Vincent Hogan: Kilkenny's little big man
Slight but hard, fair but fearless, Noel Hickey is one of all-time great No 3s
Maybe the toughest man in hurling is skinny as a broom and, some say, identifiable only in ultra-violet light. Actually, that's a slight exaggeration. Noel Hickey may be slight, but his legs are sturdy as pit-props. And he IS notoriously strong.
"Gotham needs Batman . . . Dunnamaggin doesn't!" runs just one of the reverential jokes recycled on KilkennyCats.com in celebration of a man now approaching cult status.
There is something emblematic about Hickey in the story of Brian Cody's team. They are rightly celebrated for the czars of the half-back line and the high priests of attack. Yet, nobody embodies the quiet humility etched deep into their DNA quite like the young farmer guarding the Kilkenny 'square'.
He is 10 years at this business, yet remains -- publicly -- a stranger. His voice has pretty low mileage on it and, save for his absences through illness and injury these past years, we'd scarcely have even noticed him in media circles.
Yet, Noel Hickey has won seven All-Ireland medals, nine Leinster championships and five National Leagues. He is also a three-time All Star. If there has been a more effective full-back in the history of the game, chances are he lived through a World War.
It may then be only when he slips into retirement that Hickey's brilliance finds appropriate acknowledgement. Cody, certainly, seems to radiate a different kind of contentment when the Kilkenny defence has its Dunnamaggin anchor.
There are multiple theories as to the tools required for greatness in a No 3 shirt. Many prefer to use altitude as a starting point, setting the likes of a Pat Hartigan or Philly Maher as the template. Others side with open abrasiveness and physical power, a la that human heat-seeking missile known as 'The Rock'.
In Diarmuid O'Flynn's revealing book, 'Hurling -- The Warrior Game', Limerick's Stephen Lucey offers a telling glimpse of the bottom-line mindset required. "The best advice I got was from Richie Bennis," reflects Lucey. "'Pull like a tinker,' he told me, and you have to. You can't pussyfoot around back there.
"Look at Brian Lohan, Diarmuid O'Sullivan, Noel Hickey. You have to be borderline. The zone of terror, that's what you want that area to be. 'This is my space -- invade and I'll f*****g kill you.' That's the attitude you need in that area.
"You hear the old stories about the Tipperary full-back line, Hell's Kitchen. That's what it's got to be."
Hickey's inclusion in a list of intimidating full-backs probably runs in harmony with the general perception. He is, as John Henderson -- a predecessor of his in the Kilkenny No 3 shirt -- reflected this week "very tough and fearless".
Yet, it would be wrong to over-play the physical edge to his game. There hasn't exactly been a line of inter-county full-forwards left in need of emergency psycho-analysis by an afternoon in his company.
Damien Hayes was shadowed by Hickey for much of this year's Leinster final and reveals a different photofit to the cliche.
"The one thing that struck me about him was his strength," reports the Galway man. "He's so so strong. But I can honestly say that he didn't wrong me in the least. You'd often be marking a lad who's constantly nudging you and giving you the hurl, but there was none of that with him.
"He's just very, very strong."
That same inordinate strength has thieved the breath of many an opponent. Brian Corcoran's last game for Cork was the 2006 All-Ireland final and he pretty much spent the day in an invisible straitjacket.
"It wasn't as if Noel Hickey was catching the ball over my head," recounted Corcoran. "He didn't even try to. Kilkenny are like that. They don't want you catching the ball and Noel did a good job of making sure I didn't."
Those big days have never spooked him, stretching right back to Dunnamaggin's first ever senior county final in 1997. They were facing the Young Irelands of DJ Carey and Charlie Carter that day and Hickey, at just 16, was drafted in late at corner-back.
Team manager Brendan Fennelly only broke the news at mid-day to spare the kid big-match nerves.
Fennelly explained subsequently: "We had been impressed with Noel in challenge games the previous weeks and we decided to play him in the final. I actually asked Noel would he like to play today; he said he'd love to be out there. DJ Carey, Charlie Carter etc didn't faze him.
"He'd never played a senior championship game for the club, but he had no fear."
It is certainly worth noting that the Kilkenny team Hickey made his championship debut for against Dublin in 2000 had not won an All-Ireland in seven years. They have since played in eight finals, winning seven.
He has become the ultimate speed bump on the edge of a championship 'square'.
Henderson offers a forensic appraisal. "He's not that big, but he plays like a big man," reflects the old Fenians defender, himself an All Star corner-back in 1983. "He has a huge physical presence and he'd be a very good reader of the breaking ball.
"He's very well anchored to the ground and you never see him being pushed out of the way or being out-caught. So he has the anticipation to read a ball coming in, he's physically strong under it and he has a fantastic clearance."
So how on earth to discommode Kilkenny's No 3?
"Well, if he plays there, Aisake (O hAilpin) may well test another part of that physicality on Sunday," suggests Henderson. "Because Noel probably hasn't met too many men as big and tall as him. It'll certainly be one of the big match-ups.
"Then it's down to the quality of ball coming. Aisake needs the quality on the edge of the 'square' and it's very hard to deal with anybody if it's coming right down to that last five yards. If you gain possession there, nobody will stop you. At least, it'll be very difficult because it's a score or a penalty. One way or the other, quite likely to be a goal.
"The further out the field he goes, I suppose the less hurling is in Aisake. So the timing and quality of the ball coming in is a huge thing."
Hickey, when available, qualifies as an automatic selection in a domain where few enjoy such certainty. Indeed, some within the county still ruminate upon the impact his absence in 2005 maybe had on the course of history.
The day Kilkenny leaked five goals in their All-Ireland semi-final against Galway, their 'square' looked like an un-manned nightclub door. Where was the bouncer?
Hickey had been feeling unwell for a while that summer, yet was of a mind that most problems could be solved by a couple of Panadol. When he described the symptoms to his sister, Catherine, she instructed him to go to the nearest hospital. Catherine, mercifully, is a nurse.
So he was diagnosed with a virus that had attached itself to the muscle around the wall of the heart. Potentially calamitous for a sports person if undetected.
"Thank God I went," he says now of the decision to heed Catherine's advice.
Would Kilkenny be pushing for six-in-a-row had he been there? Who is to say? A damaged hamstring restricted his involvement in the latter stages of the 2007 season too, he played only two championship games in '08 and missed all of last year's campaign because of a knee injury and, subsequent, damaged AC joint in his shoulder.
In his absence, Cody's first preference has become the placing of JJ Delaney -- one of the great wing-back stylists of this or any age -- on the edge of the 'square'. Not ideal in the manager's eyes. But sufficient to the day.
Yet, Hickey returned to competitive action in this year's National League against Limerick and Henderson believes that he is the prototype of what his manager likes as a player.
"You always associate Noel with playing well in the big games," says Henderson. "He always contributes. The thing about Noel is he can be spectacular in his clearance, but he's not spectacular in his person.
"He keeps himself very much to himself. He's a very earthed guy. He doesn't make brash statements and you won't see him talking up anything. He's just another one of these fellas that does his talking on the pitch.
"And he definitely likes being on big-name opponents."
The family pedigree is certainly beyond question (all six of the Hickey boys have Leinster minor medals). Yet, in terms of profile, Noel remains anonymous as a bell-hop. No matter. The public, it would seem, know all they need to know.
As one of the jokes on KilkennyCats.com puts it, "Noel Hickey was on the flight with Icarus and landed with just a light tan."