For most of his career, Waterford forward Gary Hurney terrorised defenders with little or no recognition from the gaelic football public.
Plying his trade with the Déise may not have won him headlines and accolades but his talents made plenty of big name opponents sit up and take notice.
He scored five points against Kieran McGeeney in an All-Ireland qualifier when Armagh were All-Ireland champions, and plundered 1-3 from Seamus Moynihan.
Michael Shields, Rory O’Carroll, Donegal’s McGee siblings and Kevin Reilly are just some of the other highly-rated defenders who struggled to contain the man known simply as ‘Tank’.
Standing at 6’4”, Hurney has always been a powerful operator capable of winning ball. Throw in speed off the mark and an ability to kick points with either leg, and you have a potent weapon.
Little wonder Kerry had Aidan O’Mahony at his shoulder this summer, and Marc Ó Sé standing in front.
That was a game Waterford lost by 26 points. Hurney’s debut came 14 years earlier, when he was five months shy of his 19th birthday. Cork were the opposition on that occasion and the margin was 28. Waterford only scored four points but the Ballinacourty teenager got one of them. In 24 championship games (not including the Tommy Murphy Cup, when he once scored four goals against Carlow), he registered 6-37. The figure is more impressive given Hurney seldom took frees and whose team suffered many heavy defeats.
Yet his confidence in himself and his colleagues meant such reverses never wore him down. After announcing his retirement during the week, the 33-year-old talked of missing the buzz of returning to training, and dreaming.
But two knee operations in eight months and two bulging discs in his neck as a result of a knock received in the agonising one-point qualifier loss to Galway last July have left their mark. With two boys under the age of three and a partner whose job involves a lot of shift work, the call had to be made.
“It’s just extremely hard to go to training” says Hurney. “You can get someone to mind the kids once or twice in the week but you’d be gone weekends as well. It’s just too hard. Along with the number of injuries and knocks I have had, it just took its toll. I’d do everything in my power to get out on the field but it just took its toll on me. It started affecting me at work as well.”
It was an easy decision then, obviously.
“It’s never easy to make the call” he demurs. “You’re giving up a huge part of your life, since I was 18. It’s something I really enjoyed. There’s nothing better than going around the field, having the craic with the lads.”
It’s the good days that stand out. Recording a first championship success in 19 years when defeating Clare in 2007; “it was a monkey off the back”. Earning league promotion three years later and playing at Croke Park in the Division 4 final. The bad ones aren’t the hammerings, but losing that league final to Limerick, and the championship opener against the same opposition a month later.
Now, he’s targeting HQ with Ballinacourty. He’s won three county championships with the club and only lost the 2007 Munster final to Nemo Rangers by three points. This year, Cratloe edged them out.
He has always aimed high, with the reverses never denting the confidence. Galway did a smash-and-grab job on them in Salthill in July and they were the talk of the land for a couple of days.
“Traditionally it would have been called a shock but to us, it wouldn’t have been a shock (if we had won). We’d seen Galway the week before against Tipperary. We build on stuff like that. You have to. We believed going to Galway we had a chance. People would think you’re mad thinking that but in the game we proved that, and we raised a few eyebrows the same day.”
The only time you sense he might have questioned himself was when he rowed in with the hurlers, a period that ruled him out with the football team.
He was on the squad that reached the 2008 All-Ireland final but could never really assert himself.
“You have to take the knocks. It would upset you what people would be saying. It made me better as a player. When I was with the hurlers I would have gotten a lot of criticism and it didn’t help my performances but you have to learn to deal with that. Getting back into the football, I got a lot of positive comment. You just have to support the team as best you can. Everyone is out there doing their best and they deserve the respect.”
Respect isn’t something you always get when your dedication is to the big ball in Waterford. Sniggers aren’t that far away but for Hurney, it was always about what was inside him. Realistically, he knew Waterford had to be at their best to produce. He is delighted to have been part of the progress that came under Greg Fives, Denis Walsh, John Kiely, John Owens and Niall Carew.
“Would I do it all again? I would in a heartbeat. If I had the chance I’d ask for a couple of more wins, and maybe a Munster championship! But I’ve loved every bit of it. I’ve played under a lot of good managers.
“Niall is there now and he’s no-nonsense. He wants 100% from everyone because he gives 110% himself. He’s bringing a lot of professionalism from Kildare. He’s seen it all before. If we buy into his system, we’ll reap the benefits. I’d love to be involved with Niall again. I wish I was one or two years younger, without the injuries. I feel I’d learn an awful lot from him. The lads should use Niall now, and their own ability, and drive on and get promotion from Division 4.”
An interpro regular, Hurney appreciated the fact that Ger O’Sullivan rated him enough to call him up annually. Fortune didn’t smile on him, as he lost a couple of semi-finals to late goals and felt the disappointment of defeat in three finals. When Munster won in 2008, he was unavailable – having played in the semi-final – due to club commitments.
He smiles. It was sufficient for him to know that he could trouble the best of them.
“My life won’t change. I love playing football but I’ll see the other side of it now. I’ll try to get to all the games. I’ve a lot of good friends playing with Waterford. They believe there’s a league there this year and I’d like to support them.”
Munster SFC v Cork,Fraher Field (May 23, 1999)
Thomas O’Gorman is fantastic. He marked me the whole time in training and whereas many full-backs let you win the ball, Thomas is so quick he’s always getting a hand in. He’s definitely one of the trickiest defenders I’ve ever marked. He’s as good a full-back as there is in the country.
Outside of Waterford, Graham Canty was sticky, a good player. With the county, Wayne Hennessy, Liam Ó Lonáin, Brian Wall and Shane Briggs were top class.
My parents. The family are very important to me and I played with all my brothers.
The relationship between the county and the club scene. It’s just not good enough. The club players aren’t getting enough out of it. Inter-county is going on for 10 months of the year and the clubs have a few games thrown in. They’re being completely disrespected and aren’t getting a fair crack of the whip.