Kilkenny camogie team manager, Ann Downey
A year ago Kilkenny were looking up a daunting mountain that had broken them a few times during the attempted climb, but now there is a brighter mood as they look down from the summit.
The feel-good factor following the All-Ireland successes in September rolls on. A grating 22-year barren spell and sequence of six defeats in senior All-Ireland finals had evolved into a burden.
It was the harsh reality people didn’t want to mention, a psychological scar as much as anything else.
Kilkenny, the double All-Ireland camogie champions, senior and intermediate, in Croke Park on September 11 have a new found freedom now.
On the cusp of a New Year, Kilkenny manager Ann Downey offered context: “We are looking forward with enthusiasm. There was so much pressure on us to deliver this season. The girls, I think, felt under pressure too. Now I am looking forward to the girls cutting loose.”
The arrival of Downey and her management team was preceded by the resignation of the previous incumbents. A potentially poisonous situation was slowly robbed of its venom as Paddy Mullally (Glenmore), then Conor Phelan (Clara), Dr Fergus Heffernan and Dr Martin O’Brien (Borris) all signed up for duty.
Collectively they became the management team that helped guide Kilkenny to the National League/Championship double, and a first O’Duffy Cup success since 1994.
Cork were beaten at the double - 1-13 to 1-9 in the senior final, while Mike Wall (manager) and his selectors (Ger Walsh and Adrian O’Sullivan) steered the intermediate team to a 3-6 to 1-11 victory.
The seniors enjoyed a great run, feeling the pain of defeat on a mere two occasions during a season of highs. Wexford in the Leinster championship and Galway in the round robin part of the All-Ireland championship were the only ones to lower the black and amber colours.
“We got a good run of results from the start,” reminded Ann when we spoke in the offices of her employers, Doheny Wheel Bins and Recycling Centre at Castleinch off the Callan Road. “The season drew its own momentum after that.
“It was great that we ended up winning the League. With all due respects to the other teams, we got the easy run in a way. We never put out the same team. We had 30 girls on the panel, and we wanted to give everyone a chance to see what might happen.
“When we got to the League final we went to Thurles to face Galway more hopeful than anything. Galway had beaten us the last four or five times we met. We told the girls to go out and perform; play as well as they could.
“In fairness, they were really up for it. Winning was a massive result for us. In terms of our season, that day was big. It gave everyone a huge boost in confidence.
“That was an important win, not having beaten Galway in a while, and knowing they had been in the All-Ireland final the previous year. Almost instantly you could see the girls growing in confidence.
“The training after that rose a notch or two. Things took off from there.”
Galway comforted themselves with the belief they hadn’t played well in the League final. The Kilkenny view was harsher. The losers played as well as they were allowed.
“We felt we still had room for improvement,” continued Ann, a 12-times senior All-Ireland medal winner, former Texaco award winner, and current Manager of the Year.
“It was the hunger, the burning desire, you see,” she insisted. “The girls threw themselves into the challenge, never refusing to do or try anything that might give them an edge, that might make them better.”
We hear so much about the commitment of hurlers and football to their games, but it is not exclusive. The only ones who ever missed camogie training were doing exams.
“If we said we were training at six in the morning, which never happened by the way, they would have been there,” the manager insisted. “The sessions were always different.
“They probably lasted an hour and 20 minutes, never more than that, but they were hard, focussed, aimed at making small gains every time.”
When Ann Downey considered a return to the hot seat - she had won the League title during her previous stint - she had to get the okay from her employers. That was readily forthcoming, and with enthusiasm.
“I couldn’t have been given more support,” she assured.
During the height of the season the ’phone was forever ringing, the texts flying in. Coming up to the All-Ireland the ’phone never stopped ringing.
“They were telling me here I needed a personal secretary,” Ann laughed when we spoke in Doheny’s offices. “If you don’t have such leeway, you can’t do the job in comfort. I don’t have to be looking over my shoulder. A situation like that takes off some of the pressure.”
She admitted the commitment was huge; a seven day week job at the height of the season. As a group they were always planning for the next day, the next training session or whatever; planning, planning, planning.
Was it difficult to take the plunge?
“Paddy and I worked with WIT and Conor,” she said, explaining the coming together. “Paddy and I were chatting and I said ‘look, we can do it together?’ All he said was that he would like to coach, and I could be the manager.”
It was deal done, or nearly. They had to work on Conor. He was trying to get back hurling after missing a couple of seasons because of a heart condition, and he was doing a Masters, plus he was travelling up and down to Waterford to work. Conor was given a pass during the League, but he didn’t really take it.
Liam Egan was then brought in as trainer.
“He was brilliant,” Ann enthused. “He had an approach to training that the girls hadn’t experienced before. It was Zuu training (core, flexibility, agility and strength work) and they loved it.”
Liam Egan took the early season indoor training in the Community Hall, Callan. When the hurling started in February, Paddy came to the fore.
When out on the training fields the girls were often broken into three or four groups, working on different aspect of the game with Paddy, Conor, Liam or Ann.
Management never relented. The nutritionist with the Kilkenny senior hurling team, Noreen Roche, was invited to address the squad one Saturday at training in Dunmore. She explained how diet and performance were inter-linked. The girls lapped it up, bought into it straight away.
All the time the mantra to the players was: “You are the best, you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t”.
To reinforce the message, and to add a fresh new voice to the dressing-room, they invited local psychologist Dr Fergus Heffernan (BSc in Clinical Psychology, an MSc in Family Therapies, an MSc in Cellular Molecular Biology and a PhD in Bio Psychology) to speak to the girls.
A 90-minute chat felt like 10, apparently. The girls were spellbound as he turned matter-of-fact situations into inspiring nuggets. Heffernan enjoyed the experience. He joined the backroom team.
He dealt with the 22-year barren spell issue. He helped the girls who had played in some of the six losing All-Ireland finals deal with that, and put the experience in the context of the new beginning.
“The girls were in awe of him,” the manager recalled. “I rang him to say thanks. It took me maybe a week to get him, but he eventually got back to me. He then suggested he might come in again and have another chat with them.
“He came in again, and we held on to him,” Ann laughed. “He was brilliant again, and he had something different again. He was there to have a chat with the girls about anything.”
The last piece of the backroom team jigsaw was added in mid-year when Dr Martin O’Brien from Borris came on board as the team doctor. He gave the commitment to attend every training session.
“That was important,” Ann Downey insisted. “From that point we had about as much in place as we could, and it was over to the girls. They didn’t disappoint.”
Derry, Dublin and Tipperary were beaten in the round robin series of the championship. The hiccup against Galway followed. That was following by the defeat of Offaly and Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final and semi-finals respectively.
On All-Ireland final day Kilkenny were ready for virtually anything, even the situation in the pre-match handshake between players when there was a bit of argy-bargy.
The tone for the afternoon was forged in that eyeball to eyeball setting when a Kilkenny player stood her ground in the face of an attempt to intimidate.
Cork hit Croke Park with the All-Ireland three in-a-row within their grasp.
Cork full of intent
“We knew Cork would come with fire,” Ann recalled when we spoke about the big day of achievement. “Fergus had told them not to take anything from anyone. No matter what was going on, the only thing was to get on with the job, and believe they could do it.”
Pre-game the 22-year gap was firmly in the mix, not from management or players, but every commentator had a view.
“It wasn’t easy to park that,” Ann admitted. “We weren’t talking about it, but others were. We had to live in the moment, not in the past.”
Kilkenny reached half-time leading by 0-8 to 0-6. Up to this the 10-minute spell immediately after half-time had been Cork’s winning time in championship matches.
Kilkenny were ready. During the opening 11 minutes of the new half the Cats drove the Leesiders back and tacked on 1-3 while conceding a single point.
“We stifled Cork during a crucial time in the match,” Ann pointed out. “It was during that time we beat them, won back the O’Duffy Cup.”
The mix of emotions that flooded Croke Park when the final whistle sounded was like a sea of joy.
“The feeling of that moment will stay with me a long time,” Ann beamed. “When I was with Kilkenny before, my father (the great Shem Downey) would be so disappointed for me when we lost.
“In that instant I remembered him, and I thanked him for getting us over the line.
“I felt he was with us all the days. He had such interest in hurling and camogie. He would have enjoyed the win.”
It was Kilkenny’s day, and Ann was thrilled by the quality of the game.
“It was such a great day for camogie, and in fairness to Cork, it took two teams to produce the quality of play seen,” she said. “It was a terrific advertisement for camogie. It was the one day everyone played well.
“The only reason we made changes was because people were working so hard and they were getting tired. The Croke Park pitch, and the emotions of the day, were draining.
“It was so satisfying to see all the players perform. You win an All-Ireland and you wake up the next morning and the first thing you ask yourself is ‘did I play well?’. If you did, you are absolutely happy. If you didn’t, there can be a small bit of disappointment.
“Everyone of them could say I had a great day, and they had,” she insisted.
So now, do they know how good they are?
“They probably don’t,” came the reply. “But I think after winning the All-Ireland they now realise how important the game is to the people of Kilkenny. Camogie will do well. There are so many schools looking for the girls and the cup, it is hard to credit.”
The big crowd that came out to greet the squads and management teams in the City on their return on the Monday night after the finals was huge, and genuinely touched all involved.
“I remember the last time we came home after losing an All-Ireland when I was with them and we had the reception at the supermarket in Loughboy. The parents were the only ones there,” she reminded.
“When coming down from Dublin we were wondering would there be anyone there. Bearing in mind the night that was in it the girls couldn’t believe the crowd that turned out.”
To repeat the win will be extremely difficult, we suggested.
“It is going to be a huge task,” Ann agreed. “We have the hunger. It will be our job to freshen up things and make sure the players don’t lose focus. They can’t be happy with winning one All-Ireland.”
Work has begun
The work has already begun. Six extra girls have been invited into the squad, but it is open ended.
“There was a lot of negativity 12 months ago,” she smiled when she looked back. “Things are different now. But we really won’t know how we will react until we get out and play the first League match. How we react will be interesting, but I would be positive.
“The girls have to be positive. They won the All-Ireland. The entire team played well. They have the ability. They have to realise and believe that.
“The one thing about them is that there is no arrogance in the group. They work hard, but they probably don’t believe they are good as they are, to be honest. There are no big heads in the group.
“They encourage each other. If someone has a bad day, or if someone is taken off, there will be no pouting.”
The League action starts on February 18 against Tipperary. The next day the girls are heading off for a four day break to Fuengirola on the Costa Del Sol. They will arrive back on the Thursday before facing Wexford in the League on the Sunday.
“The plan now is to have plenty of competition for every position,” the manager said as she looked towards the future. “Kilkenny are not going to let go what they have too easily.”
On the insistence of the girls, the break from training over the Christmas holidays will be short. Early in the new year it will be back to business.
Liberty Insurance senior camogie results - June 18, Kilkenny 5-24, Derry 2-3; June 25, Kilkenny 2-12, Dublin 0-10; July 2, Kilkenny 1-21; Tipperary 0-11; July 16, Kilkenny 0-10, Galway 1-12.
Quarter-final - July 30, Kilkenny 1-19, Offaly 0-11; semi-final, August 13, Kilkenny 3-15, Galway 1-19.
All-Ireland final, September 11, Kilkenny 1-13, Cork 1-9.