“There are hurlers everywhere,” Éamonn Kennedy stresses.
“I don’t think you can look at it totally on a county basis. Carlow is not Kilkenny, and vice versa. But hurling is the same game all over the country, and the basics are the same, wherever you go.”
Although Carlow at home to Kilkenny tomorrow counts as a derby match, none of the previews will cast the encounter in this light. Yet one proof of proximity is the amount of Kikenny natives who have managed Carlow clubs. There is a marked tendency in this regard.
Kennedy was Kilkenny’s centre-back when Offaly were defeated in 2000’s All-Ireland senior final. That winter, he received an All-Star in the position. Currently manager of his native Dunnamaggin, who became 2018’s junior champions, he is a shrewd observer of the game.
Part of Kennedy’s apprenticeship? Two seasons with Erin’s Own in Bagenalstown, 2015 and 2016.
He recounts standard beginnings: “I had worked as a selector with Séamus Knox, when Dunnamaggin were still senior, back in 2010. He gave me a ring one evening, early in 2015, and told me Bagenalstown were looking for someone. So I said I’d at least travel up and talk to them.
“I was impressed with their enthusiasm. So I gave it a go, an honest go. I think the input improved them. I hope it did.”
He continues: “We didn’t win the senior title. St Mullins and Mount Leinster Rangers were too far ahead at the time. But I think Bagenalstown’s hurlers improved, and improvement is at the back of all progress.”
Dunnamaggin’s relegation out of intermediate beckoned him home. But the spell in Carlow focused and sharpened Kennedy’s own experience: “I felt I could relate to them, to the frustrations around trying to improve yourself. I could tell them I was 28 before I hurled senior with Kilkenny, that there’s always hope, if you work hard.”
His own club’s history proved pertinent: “Dunnamaggin were never traditionally a senior club. They were a hard luck story, losing South junior final after south junior final.
Kennedy’s moral is lucid: “You need talent. But most of all, in Carlow or anywhere else, you need a willingness to work. How many clubs are working as hard as they could?
“I used bring the Erin’s Own lads off to challenge matches against strong outside clubs. I would say: ‘If ye don’t buck up here, ye’ll get thrashed.’ They took it on board.”
Anthony McCormack is another Dunnamaggin native. Goalkeeper when the club won that sole senior title in 1997, he featured with Kilkenny at minor and U21. Now back living in Kilkenny, he earlier spent time in Kildare, where he managed the Celbridge hurlers between 2009 and 2010. This season, McCormack is managing Rathnure, with his view of hurling one of the broadest ones out there.
Two slices of Carlow experience inform this view. “I was with St Mullins in 2014 and 2015,” he relates. “I enjoyed the stint, and thankfully we were senior champions both years. St Mullins is a pure hurling place. And the club is the pivot of the community.”
McCormack feels intricacies are not properly understood: “Even though Carlow is a small county, there are still significant differences within it. It’s probably one of Ireland’s most rural places, Carlow Town and Bagenalstown aside. So it felt familiar to me, coming from a rural place like Dunnamaggin.”
He elaborates: “Going to Ballinkillen last year was all the more interesting after being in St Mullins. Again, the whole community in Ballinkillen is centred around the club. It’s another nice rural place.”
McCormack discovered nuance: “Whereas St Mullins don’t bother with football at all, the dual issue is there in Ballinkillen. I was only able to train the hurlers on Mondays and Fridays. To be honest, I don’t think you can get significantly better at hurling if you’re at it only two nights a week.”
Access was one crux. Familiarity, soon shading into staleness, is another difficulty across the board: “Carlow is a lot about cousins playing cousins, neighbours playing neighbours. It can get claustrophobic. You couldn’t stress enough how small the hurling area is. There are only four senior clubs.
Last year, he saw familiarity scuff competitiveness: “The four senior clubs all played each other once in a round robin. Ballinkillen lost all three games and still ended up in a semi-final, same as the club that won all three games. I’d wonder about that arrangement.”
Tom Mullally is one of Kilkenny’s most highly-rated sideline operators. A native of Glenmore, he possesses a serious portfolio of experience, ranging across his home county, Carlow, Waterford, Wicklow and Wexford. Among many distinctions, Mullally trained Clara to senior victory in Kilkenny in 2013 and 2015.
Another distinction? Managing Mount Leinster Rangers to 2013’s Leinster title. Portumna beat them in the subsequent All-Ireland final.
That season, still the benchmark for club hurling, remains an inspiration to all aspiring teams from non-traditional spots.
Mullally is low-key about his role: “To be honest, I had no sense at all of Carlow hurling before I went to Mount Leinster Rangers in 2006, to give a hand. This was a disadvantage in a way, because I had a lot of catching up to do, but an advantage in another way, because I just treated them all as a hurler.
“I wasn’t painting them into being anything because they were a Carlow hurler or a Mount Leinster Rangers hurler. Hurling is a game, not a county.”
He emphasises a common challenge: “Whatever the club or the place, players need to ask themselves what they want from their career. They need ambition. They might hurl for ten or 12 years, but there might only be three or four years of their time when the overall panel is strong enough to win something important.
“Those three or four years are therefore a huge consideration, and teams that do well focus on that end of it. I think the Rangers’ success later on came in a big way from players within the club realising there was going to be a window of opportunity, and seizing it.”
Mullally corrects certain perceptions: “Fair enough, there is a problem with the amount of clubs in Carlow. There were six senior ones in my time with Mount Leinster. Now I think there are only four, which is even more difficult.
“But there are often great playing numbers within an individual club. We used to have fantastic numbers at training, as good as I’ve ever seen anywhere.”
He salutes Carlow’s current manager: “Colm [Bonnar] is doing a wonderful job. He realises that April as ‘club month’ is not as significant as elsewhere, because you have so few clubs. But he still finds ways of keeping players fresh. I know he gave them a break after the league campaign.”
Summer is club buds unfolding into inter-county blossom. Éamonn Kennedy believes this Leinster Championship meeting between Carlow and Kilkenny requires careful context.
As he recently saw, the underdog dynamic can cut both ways: “Dunnamaggin got to the All-Ireland final last February against Castleblayney [Faughs], and I think the bookies had us something crazy like 1/66. Castleblayney came out with great speed, went at it, and we had poor wides.
“We got unsettled and edgy. It’s hard to change things up mid-match. You get into a groove, good one or bad one.”
He summarises: “The same could happen to a certain extent with Kilkenny. There is no pressure on Carlow. I’m not saying they’re going to win or anything, but a few early wides for Kilkenny could make it trickier than people generally think.
“Hurling is a game of emotion, as well as everything else. If players on a team that is odds-on have a few wides or fail to get into a good rhythm, they can get edgy.”
Then a wry laugh: “I just know we were lucky, against Castleblayney, to get out of Croke Park and back home safely with the cup. And the bookies are giving Carlow far better odds than was the case with Castleblayney before that throw-in.
“So we’ll see. It’ll be a game of hurling. It’s always a game of hurling.”