At 40 years young, eight-time All-Ireland winning Kilkenny legend Eddie Brennan remains immersed in the game he loves. He’s just taken on his first inter-county managerial role with Laois, and on Sunday he’s togging out with Graigue-Ballycallan as they square up to Portlaoise in the Leinster Intermediate Hurling final.
Brennan and colleague James Ryall are the only surviving members still playing with the club’s top side, and they’re still thoroughly enjoying themselves.
“Yeah, we’re the last two stragglers! James even said a few weeks ago, if you’d said to him three or fours years ago that we’d win a county final at this stage and still be rolling in the club campaign… of all the things, and we criticise (the GAA) a little bit too easily sometimes, I’m guilty of that occasionally in my capacity as a Sunday Game pundit – to bring All-Ireland Club Championships to Junior and Intermediate is absolutely brilliant. It affords lads the opportunity to live the dream and potentially tog out with your club in Croke Park – it’s a great thing.”
The 2000/2001 campaign was the club’s finest hour, claiming Kilkenny and Leinster senior titles and narrowly defeated in the All-Ireland final in dramatic fashion by one Eugene Cloonan and his Athenry contingent. The Ballycallan centre-forward recalls the day still with twangs of palpable regret –
“Eugene Cloonan scored the equalising goal with our fullback’s hurl that day. There’s a very famous picture of it from ‘A Season of Sunday’s’.”
“It’s a standout match and I remember it very distinctly. What I remember was the very muted, not celebrations, but the aftermath of that, we felt at the time, ‘Ah we’ll be back’.”
“I don’t think we understood the enormity of the occasion. Getting to a club All-Ireland with your parish team is a huge thing and it’s something that’s gnawed at us over the years, that we didn’t get back, because we had a young team at the time. A few lads left and emigrated, lads went different ways, we knocking at the door at county semi-finals and finals, and then eventually it erodes away. Myself and Ryallers are still hanging in there anyway.”
The youth that he spoke about is returning to the fold for the sky-blue clad side. It’s an exciting squad, packed with players who have represented Kilkenny at minor over the last three or four years. The U-13A competition in Kilkenny is highly valued – it’s a representation of the best of the talent that’s immediately forthcoming, and the winners are to be treated with respect, despite their tender age. Graigue-Ballycallan won the competition this year, and success like this fills Brennan with optimism that the club will survive and flourish in the lofty ivory tower that is the Kilkenny senior championship.
“We won the U-13A in the parish this year, which has always been a huge one in Kilkenny. It’s a huge measure of teams and we had an U-13 team that won nearly everything this year. You have that with other age groups in our club and it augers well for the future, and the challenge for us, as a juvenile committee in the club is to make sure that we keep on moving and put in the work with the underage set-up to supply the team going up. That’s just the evolution of it really.”
There may be veteran warriors such as Brennan and Ryall providing guile, experience and leadership this year, but the side’s success has been largely down to the influx of youth, which is often something that simply comes in generations and is largely uncontrollable.
What is controllable is what one does with the resources at one’s disposable. So far, they have managed their stock well, and have defeated Tullaroan, albeit at the death, along with Celbridge and St. Mogue’s of Fethard en route to this showdown against the Laois Senior A (the second tier) champions.
“It’s a big thing, yeah. You look at Ballyhale, they had seven U-21s playing in the county final. It’s a freshness of legs, a freshness of enthusiasm, a level of giddiness in the dressing room. That’s good too – to see what makes them tick. I suppose what I get a kick out of now is looking at lads and the craic you get on nights out; the messing that goes on. It’s good in the dressing room – it shows you that there’s a freedom out there to go and enjoy days, they’re not taking themselves too seriously.”
“For me, I’m just enjoying tailing along behind the lads. The younger lads were the difference this year and they did learn. I said it in the run-up to the county final, it’ll be evident in the county final against Tullaroan what had we learned from last year. We got lucky, to be honest. When the young lads sniffed it, they went hard at it and got it home. We’d have six or seven starters U-21 at the minute.”
Six different Kilkenny club sides have won this championship for the last six years running. The tradition of Kilkenny clubs doing well in Leinster is well known, and in turn, improves the standard of club hurling internally, as well as benefiting the various county set ups. A club such as Graigue-Ballycallan will be looking to emulate someone like Bennettsbridge, who went on an extraordinary run, winning county, provincial and All-Ireland Junior championships before going on to do the same at Intermediate. They then contested this year’s Kilkenny Senior County Final. The potential is there for this side, and Brennan will do anything he can to help facilitate that growth.
“We’re lucky here in that the set up work really well. You’ve 12 senior teams and 12 Intermediate, two groups of six. It makes it really straight forward for the year and how it filters league into championship and how the league format seeds you for the championship.”
“There’s very little between a lot of teams. You could say that half the intermediate teams would hold their own at senior. That’s what makes it competitive. You look at Bennettsbridge, who were Junior four or five years ago, and are competing in a senior county final with more or less the same core group of fellas.”
“A team like Dunnamaggin, who won the county championship in 1997 dropped back. They won the junior championship this year. That’s the evolution of it, it comes and goes.”
Graigue-Ballycallan will be looking to go on a run themsleves, starting with Portlaoise on Sunday. Who’d bet against them, with Eddie Brennan still the fulcrum of the attack, and as hungry and passionate as ever? It makes for an intriguing decider in Nowlan Park.