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Vincent Hogan: Pride in toil of lesser citizens

The sun reaches down to the bottom of the food chain, uncovering little secrets. Over steaming tea, Willie Dempsey draws your attention to his laptop and a picture of the shale apron on which you've parked your car. All that's visible on the screen is water. "That was taken at three o'clock yesterday," says Willie.

"Four feet high it was!"

Outside, Thomastown aches with beauty. A honeyed sun has siphoned the flood back into The Nore. The river and the big field ripple in perfect union. On the bank, a stern little theatre of maybe 40 people has gathered. This is O'Byrne Cup day in Kilkenny, a glimpse of stripey football.

The sounds that carry up out of the valley barely tug at the town above for attention. Thin wreaths of smoke rise from distant houses, their backs turned. There is the distant sound of traffic, no louder than rustling leaves. Former county chairman, John Healy, chuckles at the jaw-dropping splendour.

In his playing days, Thomastown always offered a struggling team an escape route. "If you were getting beaten, you kicked the ball out into the river," he says with a grin.

The Kilkenny team is warming up in the back field. Maybe 16 bodies, running through drills. Three stragglers arrive and a wry voice observes "Ah, the South Kilkenny boys!"

They will be beaten today of course. That's non-negotiable. The team loosening up at the far end of the field is Offaly and nothing short of a meteorite attack is likely to derail them. For serious teams, playing Kilkenny is like buying a ticket at a coconut shy. And in this neck of the woods, Offaly qualify as serious.

Two years ago, Kilkenny did celebrate their return to National League activity with a thrilling Division 4 victory over London. But that team doesn't exist now. The Mahony brothers, Michael and Sean, are the only two survivors from that day. Read into that turnover what you will.

It's a struggle but a proud one. Five of last year's team has been lost to emigration. Maybe three or four more to ambivalence. They haven't trained together since May '09 because of the GAA's ban on group activity through November and December and the subsequent freeze.

County secretary Ned Quinn is just back from a trip to Malaysia with the hurlers. Last week, he heard, the temperature recorded in Carlow was minus 17.5°C. Yesterday, driving through, it was plus 11°C. Crazy.

Team holidays don't much occupy the minds of the county footballers. A game in London is their idea of exotic travel. Beyond that, they just about keep their heads above the tide in a county besotted with hurling.

They have their pride, mind. Dick Mullins sends them out against Offaly with a target of "keeping the goals down". Last year, they leaked three or four per game. When, six minutes in, a Ciaran McManus free is dropped in the square and Sean Ryan rattles the Kilkenny net, Mullins' plea seems a vain one.

His team lacks physicality and, patently, confidence in possession. But they chase and harry and talk to one another like brothers. They are palpably together.

Half-time arrives and they trail 0-1 to 1-12. Corner-back Paddy Raftice gathers them in and delivers a short oration. "Lads, ye may be f****d, ye may be tired, but keep it going. Never mind the scoreboard. It may look bad, but we're playing well."

Mullins backs him up on it. "The work-rate is brilliant lads. Absolutely brilliant." And it is.


They score three points in the first eight minutes of the second-half as little bursts of hubris diminish Offaly. Tom Cribben is apoplectic watching some of his players run like peacocks at the Kilkenny defence. He's warned them against this, the conceit of imagining themselves a superior breed.

Eventually, they settle and ease away into the distance, finishing victors by 1-23 to 0-6. Yet, if there was a poll for Man of the Match, it would be hard to see how anyone could look beyond the Kilkenny centre-back, Seoirse Kenny. Just think an amalgam of the Glen Ryan of yesteryear and Graham Canty of today. Man mountain.

Mullins takes Kilkenny over for a warm-down on the back field and Cribben jogs across. He's taken no pleasure from the arithmetic.

"Lads, I know it's hard," he tells them quietly. "I know ye probably feel sometimes like second-class citizens. It's hard enough in Offaly where there are maybe five hurlers I'd love to have on the football panel. But I know it's 10 times worse for ye. Just don't give up lads."

He wheels away and offers an insight into the class divide. Offaly have plans this year. Getting into Division 2 of the league and springing a few traps in the Leinster Championship. If he can tighten their defence, Cribben sees no reason to consider those plans extravagant. And Kilkenny?

Kilkenny, he accepts, exist in a different time-zone.

"This does them no good at all," he sighs sadly. "It's actually crazy having lads come out to be demoralised like that. Even to try and get our lads motivated coming down here is very difficult. That's not being disrespectful to Kilkenny. It's just a fact of life. We were very sloppy out there. Lads got greedy.

"I think they should put the weaker counties from all the provinces into a different competition at this time of year. That might bring them on a little bit. Not getting hammered every year in the first round of the O'Byrne Cup. That's no good to them."

Outside the dressing-rooms, Mullins suggests a more immediate solution. The taking down of unnecessary barriers. "The whole thing is stupid," says the Laois man. "Our lifeline up to this would have been a couple of challenge matches with club teams, because lads will come to matches. I mean you might only get 12 lads to come to training. Have a match and you'll get 18. That's the difference.

"But our lifeline was taken away for November and December. We could get no team together until the hurling more or less finished in Kilkenny, which was basically the end of October.

"Then, come the first of November, we get this big, long letter from Croke Park saying you can't do this, you can't do that. So our chance of getting together was taken away from us. I would have no problem with the ban for the likes of Kilkenny hurlers or Kerry footballers, but how in the name of God is it supposed to help us?"

Still, there is no self-pity now under the weight of a 20-point whipping. Actually, contrary to Cribben's assessment, there is no evidence here of demoralised people. Kilkenny slip into the O'Byrne Shield now and, beyond that, Division 4 football in the League and an outing in the Leinster Junior Championship.

Last summer, they ran Wicklow to four points in Aughrim on a May Wednesday. A handful of those Wicklow players were then part of Mick O'Dwyer's six-game safari.

Michael Mahony steps into the corridor, steam reaching out an open door in narrow, clawing fingers. Until three years ago, rugby was Mahony's game. He was educated at Clongowes Wood and grew into a natural second-row. He spent five years studying to be a chiropractor in Bournemouth.

Now he runs a practice in Carlow and, on hearing him to be a Thomastown man, patients invariably turn the talk to hurling. It doesn't pain him. Kilkenny hurling swells the cavity of every chest in the county. You can be a football man and still tingle at the four-in-a-row.

"Look, we've lads here who enjoy the football and do their best," he says. "It can be hard, especially at this time of year. Obviously, you can't take the scorelines too much to heart with the problems we have.

"But we have great aul craic together. There's genuine spirit in the team. No-one's getting on anyone else's back. Everyone's giving it their best and, if mistakes are made, they're made. Even though we ship some big scores, everyone in there is proud of wearing the jersey."

They gather their things and stride out into the evening. The sun is low in the sky now, shadows stretching like live things across the valley. It's hard to imagine January expressing itself more beautifully.

The flag still flies here.

Irish Independent