Sport Hurling

Friday 24 March 2017

Half a lifetime of true devotion

Deise stalwart Tony Browne's 20 years of championship service make him one of the greats of the ancient game

Tony Browne is back for Waterford.
Tony Browne is back for Waterford.
Dermot Earley is set to return to the fray next year.
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

When reflecting on the length of Tony Browne's great Waterford hurling career, the prison-yard conversation between inmates Red and Andy Dufresne in 'The Shawshank Redemption' after Andy's latest parole interview has been turned down springs to mind.

"Twenty years," reflected Andy. "Jesus, when you say it like that."

On June 12, Browne will reach another milestone, one that is perhaps unlikely to be surpassed in the future. When Waterford lay their Munster title on the line against Limerick he'll neatly round off a second decade of service to his county.

Twenty years a championship hurler with Waterford. More than half his lifetime devoted to the cause.

Admittedly he stepped aside in 1993 and missed Waterford's landmark Munster championship defeat to Kerry. But taking his starting point as 1992, he has three years more championship service than any of his contemporaries, with only Tipperary's Brendan Cummins, off the mark in 1995, anywhere close to him.

Browne's slavish devotion to the gym, a reasonable dearth of injuries, good management of his services and a metabolism that is kinder than most of those in their late 30s enjoy, have helped him stay the pace.

The attrition rate among some of the longest-serving and best-known hurlers since last year's championship has been high.

Cork manager Denis Walsh informed Sean Og O hAilpin that he was surplus to requirements; Galway's Ollie Canning rejected the overtures to come back for John McIntyre, and Ken McGrath decided only weeks ago that he no longer had the legs to go on.

Dublin's Kevin Flynn went quietly and the departure of this quartet, who all made their championship debuts in 1996, leaves just two hurlers out on their own in terms of championships that they have played in competitively.

Dan Shanahan has also called an end to his time with Waterford, so the list of hurling's longest servants is dwindling. Conal Keaney enters the list having made his debut in 2001, but after 2004 he committed exclusively to the Dublin footballers, only to return this season.

The football list from last year has suffered extensive casualties. Football's longest servant in 2010, Kildare's Anthony Rainbow, announced his retirement from the inter-county game after Kildare's defeat to Down in the All-Ireland semi-final.

Rainbow's championship career began in 1992, so his departure has cut the time-span for long service among current players back significantly. Antrim's reserve goalkeeper Sean McGreevy, who had his first game in 1993, slipped away quietly.

It leaves 35-year-old Eamonn O'Hara as the longest-serving player in championship football by a clear two years. The chasing pack behind him is decreasing, with just Ciaran McManus and Brian Dooher in close pursuit.

Dermot Earley's Kildare career is in some doubt after a significant setback in his recovery from a cruciate ligament operation, but so far he has not signalled that his inter-county days are at an end. So he remains high on the list.

Fermanagh's Rory Gallagher's step into management alongside Jim McGuinness in Donegal removes one of the elder statesmen in the game and with Westmeath's Martin Flanagan (1995) and Galway's Declan Meehan (1996) cutting ties, the number of footballers with 15 championships behind them has dwindled to just three.

Significantly, there are a vast number of new entrants among those who made their debuts in 2001, the first year of the qualifiers.

For the most part, pre-2001 debutants had a lighter schedule and it stands to reason that their careers should last longer.

But players like Stephen Cluxton, Graham Canty, Stevie McDonnell, Ryan McMenamin and Benny Coulter are still at the very top of their games 10 years later.

They are among the 2000/01 debutants who have survived a decade of championship football.

And that suggests perhaps that in the last 10 years the advances in sports medicine, training techniques, general player welfare and the structure of the season outweigh the greater volume of games in influencing longevity.

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