As Brian Hurley sits and waits in the IT Carlow canteen for a three o’clock lecture, he admits he’ll miss the place when he finishes up later this year.
There were easier degree options for him when he completed his level seven sports and exercise coaching course. None that would have entailed making a close to eight hour round drive every week for the last four years.
But none impressed him as much as the level eight business qualification he is currently seeking. Besides, he knew he would be in good hands in Carlow. Michael Dempsey, head of the college’s GAA academy and successful coach to Kilkenny hurlers, has been as helpful a mentor to him as the likes of Cahalane and Cleary in Castlehaven.
The text banter with boys from home about next week’s Sigerson Cup clash with Cork IT has already started and Hurley is loving it. He knew in deciding to study so far away he was stepping out of his comfort zone but saw it as providing him with a form of discipline.
“I looked at that as a reason to do it, maybe take a step away from the lads and do my own thing for a few years. It’s been fairly successful. It was a bit of a risk at the time but it did pay off for me.”
Whether it’s a Thursday or Friday, Hurley has grown accustomed to turning the car south. He’s experimented with a variety of routes back to Union Hall — even via Waterford “for the scenery” — but now sticks to getting to Durrow and then onto the M8. After that it’s plain sailing before the Dunkettle interchange, the south ring road and then onto the N71 passing Bandon, Clonakilty and Rosscarbery.
He might be only 21 but Mick O’Dwyer’s point about long drives being great for contemplation resonates with him. “After a match, you might be thinking you didn’t play as well as you might have. But on the drive back you have time to recap and isolate the bad things you did so you can work on them for the next day. You’re on your own on the road. It can be good.”
As much as giving his head peace, he’s learned to give his body it too. He enjoyed the Christmas break and got some sun early in January. After a more than notable debut senior season with Cork and leading Castlehaven to a senior county title, it made sense.
But then Hurley’s learned almost to a huge cost the importance of looking after himself. In 2010, he felt a pain in his back prior to the Munster minor final against Kerry. He later played an U21 final with ‘Haven but could barely jog. “I actually played the whole game but I was non-existent.”
A cortisone injection the day after freed him up to line out against Armagh in an All-Ireland quarter-final but the problem flared up again prior to the semi-final with Galway. “I know you’re not supposed to have too many injections in a year but that cleared it up for a good while and there was no problem in the final.”
But back in Carlow, it returned. Hurley put it down to not stretching enough — “and everything seized up”.
Through Dempsey and Cleary’s contacts, he was assessed and was almost on the point of being operated on for what diagnosed as a stress fracture to his spine in the Sports Surgery Clinic in Santry.
But Dr Pat Kiely felt he was too young to undergo such a drastic measure. “At my age at the time, I didn’t know how serious it was and I can remember my father and mother being suspicious about it. They were mad that I was still playing ball. Pat Kiely wouldn’t do surgery because I was too young for it so fair dues to him. I got a programme for a month of stretching and going on the bike and it freed up my hamstring, my gluts and all up through my back. I felt it getting better and better. I’m still doing the stretching. I think it’s healed.”
The recovery process meant he missed out on Cork’s 2011 U21 campaign, but Hurley was counting, not cursing, his blessings. A year later, he saw his close friend and ‘Haven goalkeeper Paudie Hurley (no relation) collapse in a challenge game in Castletownbere with a clot in his lung. Another close shave.
“He caught the ball and gave it to the full-back and I just saw him going down. We rushed in and he had blacked out. I think I rang the ambulance. He didn’t want to go but thankfully he did. He was another fella who was lucky”.
Nineteen months later and the pair were celebrating a second successive county title together, Brian’s 12-point haul in the final against Nemo Rangers earning him plenty of plaudits and the odd begrudger. Someone showed him what Martin McHugh wrote about his performance, that he wouldn’t score a dozen in Ulster. He just shrugged his shoulders.
“It’s fair enough to make comment like that — it’s a different game of ball up there. I’m happy enough playing football in Munster. I can remember the county final last year and there were no blanket defences.
After a personally below-par 2012 final, he relished the onus put on him to shine.
“Last year, there was pressure on me to step up, I knew it myself and I came out on top. I’d use it as motivation. If fellas expect you do it you kind of have to do it.”
Coming off the back of a fine All-Ireland U21 run where he scored 1-4 in the final defeat to Galway and a summer punctuated by two points in Killarney and three against Dublin, the hype could be believed.
He’s now entering the notoriously difficult second season with Cork, one that carries with it more weight as his stature has grown albeit somewhat indirectly because of so many retirements and Ciarán Sheehan’s departure over the closed season. Not that he minds it. “I had a good year last year, made my debut but you have to act fast when you get in there. You can’t just hang on to the jersey, you have to push up the ranks.
“I remember when a few of the boys retired they said ‘you’re going to be a senior player next year’. If it’s about giving advice to the new fellas coming in and giving them a hand then you do that and it’s what I’ve tried to so far.
“Everyone has their own kind of say in the set-up this year. There’s a great buzz already because there are a lot of new fellas in there and it helps that we knew each other a good bit because we’ve played at minor and U21 level.”
If 2013 was about gaining experience, Hurley wants 2014 to be about the winning kind. “I was dying sick for two days before the game in Killarney,” he recalls of last year’s Munster final. “I was absolutely ready to go when I got down there. “It’s something special. I can remember being down there as a 12-year-old and playing in a primary game before the final in 2003.
“God, it was an unbelievable experience. To come up to Croke Park then, it was special. However, I really want to go to late September and win something.
“We’ve a new, fresh panel and management and we might have gone off the radar a bit but that might be good for us too. We back ourselves every day.”
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