Sunday 21 October 2018

Vincent Hogan: 'Tipp's future will still be bright without me'

Declan Fanning knows the time is right to hang up his boots

Declan Fanning. Photo: Sportsfile
Declan Fanning. Photo: Sportsfile

On Wednesday night, Declan Fanning stood at the front door of his terraced house in Killenaule, peering out at the slicing rain and boogeying street lights of a brewing November tempest. Winter's handwriting was everywhere.

Inside, Lucy readied one-year-old Owen for bed and the operatic roll of Handel's 'Zadok the Priest' announced kick-off time in the Ukraine where Arsenal were on Champions League duty. Turning away from the inky blackness, Fanning closed the door behind him and put the kettle on.

And he smiled the smile of a man for whom retirement felt like a warm duvet.

His decision hadn't entirely been unexpected in the Tipperary dressing-room. Declan, after all, is 31. Genetic miracles like Tony Browne aside, that equates to a well-travelled road in inter-county hurling.

Actually, a year ago, he drove to an autumn meeting in Horse and Jockey, determined to step away from Tipp's epic pursuit of the Liam MacCarthy Cup. Owen was just three months old at the time and, much as Fanning loved being a county man, he sensed imbalance in his days.

Everything was haste and urgency. Deadlines. Snatched moments with the family then, always, out the door again. He'd hate anyone to paint the five-nights-a-week training schedule as any kind of burden, for Fanning would willingly have done seven. But his appetite was waning.

Liam Sheedy, Eamon O'Shea and Michael Ryan seemed "taken aback" by his decision. They talked of how their own three-year commitment was only two-thirds complete and expressed an absolute conviction that Tipp could win the 2010 All-Ireland.

Above all, they said they wanted Declan Fanning in that dressing-room. And, driving home that night, he knew their words had won.

Maybe the most beautiful moment was seeing tears in 'The Rattler's' eyes. Mickey Byrne was wheeled into the dressing-room as the showers began to hiss and it was as if the sight of the old cup tossed him into an unguarded moment. To see a man whose greatness reached back more than 60 years now blink away the salt felt deeply humbling. Honouring Tipp's past was always Sheedy's way and that moment set the thermostat perfectly.

This was where the snowy road had taken them. That first January night when Fanning sat into his car with Pat Kerwick for the spin to Thurles, they couldn't help themselves but take pictures with their phones. They were slip-sliding in a winter-wonderland.

Yet, 'Hotpoint' (John Hayes) had all the training-gear laid out when they got there and, with the pitches white as talc, they did two hours of hurling drills and circuit training in The Dome. Tipp would start the year as they intended to continue. No excuses.

It all seems tidy and easily navigable in recall now. Losing that epic '09 final to Kilkenny simply stiffened the group resolve. There'd been tears that Monday night when they saw the throng waiting for them in Thurles and, to a man, they vowed there'd be no empty-handed reprise.

But the best of intentions promise nothing and the first serious questions asked of Tipp in 2010 would decant some brutal answers. On May 30, Cork devoured them at Pairc Ui Chaoimh. Afterwards, they needed the oxygen of leadership like never before.

And Sheedy quickly delivered.

"I'll never forget it," recalls Fanning. "Going into the dressing-room and it no bigger than the kitchen there. We're all sat around, almost in each other's faces. Heads down.

"Liam told us to get the heads up. He went round to every single one and said: 'We'll win the All-Ireland!' He was showing the faith he had in us. It was a brave enough thing for him to say, because we were after getting a right hammering. I actually said it to him after we beat Kilkenny.

"We all had to leave that dressing-room and face the music then, which wasn't easy. People were saying things in the tunnel, but they weren't saying them to our faces.

"We didn't train that Tuesday night. Just all met in the 'Jockey and that was a fairly intense meeting. Everyone involved, whether you were number 30 on the panel, the doctor, the physio or the water carrier. Whoever you were, you were inside that room and you had your say if you wanted it.

"I remember especially James Woodlock spoke very well from the heart. He was still on the crutches, so maybe he'd been able to watch it from a different perspective to the rest of us. But that was a vital meeting. The most important we had all year. I remember going home and, even though the county was still in shock over the drubbing we had taken, thinking that I could it leave it behind now."

In Cork, there had been a cumulative meltdown of the full-back line and, when Tipp got back on the carousel in a qualifier against Wexford at Semple Stadium, Fanning was given the No 3 shirt. He'd won an All Star for the position in '07 but had since thrived in his more natural habitat of the half-back line.

The Wexford game passed un-dramatically for Tipp. They won in a canter, yet their full-back's involvement lasted maybe 90 seconds.

Fanning's tussle with Stephen Banville is easily accessed on YouTube and looks largely innocuous. Yet, the Wexford full-forward's decision to pull his opponent's helmet resulted in a ripped ear for the Tipp man and the need for 25 stitches.

Declan recalls the incident with quiet equanimity.

"After the full-back line not going so well in Cork and me been drafted back in there, my attitude was, 'There's nobody going to bully us here today!'" he says.

"I'll be honest, I have to hold my hand up and say I was as much a part of what happened as Stephen. It was definitely 50-50. I went in to lay down a marker, that there'd be no messing today. In fairness, t'was just handbags, a bit of shouldering and digging. You could pull my helmet off a hundred times and what happened wouldn't happen.

"And I swear it wasn't sore. You'd hear sometimes of someone losing a finger and saying they didn't know they'd lost it until they looked down. That's the way it was.

"But I knew there was something wrong, because t'was kind of flapping. Only when I went in did I realise the extent of it. Our doctor, Peter Murchin, took one look and said, 'No way are you going back out!' Someone else was saying, 'Throw in two staples there, he'll be grand.'

"Peter kind of looked at him as if he had two heads. T'was fair funny, well maybe not ... But I would have absolutely no issue with Stephen Banville. I haven't ever spoken to the man, but he definitely didn't go out to do that."

Sitting in the stand later, a friend would helpfully advise Fanning that he had been foolhardy to pick the fight he picked. Enquiring why, he was told that Banville's nickname among the Wexford supporters was 'Horsebox'. He laughs at the memory now.

"I was telling John O'Brien in the dressing-room after," Declan grins, "and he said, 'I've heard a fella called a horse of a man, but he's actually called what carries the horse? Holy mother of God!'"

They stitched the damage without anaesthetic - that wasn't pleasant. And for maybe a week after, the ear seemed to become badly swollen and disfigured. Yet, it healed perfectly. The only visible remnant today is a twine-thin burgundy line running from the lobe.

He was restored to wing-back the next day against Offaly and, thereafter, that would be his perch.

There is an easy humility to Fanning, franked by the emotional breadth of a career never quite dusted with privilege. Though he won a Munster minor medal, he was never a prodigy and, by the time Ken Hogan called him up to Tipp's senior panel in late '03, he had become better known for his exploits as centre-back on the county football team under Tom McGlinchey.

The hurlers' '04 Championship ended with a defeat to Cork in Killarney and that game would set in train a calamitous sequence of thoughts in one Tipperary man's mind.

Dinny Cahill, manager of Cork's next opponents, Antrim, unloaded himself of some pretty saucy narrative in an apparent effort to demythologize the Rebels. He questioned the longevity of certain Cork players, confidently predicting even that Antrim would win the All-Ireland.

And then he tossed a grenade at the shoes of Declan Fanning.

"He more or less said that I wasn't good enough as a minor, so why would anyone think I was good enough for the seniors?" recalls Declan. "And that knocked me back for a while. I remember thinking, 'Jesus is this what playing for Tipp is all about? Getting slated in the paper?'

"Now today I could nearly thank Dinny because it battle-hardened me. He had a go at a few of the Cork players the same day. Sean Og was one. But I was disappointed over what he said. I trained under him as a minor and I liked him. He was even down here with the club, helping us out at U-21.

"So I was fair hurt. But in the years after I'd have always had it in my head to prove him wrong. I never met him after, though he'd have been involved with a good few teams I played against. But it definitely battle-hardened me.

"I think the only time I ever shouted for Cork was when they played Antrim that day! I was hoping they'd give them a right beating. I suppose when you're backed into a corner, you come out fighting."

Potential

It was Babs Keating who subsequently identified his potential as a full-back and who, he says, must be thanked accordingly for the All Star in '07.

Yet, it was Sheedy's arrival after Tipp's eventual meltdown in that year's Championship that breathed fresh life into the county. Fanning recalls being called in to meet the new management team in the Anner Hotel and driving away thinking, "This is going to be serious."

Today, he likens the triumvirate of Sheedy, O'Shea and Ryan to key pieces of a refined clock. Take one piece away and the clock ceases to work. The key was the union of Sheedy's empathetic man-management, O'Shea's maverick hurling brain and Ryan's calm.

Yet, that '09 final might easily have tossed them into a downward spiral.

Indeed, it was Fanning who took it upon himself to loudly declare his support for Benny Dunne in the dressing-room immediately after the Toomevara man's sending-off for an intemperate pull on Tommy Walsh.

Brian Cody had just departed, having offered words of commiseration, when Fanning got to his feet. "I just remember looking at Benny and he had a different look to him than anyone else in the room -- a look of real hurt.

"I really felt for him because I remembered getting sent off with the club seniors when I was an U-21. They got to their first county final the same year. I was the captain and I missed it all over the sending-off.

"So something just clicked in me. Something just said to me, 'We need to row in behind Benny straight away!' I mean we'd talked all year about being a team. And here was one of my friends across the dressing-room who needed support. And, to be fair, everyone rowed in behind Benny immediately."

The gesture found perfect closure when Sheedy put the so-called enfant terrible on towards the end of this year's final and Benny air-mailed a glorious point. By then, all the old worries were evaporating. Fanning himself had been hauled ashore after going over on an ankle and, as he sat with the substitutes, each beat of the clock felt tortuous until Larry Corbett's third goal drew a lyric line under business.

Then and only then did the weight come off their chests.

He didn't anticipate a change of management. If there were worries about O'Shea and Ryan being in a position to continue, Fanning saw nothing to signpost Sheedy's departure. Yet, when he heard the news, it brought a sense of personal clarity.

Lucy is due with their second child next Friday and, if there was the tiniest seed of doubt in his mind about leaving a team at the summit of hurling, Liam's decision has now killed it.

"I had a great relationship built up with the three lads," he says now.

"They knew my form. If I needed a rest or time off, it was never a problem. But a new manager coming in, you're kind of starting from scratch again. Thirty lads, it's dog eat dog again. And who am I to be going in looking for time off?

"So I wanted to make the announcement before any appointment was made. I thought Liam would stay, I really did. That said, the future is bright for Tipp now. People worry about the young fellas winning so much so soon, but I can't see them getting too carried away. They're very level-headed and a very hungry bunch.

"They carry themselves very well off the field. Look, there's no God-given guarantee that Tipp will win another All-Ireland. But I think all the boys understand that. They all know it comes down to hard work."

And if the new man happens to put a call through to Killenaule? "I won't answer the phone," Fanning says with a hoot of laughter. "Nah, I think the future is bright without me. It's not something I'd go back on."

Irish Independent

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