The Big Interview with John Knox: The man who reported on the rise and rise of Kilkenny's tide

There were always a few of them, hovering behind the goal in Nowlan Park on biting league Sundays.
The Big Interview with John Knox: The man who reported on the rise and rise of Kilkenny's tide
DJ Carey
John Knox formerly a sports writer for the Kilkenny People pictured in Kilkenny. Picture: Dylan Vaughan
John Knox formerly a sports writer for the Kilkenny People pictured in Kilkenny. Picture: Dylan Vaughan

There were always a few of them, hovering behind the goal in Nowlan Park on biting league Sundays.

Kids had fewer ways to kill wintry weekends in the late sixties, but there was a strict schedule when this particular gang turned up for a Kilkenny game.

“When Ollie Walsh was in goal there’d be that group of young lads standing behind whichever goal he was in,” says John Knox.

“At half-time, when he switched down to the other goal, they’d follow him down there. I know. I was part of the group.”

Knox recently retired from the Kilkenny People after four and a half decades tracking the hurling fortunes of the county — club championship and intercounty adventures alike. He was there for the famine of the eighties and the feast of the last 20 years, when the stripey men were the power in the land.

“Nobody could say they saw that dominance coming. No matter how talented underage teams are, there are always so many variables that you can’t tell how many players you’ll get from any of them.

“If you get two from a minor team or three or four from an U21 team to come through that’s great, but you’re still a long way short of 15 you need to win an All-Ireland — and who knows how many short of the number needed to win back-to-back All-Irelands.

“Forget about three or four, or coming within one game of five All-Irelands in a row, that exceeded everybody’s expectations.”

It seems laughable now, but Knox can remember when three-in-a-row seemed beyond Kilkenny.

“I started in 1974 and we could get to two All-Ireland titles in a row but we couldn’t seem to get to three. I’d look at the eight All-Irelands won by Christy Ring and John Doyle and think, ‘that’s a huge number, we’ll never get to that.’

“But then we sneaked in Noel Skehan and Frank Cummins, they got eight, and then this generation came along and Henry (Shefflin) got ten.

“Three-in-a-row was unbelievable, though. If you win an All-Ireland you don’t think you’ll retain it handily enough — any of the players will tell you that that retaining it is even harder than winning it in the first place.

“So going on to three, and four . . . it’s down to the brilliance of the players, to the genius of Brian Cody and it has to be part luck, because the other counties aren’t standing back.

“As a Kilkenny person it was amazing to be part of it. I wouldn’t be a fanatical fan, I’d take it in my stride, but to be part of that was something else.”

Was it disappointing to get that close to five in a row?

“I was disappointed for the players, but it was some rollercoaster getting to five All-Ireland finals in a row.

“They’re such magical occasions now, and they’re even better now than they were 20 years ago, because Croke Park is such a cathedral now.

We were spoiled in Kilkenny, getting to so many All-Ireland finals, and it’d be brilliant if every county in Ireland got to sample the atmosphere of All-Ireland day for their own county.

The wheel always turns. It might be the kind of famine many counties would welcome, but Knox can remember lean days. Kilkenny won just two All-Irelands between 1983 and 2000.

“After 1983 we were without an All-Ireland then for nine years, and when we won in 1992 . . . being out of the loop for that long was difficult, and I remember walking along the Canal behind Croke Park after that game, down towards the Drumcondra Road, and it was like floating on a hovercraft.

“The joy was so much because we’d gone nine years without winning. Ollie Walsh was the manager, he was a boyhood hero of mine . . . all of that gave me an appreciation for it.”

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The barren years were instructive, he adds: “When you’re down you tend to overestimate the value of your team. You think you’re better than you are, and there can be a bit of ‘we’ll give this All-Ireland a right shot’.

“If the team wins you’re measuring the quality of champions, but if it goes three or four years and you’re not winning, then you overestimate the team.

“Looking at the years between 1983 and 1992 in particular, I think that happened a few times: on one of those teams there were two backs converted into forwards, for instance, and it’s difficult to win anything when you’re doing that.”

Replays included, Knox saw Kilkenny feature in 17 All-Ireland finals since 2000. Yet a couple of years before that run began he was hearing gloomy prognoses at a county training session in Thomastown.

“Kilkenny were beaten in the 1998 All-Ireland final and I remember Kevin Fennelly, the manager, saying to me before that final that Kilkenny could be down for another decade or so if they didn’t win.

“Brian Cody came in then the following year.”

He’s dealt with the Kilkenny manager since he was barring the way to goal for James Stephens in the seventies. What separates Cody from the rest?

“The start wasn’t easy because they lost the All-Ireland his first year (1999) but he always believed Kilkenny were contenders for the All-Ireland. Always.

“I remember the first interview I got with him as manager and he said he believed Kilkenny were possible All-Ireland champions every year.

“He maintains that belief. Ger Henderson was a selector with him for a few years before leaving due to work commitments, and Ger told me that Brian thinks about the game 24/7. It’s his passion.”

Knox saw that for himself, working at games all over Kilkenny: “Brian could turn up at any of them — a junior game, a B division game, anything.

“Even when Kilkenny were going well he did that, because he wasn’t just relying on players showing well in Walsh Park — the final decision might be made on guys’ performance in training, but he stayed right on top of things at the club level and learned a lot. Would there be a weakness in this part of a player’s game, or a strength in that part?

Brian Cody
Brian Cody

“That’s his commitment to it and he’s committed fully. And he expects the players to be fully committed as well. No half-measures.”

The reciprocal support was seen in 2011, adds Knox.

“They won the All-Ireland that year after there’d been criticism of the team in losing the league final — and there was huge umbrage taken at that criticism, because it suggested the spirit wasn’t good within the group.

“Brian would never criticise, or even hint at criticising, one of the players in public. Everything is dealt with in the dressing-room and even when they won the All-Ireland that time he had a go because of that.

“The reaction was fierce even in the joy of winning an All-Ireland because he felt the necessity to defend the honour of the players, particularly any suggestions about their spirit or commitment. He’d know how they shape their lives around the game, and they do shape their lives around it.

“His loyalty would be to them, one hundred per cent, and that’s the reaction if anyone criticises them.”

It’s an attitude others remark upon. Michael Dempsey was the Cats’ physical trainer and pinpointed that solidarity as a vital attribute: “I remember him saying to me one time that he felt Kilkenny groups came into dressing-rooms as one.

“He’d come from Laois and understood club rivalries — and there are plenty of club rivalries in Kilkenny — but from an early stage here he was astounded by the unity within the dressing-room.

“There might be some banter about the clubs but as a Kilkenny team they were as one. Everyone shared the same vision.”

John Knox formerly a sports writer for the Kilkenny People pictured in Kilkenny. Picture: Dylan Vaughan
John Knox formerly a sports writer for the Kilkenny People pictured in Kilkenny. Picture: Dylan Vaughan

“I think the standard of club hurling in Kilkenny is very good, as seen by winning club All-Irelands in the three grades last season. A strong strike rate in the club championships generally backs that up.

“The standard is helped by a strong standard of management teams at club level. A rising tide helps all boats, obviously, and success at All-Ireland level drives the interest that drives the management teams, and the result is that players are presented to the intercounty side well prepared — in terms of skill and in terms of attitude.

“The refereeing . . . I don’t remember vicious games, to be honest. There was a time lads might say, ‘Castlecomer are playing Muckalee, there’ll be skin and hair flying’, but while it might be tough you wouldn’t say that was savagery.

“I’m not dressing it up as something it’s not, either, but I think the standard is helped by the structure — a league system leading into the championship proper means there’s an emphasis on performing in every game.

“Good league performances pay off in the draws for the championship so there are no dead rubbers.

“That came in around the late seventies as a structure and it’s stood to Kilkenny since.”

There’s also an awareness of a wider context. Knox can recall a time when Kilkenny icon DJ Carey was recovering from an appendix operation but needed some playing time to sharpen up for the championship . ..

“There was a senior hurling league game in Ballyhale, and I think it was Gowran (Carey’s club) against Glenmore.

“DJ wasn't yet ready for a full on contact affair, but he needed that bit of action to help him on the road to recovery before the championship.

“He drifted around midfield picking up ball and delivering it at the best pace he could, but he was a no-tackle zone that day. He was put under pressure, but he wasn't tackled. I can't remember who won, but the important thing was he got game time under his belt.

“The opposition appreciated the position. No-one was going to put in a tackle that would be responsible for knocking Carey's progress back before the championship.

“I was there and it was a most unusual situation, but no one batted an eyelid. I suppose you could call it a unity of purpose effort.”

When the games eventually return he’ll return as well: “I’ll always be a fan, I’ll go along — but I’ll take my place in the stand.

“I’m not going to walk away, it’s been too big a part of my life for too long. I was very lucky to fall into a job I loved.”

And lucky to see some of the best that ever played the game. DJ was one of the stand-out players from Knox’s time watching the game.

DJ Carey
DJ Carey

“I loved DJ as a player. He was something special, there was always huge excitement when he played, something different in the crowd.

“Henry (Shefflin) had an amazing ability to become invisible in a game, almost. You might wonder where he’d disappeared to, but he’d always disappeared to somewhere on the field that was dangerous for the opposition.”

The hero of his youth remains a special favourite, however. The years circumnavigating Nowlan Park mean Ollie Walsh’s displays remain vivid, decades later.

“My judgement is clouded, probably, because I grew up with Ollie as my hero.

“We moved house and lived near him, and when he became Kilkenny manager he was anyways helpful to me. I loved him — he was a superstar before there were any superstars.

“When he played, for instance, he had a crease to his togs, and a buckle on them. He was the only player I saw wearing those, but then he always had a style all of his own.

“He’d win a ball, burst out and lift it down the field so far it’d disappear into the sky for a few seconds. That’s a child’s memory.”

A child’s memory. But a reporter’s eye.

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