One of Paul Browne’s ways of coping with the wrench of leaving the Limerick dressing room has been to walk down the corridor in the Gaelic Grounds and fling himself fully into numerous others — not that teams spend much time in such confines these days.
Last year while he was still rehabbing the anterior cruciate that broke down on him in the middle of Limerick’s most glorious summer while he was team vice-captain, county U20 manager Paul Beary invited him on board as a coach.
Then when he met up with John Kiely last winter and they sadly agreed that 11 years of haring all over the pitch from midfield had caught up on the body, Kiely mentioned that the position as head coach of the Limerick academy was now vacant, with Kiely having chosen his namesake Mikey as the new S&C coach to the senior team; with Browne’s experience as a GAA development officer in LIT, the position would be ideal for him and he’d be ideal for it.
Sure enough, Browne landed the position, meaning he was overseeing the coaching of the county’s U14, U16, and minor squads, as well as being a games development officer for the northside of the city. Then everything locked down in March. When it looked there that the minors and 20s would each be playing Cork before October was out, everything shut down again. Wednesday just past, there began with the hope of training that night in the Gaelic Grounds only for him and the management have to send out a text to the group: Sorry. It’s gone.
He feels sorry for those 20s. A core group of them would also have missed out on representing the county at minor as 2017 was the year that grade moved from U18 to 17. Maybe there’ll still be an U20 or 21 championship for them yet but while a part of Browne would like to see that, a part of him also feels it’s unfair to drag them along any further. They first began training as a group a year ago last Tuesday.
Either way he feels they’ll be fine. They developed this year, even if they got no game to measure it by.
“The lockdown has brought out different characteristics in them. They’ve had to adapt and change. I don’t think much fazes them anymore. They just get on with things quicker now.
“I haven’t heard one of the lads crib or give out once about the pandemic or the lockdown or what they’ve been asked to do. The fact they had to train in the rain and go home and have no showers — they didn’t say a word. The same with not being able to sit down together and have a chat – they found other ways of doing it with Snapchat and all that. Not one of them has given out about the stopping and the starting and the uncertainty of it all: they’ve become very resilient lads. And I think it will stand to them down the road. They’ll just get on with things.”
Browne himself doesn’t think he ever enjoyed a summer’s hurling as much as he did this past one with the club, Bruff, in part because “some of the fluff” went out of the pre-match build-up. For a half-three throw-in they could rock up at the ground at ten to, then go straight out onto the field, do their warm-up, play their match and then head home. No hanging around.
Yet ask him what he misses — desperately — about no longer being a Limerick senior hurler and he’ll tell you: it’s the hanging around.
He’d love to have his last season with the group back. Smell the roses and savour that dressing room a bit more.
“I found when I was coming back from my cruciate that I was consumed with getting ready for training. I was trying to prove myself every night to make the 26 or even break back into the playing rotation. And it nearly overwhelmed me for a finish.
“With the club this year, I’d just rock up for training, have the craic, do a bit of touch work. But in 2019 with Limerick, I didn’t enjoy training as much as I should have.
“I put so much stock in trying to make the 26. That became my be all and end all. When my name was called out for the [Munster championship match] game against Waterford in Walsh Park, I was never as happy in my whole career. But then when I wasn’t making [match-day] panels, I would get really down.
“I found that as much as I thought I was able to go as good as anyone else, I found myself totally wiped after training. When other lads were having the craic, I was thinking about the next session.
“Now that I’m gone and I’m missing it so much, I’m saying, ‘Jesus, I’d give anything just to go back into the dressing room and sit down there.’ Or go back into the gym for an hour with the boys and have chats with them. If someone told me you could go training but weren’t allowed to train on the pitch, that you’d sit in the dressing room beforehand and meet the boys again after, I’d take that.”
He wouldn’t be surprised if as an old man he’ll still be picturing that dressing room, much the way Rose at the end ofclimbs the boat’s staircase, reunited with her fellow passengers and crew members. If training was at seven, he’d usually be there by six; if he or anyone else wasn’t there by quarter past, you’d be thinking they weren’t going to be there at all. “There was no real requirement to be there that early,” he smiles. “Lads just gravitated to being there around that time so they could be around each other.”
While Browne was an early bird, he was never the first there; just like Stephen Cluxton, Nickie Quaid, and the rest of the goalkeepers would be known to be already working away 90 minutes before collective training began. “You might pop outside for five minutes before togging off and they’d be already there, and you’d think, ‘God, they are lunatics!’”
Returning to the dressing room, the music could be on, at least in the John Kiely days, with Tom Condon and Seamus Flanagan as the MCs. Condon would be into his hard techno, “real racer boy tunes”, with Flanagan partial to his house music too, but sometimes a slower tempo favourite would find itself getting a repeated airing; the last couple of years Beeswing, covered by the likes of Christy Moore, was sung along to more than once.
Browne’s spot in the dressing room used to be in the left corner, with Kyle Hayes and Cian Hayes alongside him and his old classmate Graeme Mulcahy completing their quartet of corner boys.
With Cian, you could get anything. One day — one minute — he might be sitting alongside you, the pair of ye with a cup of coffee in your hands, and him discussing the merits of Buddhism and Judaism along with his strong Catholic faith, or some tragic situation in Africa or the Middle East; then the next he or Hayes could steal and hide your hurley or helmet. Any rookie who brought a bottle of shampoo learned never to bring one again; there was nothing surer than they’d be going home with an empty bottle.
“We always had a good dressing room, even when things were going bad. Because we had great lads. Gavin O’Mahony. James Ryan. Paudie O’Brien. Richie McCarthy. [Kevin] Downsie. [Donal] Dodger [O’Grady]. Stephen Walsh. David Breen. Niall Moran. Brilliant fellas. We used to always say, if there was an All-Ireland for craic, we’d win it every year.” Still, it was tough, particularly years when they felt they could have won the All-Ireland proper but didn’t. He looks at both 2013 and 2014 as missed opportunities.
With the benefit of 2018 as well as 2020 hindsight, he shudders at some of the mistakes they made in the lead-up to that All-Ireland semi-final seven years ago. A few of them had read too much into Clare struggling to get past Wexford a couple of rounds earlier, not realising that the longer Clare played that summer, the more they were they becoming comfortable with Davy’s system.
“We just weren’t prepared for their tactics. About five or 10 minutes into that game there was a free on one side of the field and next thing Paddy Donnellan shot down the right wing in front of the Hogan Stand and picked the ball up. He was the sweeper and nobody had thought to follow him. That set the tone for that day.
“And we maybe didn’t manage the occasion properly. We stayed up the night before. Stayed out in Portmarnock. The following morning we were out on the beach, walking around, trying to pass the morning. Just too much idle time. The night before we were all up watching Conor McGregor in one of his first UFC fights. That was a huge regret, that we were so distracted by another sporting event.
“Years later we’d have spoken about that and asked what the f*** were we at? When Caroline Currid got involved in 2017 she would have had two-and-a-half hour chats with lads, getting to know them and what had happened in previous years. And that’s where we kind of came up with the idea that whether it was just one person standing watching us or 100,000 in the stands, we would do the same thing every day we went out on the field, hit the same targets, and have the same values for each other.”
The 2014 semi-final defeat provided other harsh lessons – namely to process them.
Browne has some indelible memories from that rain dance with Kilkenny. When Declan Hannon hit that shoulder on Joey Holden to turn the ball over, it was Browne who caught the ball while a free was awarded. “I remember looking up into the stands and people were screaming like animals with the rain pelting down on them. It was like something from a film, like everything was in slow motion.
“But the mistake we made was that we never spoke about it afterwards. We never dealt with it or the mental fallout from it. I know I found it hard to get my head around it because I had never known a team that had emptied themselves so much on a given day and still come up short. In ’15 and ’16 there was still a bit of a hangover from ’14.”
In 2017 with a mind coach like Currid on board, they processed another narrow championship defeat to Kilkenny more constructively. Although they lost both their championship outings in John Kiely’s first season at the helm, Browne says there was “almost a pep in our step” after losing in Nowlan Park.
“We’d tried to do the right thing that night. Just a few stick passes to hand didn’t come off and we weren’t quite as slick as we’d become in 2018. And getting knocked out so early actually helped because lads got six weeks uninterrupted in the gym under Joe O’Connor. Once we got back onto the pitch it was like you had clicked your fingers and suddenly lads had transformed into monsters.”
Browne himself would lift the first bit of silverware going that year, the Munster Council’s Waterford Crystal, and afterwards told reporters that he had a sense 2018 would be a good one for Limerick hurling. Didn’t matter that only 3,000 were in the stands for that win over Clare that day. It was all about them and hitting their targets and enacting their values. When they came from behind to beat reigning All-Ireland champions Galway on a dirty day in Salthill to finally escape from Division 1B, corner forward Barry Murphy was held scoreless yet within the group was identified as the man of the match after Seán O’Donnell’s stats showed he’d made close to 20 tackles.
Browne himself would be another otherwise unsung hero highlighted by O’Donnell as that year progressed. While Browne’s form dipped after that 2018 league, costing him his starting spot, he came off the bench in the Munster first-round win over Tipperary and made the kind of intervention that Kiely sought from his reinforcements. Within seconds of coming on as a blood sub, Browne was upended by a ferocious tackle from Bonner Maher, only for him to chase back 30 yards and block John McGrath who was right through on goal. Later that summer heading to Thurles and Croke Park, that gritty play regularly featured in video montages.
It was also a bit of a fillip for Browne; after being an impact sub in Limerick’s first three games of that summer, he did his cruciate in training ahead of their last-round game against Clare. It was devastating for him but Kiely reminded him that and why he was vice-captain; he could contribute and lead in other ways.
“The last year or two playing with the club you’ll have the odd nasty fecker on the opposition say, ‘Sure you were only a sub, you didn’t play at all.’ But I know they’re only trying to rise me and that in my heart and soul I played a part.
“I just tried to stay as positive as I could and pay attention to lads who felt off or weren’t making the 26 and make sure they kept driving on. I was nearly overly-positive, to the point I’d be tired after training. It was a bit of a façade because inside I was devastated but I was still appreciative of the role I still got to play, like talking to the midfielders at half-time and telling them what I thought was working and wasn’t.”
On All-Ireland final day Kiely made sure the whole team travelled as a unit to the game and gave everyone a jersey. Browne though was afforded particularly special status. He was handed the number 27 jersey. First man outside the 26. But not everything was going to be laid out for him, leaving him open to going viral.
“I had only had my surgery done a couple of weeks earlier so the leg wasn’t great, but John said to me in the hotel beforehand that it was my responsibility to make it over for the team photo; if I didn’t make it that was my problem!
“So I was there, do I go over ahead of everyone? But I thought, ‘God, no, I’m not sitting on the bench on my own and the photographers snapping [that image] away.’ So I said I’d wait by the dressing room door and listen to the speech John gave. I wanted to take everything in. Then I’d take a shortcut through the warm-up area, stand by the side door, wait for 12 or 13 of the lads to run by and then come out; by then the cameras would be surely gone.
“But sure I walked out the door, straight into a camera. And of course to half the world I looked like your man who sneaked onto the pitch and had his photo taken with the  Manchester United team before that Champions League game!” Still. He made – just about, mind – it over for the Limerick team photo. No imposter. Only where he belonged and deserved.
It’ll be strange not being there on Sunday with the lads, just as it’s been strange without them all year, but he’s tried to move on, like keeping fit by joining in with his girlfriend, Niamh Whelan in her prep as a member of the national 4x100m relay team. He definitely knows Limerick have moved on without him.
“The way Paul [Kinnerk] coaches the team is to make you as comfortable as possible under as much pressure as possible. His training is so game-like. We might have the simplest of games, 6v6 or 7v7 but he could throw in four constraints that will change how the game is played. He might say ‘No striking, all handpassing’ so you’ve to support the ball. Then he might say you’ve to mark your man and count who gets the most possessions so then you’re latched on real tight to your man.
“It’s a very demanding environment at the moment in that Limerick setup. It’s tough for fellas to get into and adapt to but by being in there they will improve immensely. I’ve seen it in the four lads who had gone in from the 20s. They’ve improved tenfold over the last few months, just being in that environment.
“There are huge characters in that team now: Kyle Hayes, Tom Morrissey, Gearoid Hegarty, Nickie, Graeme, Will O’Donoghue. If you’re not bringing it in training and not pushing those lads, you’re nearly insulting them by not giving them the best workout they can get.
“That’s why it was so enjoyable. Even in 2018 and 2019 I wasn’t playing as much as I used to, I was best friends with those lads and if you weren’t putting it in, you felt like you were letting your friends down more than anything.” He didn’t.