There’s not a grey hair to be seen on Derek Lyng’s head. Five years have passed since the 37-year-old retired from Kilkenny but looking as trim as he was as a player and wearing a county tracksuit it’s hardly surprising people walking past in Langton’s Hotel are trying to place him in the squad.
For sure, he looks too young to be a selector never mind one in his second year assisting Brian Cody. Of the current panel, there remain seven with whom he soldiered with (it had been 12 before last year’s mass exodus).
Lyng’s transition from being “one of the lads” to “one of them” wasn’t as difficult as it might have been expected.
“There’s a different dynamic when you’re there on the sideline. Most of the players that I played with drove how competitive the environment was and drove the good standards that are there.
Some of them have been the greatest Kilkenny players of all time. From their point of view, it didn’t matter to them who was on the sideline, I don’t think.
“They are so driven, they wanted what’s best for Kilkenny and they’re getting the most out of themselves. There was no fuss or anything like that about my role. I think they just got on with the job.”
That’s not to say Lyng didn’t find it strange to start with.
“You’re wondering what they’re thinking and stuff like that. Instead of having the banter, you’re going in and you’re on the other side of things, getting through the sessions and everything.”
He wouldn’t return the joy of last year’s All-Ireland final replay success for love nor money but the experiences of being a player and a selector are chalk and cheese.
Naturally, he’d have envied those who collected another Celtic Cross 12 months ago but when five of them left to panel his role was to help Cody ensure that void wasn’t detrimental to Kilkenny’s All-Ireland prospects this year.
“Obviously, it was unprecedented when you take that group of players away from the squad. But I think when you go back in January, you tend to look forward and you tend to just drive on and look forward. You’re not looking back. In lots of ways, it’s been an opportunity as well for other players to step up. It’s a challenge to step up as well and improve their own game. There’s no question they were a loss but you get on with it.”
The sparing use of substitutes in the last two games — three against Galway, one against Waterford — might indicate the lack of depth in the panel but there have been other factors at play such as injury.
“I think the perception was there inside and outside the county that we might struggle this year,” notes Lyng.
“We had a lot of injuries at the start of the year, which made things a little bit difficult. We were giving players a chance in the league but it’s a big step-up again. The National League is very competitive. It takes a while to adapt to that but at the same time a lot of players got experience. I would say in the last few matches [the substitutes] definitely it wasn’t down to the depth of the squad or anything like that. You take the game on its merits and see what changes you make.”
Lyng was a panel member in 2001 when Galway surprised them in an All-Ireland semi-final but he was in the middle of the field when Niall Healy ran riot at the same stage four years later. He knows the threat they pose.
“Galway down through the years whenever they’ve beaten Kilkenny... there’s always a fear factor for Kilkenny. They’ve always had brilliant forwards and you can see the hunger they’re bringing this year too.
“There’s a real drive there to win the All-Ireland so we know it’s a massive challenge. The challenge for us is to play to the best of our ability.”
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