Downey's faith in vibrant Cats
Kilkenny boss counting on exuberance of youth to end county's long wait for All-Ireland glory
KILKENNY camogie manager Ann Downey can't help smiling when you ask her about her young charges and whether, maybe, they'll be less nervous than herself tomorrow.
With 12 All-Ireland senior titles under her belt she is no stranger to the pressures of Croke Park, while it is completely new to her players, whose youthful enthusiasm and confidence appears to know no bounds.
"Yes, sometimes you look around the dressing-room at some of them and you have to say, 'girls, would ye shut up and listen to what we're saying!'" she reveals with a grin.
Few of them were born when she was half of camogie's most lethal sister act, with twin Angela, who wrought havoc all around them when Kilkenny completely dominated the game in the 1970s and '80s, including winning seven senior All-Irelands in-a-row from 1985 to 1991.
In her day Downey, usually operating at midfield, was one of the most focused and competitive camogie players to ever wield a hurl.
She hung up her inter-county boots in 1999 but still became something of a 'cause celebre' in 2004 when she was not selected on camogie's 'Team of the Century'.
Three Kilkenny women were included -- her sister Angela, Liz Neary and Bridie McGarry -- but Angela was so disgusted that Ann was not recognised that she boycotted the presentation ceremony.
Five years later, Ann is back in the limelight but this time on the sidelines, managing Kilkenny in their first senior camogie final since 2001.
They are actually chasing their first victory since Downey herself captained them to victory back in '94 and exactly why they veered so far off the senior radar for so long has always been something of a mystery.
"I think that happens in all sports; it can happen even in club camogie or hurling, it's hard to keep the momentum going," she says.
"The (Ballyhale) Shamrocks were on top (in Kilkenny) for ages in the '70s and then they were gone for years and now they're back again, and it was the same with ourselves.
"Also, with ourselves, when the game went 15-a-side (in 1999) it was hard to make the changeover and it has probably actually taken us this long to adapt," she observes.
"None of these girls have played 12-a-side, they've only ever played 15-a-side and that's a very different game."
The most repeated statistic about her young charges is that a third of the squad are teenagers.
Yet their youthful legs and confidence may be just the thing to topple Cork's defending champions who are chasing a fifth title in their eighth final in a row.
Kilkenny, though, include plenty of experience. Five players survive from the 2001 senior final -- Caitriona Ryan, Lizzie Lyng, Catherine Doherty, Edel Maher and Aoife Neary -- while Jacqui Frisby was another involved when they won the All-Ireland junior title in 2002, when Downey was also on the management team.
But more of their starters have come off Kilkenny's phenomenal recent underage conveyor belt that has bagged All-Ireland four-in-a-rows at both U-16 and minor level.
And players like Leanne Fennelly and Denise Gaule have also won schools' All-Irelands with St Brigid's Callan, alma mater of the Downey and Millea sisters plus Olympic hammer thrower Eileen O'Keeffe.
Following in the steps of Neary and Katie Power, Gaule (18), from Windgap, is Kilkenny's latest teen starlet. She scored 3-7 in this year's All-Ireland minor semi-final, 2-4 in the final and then a week later, lined out for the seniors in their late-goal semi-final victory over Galway.
Downey has been at pains to play down the expectation levels on her young side and admits they cannot let it affect them.
"While Croke Park is a big stadium, and it is frightening, when they're inside those four lines it's no different from any other pitch and they have to be totally focused on what they're about," she stresses.
But she cannot hide her delight in their skills and the way the game has moved on since it made the radical decision to move to a full-sized pitch 10 years ago.
"I look back at the videos and I think, 'bloody hell, that pitch was so small, why wasn't I able to score more points!'," Downey quips.
"The modern game is brilliant; the speed of it, the levels of fitness and skill and the space they have.
"In 12-a-side on a small pitch you were nearly playing beside one another. There wasn't the room to express yourself, but look at what players like Briege Corkery are doing now."
It's 15 years since she became the last Kilkenny woman to lift the O'Duffy Cup and she's desperately hoping that statistic will change tomorrow.
"I'm sick of hearing that, I'm really hoping someone else will take over that mantle," she says.
"I was the last captain and I was a twin and Ann Dalton, our captain this year, is also a twin, so we're hoping that's a good omen."