'All you can do is go out and give it everything' - Daniel Kearney has fought to nail down a starting role for Cork
When Carbery, the renowned Gaelic games columnist, expressed concern about the diminishing size of the average hurler back in the 1940s, his version of Utopia didn't seem to include players like Daniel Kearney. It was a view of its time but even now, with the current All-Ireland champions characterised by towering figures, a player like Kearney can still be one of the stars of the championship.
His game is a mirror image of Cork's nimble play and fleet-of-foot accelerations through the gaps. He owes much of the confidence placed in him during his formative years as a senior hurler to the legendary Jimmy Barry-Murphy, who used him as a midfielder when Cork reached the All-Ireland final five years ago. He never made the Cork minors, enjoyed just one year at under-21, and in recent years has struggled to find a consistent place on the senior team.
Smaller players are required to adapt and improvise, heavily dependent on wit and technique, but size was never an impediment in Kearney's mind. Match programmes list him at 5' 9". If not exceedingly diminutive it still makes him the shortest player on the Cork team. At 28, in his eighth season, he has nailed a steady position at wing-forward and become a hugely influential player.
"I think in 2013 everybody had said the game had shifted from the Kilkennys and a big physical team to this new running, fast game but now that Kilkenny and Galway won again the game has shifted again," he says. "I don't think there is any pattern or real shifts. It is just about good teams with a mixture of different types of players.
"I know that aerially I am not going to be the best. What I do is stay out of the aerial battles and focus on breaks. It doesn't cost me any confidence. While I'm not able to compete aerially, physically I know I can go and compete because I have years and years of physical training put in."
Reactions in hurling are crucial, which is where players like Kearney come into their own. "If somebody is 6' 6" or 6' 4" they may not be able to turn as quick as I can," as he puts it. "There are benefits and costs of all sorts, sizes and shapes. Where somebody has a strength I could see that as a weakness as well and that's the way I look at it."
Glanmire, just outside Cork city, is home, and the local club Sarsfields provided the platform which helped earn him wider notice. In 2008, when he was just after breaking into the senior team, they won their first county senior hurling title in 51 years.
It led to something of a deluge, with further wins in 2010, '12 and '14. Kearney and his identical twin brother William were part of those expeditions.
"William is a corner-back but sometimes he's seen as a utility player in the club. I suppose it's different to me. I can drop into any position. I started as a half-back with my club. I can play corner-back, corner-forward . . . Just happy to get out on the field and be competitive."
Pat Ryan and Kieran 'Fraggy' Murphy were Sarsfields county players as he grew up and, respectively, Cork's most recent and current hurling coaches. "Those guys have been huge influences on my career," Kearney admits. "With Pat, he was involved with Sars for three or four years as well and came to Cork for two years. Then Kieran came in so there's been a big Sars pattern on the Cork style recently. Very proud to have Sars lads involved."
Last year Kearney didn't start any of their championship matches and played no part in the opening win over Tipperary. In the final match against Waterford in the All-Ireland semi-final, when Cork's season ended, he was brought on with only five minutes left.
"It was very competitive last year. Darragh Fitzgibbon came instead of me and what a player he is. I got unlucky with injuries. In the league I got a hand injury against Kilkenny and that put me out for a month. And just before the championship game I got an ankle injury against Limerick. But, look, injuries are part of sport and Darragh got his opportunity off the back of me being out against Tipperary and rightfully deserved. And he's been a great player for us today. I would feel my form is no different (this year) but it's just getting those opportunities and staying injury-free."
Two years ago he felt obliged to go on Twitter to deny rumours that he had left the panel after being substituted after just 32 minutes against Tipperary in a nine-point defeat at Thurles. He came on as a sub in the qualifier win over Dublin, and they were eliminated by Wexford in the next round.
In 2015, he was taken off in the Munster Championship defeat by Waterford and in the last ten minutes against Wexford in the qualifiers. He was the first off in the next round win over Clare, and hurled the full game in the heavy loss to Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-finals. From being a regular starter in 2013 and '14, those later seasons tested his resolve.
"It was very frustrating but I suppose you learn to be professional as well. If anything, you bring more of an edge to training and you bring that bit of frustration and edge out in your performance and you try to get more out of the lads on the 'A' team. Where some fellas might drop the head and get annoyed it only drove me on to try harder to get back there."
In that period spent on the periphery he never felt that he didn't know where he stood. "A manager will always let you know where you lie. How far you're away. I got that communication last year. To be honest, coming on for ten minutes was as good as starting - just getting on to the field and getting involved."
He says that players now have to think for themselves and adapt to altering patterns on the field, to think on their feet rather than relying on instructions from management on the sideline.
"I think hurling is probably the game of instinct and the more you over-think you are going to wake up in a mess, so they do give us the freedom to make calls, just in terms of positioning and stuff and playing it as we see it. As I said, you don't have time to make these conversations during a game. During the heat of the battle it's a lot of just restructuring and communicating with the midfielders and backs."
Having retained their Munster title, Cork are enjoying a level of consistency which has been beyond them for much of Kearney's career. But they have found it difficult to bridge the gap from the province to an All-Ireland semi-final, losing last year and in 2014 when they came with high expectations. Even this year Cork have tended to play in sweeps, encountering valley periods. In the Munster final they trailed by eight points playing with the breeze.
"What we've realised as well is that it was no different to the Limerick game and no different to the Tipperary game - teams got a run on us," says Kearney. "If you look back to the Tipp game they got a run on us where they probably clocked eight, nine, ten, 11 points and it was just about using those reference points and saying, 'We've come out of this before.'
"I think we also realised, you're never going to go out and have a 70-minute performance where you're going to beat a team by 30 points. It's just too competitive for that to happen. So there are going to be periods in the game where teams get a run on you and you're going to be under pressure, but it's about using your experience and that mental calmness to just manage it back to that steady state, kill their purple patch and start rebuilding again. The more times we're in those types of environments we've learned from that.
"I suppose it's frustrating that we haven't done it for 70 minutes but it's not surprising either given the level of competitiveness. A lot of people are asking the question, 'Why can't you play for 70 minutes? But we know that there are other teams out there who are throwing everything at us and it's impossible to give that 70-minute performance. So it's about managing the purple patches and I think we have been quite good at that and we are going into Sunday with a lot of confidence."
From the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final loss to Tipperary, ten of the Cork team that played that day have gone. Kearney was the last sub introduced when they lost the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final to Galway, and in his time they have lost three of the four semi-finals contested. Thurles is, he admits, "a second home ground" to Cork so today is a little different.
"With Croke Park we are going up to Dublin. It is a bigger stadium, it is a bigger occasion. As a young fella there is a slight bit of playing the occasion rather than the game and there is no denying that, and I suppose definitely with the experience I have now learned to control that, and it's just another 70-minute game; as cold as it may sound that is a fact.
"Hopefully the experience of last year will pay dividends with all the younger guys that you know that big occasion of playing in Croke Park we can manage that a bit better.
"We've had two good Munster Championship campaigns now but it's important that we put an All-Ireland series campaign together now. We were caught in 2014, a bit stale coming off the Munster final win. It was a long delay. They were up for that game and they really put us to the sword.
"I think last year we were very well prepared, very confident going into that game and I think everything was going to plan. There were just two, big, key moments - the sending-off and the goal that changed that game. We were coming into good form at the right time in that game - we could have won that game very easily.
"As a player, I'd be more looking at how we performed rather than the results and what happened. Last year, we went up, we did a good job, it was just some key moments went against us. So, without over-thinking the All-Ireland campaign, I think it's not as bad as the stats may read."
Cork's draw with Limerick in the Munster round-robin provided one of the most entertaining matches this year. It has raised expectations of another thriller this afternoon between two of the most exciting teams on the circuit.
"It was a funny game," says Kearney. "It's a hard one to say it was this type of game or that type of game. I do think we are two very similar types of teams. There's a bit of shadow-boxing in there and that's the way it looked like in the first half. Then the sending-off obviously changed things on the head, it really kicked them on and we didn't react well to that.
"We fought back in and we were proud to come out of that with a draw. We knew that there was a good chance we'd probably see each other at some stage. I think both teams will be very confident. Limerick will be no different to ourselves.
"With the sending-off I suppose the dynamic of the game changes. Rather than the teams pitting their two systems against each other, you now had a different dynamic. We didn't play them in the league so in a sense we don't know them too well compared to a Clare or a Tipperary where we face each other a lot.
"We've a huge amount of respect for them. They obviously had a great win against Kilkenny. Showed great character after Richie's goal late on. We'll be up against it and we'll have to play to our best."
He favours a 32-inch hurley. "I try to play as quick as I can so I use one hand on the hurley. I don't need a big hurley. I don't pull on the ground."
He is picky on weight. "I'd be very specific. Obviously the way the game has gone with stick passing - the 30- or 40-yard passes. You need to be very clinical in shooting, you need to be very efficient. Having the right hurley and the right weight is very important.
"I used a lighter hurley before and my shooting wasn't good enough. To be honest, when I moved up to the forwards I realised that when I got an opportunity I had to be able to stick it. So I had to get a slightly heavier hurley, or one that was a bit more reliable, so I changed hurleys at the start of this year."
Mention of Patrick Horgan's preference for a heavier weapon brings an admission that they wouldn't work for him. "I wouldn't be able to use his hurleys. You'd need to have a level of strength in your wrists to use that."
The new hurley involved represents a ("two or three") ounce increase. "When I hit the ball it's a truer shot and there's less chance of mis-hitting it. Because I like to play quick I don't like to use a heavier hurley. It's the balance between a light and heavy one that's important for me."
You notice the difference? "Oh yeah. I need to be faster in rucks, getting balls out. So if I use a hurley that's too heavy I'm going to be slower getting a ball out. But then if it's too light I'm not going to be able to hit it over [the bar] so it's a question of getting that balance. It's a funny one."
Having watched from outside the white lines more often than not for three seasons, Kearney values his current consistent run of appearances. Being a sub became part of his hurling education, teaching him how to cope, and how to remain optimistic and not give in. How he has dealt with that episode tells us something about the kind of character he is.
"You're coming from a different mental place. You've more time to think about it. You're looking at the game. You're probably over-thinking it because you have so much time on the bench but I suppose as a player all you can do is go out and give it everything ultimately and come off and go, 'I couldn't have done any more.'
"That's the same in training, the same in life - you just don't have any regrets, that you don't have to look back and say, 'If only.' I suppose as a player that's ultimately what you're trying to do. You're trying to train as hard as you can to give yourself every opportunity."
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