His blood mixed with the sweat and tears running down his face and his voice started to quiver as he realised what had happened. He was a loser. His family were losers. His club were losers.
“We’ve lost 13 county finals in our house between myself, my brothers and my father,” he said. “It’s worse than drink, or drugs or gambling. We’re obsessed by this. We’ll win it someday.”
That day in 2005, after a county final loss to rivals Naomh Eoin, was one of many low points in Mount Leinster Rangers and James’s fairytale journey to today’s All-Ireland Club SHC final in Croke Park.
“I remember it like it was yesterday. They were very tough times. Up to 2006, we had won nothing,” Hickey said last week.
“Christmas 2005, we were sore. Ballymurphy [who joined Borris and Rathanna to form Rangers in the 80s] had been beaten in the 1980, ’81, ’83 and ’84 senior finals. So in five years they lost four senior finals. Everyone started to say we were like Ballymurphy and we’d never win one, that we didn’t have that bottle. We were doing everything right but when it came to the final we were so afraid of losing them we weren’t able to play. We didn’t know how to win.”
You may know James as an internet video hit, going mad inside the dressing room before his side’s All-Ireland Club SHC semi-final win over Loughgiel Shamrocks.
There’s more to Hickey than that. He’s the man who turned down the captaincy of the county when he heard some players didn’t want him there. The man who retired from hurling in 2011. In Carlow, he’s a divisive character. Some love him, others hate him. They all listen to him, though, and they’ve even written a book about him GAA giants in a small county.
But back then, winning a Carlow club championship was the goal. Naomh Eoin and St Mullins were kingpins of club hurling. Their neighbours were the butts of jokes.
But something was building in the background. Borris Vocational School was competing on the Leinster stage driven on by Kieran Lucas, John O’Malley and Cyril Hughes, one of only two Carlow men to be invited on an All Star trip, and the club’s youngest and brightest were exposed to top-class provincial hurling.
The county was also developing under a hurling promotional project started by Rangers own Eddie Byrne, then county board chairman and the late county board secretary Tommy O’Neill. The county’s U16s, backboned by Rangers, had won four All-Ireland B titles in a row.
By 2006, those youngsters were ready for senior hurling. Derek Byrne and Hugh Paddy O’Byrne started the final against St Mullins. Teenagers Denis Murphy and Richard Coady came on as subs. Kilkenny man Tommy Mullally was brought in by manager Mick Purcell to help, he stayed on and eventually assumed the role. Everything fell into place.
And then there was the Kilkenny league.
“We got invited into it after Ned Nolan, from the Black and Whites club, recommended to let the Carlow clubs play in the Kilkenny junior league to Johnny Comerford and Ned Quinn,” James says.
“At that time, in the early 2000s, Kilkenny were dominating nationally with Cork. But here, they were offering us a way in. We saw it as an amazing opportunity. A junior hurling team in Kilkenny would mix it with anyone. Lisdowney got beaten in the Leinster junior final this year, but we played them in the All County League quarter-final and they gave us a right trimming.
“The big thing we learned about Kilkenny is how tough it is to get out of your grade. We took senior hurling for granted but we were playing great teams who couldn’t get out of junior grade because competition was so fierce.
“We took that competition seriously. A lot of the lads’ nightlife around Christmas time is in Kilkenny. In fairness to the Kilkenny hurlers, they’d recognise you and know you. You didn’t want them to be meeting you and laughing at you. So we won four or five of them leagues.”
Rangers went from losers to become the dominant side in the county, claiming six of the last eight championships. However clashing ash with some of the best hurlers in the country injected an infectious question into the club’s thinking — how far could they push this?
Last year they won every county championship from U12 up to senior and defeated the best of Leinster to claim the county’s first premier senior provincial hurling title. Within the county there are those in Éire Óg, their football equivalent, who admit Rangers could match those achievements with the big ball if they showed the same devotion to that game. But the South Carlow club no longer looks north for a benchmark.
“Our young lads are asking to play in Kilkenny underage leagues at U12 and U14. They look for those matches because they believe they can win them,” said James.
“John Comerford in Gowran, he’s a great lad with the administration, he said (when) we were brought up at a meeting one day, to watch us and see what we’re doing, because we were going in and beating their top U12 teams.”
To keep it up though, they must continue to produce players and in a rural area numbering in the hundreds rather than thousands, the chances of unearthing a superstar are slim. There strategy is based on total commitment and sacrifice. So much so, they would put most county teams to shame.
“The boys live for their hurling. The biggest people I feel sorry for is the wives and girlfriends. They’re told before they ever start to go out ‘If you’re going out with me, you’re going to be number two because hurling is going to be No. 1’,” said Hickey.
“My wife Amy had our son JP five months ago. When she was leaving the hospital, I brought her home, dropped her off at the door with our other son Conor and went off to play a challenge match against Buffers Alley. It’s not fair on them but we needed to do that to get where we are.”
The pain of past failures drives them on. Their 2011 defeat to a Michael Kavanagh-inspired St Lachtain’s in the Leinster Club IHC final told them they weren’t ready.
“If we had beaten St Lachtan’s we wouldn’t have won that All-Ireland, but they went down and played the semi-final in Limerick and won by a point. At that stage we knew how to win Carlow and we were striving to win the Leinster but we learned we weren’t ready yet and needed to push on more.”
While they were finding their feet at club level, the county game proved a happy hunting ground, with two Christy Ring titles and entry to the Liam MacCarthy. There were more near misses than scalps taken, but all the time, they were learning.
“There was a myth in Carlow that you can’t compete with the county team and the club team. When we were 19 or 20, you’d meet lads asking ‘why are you going in hurling with Carlow, you’re not going to win anything? You’d be better off winning the club championship’. We blew that apart. We beat Wexford for the first time ever in a senior competitive gave in 2010 and the next week we played Clare in Carlow and they beat us by a point. Three years later they were All-Ireland senior hurling champions. It shows what can be done with the proper structures.”
Sport is cruel though. Hickey won’t play in Croke Park today. Three weeks ago his foot jarred in the turf during a challenge game.
“I went for the MRI scan above and the doctor told me the news at 7.30am. That was probably one of the worst days in my life, devastation.
“The cruciate and cartilage torn and I had a hairline fracture on my shin bone. I went up to catch a ball in a challenge match with an opponent and the foot jammed when I hit the ground. The first day it was devastation and the tears came, the next day was a bit better but I’m after talking to you about the team and the squad for the last 45 minutes and it’d be wrong to say it’s the James Hickey show.
“When my time is done I’m just glad to say I played my part. I got my game time and played my part but the biggest thing for me on St Patrick’s Day is Rangers winning and if they do, we’ll all celebrate together. There’s 30 lads on the panel and the 15 subs drive on the starting team. 10 of those subs won’t get a run in the All-Ireland final, I’ll be one of them.
“We’ll still come off the pitch together as Rangers men. The All-Ireland final can’t be seen as the end of the story otherwise there’s no point going up to Dublin at all. This is just the beginning for Carlow hurling.”