JJ: bred to have all the answers on final day
IF Kilkenny's JJ Delaney is suddenly stricken by nerves in the hours leading up to today's All-Ireland final, he needn't look beyond his immediate family circle for sound advice.
Concerned about the anticipated wet and windy conditions JJ? No problem. Call Uncle Billy. Uncle Billy as in the swashbuckling, mustachioed figure of Billy Fitzpatrick who mesmerised Cork in the wind and rain of the 1983 final and finished the game with 10 points and the man-of-the-match award.
How do you hold out in a tight finish? Better call first cousin PJ on that one. In the 1993 final against Galway the game was level heading into the last few minutes when PJ Delaney nabbed a goal and a point to secure the title for Kilkenny.
What do you do when you are eight points down in the second half of a final against Cork? Uncle Pat is the man to consult. Pat Delaney - a brother of JJ's father Shem (also a Kilkenny panellist in the '70s) - was centre-forward in 1973 when Kilkenny scored 2-9 without reply in the final 22 minutes to win the Liam McCarthy by 3-24 to 5-11. One of the all-time Kilkenny greats, Uncle Pat, was a key figure in the sensational late dismantling of the Rebels, his trick of hopping the ball off the ground with his hurley to prolong the solo run causing endless problems for the Cork defence.
With such a bloodline, JJ Delaney was born not just to hurl but to hurl with the sang froid and certainty of purpose that comes with being part of a Kilkenny hurling dynasty.
Last year he added his own chapter to the Fitzpatrick-Delaney story by claiming the 2003 Hurler of the Year Award, an All-Star and a second All-Ireland senior medal. In ways, JJ Delaney is the archetypal 21st century Kilkenny hurler. Even though he has just turned 22 and is laden down with honours, off the field he is self-effacing and low profile to the point of anonymity.
On it, Brian Cody's quiet lieutenant is pure Kilkenny: wristy, intelligent, tough, canny and unfazed by any occasion or opponent. His finest hour in the jersey probably came last month when he nullified the menace of Waterford's Dan Shanahan in the All-Ireland semi-final. Shanahan had spread panic all summer, scoring 6-4 in Munster, but in Delaney he finally met his match.
Even though Shanahan towered six inches above him, Delaney consistently managed to outfield the Waterford man. When he didn't win the ball in the hand, he invariably drew on his repertoire of flicks, blocks and nudges to steer the sliotar to safety. "His eye for the ball and his positional sense are second to none," says Martin Fogarty, who managed Kilkenny and JJ to the All-Ireland U-21 title last year. He's great for flicking away balls and getting in tackles without giving away frees and if there is a man going up the far wing from JJ there is a fair chance that he will meet him somewhere around the '21'."
'He is well able for hard, physical hurling but he's also a very skilful player'
Fogarty says his "strongest memory of JJ goes back to early last year. He was just off the plane from the senior team's holiday in South Africa and he still played 40 minutes of a game for Waterford IT.
"I was chatting to him afterwards about what we had in mind for the U-21s and he just said 'get us in as often as you can'. That's the thing about JJ and the rest of the young fellas on the senior panel. They can't get enough hurling. Last year they would have been in training with us when we didn't want them in training.
"That's the nature of them. After the homecoming on the Monday night last year they were all there on the field 15 minutes early for U-21 training the following night. They are superstars but they don't act like it. Modesty would be JJ's middle name."
Delaney is 5-10 and weighs in at about 12 stone but has the reputation for being a sticky, wiry opponent who can mix it physically with much bigger men. Fogarty attributes his innate toughness to early experience of Kilkenny senior club hurling with Johnstown Fenians. Delaney was playing senior for the Fenians when he was 16, initially as a wing or corner forward before drifting back to his preferred defensive positions.
Apart from senior club hurling, he also benefitted from Fitzgibbon Cup hurling with Waterford IT, which has become the country's leading finishing school for intercounty hurlers. Other recent graduates include Henry Shefflin, Ken Coogan, Brian Dowling, Setanta Ó hAilpín, Mick Jacob, Damien Joyce and David Hayes.
A quantity surveying student, Delaney was one of the few players to make the Fitzgibbon team in his first year in college and this year, from cornerback, he captained WIT to a second Fitzgibbon Cup on the trot. The WIT team is managed by former Tipperary player Colm Bonnar who says Delaney was "very respected and much admired by his contemporaries.
"He's a quiet sort of a fella but he's like Roy Keane in that he doesn't know any other way but to compete. All the Kilkenny players we have here are like that. The lads from other counties are amused by them at times because they are so competitive. Once they put on the jersey they go all out to win no matter what sort of a game it is.
Looking at Delaney's game, Bonnar says he is "well able for hard, physical hurling but he's also a very skilful player.
"His footwork is excellent and I don't think there is a better hand in the business. His reading of the game is top class. Even if he is a yard or two behind his man you can count on him to get some sort of touch in. If a forward was ever causing us bother in a game you would automatically dispatch JJ to deal with him. You get very few of his standard. He's a huge talent really."
The same words keep cropping up no matter who you talk to about JJ: "quiet", "modest", "dedication" and, from Pat Henderson, "exceptional" and "accomplished."
Henderson hurled with JJ's Uncle Pat on the Kilkenny and Johnstown Fenians' teams in the glory days of the '70s. He has watched the blossoming of JJ's talent with the same hawkish eye he later brought to management with club and county.
"What has always impressed me about JJ is his willingness to learn and apply himself to any task you set him and he still continues to do that," says Henderson. "I am amazed at how he has learned so many of the skills of the game so quickly. He has a very good temperament and won't be fazed by any occasion.
"Being a nephew of Billy Fitzpatrick and Pat Delaney could be as much a disadvantage as a blessing if you didn't have the right temperament. Being so steeped in hurling could be a burden for some young players but JJ has made his own way."
In the '70s, '80s and '90s Kilkenny managed to put two All-Irelands back-to-back but in each decade were ambushed in Leinster in their bid for the elusive three-in-a-row. Uncle Pat was denied a three-in-a-row in '76; Uncle Billy in '76 and '84. The logic of his hurling heritage dictates that it's only natural that JJ Delaney should be at the heart of another Kilkenny team striving for a place with the hurling immortals.