Curtain call for a player who shone on fringes
Don Hyland's career wasn't Broadway but he had some act, writes Dermot Crowe
YOU may have heard the name, but even if it is familiar you are unlikely to have seen him play. That level of acquaintance can't be universal given his roots.
While a scatter of Kilkenny hurlers recently ceased trading at the high end of the market, a Wicklow hurler, born not a million miles away, who shared their fixation with the game, slipped quietly into retirement.
Most of Don Hyland's career happened way off Broadway. In his 22 years hurling for Wicklow he played in Croke Park three times and in Thurles twice. He didn't do it for the glory.
"I know I am going to miss it," he says. "I won't miss getting up at half four on Sunday morning to play a hurling match in London and getting back home the same night. I won't miss that. The crack obviously; I'll miss that. I'll miss the matches in Arklow during the league; jeez I used to love them. I really loved them. There was a great atmosphere in Arklow. But not the trips to Kerry and Derry, Fermanagh and Donegal.
"I will miss loads of things. Going to training with the lads in the car was great crack. You wouldn't buy it like. I remember when I started first, there were only two of us, myself and my cousin Denis Kilbride. Now and again maybe two or three were added on the journey. In the last 10 years between five and 10 went from Carnew. Two car loads. There'd be good crack trying to get in the right car."
What was the right car? "There'd be a good crack car and there'd be a serious car."
He has quit playing for Wicklow at a time when the GAA is launching its national hurling development plan. Mentors are being dispatched countrywide to spread the word and the task of proselytising Wicklow falls to Mick Kinsella, the former Wexford secretary. Ironically, his brother Rory taught Hyland in FCJ Bunclody many moons ago. In Bunclody Hyland hurled with Damian Fitzhenry and Colm Kehoe who would later win All-Ireland medals. After school their paths diverged. Hyland's career pinnacle came on a Saturday evening in Tullamore in 2003 when Wicklow fought off Roscommon to win the All-Ireland B title.
His father, Edward, came to Carnew from Laois as a teenager bringing a love of hurling with him. It was in the blood and the home but Carnew is a natural hurling habitat, resting on the Wexford border. In 2002 they took Castletown of Laois to a replay in the Leinster club championship and recently have been swapping county titles with Glenealy. Hyland's father was his first coach. He fuelled his son's interest with regular family trips to Leinster championship matches and All-Ireland finals.
There was nothing abnormal in it. At 17, Hyland was chosen to play in goal for Wicklow against Armagh in the first round of the All-Ireland B championship. As they took to the pitch the team's centre-back Ned Cremin asked him his name. "Ned was one of the finest Wicklow hurlers ever but he hadn't a clue who I was," he recalls. "We had no training or anything done at the time. That's how it was." He missed the replay because he was sitting the Leaving Cert. With the exception of 2009 he hurled every year for Wicklow since then and had his final match in Croke Park when they lost the Christy Ring final to Kerry last year. He was 38.
The oft-mocked inter-provincials gave players like Hyland a chance to mix with hurlers from more advantaged counties and helped bolster spirits in the hurling communities at home. In 2002 and 2003 he was part of successful Leinster expeditions. "They held trial games and whoever was Leinster champions would play the rest of Leinster. When you got to know them you realised they were ordinary lads and they really made you feel at home. And I have to say the Kilkenny lads were brilliant. Especially James McGarry and Mick Kavanagh -- they had no airs and graces about them. Those matches, I really enjoyed those, they were good games."
The final in 2003 was played in Rome. At the airport McGarry took him off to breakfast and made him feel welcome and valued. He feels lucky to have been Wicklow's chosen one. One year he went to a trial with Casey O'Brien, the current Wicklow manager. O'Brien, who was a centre-back, found himself planted in the corner out of position on Eddie Brennan. "Like, I was on Noel Hickey but I was used to playing there and Brendan Murphy of Offaly peppered me with ball. You couldn't ask for better than that. Casey's best position was centre-back but he went on Brennan and that was a nightmare. He got seven stitches as well for his troubles.
"There were loads of hurlers who could have gone in before me, but when you got the chance it was nice to get it. I remember one particular time Andy Gallagher took it over and right away I was in the team and he was so good to me. We were playing Munster one day and he just said hurl the way you can hurl. And I never forgot him for it. He just treated me as a normal hurler. In Wicklow Jackie Napier, a county board man, he pushed for it, to get me on Leinster teams."
He marked Hickey, Martin Hanamy, Ollie Canning, Frank Lohan and, his last, TJ Ryan. Most of the time was away from the game's bigger personalities though, competing for Keogh Cups and lower league titles. In all his time he played in three Leinster senior hurling championship games, the last two occasions against Laois. They lost the first of those by six points and Laois left knowing they had been in a serious game. But there were serious downers too. In 2009 they lost a Christy Ring relegation game to Westmeath 3-36 to 1-6 with Hyland as a spectator, in temporary retirement.
Then there was the year Carnew defeated Tipperary's Borrisoleigh in the quarter-finals of the Kilmacud Sevens. Word swept the venue and suddenly they had this huge support when facing Na Piarsaigh of Cork in the semi -finals. They couldn't make it to the final. "We were very green, didn't use subs, didn't train for it properly -- just turned up on the day and played. We were completely wrecked after the quarter-final. We had lads who were too proud to go off, this kind of attitude. We had a football league game at Kiltegan the next day which we had looked to get called off. But they [county board] wouldn't do it."
He wants to stress that he was treated impeccably by the county board throughout his career. But the board was less than visionary in other ways. He is sorry they didn't get a strong messianic figure in to take over the hurlers, like the footballers would later do with Mick O'Dwyer. John Henderson had a spell as a player-manager and he had ambitious plans and targets. But he eventually snapped because the support structures weren't there.
"Henderson's training was way ahead of its time. Looking after the players was a big thing with him. Getting meals after training was never heard of; he pushed for that. It was all matches as well, we were forever going down to Kilkenny for games; we'd go down on the Friday, back on the Sunday. Playing club teams, Kilkenny under 21s, playing his own club the Fenians and he'd be playing against you and he'd take lumps out of you. But then he'd arrange a weekend away and they'd fix a round of football matches and players couldn't go."
Hurling, he laments, isn't sufficiently promoted in Wicklow schools, even in more traditional areas like Carnew. "Football is getting pushed the whole time and there is nothing wrong with that. But I see with my sister's young fella and there are 60 in that year and he is the only one hurling. Crazy, like. Even if they never played later, give them the choice anyway."
At one stage he was approached by another county offering hurling at a higher standard. He wasn't interested. "I didn't entertain them at all. I lived in Dublin for a while and I couldn't understand why lads would leave their own clubs. I wouldn't get the same buzz out of it. I couldn't see myself not going into a Carnew or a Wicklow dressing-room. I would have to be loyal to the lads who coached me at underage level and I think other lads should be loyal as well. Even if things are going bad -- they can't always go well. [John] Henderson told me you are going to lose a lot more than you'll win; this coming from a man who won All-Irelands. And he was right. If things are bad do something about it.
"I see lads in my own club who might never have hit a ball but they are Carnew to the core. Like, at 18 years of age I had two senior county championship medals and I was 29 when I won my third. But I remember getting involved at underage level and some of those later came through."
He is now involved in coaching the under 16 team in Carnew. The Wicklow team that won the All-Ireland in 2003 featured some players he had coached at underage level which embellished the achievement.
He will continue to hurl for Carnew as long as his legs allow. Two years ago Wicklow lost by a goal to Kerry in the Christy Ring semi-finals and he decided to come back to have a crack at winning that title. They reached the final with an exciting win over Kildare but Kerry were too strong. By now he was the oldest hurler in the squad. Some of the players weren't born when he had started in 1990. In January he would be turning 39; it was time.
Over all those years he says everything took second place to hurling. He worked in haulage, setting out sometimes as early as four or five in the morning knowing training awaited him that evening. If he had a crib it was that all the fitness and conditioning work that has become fashionable meant less time with the ball. But he did it anyway, and never saw any great need to feel sorry for himself being a hurler born in a place where hurling is a minority sport.
The reason is simple enough as he explains: "It wasn't hard for me -- because I loved it."
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