ON a cold winter's night in Ballyporeen, Declan Browne played his last match like he had played many before, free of fanfare. He could have gone after Moyle Rovers were eliminated from the championship two months previously; it would have made more sense, only they had a league final to settle. So on a floodlit ground last weekend, against éire óg Annacarty, he closed the book on his playing career.
This wasn't a fairytale or glamorous finale; éire óg won by three points to deny him a winning send-off. Tipperary's greatest footballer of living memory scored three points, all frees, in a performance he considers "so-so". He finished playing for Tipperary at 29, five years earlier, and had no doubts about that decision. He has none now either. It could have happened a year ago but Jim Cahill, the man who first brought him onto the Moyle Rovers senior team, returned to the helm and he felt it appropriate to see out his career in his company.
At 34, he is still fit enough to play on but he knew the time had come. The interest had waned. The enjoyment had gone. Quite simply, he'd had enough.
"I started playing senior football in 1995. I had a knee operation in September 2011; that is in the back of your mind as well. That was the second injury to that knee in three years. My biggest fear was getting a serious injury. I always wanted to depart on my terms. Not to be told you are surplus to requirements, or through injury. I wanted to go relatively fit and healthy."
But what about the idea that you play as long as you can because you'll be long enough not playing? "I'd be the same. But I have always said that when you don't enjoy putting the boots in the bag, either going to games or training . . . I had reached that stage. There was no fun. It just wasn't there. There was no point playing on, I wouldn't be true to myself. When it takes three or four days to recover. I am only after recovering this (Tuesday) morning after Friday night."
Before the game against Annacarty, Jim Cahill said a few words and the club chairman added a few in the dressing room afterwards. And that was it. Browne joined the ranks of the retired.
What a wonderful player he was. The pure distillation of his greatness was in his shooting, the pinpoint accuracy of the finishing and how many of those high arcing deliveries, struck equally confidently off left or right, would sail as if predestined over the black spot. At one point he was virtually unmarkable. Once in possession he tended to shoot early which made blocking or impeding him almost impossible. The sense of anticipation needed to counteract him was enormous and it would take a truly gifted defender to stifle his influence.
Kerry were routine joykillers in Munster. In the 12 years he played for Tipperary, he lost eight different seasons to them in the championship. But he never lost his childhood admiration for the way Kerry played football and refers to their players as "pure gentlemen". They'd have thought nothing of striking up quaint conversation on the pitch between plays. Over his county career he played in only 25 championship matches, excluding the Tommy Murphy Cup.
Hurling remained the game of the ascendancy and he played it to a high level, winning Fitzgibbon Cups with WIT, an All-Ireland minor medal in 1996, and earning a call-up for senior hurling league matches in 1999. In that year he was captain of the Tipperary footballers when Kerry beat them in Tralee with the help of a goal that should not have been allowed. He didn't play well and is sorry he allowed himself be sidetracked.
"When you were called into the hurling panel you were never told you had to give up football but I knew at the back of my mind that if I was going to make it in hurling, football would have to go by the wayside. It was never going to happen."
He still feels aggrieved over the circumstances surrounding his being dropped from the squad for the 1999 hurling league final, having been a regular through the spring and the team's third highest scorer.
"To this day it hurts and it will always hurt, the way it was handled," he admits. On the Tuesday before the final, the team and subs were called out and his name didn't come up. He had no prior warning.
"Enda Flannery gave me the mother and father of a roasting in the semi-final against Clare. Everywhere the ball went, I went the other way. I knew I had a stinker and I knew I was in bother, that I mightn't start. I had never an issue about being dropped, just have the courtesy to tell me. Like I know that night there were lads looking at me and Paul Shelley put his arm round my shoulder and walked me off down to the dressing rooms, I'll never forget it. He couldn't believe it.
"I'd so many things going on at the time between football and hurling, I don't know if it hit me as hard then as it does now. I still went to the game. If I had my time back I wouldn't have gone to the game. I didn't even go to the medal presentation for the league."
On the morning of the league final, he says he was approached by Nicky English, the Tipperary manager. "I was asked if I was disappointed. I don't think I even dignified it with a response."
Did it surprise you that there wasn't greater empathy? "To be 100 per cent honest with you, yes, I mean he (English) was my hero. They always say you should never meet your hero. But it was just the way the whole affair was handled. I firmly believe they knew they were wrong. I was only 20. I was only a chap. I could have easily – it could have ruined your confidence. I was lucky I had the football, I knew it was there. Hurling: if it worked great; if not it was not the end of the world for me."
In 2000, he was outstanding for the intermediate hurling team, scoring 4-12 against Waterford in the first round on the same day the senior team won in Cork. After winning the intermediate provincial title, Browne was asked back into the senior panel for the upcoming All-Ireland quarter-final against Galway. He agreed but he deeply regrets going back as he didn't make the match-day squad and watched in his civvies.
Tipperary hurlers, at the time, were striving to come out from the shadow of Clare. A culture that had little time for sentiment was being cultivated and Browne suffered in this austere and unforgiving context.
As he says himself: "That is probably the ruthlessness of Tipp hurling or any top-class team. Maybe with the big turnover of players maybe you are not needed as much or thought of as much, I don't know, that is all I can put it down to."
He sees recent county minor teams and their liberal sprinkling of dual players as indicative of a maturing of the relationship between football and hurling in Tipperary. Hurling will always enjoy first-choice status but football has been gaining a firmer foothold and a place in the county's affections. The All-Ireland minor win last year was the best day of his life outside his own playing career. His two All Stars were the county's first in football and the joy he showed in captaining the county to the Tommy Murphy Cup in 2005 was seen as one of the moments of vindication for a competition mostly patronised and unloved.
Football could always get a kicking though. The previous year they failed to honour a qualifier fixture against Fermanagh, a county not unlike their own in terms of ranking but who went on from there to play in the All-Ireland semi-finals. Tipp players boycotted the fixture when the county board scheduled a club match a few days beforehand that would require the service of Micheál Webster.
"We were let down big time by our county board," says Browne. "Big time. Sad day. And easily avoided. After several attempts to say we would not be playing, I don't think they believed us. The game went ahead and we gave them a walkover. After training the whole year. We felt we had to stick to our guns."
Were you shocked by this stance by the board? "It just showed the attitude towards football. That was still there. We were the best thing since sliced bread in '02 and when we played Donegal in (the qualifiers in Croke Park in) '03. They tried calling our bluff and it backfired. It was poor judgement by the county board. They will have to live with that. So will we, it was a championship game."
The GAA decision to remove the safety net of the qualifiers for Division 4 counties in 2007, ferrying them straight into the Tommy Murphy Cup, played a role in Browne's retirement call that year. "Like the Tommy Murphy Cup was good to us, we won it and enjoyed it, and played in Croke Park and got a huge buzz out of that; we went to New York as a result of it. But I don't think there was any benefit winning it twice. Throwing us straight into the Murphy Cup was nothing short of a disgrace and again we took it lying down. All those eight teams should have said we are not playing and went on strike or whatever."
He feels Tipperary were nearest a breakthrough after losing to Kerry in the 1998 Munster final. "We felt we could beat them. In '97 we could have beaten them in Tralee and in '99 we could have beaten them in Tralee. We should have beaten Cork in 2002. When I started off first we had a great team: Derry Foley, Philly Ryan, Peter Lambert, John Owens . . ."
In the '97 match, Browne scored 1-1 in the semi-final against Kerry, his goal sparking a comeback when they were eight points down. They were ahead on the hour but faded in the last gallop. Kerry won the '98 Munster final by four points, the next year it was six.
Seeing Tipp minors win an All-Ireland (he won a Munster minor football medal in 1995) has given him hope that the game can grow stronger. The support at board level and the attitude generally has vastly improved and is more supportive – Tipp could not have won an All-Ireland in the absence of co-operation. "The big thing for Tipp football is to keep them. Obviously we can't keep everyone, but if we can keep a core then the future is very good."
His own future may involve coaching – he's not sure. But now is about reflection rather than what's ahead. What he did in raising the profile and morale of Tipperary football is undeniable, if hard to quantify. His value was not weighed in medals.
He retires but the memories will live on and on.