In his first interview since finishing up the longest inter-county career since Christy Ring, quiet man Tony Browne opens up to Kieran Shannon about pride and anguish and the medal that got away.
I’d often go fishing the day after a game. It just allowed me to come out of that frenzied bubble, you know? Your mind might be knotted up but slowly and surely over the hours out there it just untangles and untangles [he motions a reeling action, as if he has a rod in his hand]. Some lads would play golf but I found no solace in that, it wasn’t for me. You’re hitting a golf ball and someone’s telling you ‘You should have done this yesterday, you should have done that.’ How do you untangle then? But the fishing, the clean air, the water, it just seemed to wash away the tangles for me.
I played over 20 years with Waterford. Bang — over like that. And you wonder, even though we had some great times, where did you actually get time to sit down and actually take it in? For some lads it might be out that night, drinking. ‘This is unbelievable!’ But to really appreciate it, I found it was when I had that time alone fishing. The morning after the 2010 Munster final [replay win], I was fishing in the Blackwater before meeting up with the rest of the lads. That was my time to take it in and reward myself, instead of just having 26 pints over three days. ‘You know what, Tony, you trained for six months, you got up yesterday morning, and the answer when you looked in the mirror was yes again — you’d the work done. And you f***n’ did it.’
He still looks like he could play. As Tony Browne is bidding you farewell on the steps of the Park Hotel in Dungarvan, he spots an old friend over by the side entrance and they each give the other a big hello. Only days before he’ll once again be running and remonstrating along the line in Thurles with his baseball cap on backwards, Dan Shanahan is flashing that famous grin, with one hand giving Browne the thumbs up and the other holding the gearbag over his shoulder, on his way into the gym.
Shanahan is 40 now, the same age as Browne was when he played his last game for Waterford four years ago, and the way Shanahan’s been playing alongside the brother Maurice with the club he could nearly do a job on the other side of that white chalk against Cork. Just recently there he won an award for Waterford sportsperson of the month after he scored four goals and a point for Lismore in a championship game in which they had trailed by 16 points.
In a way — in more than one way, actually — Browne has inspired Shanahan’s rejuvenation. As a player he showed how age can be an illusion; in the eight seasons after he turned 30 there wasn’t even one where he didn’t end the year either as a Munster champion or an All-Star nominee. As a coach then he helped Lismore find their way again. It was actually Shanahan who approached Browne to coach the club for 2016 after they’d been relegated from the senior ranks for the first time in 46 years. By the year’s end they were county and Munster intermediate champions.
Browne isn’t there now, with his daughter Faye having arrived last October but Shanahan could vouch that his legacy still is, just as the Lismore experience has stayed with Browne. He now has the coaching bug, taking in sessions and games across a range of sports, though, as we mentioned at the top here, he still looks so trim and fit that you could not only see him bolting off to join Dan for that workout in the hotel gym but be an option for him to bring on against Cork.
Those days though are gone. He’s a former player. If he’s being honest, it took him a couple of years to adjust to that status but he’s fine with it now. He’s the finest now. Married to Lisa with little Faye. Owning a pub, Maisie’s, in Dungarvan here with his brother Paul. Living in Kilmeaden in the middle of the county with a house overlooking the same lake that his father first taught him how to fish and in which he still fishes in now. But again if he’s being honest — and Browne knows no other way — there’s something that does still grate at him. He sleeps well, or at least he did before Faye came along, but, he adds with a smile, he’d sleep a bit better if he had a Celtic Cross “in the attic or on the fireplace”.
“I suppose in one sense I was lucky that I had a great career and I got to play for such a long period. But [retiring] is a difficult process and it’s a hell of a lot more difficult for me than it would have been for Henry Shefflin or JJ Delaney or Eoin Kelly. Because they could retire with a sense of huge achievement. They have the All-Ireland medals. They’re... fulfilled.
“You meet people on the street that will say, ‘You’re not defined by medals.’ And there’s truth to that. I know that an All-Ireland medal doesn’t define you. And I was lucky enough to win seven county championships with Mount Sion. I’m sure there are guys who have six or seven All-Irelands but they have no medal with the club. So I try to balance it all up and overall I’m in a comfortable place. But there are certain times when I go, ‘Jesus, if only I had that.’ You probably think about it 20 times during the week, a senior All-Ireland medal.”
It really struck home last Saturday night down in Wexford. He went to the game with Ken McGrath and on their way out they bumped into Jackie Tyrrell. And for a little while, they chatted away, three legends, peers even, each the owner of at least three All Stars, with Tyrrell just about leading the way on four. But then after Tyrrell headed off, the thought occurred to Browne. They weren’t peers at all.
“I said, ’Jesus, Ken, imagine, he has is it nine All-Ireland medals?! Nine All-Ireland medals!’ Ken said to me, ‘Leave me alone!’ And that summed it up. There was hardly a word said between us on the journey back until he dropped me off at the house!”
At least Browne has the solace of knowing he did everything he could to win one. Well, at least for much of his career he did. He’d already been playing four years with the county team before Gerald McCarthy came into his life.
“When I look back on it, I didn’t really take up hurling until I was 25, even though I had won an U21 All-Ireland. We wasted years of our career. You’d just go along to training and get your cup of tea afterwards and that would be it. It took Gerald to bring the professionalism that was needed.”
Browne flourished under the new regime, named the 1998 Hurler of the Year, but the following season would show just how much he and Waterford still had to learn. Browne played the first round of the 1999 championship against Limerick on a bad ankle, causing further damage to his ligaments. The next day against Cork in a watershed Munster semi-final, he found himself in the dressing room moments before the team headed out confiding to his brother Barry, a panellist at the time, that he couldn’t feel anything from his toes up to his knee from the painkiller he had taken. Then out he went into that light beyond that tunnel. By the game’s end his marker Mickey O’Connell had scored eight points, though not all of them off Browne. The Mount Sion man had been taken off long before then, a shadow of his true self.
“Later on in my career when I knew better and I knew my body a lot better I wouldn’t even have considered taking the field. And nowadays you would have more protection. ‘Listen, we’re taking the decision away from you. We need you for the next five years.’ But back then there was no tomorrow. It was old-fashioned, do-or-die and everyone was caught up in that bubble — management, medics, players. ‘You’ll be grand, we’ll tape you up, we’ll do this and that.’ But at the end of the day if you don’t perform, you’re the one sitting there on your own in a dark place on a Monday morning, knowing, ‘Jesus, why did I let myself do that?’”
It could have ended his career. Instead it was the making of it. “What it did for me was that I learned to say no. At the time people in Waterford would have thought the injuries were all in my head so I’d maybe try to play with the club and all of a sudden be back to square one. I found it very difficult by nature to say no to people, especially when your club came into the equation and they’d understandably be depending on their county players. But I learned that if you were to continue playing this game you needed to develop a thick skin.”
That realisation would spawn one of the most astonishing personal preparation regimens known to hurling, allowing Browne to have the longest inter-county career since Christy Ring.
I would fish for trout. Or salmon. The salmon is a very, very clever fish. Its journey is like that of a hurling player. They travel thousands and thousands of miles to come back to the very spot they were reared in. Just as we all start and end with the club, they come from the river. After two or three years then they head out to sea and they build themselves up and they build themselves up with whatever they eat out there. They stock up and they stock up before they then look to come back to reproduce.
That’s why when you see fresh salmon coming in from the sea, they’re in their prime. Solid silver. Solid muscle. They could be 10 pound, 12 pound, 20, 22. My brother Mossie works with the Irish Fisheries Board and he used to say to me when I was training hard, ‘You’re like that fresh salmon coming in.’ This might be mid-June and he’d have seen me play and he’d be ‘You’re ready, I can tell by you.’ But the thing is, the longer they travel up the river, mile by mile they start losing conditioning because they’re using up so much energy. And by the time they get up to where they want to spawn they’re what we call spent salmon. The muscle is gone off them, the colour is gone off them, they’re run down.
It’s kind of the same with a hurler, any athlete really. In October the brother would look at me, ‘You might want to eat a bit of grub now and rest up. You’re spent.’ So I’d take a complete break. Wouldn’t even look at a hurley. I’d do no training or anything. I’d just completely replenish. But once my time came to start going up that river for the next season, I’d go again.
Tony Browne doesn’t have a certification in anatomy or physical education — “Tony, you would have made a great doctor,” his mother once told him, “but you never stayed in school” — but in his mid-30s he would have two further All Stars to show for his fascination and dedication to those disciplines. He knew his body. He knew what it needed.
Instead of packing up the gearbag five or six evenings a week, he’d only head out three times. Say training was on a Tuesday and a Thursday. The rest of the lads would also do weights on a Wednesday, as they would on a Monday. Browne wouldn’t. He’d barely do anything on a Wednesday, only rest, rest, rest, eat, eat, eat. But the thing was he would push himself to the max on the Tuesday and the Thursday. “Mini-training camps,” he says. They’d start in the gym in the Woodlands at seven in the morning. Stretch, do a 5k interval run, go in the pool, then bust himself training with the rest of the team later that evening. On the Thursday then he would repeat that double whammy. It was torturous. It was also possible, sensible, logical. Because he’d have taken a complete rest on the Wednesday.
The Friday was also all about recovery. Again, he’d be up early to do what he calls some yoga stretching, then go for a very slow 5k run to flush the lactic acid out of the body. On a Saturday, even if it was the day before a game, he’d maybe do some weights. In his 30s he’d only lift once a week. He had lifted enough over the years that he only needed to top all that work off. Sunday then was gameday for him — and shopping day for his mother, again so he could store up on the right food and be ready to attack those 7am Tuesday and Thursday gym sessions.
“To be honest, I don’t know if all that exactly was the right thing to do,” he says, “but it worked for me.” So that’s how he did it, stretching out a senior inter-county career that began in the autumn of 1991 and extended all the way to the summer of 2013. But why did he do it? Why did he keep going out to the sea and keep trying to swim back up that river, never to actually spawn? That’s part of the answer there. It was in desperately wanting to finally get to that destination. The journey had its other rewards too. Being in the water was where he had to be.
“I wouldn’t have done it unless I could compete. You knew you were very close to an All-Ireland and that you could sneak one so you wanted to keep chasing that dream. And I used to love testing myself against the new kids on the block. Say a Stephen Molumphy when he came onto the panel. Or going up against a Joe Canning in a match.
“And I got huge satisfaction — massive satisfaction — in the preparation. It was like I nearly ended up in a battle with myself.”
In 2007 he was sure the dream would come true. They won the league, won Munster, beat Cork in Croke Park. But that battle had required a second day and Browne had the scars to show for it.
“Normally I had quite a high threshold when it came to pain but a few days later I was [saying to myself], ‘I’m sore and I’m tired.’ Our physio Peter Kirwan worked only two miles away from where I was living at the time so I thought, ‘Lovely, I’ll slip up the road to Peter now and I’ll get a good rub now.’ His place would have been in the middle of nowhere but when I opened the door 11 of the panel were already in the waiting room. I remember sitting down and thinking to myself, ‘We could be in trouble here.’”
And they were. To beat a team as focused and honest as Limerick were that summer Waterford would have needed every ounce of energy they could muster. An extra week to recover from the rigours of playing Cork on consecutive weeks. Instead they were spent salmon.
He won’t lie, giving up on the dream was tough. Giving up on the journey was even tougher. He remembers the first Thursday after he’d made his decision. He was at home with Lisa, sitting on the couch. Normally he’d have got in his 7am workout or maybe come back in from training with the group with the simmering satisfaction of having trained hard and cleared the head. Now he was bored, bemused, edgy.
“Basically I had feck all to do. I was shuffling there on my seat, looking for some reason to get up off it. So I turned around to Lisa. ‘Will I go out and cut the grass?’
“She said, ‘No, Tony, you already cut it on Tuesday!’”
Browne would end up getting up off the couch and out of the house that night to head to the gym and for that night at least his itch was scratched. But the rest of the year was a struggle.
“I’ll be honest, when you play for as long as I did, you kind of become institutionalised. So when you stop, it’s like part of your soul seems to go. It takes time to get over that. It’s only really in your second year that you get over that.”
Playing another season with the club helped. So did being involved with the county U21s as a selector. Last year then there was Lismore. He can see himself coaching a county team some day. Maybe that’s how the dream will be fulfilled.
He’ll head to Thurles tomorrow. In expectation. The dream is on for this Waterford team. “The door has opened for them. Kilkenny aren’t looking good at the moment, though you could never write off Kilkenny. Tipp are in the backdoor. A lot of this thing is about timing. We came along when Cork had their best team of the last 40 years and Kilkenny had their best team ever. There’s no great team out there now. Now is [Waterford’s] time. They’ve just got to grasp it.”
One of the consolations of coming up against that great Cork team was the splendour of hurling that would be served up whenever they clashed. Every game seemed an epic. Even the 2010 Munster finals, without being as free-flowing as earlier encounters, were pure theatre, with Browne playing a lead role.
The first day Waterford trailed by three points entering injury-time when they were awarded a 20m free. Donal Óg Cusack saved Eoin Kelly’s attempt but Browne, having figured that was likely to happen, pounced to strike to the net and force a replay.
He was 37 then. By the Friday he was still wrecked. Seeing him hobble about the house, Lisa didn’t know how he’d make it for the replay. He seemed spent salmon.
Then just before half-time in extra-time he’d twinge his hamstring. When Davy Fitzgerald came into the dressing room and saw the team physio treating Browne, he told him, “I don’t care what you have to do but you have 10 minutes to get him right!”
It was like 1999 all over again, no tomorrow because tomorrow meant it was over, oops, out of time.
So once more he limped out towards the light where in the closing moments to defend Waterford’s three-point lead he’d dive head-long to deflect a goal-bound Cathal Naughton shot. “I didn’t really have much of a chance of blocking it with my hurley.”
He literally took a bullet to the head for the cause — his split helmet, bloodied shirt, and four stitches will testify to that — but it was worth it. The following morning he was in the peace and quiet of the Blackwater, another Munster medal to savour, more salmon to catch.
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