Downey's raw passion for camogie is driving Kilkenny forward
Nobody can quite understand why Kilkenny haven't won the Liberty Insurance All-Ireland senior camogie title since 1994.Ann Downey was captain the last time the O'Duffy Cup had black and amber ribbons and was manager when they lost the All-Ireland final in 2009 - one of six deciders lost by the Noresiders in the past 22 years.
They have been among the top three or four teams over the past seven seasons and yet cannot get over the finish line. So when Fintan Deegan was unable to commit to a second season in charge, Kilkenny turned once more to Downey, one of the greatest players who ever lived. In a sparkling career, she accumulated 12 senior All-Irelands with Kilkenny and seven more at club level with St Paul's and Lisdowney, while also guiding junior and intermediate teams to All-Ireland glory as manager.
The 59-year-old has a reputation for telling it as it is. Crucially though, she is not old school. She understands how the game has changed and reckons it is the better for that.
All-Ireland winning hurlers Paddy Mullally and Conor Phelan are responsible for most of the coaching, Liam Egan is in charge of fitness and conditioning. Downey oversees and organises. And has "a conversation" if she doesn't agree with something.
Meanwhile, she brought in her twin sister Angela - considered by many to be the greatest camogie player ever - and Breda Holmes in an advisory capacity. The trio terrorised opposition players through the 1970s, '80s and '90s and are combining once more in a bid to end the famine.
"It's not everyone that's jumping up and down to get involved in camogie," says Downey. "Angela and Breda were interested in giving something back. At times I'm sure they get exasperated by what's happening on the line! But they're great for the encouragement and having a word in the girls' ears, especially the forwards. It's good to have different voices."
Particularly when there is so much more involved in guiding a team now.
"We had laps of pitches and running from 50 to 50 or 20 to 20 with Tom Ryan, but now all the running is with the ball. 'Twas torture the training we had to go through to be honest. When you're with the ball, you're working and you don't realise it.
"There's the whole food side as well. We stopped in a lane and had a bag of chips on the way home. Now, the girls wouldn't look at it. They're watching their diet, drinking plenty of water.
"And even the way the game is played now I'm wondering would we have won more. We played 12-a-side and you held your position. They've more freedom to express themselves now as camogie players."
She may have been reared on stories of 1947, when her father Shem won a hurling All-Ireland, and had her own sustained period of eminence, but the enthusiasm for the development of the game is evident.
"You have to be flexible. Times have changed. The game has evolved and you have to move with it. We give the girls licence to move if they want to; they don't have to be instructed from the sideline. It's about using your head and us giving them the confidence in themselves to drive the thing on themselves."
Galway lie in wait in the semi-final at Nowlan Park next Saturday. Kilkenny beat them in the National League Division 1 final but the westerners prevailed most recently in the group stages of the championship.
Downey believes her charges are ready for the challenge.
And like her, though the demands have increased, they are there because they have a raw passion for the game.
"It's a lot of commitment. I could be bringing a bag of balls or hurls. I often think I'd love to be Brian Cody just walking into a training session, not having to bring anything but that's not the way it works in camogie. Different kettle of fish altogether, but if you don't love it there's no point in being involved and I suppose that's the bottom line."
Tickets can be purchased online from Tickets.ie or selected Centra and SuperValu outlets. Tickets will also be available to purchase at the ground on the day of the match. Group Tickets can also be purchased in advance from www.camogie.ie/tickets.asp
Sunday Indo Sport