hold on the game from the start. You could almost sit back and relax as they did the business of winning the All-Ireland. It was some achievement.
“Kilkenny have some panel. If there is a lad off form or injured, the others are really fight for their place. The subs are playing a big part in the success of the county at the moment. They are all the time pushing, pushing and pushing.
“The talent that is coming through in Kilkenny is massive. I wouldn’t mind to be playing now. The pace of the game has gone really fast. It would suit me, I think,” he laughed.
A career flies
“The players have the right idea; win as much as you can when you can. Your career flies. We were there and might have won five All-Irelands as well, but we didn’t make it.
“No one bar Tipp look capable of stopping Kilkenny. It is looking like a Kilkenny/Tipp final again.”
However, he sounded a warning about Sunday’s Leinster final. Galway had nothing to lose. Teams in a situation like that were deadly dangerous.
“Galway are due a big day, so Kilkenny have to be careful that Sunday is not that day,” Chunkey said. “I wouldn’t think they would be good enough at all, but you have to be ready for them. You cannot take them for granted.
“People have nearly forgotten already that Kilkenny have won the National League. Here they are chasing another League/Championship double. It is amazing. People nearly take this group for granted. Fans want and expect the team to win all the time now.”
He thought that when Kilkenny completed the All-Ireland four in-a-row in 2009 that there might be a bit of slippage subsequently. It didn’t happen. The county bounced back to win in 2011 after losing the final the previous year to Tipperary.
“I have nothing but admiration for the players and management involved with Kilkenny today,” Liam said. “When I talk to people from other counties they say Kilkenny have hurling ruined because they are winning so much. The fact we are winning is not our fault. It is up to the others to rise to the challenge.
“If you go back to the great Kerry team of the seventies it was the same. People were getting fed up with them winning, but the Kerry lads didn’t care. They wanted to win, win and win. It is the same in Kilkenny now.
“That is what real competitors do. They chase, chase and chase. They want to keep winning when they are winning. When Kilkenny were beaten they came back powerfully. That took maybe an even bigger effort than winning.
“I love watching the players of today. They are an inspiration to all young players. They have brought skill and power to a different level. They have it every way. I think Kilkenny people know and appreciate what they have. I know I certainly do.”