Galway v Kilkenny: Downey resolute as familiar foes do battle in senior camogie final

Galway v Kilkenny: Downey resolute as familiar foes do battle in senior camogie final
Kilkenny manager Ann Downey says ‘it’s just about the girls performing as well as they can on the day.’

It is part of lore now how a deputation of Wexford hurlers took a bus trip down to Clare around this time last year to exhort Davy Fitzgerald to remain at the helm as manager and along-awaited Leinster title resulted.

Women do things a little differently, so instead of one group knocking on Ann Downey’s door to prevail upon her to remain as boss of the Kilkenny camogie panel, the players opted for a longer campaign of regular contact, rather than the all-or-nothing attack.

Downey had a reputation for being an uncompromising player in a career that yielded 12 All-Irelands with the county, seven at club level.

A story she recounts in a conversation about how refereeing had changed in recent years, reveals her pragmatic, no-nonsense approach.

It was an All-Ireland final. Kilkenny were leading old rivals Cork by two points with time running out. They had to do whatever it took to deny the Rebels a goal.

“We were winning by two points and Linda Mellerick passed me, and I hit her such a belt… and there was no free!” says Downey, the memory of it as evident as if it had happened the day before.

“If there had to be a free she would never have got the goal. I deliberately fouled her to give away the free and it wasn’t blown… it was a lot more physical then!”

Off the pitch, she has never adopted a political approach, preferring honesty to falseness.

This is an ultimate competitor after all, who after her retirement from the playing field, won national titles in squash and also played golf at representative level.

People who don’t know better tend to presume that she must be a tyrant as a manager, but that is not the case.

Does she demand the highest standards? Yes. Will she go through players for a short cut if they don’t follow instructions, or she feels that they are not pulling their weight? Definitely. Can she get over-excited on the sideline during a game? She is the first to say it.

It is no surprise that newcomers to the squad tread very softly when introduced to the fray initially but it is notable how many players she has managed, be it with Waterford IT or Kilkenny, describe her as a mother figure, with a strong caring side. She will always go the extra yard for her girls.

Although victorious in 2016, ending a long famine since Downey herself had lifted the O’Duffy Cup in 1994, Kilkenny have lost the last two All-Irelands, by a point to Cork, and some of the local criticism about their defensive style of play cut deep. Coaches Richie Mullally and Conor Phelan were moving on.

Downey was inclined to think that she should too.

But the players weren’t having it. She had stood by them so often and now it was their turn.

Rather than send one representative delegation, they adopted, either by design or instinctively, to ensure a longer-lasting impression of what they wanted. So one called in, then another and then another. It told a tale.

“I don’t know did they have it concocted between them but that would make your mind up. You’d appreciate that and it affected me.

“My older sister Olga is in Ballybunion. She said, ‘You’re not going back for more hardship!’ You can be sure there was criticism.. .some of it wasn’t pretty but you do your best for the girls and when I thought about it I was thinking ‘What is the best forKilkenny camogie?’

“Once the girls spoke to me and I knew they wanted me I was happy to reconsider. I knew too that if I was going back I wouldn’t go backwithout the right person.”

Brian Dowling was her first choice. Like Mullally and Phelan, he was a former All-Ireland winner under Brian Cody, who scored the winner in a league final against Cork.

“I was out in Dunmore in 2017 and saw Brian’s team, O’Loughlin’s, playing Graigue-Ballycallan in a minor semi-final and I loved the movements their forwards were doing, and the delivery of the ball.

I came into the Park to see them the same year, think they might have been beaten by James Stephens in the county final... again their movement. I just knew in my heart and soul.

Dowling actually turned her down when she contacted him first but after a conversation with Phelan, he changed his mind.

He called Downey back, they met and were clearly on the same page. In a self-deprecating acknowledgement of her animation, she says that “Brian brings the calmness I maybe haven’t had for a long time” beforeexpanding.

“His mantra is ‘Don’t think you’re going to go out here and not make a mistake.’ The best hurler, footballer or camogie player is going to make mistakes but you recover from it. That’s what has been important...they’re allowed hurl with that freedom.”

The change in style has been notable this year, after three seasons that saw Anne Dalton relocated to a sweeping role and a structure that became more defensive.

Galway v Kilkenny: Downey resolute as familiar foes do battle in senior camogie final

They won their All-Ireland with Dalton at six and only lost the last two by those minimum margins, but Downey had always struggled with the thought that they were not utilising the talents of the St Lachtain’s star, nor their ace forwards, to the optimum effect.

Now, Dalton has scored 6-11 from play, mostly from centre-forward, and the attacking unit is exhibiting the type of movement that had smitten Downey when watching that minor hurling match two years ago.

“When I eventually coaxed Brian into doing the job after a few meetings, we spoke about what had happened. I gave him the video of the last two All-Irelands, so he saw what we were doing and I said ‘Look, we haven’t got over the line doing this, maybe we can try (something new) for the league. Just try and express ourselves.’ And Anne Dalton had me badgered too!

“We had to trust the rest of the girls around her too and Claire Phelan is a fabulous centre-back. She has some hand on her, she’s from the same club as myself (Lisdowney) and unfortunately was injured for the 2017 All-Ireland, which was some loss. So we just said we’d put Claire centre-back in the league and she just grew into it.

The pressure was on Dalton then to come into her own and she hasn’t let us down but the whole unit (attack), including midfield, they really don’t care who gets the score. If they’re not in the best position they’re going to throw the ball to someone else, they’re not being selfish about it.

The final is being billed as a new one, which it is after the three clashes with Cork, but Kilkenny know Galway well, having met regularly in the championship in recent years and though the Cats have been on top in the summer, Galway prevailed with silverware on offer in the league final in March.

“Every year we’ve said they’re a great team and they’re going to take beating and it’s no different this year. They gave us a lesson in the league final. We really had to be up for the championship opener up there.

“To go up that day and get the win was great. Cathal Egan refereed it and really did a great job on it. Miriam (Walsh) got a great goal in the second half and that was really the difference.

“They’re a big strong side this year, very good in the ruck and on the breaking ball and they’ve great camogie players all around the pitch. You couldn’t say there’s a weak link in any position.”

It is easy to forget now that Kilkenny went into this season without two of their starting forwards from last year, after Shelly Farrell and Julie Ann Malone departed for Australia. So to be back in a sixth decider in seven seasons is no mean feat.

She may be 62 but she doesn’t look anything like it and you fancy she could still do a job out on the pitch if required. This is what shealways wanted to do, from the time she could remember being, as daughter of the great Shem Downey.

She soldiered with her sister Angela for years and has her twin by her side now too, along with another former teammate Breda Holmes in a backroom set-up that numbers 11.

That sort ofexperience and know-how is invaluable and though the pair jokingly call themselves gofers, they are so much more than that. When they speak, players listen, particularly if approached on an individual level.

But they listen first and foremost to Ann Downey. And now, she cannot wait fortomorrow.

“I know the girls have worked hard and I always say, regardless of the result, it’s not going out to win. It’s just about the girls performing as well as they can on the day and hopefully we can do that and be good enough on the day.”

Therese O'Callaghan's verdict

Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Senior Championship final: Galway v Kilkenny, Croke Park, 4.15pm, Ray Kelly (Kildare).

This is a repeat of the 2013 final, the last time Galway won the O’Duffy Cup with a five-point victory under the captaincy of Lorraine Ryan. It is also a rerun of this year’s League decider which went the way of the Connacht ladies by a narrow margin.

The familiarity doesn’t stop there, they met in the group stages of the championship as well earlier this season, Kilkenny securing the win by two points. This marks a fourth successive final for the Cats, they bridged a 22-year gap in 2016 when claiming their 13th title. Losing the last two All-Ireland finals to Cork by a point will surely serve as a huge incentive.

They have serious talents in former Players of the Year, Anne Dalton and Denise Gaule, and manager Ann Downey will need big performances from these girls alongside joint captains and sisters Meighan and Anna Farrell. However, Galway, a county bidding for a third All-Ireland title, hurled with magnificent self-belief in their semi-final triumph over Cork, and they will take massive confidence from that win. Under new manager Cathal Murray they have been building steadily towards this day. While they have been away from the limelight, operators like captain Sarah Dervan, Niamh Kilkenny, Aoife Donohue and Ailish O’Reilly will bring valuable knowledge to the biggest stage of all. Former footballer Caitriona Cormican too is a welcome addition to the squad.

Verdict: Galway

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