Regan aims to prove he's a Horse of a different colour
Galway's task today is a daunting one but Tony óg Regan is not without hope, as he tells Marie Crowe
E ighteen months ago, a letter arrived at the family home of Tony óg Regan informing him that Galway no longer required his services as a hurler. At 25, he couldn't believe he was finished, washed up and surplus to requirements.
Six years lining out for Galway had amounted to nothing but Regan still believed he had something to offer his county. "When it happened I was devastated. I had gotten so friendly with the lads over the years it was heartbreaking not to be involved," he says of it now.
"Luckily, I was going to Australia for Christmas so I could get away from it all and try to get over it. When I came back home, I just got back to reality and went back training with the club. I just said to myself 'I'm going to train as hard as I possibly can now and get back into that panel to prove to myself that I could still do it and prove to whoever dropped me that I could still do it' and that was it."
He didn't have to wait long, as it happens. Galway were dumped out of last year's championship after a quarter-final defeat to Waterford and Regan's exile ended soon after. John McIntyre, the man who had cut him the year before, reversed his decision and recalled the former full-back.
"When he rang me and asked me back, it was like getting selected for the Galway minors or making the Galway under 14 team for the first time. It was that kind of buzz. I was really, really happy I couldn't get over it. I just went back training; I didn't give a damn if it was snowing or raining, it didn't bother me at all. I was just delighted to be back on the senior panel. I resolved to put in an honest effort every day I was out there and just try to do my best. I never asked him why he dropped me in the first place. I'll leave that for another day."
Since returning to the panel, Regan has taken over from John Lee and moved out to centre-back. Having played there at underage level and throughout his days in NUI Galway, it's where he is most comfortable and where he wants to stay. "I find it's an easier position to play in. You can express yourself more, you're not tied down to man marking." However, from the time he joined the panel in 2003, and right through the Ger Loughnane era, the Rahoon man had been content playing full-back. It was not his first choice but just to be wearing the maroon jersey was plenty for him.
Loughnane was brought in after Galway failed to get past the qualifiers in 2006. Expectations had been high that year after getting to the previous year's All-Ireland final, losing to Cork. The former Clare manager promised to quit if he didn't deliver the Liam McCarthy to the Tribesmen within two years and expectations rose again in the county, and among the players too.
"Ger had two won two All-Irelands, he was coming from a different background than we had experienced before. We trained immensely hard under him and there was an unbelievable buzz from the players when he arrived. He was an icon of the game, everyone really looked up to him. Loughnane had been there, done it and won All-Irelands as a manager.
"During the first few weeks there was unbelievable hype. We had 60 lads down training in a field that you wouldn't put anyone in their right mind out in. But the lads were willing to go the extra mile because that's what Clare did and they won the All-Ireland. We were willing to do anything and everything he said was gospel."
Unfortunately for Galway, things didn't go to plan they crashed out of the 2007 championship at the quarter-final stage. The following year brought further disappointment with a two-point loss to Cork in the qualifiers. Ultimately, Loughnane didn't deliver on his promise and despite agreeing to stay on for one more year, he was voted out of the job that October.
"I don't care what manager was in there, he had an awful hard task to win a championship match. If we had been in Leinster when Loughnane was in charge, who knows what would have happened?
"Going back through the years we found it hard to get results in the first championship match and because there was nothing to fall back on, we were out of the competition before it had even began. We were coming up against teams who had two championship matches under their belts and we found it difficult. I think the system wasn't in our favour."
Regan's never-say-die attitude was nurtured under the stewardship of his father Tony 'Horse' Regan, former head of sport in NUI Galway. From him, Tony óg learned the value of putting in the work on the training field. Every evening in the Regan household there was a match or training to go to, dinner table chats were GAA-oriented.
He was exposed to the set-ups and training regimes of senior and college teams very early in life and quickly realised what it was going to take to succeed. So much so that by the time he was in his mid-teens he had developed a massive appetite for training and had started to do extra work outside team sessions.
But there was never any pressure put on his young shoulders. His father knew when to talk about it, and when to lay off. Horse Regan always managed to get the balance right. They have a great relationship and when NUI Galway won the Fitzgibbon Cup by a point earlier this year, there wasn't a prouder person in the stands than young Tony.
"It was one of the most emotional times of my life. Watching all the boys carrying him off the field was unbelievable. It was like fate, he was just retiring from the college, they hadn't won the cup since 1980 with Joe Connolly and the boys. It was a great send-off for him.
"There is great respect down there for him and even the Galway hurlers and footballers he did train would have great respect for him. I try to live the life that he has and get the respect that he has got over the years. And that's for all aspects of life; whether you're a hurler or working, you just want respect. You have to do your job right and play your hurling right to earn that respect."
Out of the six backs who lined out in the 2005 All-Ireland final, Regan is one of five still playing. There is a level of consistency about the selection but it also highlights the lack of players making the breakthrough onto the senior panel. Despite the underage success Galway have experienced through the years, the rewards have yet to impact on the senior set-up.
"I don't think that there is a really good under 21 structure in the county. A lot of the club's under 21 matches are played at the wrong time of year. Galway's first game out is an under 21 All-Ireland semi-final so players don't have the match practice to help them develop. They might only play one under 21 match with the county so it's hard to bring lads through after that.
"Unless they go through the colleges system they are going to get lost. Now that we are in Leinster at least if a lad gets on the county panel he is going to develop some way as a player, even if he doesn't make the championship team. Whereas between minor and under 21 there aren't enough games at county level to develop players."
Walking up the steps of the Hogan Stand to lift a cup is one of Regan's lifelong ambitions and today is the first time in five years he has come close to realising it. However, the opportunity almost didn't arise. Galway made hard work of Offaly, although Regan is taking the positives out of the two-game saga going into today's Leinster final.
"People were saying that the first day we were complacent, but we weren't one bit. We gave as good as we could on the day and we didn't beat them and the battle they put up to us on the second day just proved how good they are. Our confidence is still intact. I think it was a great win to get considering we were down a man with 15 minutes to go and the game was about level. We had to show unbelievable character to pull out the result. We had a couple of wides in the last few minutes but we didn't drop the heads."
Kilkenny are the most successful team of the decade, maybe of all time. Galway haven't won an All-Ireland since 1988, Kilkenny have won nine. The current team have suffered the wrath of Brian Cody's superstars repeatedly since 2006 and Regan is under no illusions about the challenge.
"Every team aspires to be as good as Kilkenny. I don't need to talk them up, they are going for five All-Irelands in a row, it's unbelievable. I know, and every player in the country knows, the commitment you have to put in and the sacrifice that you make. Year after year they are not only doing that but they are producing consistent displays. Every day they go out they are marked men but they are still able to do it. It is daunting but we are going up there with a positive attitude and we hope to give it a right crack. When the intensity increases, we can draw from the experience we got winning the league and beating Offaly."
This time last year no-one expected Tony óg Regan to be playing centre-back for Galway in a Leinster final. Having defied the odds once already, he's ready to do it again.