Hickey key to Munster’s meanest defence

IT says a lot for a team when their star player, the man selected as AIB Munster player of the championship, is a defender, a stopper.

In Kilmurry-Ibrickane’s march through Munster, with wins over Drom-Broadford (Limerick), Stradbally (Waterford) and in the final against Kerins O’Rahillys (Kerry), corner-back Darren Hickey was a force of nature, much as he had been since the beginning of the 2009 season.

He’s a nightmare for any forward; a footballer to his toes, tall, strong and fast. By rights he should be in midfield, which is where he made his name as a youngster, earning the considerable nickname ‘Darragh O Sé’, but these days he plays back in the corner where he is the mainstay in one of the meanest defences in club football.

How mean? Well, in the first place goals are out, none conceded in the four games since the Clare county final; even points, however, are well-nigh impossible to come by against Darren and company. Five were conceded against Drom-Broadford, then six each against Stradbally and O’Rahillys, before what was a challenging visit across the water to London champions Tir Conaill Gaels, who were allowed only a miserly three.

That was a few weeks ago, the All-Ireland club senior football quarter-final, and it means that as Kilmurry face into another huge challenge tomorrow in Limerick’s Gaelic Grounds against the might of Portlaoise, the Clare champions have already shaken off the winter cobwebs.

“It’s nice to have a game under the belt especially after the long Christmas break,” admitted Hickey. “It was tough game and it had to be won. Tir Conaill have played the likes of Crossmaglen and Corofin and took them to a few points, and we knew that going over there. We couldn’t take anything for granted, it was a banana-skin but we got past it and won by a few so we were happy. We got a bit of team bonding too. It was a good weekend but mainly we concentrated on the match and we got the win we wanted which gets us to another day out.”

Another day out, but only another stepping-stone for what is a very ambitious footballer from a very ambitious football club, an individual and a club rooted in tradition. Darren’s father, Paul, was top scorer and man-of-the-match in the 1993 county final win, his mother – Anne – is the club secretary, older brother Seamus is an established star in Clare football, while teenager Niall (Darren himself is only 20) is also beginning to make his mark at senior level.

As for Kilmurry-Ibrickane, well, in the heart of west Clare, where football rivalries are as deadly as any in Kerry or anywhere else, they have been winning senior county titles since the 1930s.

“It’s all football,” he explained. “We don’t really get noticed as much as other counties but it’s not bad football down there at all. We’ve beaten the pick of Munster, but it’s only getting tougher from here. Portlaoise are a great side – we played Garrycastle in a challenge and were beaten by them, but Portlaoise went and beat Garrycastle.”

The challenge is there, then, but don’t assume that just because Kilmurry-Ibrickane aren’t from one of Munster’s big two powerhouse football counties, they have no chance. In rugby there’s a saying, ‘forwards win games, the backs decide by how much’; well, you could adapt that for Gaelic football, reverse the order – backs win games, forwards decide by how much, and, as outlined above, the Clare boys have one of the meanest defences around.

Well coached by Michael McDermott (double-jobbing, as he is also the county team manager), they’re an athletic group, that like to attack the ball, strip the attacker, dispossess him, give him neither time nor space to pick his spot. They’re an experienced side, have been on the big stage before, lost a Munster final to Drom-Broadford in 2008, a loss that’s driving them on now, lost at the All-Ireland semi-final stage to eventual champions Ballina Stephenites in 2005. While their minds are now very much on Portlaoise, their ambition is March 17 and Croke Park – in Darren’s case, a return to Croke Park, and happy memories, a national Féile title in 2000, when he was only 10.

They will have their work cut out for them, up against a perennial club powerhouse in Portlaoise, seven-time Leinster champions, All-Ireland champions in 1983/83. With defenders of the calibre of Darren Hickey, however, they have a chance, a real chance.

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