You might have lost only a league game, but people would come up and say straight to your face: “can ye come back from this? What way are ye going?”
That’s the reality of playing for Tipperary and, if it’s like that during the league, you can imagine that it goes up another notch during championship when there’s something much bigger on the line.
No one tells you when you’re a young lad pucking around the field in Thurles, that a few years down the line you’ll be getting interrogated on the street. Of course, when the team is going well and delivering, it’s great — everyone is happy.
Years ago, I would have let things like that bother me, but try telling that to a young lad out trying to prove the world wrong. Sport, and hurling where I’m from, should be all about enjoyment. That’s the reason you first fall in love with the game, why you put so much time into it, and why you keep pushing the stone up the hill year after year.
I think when you’re enjoying yourself out on the field, that shows in your performances. You play more freely, things just come to you. There have been plenty of times over the years when I have let things get to me and, if I could go back, I know what I’d say to myself: “Make sure you enjoy these moments, park the negative stuff, and just move on.”
The first few seasons of my county career went like a dream. We didn’t win every game or every title, but it was great being out there. Liam Sheedy called me up to the senior panel in 2009, and the first time people really started to take notice of me was when I marked Henry Shefflin in that unbelievable league final in Thurles. We lost after extra time, but I did a reasonable job, and I think I dealt with the extra media focus okay.
Liam and Eamon O’Shea were very good with us and they made sure we never felt pressure. I think Kilkenny paid heed though, because they put Shefflin in full forward on me in the All-Ireland final later that year, probably looking to target me. Liam had first thrown me in as full-back with the minor team in 2006 and we won the All-Ireland that year. I remember him telling me to just enjoy it, and there wasn’t too much said of who I’d be marking. Galway were after a three-in-a-row and Joe Canning was the star man, and it went okay for me. That was not something that was made a big deal of at the time, but it’s mad then how that game from minor grade was brought up so much maybe two or three years later. As if it suddenly became more relevant.
We made it back to the biggest day in GAA again in September 2010 and this time we won the Liam MacCarthy Cup, which was unreal. We were all playing well, and you sort of felt like it would be like this all the time — that you’d always play out of your skin. But that’s when things started to change, and the results started to go against us especially in 2012 and 2013.
Criticism was coming in every direction and all you could feel was pressure. People coming up to you in the street, and I didn’t always deal with that well. We barely rose a gallop in a couple of those seasons. Then there was the incident with Michael Rice where he suffered a bad hand injury. Now I didn’t go in to do him, but plenty of people seemed to think I did, and I couldn’t go to a press interview for a long time without being asked “did you contact him?” or something like that. If I could change anything, it was that I wouldn’t have swung the hurley with one hand, but I was never trying to hurt him; I was coming into the challenge in such a way that I was in a position where I was about to get hit if I went in with two hands, so I ended up pulling that way. It was mistimed, and he suffered an unfortunate injury, but there was no badness in it. I was hit with a lot of criticism from Kilkenny, but people made more of it than was actually the case. No doubt people will take issue with my version of events again.
I think things tend to get built up with me. It’s like that shoulder with Canning in 2016 which had a lot more made of it than there needed to be. Then it was the same a year later when Gearoid McInerney got me lovely, and a right cheer went up. More is made of it and I’m not sure why. When people have a chance to nail you, they nail you. You learn to accept that and move on.
I take it all with a pinch of salt now. Years ago, it would bother me when someone would come up and say something to me; I’d build up this siege mentality in my head and think “I’m going to show you” and prove the whole world wrong. Now it’s in one ear and out the other; when they walk away, they can take their negative thoughts off with them.
That’s not to say things don’t get to you at times. Like, we played a quarter-final at Croke Park this year and I was criticised over how I went down after a Laois player hit me a belt. I couldn’t believe it when I went back inside, and lads were saying “get ready for a bit of criticism”.
“For what?” I was asking.
“For going down easy,” I was told.
I just said to myself “oh move on, don’t waste your time and energy on this” because it’s only taking away from what you’re trying to do. Don’t let the energy-sappers get to you, that’s what I’d have wanted to say to the younger me, and that’s what I’d say to any player coming through.
We were on a journey at that stage and hoping to win back the All-Ireland. The previous two seasons — 2017 and 2018 — had been very tough because we just struggled. I was captain and I took the losses in both years very personally. We were close in the semi-final in 2017 but lost to an unbelievable score from Canning, but we had been close and you’re questioning if there’s anything else you could have done. We didn’t regret the season too much because we only went out to a wonder score, whereas in ‘18 we felt under awful pressure to get back on top, and it weighed us down. We never even won a game all summer.
So, it all came back to trying to enjoy it more in 2019. Management will change things, but we needed to get back to basics and just enjoy the game of hurling. The proof is in the pudding. When we won it this year, it was great to have that time with your family in the stands after — and I’d say we were out on the field for an hour.
It was the three-quarters of an hour together as a team in the dressing room afterwards that was so special. You look around and think that this is what all the sacrifice was for, with these 40 lads. We never changed the panel all year, no one was let go — everyone put in a savage effort and we all enjoyed it together. That’s why we hurl, and what you always need to remember.