All around him were matinee idols. He may have been too young to appreciate selector Ciaran Carey’s momentous run and shot against Clare in 1996 but his new teammates were the heroes he travelled the country supporting in Limerick’s run to the 2007 All-Ireland final.
“They were my heroes and it was very weird that first night going into a dressing room with them,” he said.
“I was starstruck really seeing Geary, Shaughnessy and all these fellas. You’re training with lads that you’re used to shouting at from the terraces. But from the word go, they were brilliant.”
He knew Tom O’Brien from school, Dave Breen was a clubmate with Na Piarsaigh while there was another bunch that he’d soldiered with for the Limerick U21s last summer. And of course there was Niall Moran. Downes knew him as the figure of authority at the top of the classroom in Árdscoil Rís. But now the teacher and the former student were on a level footing. “I suppose it was a bit strange at first with Niall. But he’s been a very good hurling mentor to me and is easy to get on with.”
And has he lapsed into old habits by calling him ‘sir’ if he’s looking for a water bottle from the other side of the dressing room?
“No, I wouldn’t give him the pleasure of that now!”
He feels he owes a debt of gratitude to the work Moran and the other teachers in Árdscoil Rís put into hurling. Downes left the halls and classrooms on the North Circular Road for the final time last August and is now studying Arts in NUI Galway.
But the culture of excellence and professionalism fostered in the school over his six years were essential tools Downes took with him.
“It was serious stuff, a real professional set-up in Árdscoil. Derek Larkin, Liam Cronin, Liam Kennedy and Niall Moran, these teachers have put in massive work. It took incredible commitment.”
The lack of a Dr Harty Cup tradition was a barrier they broke down with incremental progress. When Downes was in fourth year they reached the last eight. In fifth year they made a semi-final appearance and in his last campaign the school claimed a historic first title.
The memories of that trilogy in Nenagh with Thurles CBS will stay with him forever. The teams slugged it out for over 200 minutes in McDonagh Park, conjuring up 11 goals and 89 points between them. But the All-Ireland crown eluded them against St Kieran’s in the final.
Downes was a player then but this year served as a hurley carrier and was just as heartbroken when the school suffered another final defeat against the Kilkenny College.
“I was devastated last year and I was nearly worse this year seeing the lads after the match. To see that late goal go in and the lads faces after was heart-wrenching stuff.”
They have recovered from those defeats and kept developing. Downes was the first to don the Limerick senior shirt and Declan Hannon joined him towards the end of the league.
It was the realisation of a childhood dream for Hannon. Growing up in Caherdavin, hurling with Na Piarsaigh consumed him. Thomond Park may be a stone’s throw away but rugby never jostled for his affections.
“Hurling was it for me. There were good setups in the school and club. That gave me something to aim for. We lost four county finals with Na Piarsaigh in 2009 but then last year we won the U21, stopping Kilmallock doing five-in-a-row. That’s progress.”
Downes feels he benefited from his debut season taking place in the low-key Division Two arenas, rather than being flung into the Division One bearpit.
That exposure, along with the tricks of the trade he has gleaned from Donal O’Grady, paid off in dazzling fashion in the Division Two decider in April. Downes struck 1-2 against Clare, careering through the defence for a sublime late goal that lit up Cusack Park. He came up against former schoolmates that night like Cratloe’s Cathal McInerney and Clonlara duo Darach Honan and Nicky O’Connell, yet those friendships were parked.
That game reflected the rate of his development since that first night in Martinstown and tomorrow he’ll sample the Munster championship against Waterford. Now he’s ready for it
IT’S two years since Limerick and Waterford last went toe to toe in the Munster SHC but there has been a remarkable overhaul in the makeup of both teams since that clash. Tomorrow afternoon only 15 of the 30 starters are survivors from the line-ups that went into action two years ago. Scan through those starting 15s and it’s clear that the policy in both counties to invest in education has paid off.
Waterford boss Davy Fitzgerald has handed out four championship debuts and three of those newcomers are products of the Déise’s successful second-level sides in recent years. From the 2008 De La Salle All-Ireland SAHC winning colleges’ team, Ballygunner duo Pauric O’Mahony and Brian O’Sullivan got the nod and Tourin defender Darragh Fives was on the Blackwater College team that won the All-Ireland SBHC title in 2008.
Noel Connors and Maurice Shanahan also benefitted from exposure to elite schools hurling. Connors won Croke Cup medals with De La Salle in 2007 and ‘08 while Shanahan was on that victorious Blackwater College outfit. Fitzgerald’s youth policy was reflected in this year’s league with Philip Mahony, Stephen Power, David O’Sullivan and Stephen O’Keeffe all receiving game time. That quartet were all part of the winning De La Salle sides.
In Limerick Árdscoil Rís took over De La Salle’s mantle in winning the Dr Harty Cup last season and retaining it in March. It’s been too soon for a great influx into the senior setup but the signs point to that happening over the next few years. Kevin Downes from the 2010 team makes his championship debut at full-forward while Leaving Cert commitments prevent Adare’s Declan Hannon, who struck 1-1 in the Division Two final against Clare, from doing the same.