Monday 18 December 2017

Driven man JJ Delaney ready and eager for more glory

JJ Delaney not resting on laurels as Cats seek to banish pain of 2013

29 July 2012; JJ Delaney, Kilkenny. GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final, Kilkenny v Limerick, Semple Stadium, Thurles, Co. Tipperary. Picture credit: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE
29 July 2012; JJ Delaney, Kilkenny. GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final, Kilkenny v Limerick, Semple Stadium, Thurles, Co. Tipperary. Picture credit: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE

Damian Lawlor

Last winter, as the embers of another season smouldered away, JJ Delaney looked into the mirror and told himself a few home truths. He won't say what they were, but for a man with eight All-Ireland medals to be telling himself home truths is striking in any case.

Delaney kicks to touch when asked to expand on the self-assessment of the closed season. He merely mumbles that a few areas of his game needed attention.

The probing starts again. In the air he is next to unbeatable. He rarely loses sprints to possession and is so tight a marker that he would mind mice at a crossroads, so it could be none of those elements.

Maybe it was more that the team's performance levels slipped last year and Delaney felt that his own form slipped in tandem.

"Well, firstly you've no God-given right to win anything," he says of a barren 2013. "That's simple enough. But I think last year made people look at themselves more than anything. Lads were back training a bit earlier than usual, you know fairly quickly when you go off on a break (that you have to make sacrifices), if you want to come back again. If what happened last year doesn't hurt, don't come back. If it does, come back and do something about it." He came back.

JJ Delaney's laid-back, humble demeanour makes him one of the most unassuming sports stars around, and though he's 13 years at the top it doesn't seem that long since he was drafted into Brian Cody's set-up - one of only two minors to ever get an immediate promotion from the boss man, 'Cha' Fitzpatrick being the other.

The underage teams he starred on never set the world alight, but Delaney still got the call from Cody in 2001 and since then success has flowed on tap, with his eight All-Ireland medals kept company by another eight League and 10 Leinster Championship medals. Physically, the attrition of those victories hasn't taken much out of him; so, it doesn't seem quite right that he's answering questions about the sun beginning to set on his career. He's still only 32, after all. "That's the way it is these days," he nods, smiling.

He's right too. If you take Delaney - and one or two others - out of the Kilkenny panel, the average age of the squad falls to 28. But that's still about six years older than the Clare and Limerick set-ups. Delaney knows he mightn't get too many more years at this level but while the flame is burning he'll be there.

"When you are younger you just hurl away, playing from game to game. When is the next match, is all you ever ask," he laughs. "It has since moved on a full circle from when I was 20 or 21; there's diet, gym work. You might get away with cutting corners when you are younger, but not now.

"Personally, I just can't stop training. Don't get me wrong, I'm not doing mad training all winter, I wouldn't be killing myself, but I'd go for a run, do a bit in the gym, puck a ball around, whatever it is, just to tip along. Then at least when you come back to training, you are where the younger lads are. It's what we have to do.

"I've got into such a routine over the last five or six years, that it is easy enough to stick with it, even when you are not in county training. You'd have your porridge in the morning and salmon and potatoes in the evening and pasta and chicken too, you kind of train yourself into thinking 'mmm . . . these foods are nice'. Then you'd see a lad eating a bar of chocolate and fancy it, but it's a no-go."

At this stage, he doesn't need direction from too many to keep him on track.

"Ah, it comes from yourself," he says when asked about the sacrifices. "I told myself a few home truths last winter and said I'd do a bit more this year, then see where it goes. It is year-to-year for me from now on. But it would have been very hard to leave it last August (after the defeats to Dublin and Cork), I don't think it ever crossed my mind. About two weeks on, I was determined to come back and compete for my place and take it from there.

"It's the same every winter, you have to decide are you going to go back and if you do go back you have to do it 100 per cent, anything less and you are only wasting your own time, your team-mates', and Brian's time too. You're taking a place on the panel from some other lad who could be there. You have to get your head straight there. Facing into training in January and February there is not easy, then the league starts and once the clock goes forward you are into training again. And soon enough it is this time of the year again and you are facing into an All-Ireland semi-final and it is great to be back there."

Together with his girlfriend, he took off last winter, spent his first Christmas outside of the country, instead celebrating the festivities with a group of Irish in Melbourne.

"I cleared it with Brian, but even over there you'd be trying to keep yourself half-right," he laughs. "We went to Melbourne, where my girlfriend's sister lives, stayed there for a week and then headed off to the Gold Coast and Fraser Island, and finished off in Sydney, where we met Michael Fennelly, who was with the Sydney Swans at the time. He was there working, but Mick was able to show us where to go. It was just something we decided to do, we left Ireland on December 23 , so we were in Australia for Christmas Day and we had a barbecue on the beach. I'll still remember that Christmas Day in 30 years' time."

Delaney liked the way of life but he couldn't switch off fully. Even when he took the odd snooze on a sandy beach or sat down for a coffee, he could still see dropping ball raining in on top of him. You could see him almost putting a hand up to fetch them. Reflex action.

"Over there, you were still thinking about hurling, about laying down a marker at the first night back at training, about having a big summer with Kilkenny," he says, laughing at the madness of it all. "There is no doubt about that - I wanted to be right up there when I came back. I had heard a few horror stories about what training was going on while I was away, so I knew what I was coming back to, that's why I did a bit of training over there on my own. Mind you, it was easy enough to do with the lovely weather, no wind and rain in your face."

He found parks and beaches; imagined he was running shuttles from 21 to 21 and did enough to come home in good fettle. Both Fennelly and himself, however, put talk of hurling on the long finger. Not once over a beer or a chat did they take to analysing why they ran out of gas, or why their hurling dipped last year. "Nah, we didn't to be honest, it was a case of 'leave well enough alone."

He says if he wasn't on the Kilkenny panel he might well have given further thought to moving Down Under for a spell. It must have been especially tempting in 2011 when he found himself looking for work for a few months with half of the country's youth taking to airports to get away from the recession. Instead, though, he chose to commit himself to Kilkenny hurling, reminding himself of what had been won over the years and the perks that came with those successes.

"Look, when I came on the Kilkenny panel it was about trying to do your best and get a game and do the best you can. But over the years we were so lucky. Team holidays, All Star trips and whatever, having great holidays without ever having to put your hand in your pocket. I only realised it when I had to fork out for this holiday in Australia," he laughs.

Today, he'll go toe to toe with Shane Dowling in a gladiatorial tussle that could ultimately decide the outcome of the game. Dowling is a clever player, a game-breaker who scored 2-4 from play against Wexford and is normally ultra-reliable on frees.

But he's only as good as the ball coming into him and in that regard Kilkenny have some worries as Limerick won 20 of their own puck-outs against Wexford last day out but also stole 21 of their opponents'. They enjoyed an 81 per cent passing completion rate and showed their relentless hunger on an easy day by making 31 tackles.

Even against Tipperary at the start of the championship, none of the Limerick forwards hit the levels they are capable of and yet they still scored 2-18. They may have been blown off course in the Munster final but they bounced back well and unlike last year it doesn't look like they will freeze on All-Ireland semi-final day. The Limerick public, too, look to have taken a back seat this time, refusing to indulge in another circus without their side having even reached a final.

But Delaney has seen it all before, against all counties, in his time at the top. Contenders have come and gone and while Limerick weren't on their radar for much of the last 15 years, the Johnstown man points out that there was a decent rivalry between the counties in the 1970s.

"Not a lot since, I suppose. Just that one final (in 2007) and the quarter-final a couple of years ago. But looking at Limerick playing against Wexford, they are a serious team, they did a professional job on Wexford, that's the word I'd use for it - professional. For the first 10 minutes they went after them and got on top and then they went for goals and more goals. They are back in the semi-final now and they said they didn't do themselves justice last year, so they won't be wanting to do the same again. They made an issue of wanting to get back to Croke Park and doing what they can do. I met a few of the Limerick lads on some of the trips and they're grand fellas, bang on, but there will be no quarter asked or given today.

"Everyone knows the situation this year, that it's a clean slate. You had lads playing well in a match that we'd win and yet they wouldn't start the next day. If you are on the team you are trying to stay on it. If you are not, you are doing your best to get on it, everyone is driving each other on. Take Tommy Walsh, he's just itching to get a chance, he's been driving it on in training, shooting the lights out sometimes in the forwards. He hasn't changed his style, if you are in the way, you are in the way and that's it with Tommy, doesn't matter who you are."

When someone like Walsh, who has won All Stars in four lines of the field, is battling to get game time, the others raise their game without even knowing it.

"I can't fathom it to be honest with you," Delaney says when asked to rate Walsh's feat in winning those awards in defence, midfield and attack. "I can't see anyone ever doing that again. He's just a special talent and a natural hurler who wants to get the ball wherever he goes.

"Now we've seen the likes of Pádraig (Walsh) and Brian Kennedy coming through and they've changed the dynamic of the group, it brings a freshness to the place which is good. All they want to do is win something with Kilkenny and a lot of people forget that at the start of 2014, these guys haven't won anything with Kilkenny, so it is driving them on."

Driving them on.

Those few words must have been mentioned seven times during the interview. Even when Delaney was abroad, winding down for a few months, it was all he could think of.

Not dwelling on the past but driving on. He's made a career of it.

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