GAA: Christmas Noel ...

... is a very different animal to the Kilkenny full-back who has prowled his square and wore the famed No 3 jersey with distinction for more than a decade. Michael Moynihan took advantage of Noel Hickey’s downtime.

NOEL HICKEY was the Kilkenny U21 captain in 1999, which put him on the radar of the senior management. No surprises, then, when he got the call-up to the big show.

Thing was, that meant he had to make a call of his own.

He had the hernia operation scheduled for February 2000 moved to November 1999 and it was a success, and Hickey duly made his debut when Cork visited Nowlan Park for the counties’ first league showdown of the new millennium.

“I was corner-back. On Seanie McGrath.”

Was there much chat?

“There might have been,” says Hickey. “I wasn’t listening, though.”

A lengthy laugh.

A presence beyond formidable for the Cats ever since, Hickey is engaging company, chatty and open about life in hurling’s fast lane. He doesn’t talk to opponents himself, as noted above.

“No, never. I always think that if you’re talking to your man, trying to put him off, then you’re not properly tuned in for the job at hand. At full-back you’re concentrating so hard that if you’re passing remarks to the lad next to you then you can’t be tuned in.

“Lads talking back to me? None I remember . . .

“Wait. Eugene Cloonan got a point off me in 2001. He was out in the corner — out by the flag, nearly — and he put the ball over the bar, I went in to block him but didn’t get there in time. He said something like, ‘better luck next time’.”

There’s another laugh at the memory, even if he has to reach back 11 years for it

“I’m there since I was 19 and I’m 31 now, so it’s part of your life. January comes around and you head in. You don’t know any different. It’s great — you’d hear people say how tough the commitment must be, but I’m only quarter of an hour out the road, into training and it’s all laid on for you, so it’s enjoyable being in there.”

That training is meant to ready you for combat. After a decade on the edge of the square Hickey spent much of 2012 on the bench.

“Was it hard? It is when you’re so used to playing and starting. It’s hard enough to sit on the line. You have to realise they’ll pick the six lads they feel are best, so you have to go back to training and prove yourself. It’s the same for everyone: it’s disappointing if your name isn’t called out on the Friday night, but you have to drive it on.”

He saw combat in the All-Ireland final, though. It meant a lot to get grass stains on the boots.

“First JJ (Delaney) went off injured, so I was on for a good while, a good ten minutes. Came back off and was sent back on for the last five minutes or so. I was delighted to get out there.”

It was a sweet end to a testing season. The year turned on the Cats’ disastrous Leinster Final, a distant memory now but a blessing in disguise, says Hickey, who recalls a slight decline in standards as that game approached.

“It was an unusual dressing-room to be in after that game,” he says. “We weren’t just beaten. We were annihilated on the day. The only good thing was that if it hadn’t happened that day it would have happened in the All-Ireland semi-final or final. We’d have been caught then.

“It was a wake-up call. We weren’t at the level we needed to be. Sometimes in training you can get that vibe, that maybe the ball isn’t buzzing around the way it should be in drills or whatever, and maybe leading up to the Leinster final we were a small bit off the mark.”

They handed out an annihilation of their own in that semi-final, hammering Tipperary by 18 points.

“We were surprised by that. After 2011 we’d have imagined they’d be back all guns blazing — that’s how we were after they’d beaten us. It was strange the way the game tapered out in the second half.”

That was the game — the early melee, Lar Corbett tracking Tommy Walsh — which led to the media focus on Kilkenny’s approach; indirectly that may have blunted their focus for the final, he says.

“Maybe if you kept reading it then it might seep in a bit. I think we might have thought about it a bit the first day against Galway. The second day we forgot about that and got on with hurling the way we can hurl.

“People going on about Kilkenny being a physical team . . . I can’t remember too many Kilkenny players pulling dirty strokes over the years. Kilkenny play a hard, tough game, that’s the way it should be played, but if you want to look for dirty strokes it’d be hard to find any. I can’t think of too many, anyway.”

The training sessions which hone the Kilkenny edge for championship have become so mythologised that it’s refreshing to hear someone who’s participated in them for a dozen years describe them frankly.

“The sessions are simple enough, lads pucking the ball in lines, hand-passing drills and so on. I suppose the one thing is that the drills are all done at full pace to replicate matches. But it’s not amazing stuff. It’s about the basics, doing that right and doing that fast.

“I’d say there are sessions around the country — at club and county level — which are more complicated, but with Brian (Cody) it’s about doing the simple things well, not about complicating things. We don’t do complicated hurling. The games are tough in training but it certainly isn’t complicated.

“It’s about the simple things and doing those well, if you do that you’ll go a long way. You only have to look at the likes of JJ (Delaney), Tommy (Walsh), Henry (Shefflin) — those are all naturally gifted hurlers. When they’re going hard at it in training that rubs off on others.

“Hard work and plenty of it, that’s the key, but we don’t overdo it either — the lads would often give us a couple of nights off. You’d hear crazy stuff from other counties and hearing it you’d say they’d nearly have to be burned out come match day.

“It’s important to keep it fresh. That makes a huge difference. There’s no point in training every second night or whatever, because then lads are tired, then the training isn’t as good and the whole thing is going down.

“If you give lads a couple of nights off they’re hopping off the ground for the next session, it’s a good session and that feeds into the next session after that again.”

Another key component is the presence of the other man who picked up his ninth All-Ireland medal in September: “Brian might point to Henry as an example to newer lads, the way he prepares for training, the work he does during the session — and during games, as everybody saw in the All-Ireland final. He’s one of the most gifted hurlers in the country, but he works as hard as anyone and he’s at training before anyone pucking balls over the bar. That’s the model for everyone.”

So is Hickey. After the All-Ireland final replay Brian Cody spoke in glowing terms about the Dunamaggin man overcoming injuries and illness — a virus in the muscle surrounding the heart in 2005 — to return to the county colours.

“A lot of them you could call stupid injuries, if you like,” says Hickey. “Hamstring, groin, that kind of thing. You’d be out for six weeks and in the summer, spring, you miss that and you find yourself trying to build yourself back to up to where the others are.

“The illness was just one of those things, a virus, but I was probably more determined to come back after that than I ever was. Cork had beaten us in 2004, they were the team, we lost out in 2005, so in 2006 I was more up for it than for another year.

“That would probably have been the best year — after losing in 2005, after the illness. Now you could say they were all special, the first one in 2000 was good, coming back against Tipp in 2011 was another good one too.”

As he’s mentioned those deciders, there’s an obvious question to be asked.

“The medals? Some are probably under a bed or something. I wouldn’t have them up on the wall or anything like that. If I went home now I certainly wouldn’t be able to locate them all — my mother could have a few in her place, I got married in 2006 so the others could be at home.

“In a few years’ time I might gather them together, but that’s something for a few years’ time... You’re trying to get on the team, to get the kick out of winning . . . the nine medals, it’s nice, but that’s really something for when you finish up.”

As for a tenth medal, there are other considerations. The farm’s busy. He and Elaine welcomed their first arrival, Aimee, this year. No hasty decisions.

“We’ll have to think about that over the next couple of months, see how the winter goes.

“I’ll definitely consider it, but if I go back it won’t be to win a tenth All-Ireland medal, it’ll be to try to win the All-Ireland in 2013.”

Is the standard of slagging in Nowlan Park after training that high?

“It’d be well up there compared to a club dressing-room. The slagging would be at intercounty level as well as the training, definitely.

“The lads go hard at it in training but when it’s over the crack is good in the dressing-room or down in Langton’s for the dinner. That’s part of the enjoyment of the whole thing, the chat afterwards, and there’s plenty of them to dish it out — about clothes or whatever.”

If he were forced to name names . . .

“Well . . . I’d have to say Jackie (Tyrrell) has made a few mistakes with the fashion over the years.”

Another long laugh. Another ball hopped in Nowlan Park.


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