Conor Browne had seven possessions in the All-Ireland semi-final, a figure roundly accepted as being below-average for a midfielder. But to get on the ball and drive at the Limerick defence was not the job Conor Browne was given for Kilkenny’s semi-final clash with the All-Ireland champions. His brief was to shadow Cian Lynch, to nullify the 2018 hurler of the year.
That a school of thought now exists that Browne should man-mark Tipperary quarterback Noel McGrath in tomorrow’s final tells you how successful the 23-year old was in curtailing Lynch three weeks ago.
But why, in the first instance, did Brian Cody entrust responsibility for holding Lynch with a man who was making just his second championship start in the black and amber and third championship appearance overall?
July 27 was not the first time a Kilkenny manager had asked Browne to marshal Lynch. Back in 2014, then Kilkenny minor boss Pat Hoban had the James Stephens youngster pick up Limerick’s go-to player in the All-Ireland minor final. And while Lynch edged their duel on that occasion - Browne was whipped off after 38 minutes - that the latter was anywhere near an All-Ireland winning Kilkenny minor team spoke volumes of the progress he had made in a few short months.
The son of 12-time All-Ireland camogie winner Angela Downey-Browne, Conor was unable to make the St Kieran’s College team during his penultimate year at the famed Kilkenny nursery. An unused sub during St Kierans’ 2014 Leinster final and All-Ireland semi-final victories, he was introduced as the clock ticked into second-half stoppages on the afternoon of their All-Ireland final win.
Hoban, so, was taking something of a gamble when inviting him to join the panel for that summer’s minor championship.
“He would have shown a lot of good club form and it was off the back of that that we brought him in,” Hoban recalled this week.
“Kilkenny is a small county and you’ll get plenty of calls about so and so doing well, but when Conor got his chance, he took it and took it with both hands.” In a video produced by competition sponsors Electric Ireland in the build-up to that year’s Kilkenny-Limerick minor final, Browne offered a stark admission.
“I never really thought I’d have what it took to be on the Kilkenny minor team,” he said. My family is built around sport and sometimes when I wouldn’t feel up to it, they would be the ones to push me on and drive me.” Hoban never found him wanting for drive. In fact, he maintains it is his greatest asset.
“When he’s given a job, that is where he is at his absolute best. I am not saying he can’t score or go forward, I saw him score a great goal in the Fitzgibbon Cup final this year, but he really responds to a job.”
These are sentiments shared by Cork IT GAA development officer Keith Ricken who watched at close hand Browne’s continued growth during the latter’s brief stay at CIT. Browne captained from midfield the CIT team which achieved All-Ireland freshers glory in 2016. It was to prove his final outing with the college.
“He had a situation where his first choice was in UCC but he didn’t get it the first time around so he came to CIT. When the points came down the following year, he had a choice to make as to whether he stayed put or went across to UCC,” Ricken explains.
We were very sorry to see him go, in lots of ways, but you are always happy when they make the right decisions for themselves.
Ricken, who managed Cork to All-Ireland U20 football glory earlier this month, compares him to Kilkenny’s outstanding midfielder of this decade, Michael Fennelly, another who passed through the doors of CIT.
“I remember Michael, and they are similar. If memory serves, Michael was also captain when he was playing freshers. Nothing overly spectacular that you’d be saying, this is the greatest gift you ever saw in your life, but very good, very grounded, nice manner, and good pedigree.
“Conor would be in that mould. He was a natural captain, a good leader, a decent, hardworking guy.”
Further silverware arrived in the colours of UCC this spring, Browne joint-captain of their Fitzgibbon Cup-winning team. Former Cork goalkeeper Ger Cunningham was a selector with that side. But where Hoban reckons Noel McGrath is the job for the relative unknown of this Kilkenny team, Cunningham holds a different view.
“Conor has a huge engine on him. He follows the ball quite a lot and sometimes loses his focus on where he should be in an attempt to get on the ball. I am not so sure I’d put him on Noel McGrath.
"I’d put Cillian Buckley, as a more experienced player, on Noel McGrath and leave Conor Browne fight it out with Breen.”
Returning to the Electric Ireland video of five years ago, the last words of which fell to Angela Downey-Browne: “My father (Shem), Lord have mercy on him, won a senior All-Ireland medal in 1947, but I’d say he’d be as proud as punch [of Conor being involved in the minor hurling final].” Prouder still, you’d imagine, to see where he is now.