A rebel with a cause
By Kieran Shannon
For awhile there he’d become hurling’s great forgotten man.
Ben and Jerry and Curran all retired, Dónal Óg went down injured, then Seán Óg and Gardiner were dropped. In the case of Tom Kenny, it was as if he had just drifted, he was hardly mentioned, even upon his recall.
It was only last week, his second game back in the starting line-up, that his name was thrust back into the spotlight. The qualifier against Offaly had been a tense, tight, tricky affair but in the end, Cork had enough poise to see it through and in his post-match interviews, Jimmy Barry-Murphy would claim that Kenny in particular personified that grace under pressure.
When Offaly had tried to drag an inexperienced Cork backline around the place to create space inside, Kenny had been the one who had held the line and rearguard together with his ability to read a game. It was an invaluable tutorial for the side’s youngsters, their manager noted, and he could have added that there was a lesson for veterans like Gardiner and Ó hAilpín too, to persist, to hang on in.
While they started in the league final, Kenny watched on from the bench, unused, for the entire duration of that pummelling. He started only two of the team’s previous six league games and finished neither, which seemed to suggest that he was finished too.
Another player would have packed it in. For six straight years after breaking onto the Cork team, he was an All-Star nomination and while such consistency wasn’t converted into an All-Star itself, he was universally regarded as one of the best midfielders of the Noughties and a member of the best midfield unit of that decade. But in the decade that followed, he seemed a relic from another time.
He had been happy with his form throughout the 2010 league but a hamstring injury ruled him out of the opening championship game against Tipperary, and while he would break back onto the team that would eventually reach that year’s All-Ireland semi-final, in 2011 he was a marginal presence, only coming on with 20 minutes to go against Tipperary in Munster and then getting no playing time against Galway when Cork abjectly exited the championship.
To use Denis Walsh’s parlance regarding another Cork stalwart, his performance graph seemed to be on a downward curve, and having turned 30 the week after that debacle in the Gaelic Grounds, the temptation would have been to retire with his old wing men Jerry O’Connor and Ronan Curran.
Over the autumn, he met Jimmy Barry-Murphy who would tell him he still had something to offer, a conviction Kenny shared, but even upon agreeing to return for 2012, the player had nearly resigned himself to being a role player.
“To be honest, at the start of the year, going back training, I didn’t think I’d be a first-choice starter.
“That’s just how time goes. Things needed freshening up, there were new players coming in and they deserved their chance. But at the same time you resolve to train and work hard and do your best to get on the team.
“The way I looked at it was I was playing for Cork. Growing up, that was all I wanted to do, that was the dream and I felt if the selectors felt I had something to offer the cause, be it for 10 minutes or for 70, I was happy to serve them. That was the main reason I wanted to come back.
“I would also have been conscious that Cork have won only two All-Irelands in the last 12 years. For a county of our stature, for the players we had, that wouldn’t sit right with some of us.
“Myself and John Gardiner would always be saying that if you could win one more, the feeling would be just fantastic. That’s what drives you on. You love the game, being involved, representing Cork, and you’d like to win another All-Ireland.
“You’d prefer to be saying that you have four, five, six of them but it would be great if you could bow out and say you have three All-Ireland medals.”
Six years ago, he could never have envisaged the pair of them would be stuck on just the two Celtic Crosses. They were part of the 8/8 brigade — in Kenny’s first four years as a starter, Cork played in eight consecutive major finals; there wasn’t a Munster or All-Ireland decider in that time without them. More so, they won five of those finals.
Since 2006, they haven’t won any major titles and only one All-Star, Ben O’Connor in 2008. Kilkenny, in the meantime, have won 34. Tipp have registered 18, an All-Ireland and league and a 21-year-old Noel McGrath is only a day from overtaking Kenny’s Munster medal count of three. Even Waterford, who Cork once had that marginal but decisive edge over, now have a decisive edge over Cork, having racked up 12 All Stars, a couple of Munsters and a league since Cork shaded them in that epic 2006 All-Ireland semi-final.
What changed? Their rivals got better while they got older and wearier from all the strikes and the reasons behind having to go on those strikes. Last year, watching them fade to Galway and Tipperary teams they’d have comfortably shaded in their prime, the thought struck you that there couldn’t be an older 28-year-old in the country than Gardiner and a more jaded 30-year-old than the once cheetah that was Kenny.
Does he regret going on those last couple of strikes? Every weekday he works with Pearse O’Neill in the accountancy and finance department of Boston Scientific and knows that Pearse and his team-mates wouldn’t have won four league medals, three Munster medals and an All-Ireland since the hurlers squared off with the county board more than once over in those long, dark winters a few years ago.
He sees Conor Lehane, Jamie Coughlan and Darren Sweetnam breeze in for training every night, laugh easily and train properly in accordance to the best standards in the country, without the weary eye of officialdom’s sceptical look and can’t help but compare how different it was when he first joined the panel in 2002. People often talk about how that generation don’t have the confidence of walking around with provincial and All-Ireland underage medals in their pockets but for Kenny, they possess a swagger he never had as a youngster.
“When I came in first, I didn’t say boo to anyone for three or four weeks, nearly three or four months. These lads take everything in their stride,” he said.
“Conor Lehane scores something like 20 points in his first three league games, doesn’t knock a feather out of him. Sweetnam’s the same. Their outlook, the craic they have, their confidence, it keeps you young.”
Deep down too, he knows his generation have emboldened their boldness. So no, he still doesn’t regret any of the strikes, just that they had to resort to such action.
“People might say they [the strikes] were counterproductive. But I was probably on the higher end of the scale of the experienced players and I still stand by that we were doing what needed to be done for the likes of Conor Lehane and coming up, that they can just come in, prepare and perform and try to win for Cork. If you feel at the time something is the right thing to do, you have to do it and that’s what we did. I think history will prove long-term that what we did served Cork well.
“I can say to you that we had the best interests of Cork GAA at heart but I know someone down the road could laugh at that and give out about that. But I think, slowly, relationships are healing.”
The appointment of JBM has obviously helped facilitate that. People that weren’t on talking terms are at least now on nodding terms; no point in being imprisoned in the past.
Kenny himself knew his own return would require renewal. He left the only job he knew in Ernst and Young while for the first time, he really invested in mental preparation, eating up a book called The Mind Gym by Gary Mack.
“I won’t say my confidence suffered over the last couple of years. I was happy enough with it during the league in 2010.
“In 2011 I was in and out of the team and people said my form had dipped but when you’re only playing for 15, 20 minutes, it’s hard to build form as such. I was still happy with how I was training and playing with the club. You might hit four balls and score four points and people think you’ve played great; then you get on 15 balls, score just one point, make five hand passes and five blocks and people say you didn’t play that well.
“People are entitled to their opinion but I didn’t pass much heed what anyone outside the circle and my friends thought; I always knew coming off the pitch if I played well or not.
“I still felt as fresh and as fit as ever. Obviously as you get older you’re not going to be as fast as you were at 23, 24, 25, but I’d still be happy enough when I’d be going flat out I’d be going at a good speed.
“But while I felt I was maybe fine physically, mentally I’d drifted slightly in terms of focus. Sometimes when you’re doing a thing for nine or 10 years, unknown to yourself you begin to slip and at the start of this season I felt I could work on my mentality and how I should approach games and training.”
One line in the book stuck with him. Attitude is a choice. He could choose to think of how he played and felt during his finest hours, and thus prep the body to recreate those images, rather than repeatedly over analysing any slump and thus compounding it. Or even how he viewed training. Looking back, it had become so routine, almost a drudgery, going to it every Thursday night, as if it was something to be endured, not enjoyed.
This year, there were nights he found himself in the dressing room alongside some shivering team-mate cursing the rain pelting outside, and Kenny would urge and remind his team-mate that this was a choice, this was living, this was part of what the dream of being a Cork hurler was all about! And so, he looked to the upside of being on the margins during the spring.
He played a couple of Waterford Crystal games at wing back, the position he first broke onto the Cork team in back in 2003 before he and John Gardiner swapped spots the following year. He made a couple of cameo appearances during the league at midfield but accepted the management’s view that sector needed freshening up “and Lorcan [McLoughlin] and Darren have provided that”. After being overlooked for the league final, he could have sulked. Instead he knuckled down.
“I said to myself, ‘Put the head down, work hard and see where it’ll take you’. Over the next few weeks I was maybe fortunate that we often only had 18, 19 in training because of club games so I got a start in a couple of challenge games against Clare and Dublin at wing back.
“I liked playing midfield; I’d take the attitude that let your man mark you rather than you mark him and have a licence to go and do what you want. But I’ve always enjoyed playing in the halfback line too. You’re nearly always involved at some point, with the ball either coming down on top of you or you’re covering a run.”
Kenny did well in those couple of pre-championship challenge games, enough to start against Tipperary and though it was a day marred by a one-point defeat and the fact Lar Corbett slipped him to set up the match-winning goal for Noel McGrath, Kenny made a point to cherish the day as well.
Just little things, like the rush that comes from hearing the PA announce ‘Anois a chairde, foireann Chorcaigh’, standing for the national anthem.
Now he wants to win with Cork. That game against Tipp was encouraging but it was still a defeat and while Cork are in transition, that doesn’t mean you can’t win things while you’re going through it, either.
“We were very disappointed after the Tipp game. We went into that game with every intention of winning. A couple of small things cost us. Me losing Lar that time. A lack of composure near the end perhaps. We learned from that and that an extra per cent would have got us over the line.
“We’re a team in transition. You have a few of us left over from the team that won back-to-back All-Irelands; another group of 25, 26-year-olds like Shane O’Neill and Pa Cronin; and then the young fellas that are just 19, 20, 21.
“That’s three different groupings management are trying to blend together. So yeah, we’re probably a mark or two off beating the likes of a Kilkenny in Croke Park but I’d like to think this team is coming. Any Cork team always goes out onto the pitch to win.
“At the start of the year, when you go back training as a Cork player, you always believe that you’re going to win an All-Ireland and that your training and preparation is going to take you there. That’s the way I would still look at it.”
It’s why his wedding to Norleen won’t be until Christmas; when else could it be? This is what he grew up doing, this is what he loves. The morning after last Saturday’s win over Offaly, he popped back home to Grenagh to watch the club’s footballers train.
If he had his way he’d have played more football with the county too but he’s learned you can’t do everything and other things, like even hurling with Cork, you can’t do forever either.
So, he’s going to enjoy the journey, what’s left of it. This year it’s been rocky in parts already, for all of them. The one year Donal Óg got his hands on the captaincy was the one year he happened to get injured, though he’s still around, encouraging fellas, taking the odd drill, because, as Kenny puts it, “it would have been foolish not to have him involved, he’s such a figurehead”. It’s not happening for Seán Óg and Gardiner at the moment, but as Kenny’s promotion into the starting line-up and the four changes for today’s game against Wexford show, that could turn in an instant too.
“The two lads have been around long enough to know you just need to keep working hard. So do I. You can’t rest on your laurels, you still have to push on, though you need to enjoy it too. As Donal Óg often says to us on big match days, it’s great to be here.” It’s great to be back.Home