Thursday 22 August 2019

Few fans have heard him speak and interviews are out of the question for mystery man who anchors Galway's defence

Dáithí Burke will play a crucial role in Galway’s hopes of retaining their All-Ireland title. Photo: Sportsfile
Dáithí Burke will play a crucial role in Galway’s hopes of retaining their All-Ireland title. Photo: Sportsfile
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

One Galway supporter perfectly summed up Dáithí Burke's hero status within the county when he told RTÉ that the teak-tough full-back had prepared for their 2016 All-Ireland SHC semi-final loss to Tipperary by "throwing heifers over gates".

Winner of three All-Stars in defence - at wing-back, corner-back and No 3 - in his five seasons so far with the Tribesmen and a shoo-in for a fourth later this year, Burke is one of the game's most iconic figures despite shunning the spotlight.

Rarely has there been a bigger GAA star that the public knows so little about, and he wouldn't have it any other way.

Despite his extraordinary list of club and inter-county achievements, few have ever heard him speak and interviews are out of the question.

All eyes will turn to Croke Park on Sunday as hurling's showpiece pits Galway against Limerick where Burke will no doubt shine bright again, but who is the man behind the old-style white Jofa helmet?

"He'd have some friends that wouldn't even know the match is on," three-time All-Ireland-winning Galway manager Cyril Farrell says. "He's a free spirit. He floats in and floats out, he's a great lad but he's different.

"He's a very intelligent fella. He did a bit of hurling with NUI Galway when he was in college there, but not as much as he should have. He doesn't say too much, he tends to disappear into the crowd and that's the way he wants it."

Colossal on the pitch and quiet off it is how Turloughmore clubmate Fergal Moore would best describe the AIB bank official.

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"He'd be pretty shy and unassuming off the field, a very level-headed fella who loves the craic.

"But when he's out there, he's a totally different animal altogether. He's very competitive and has a huge will to win. He'd be more laid-back off the pitch, totally opposite to when he's playing."

The 25-year-old powerhouse is a bit of a mystery, but there's nothing puzzling about his performances in the maroon and white and since Mícheál Donoghue took charge in 2016, he has been the rock which his defence is built around.

Having managed him at club level, Donoghue knew what he was capable of while selector/coach Franny Forde played alongside him with Turloughmore and was well aware of his pedigree. When problems persisted with the No 3 shirt, Burke was the obvious solution.

Tipperary sharpshooter Seamus Callanan ran riot, firing 3-9 against Anthony Cunningham's Tribesmen in their 2015 All-Ireland semi-final clash, so ensuring solidity at the edge of the square was paramount under the new regime.

Galway might not have prevailed, but Burke had Callanan's number 12 months later, holding him scoreless from play before again keeping him similarly subdued in last year's last-four clash as they moved one step closer to lifting the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

When you look at the troubles which many of hurling's other aristocrats have in the position - Kilkenny's Pádraig Walsh is a natural half-back, Tipperary played hopscotch at No 3 all season, while Cork's Damien Cahalane has had his woes - Burke makes a demanding role look easy.

Former Galway team-mate Cyril Donnellan, who regularly marked Burke in training and knows his ability first-hand, believes he has the perfect mix to excel in that area and feels they are blessed to have him among their ranks.

"Full-back is a very hard position to fill nowadays, you have to be mobile, strong and athletic and a lot of counties are struggling in that position. We're just very fortunate to have him," Donnellan says.

Farrell feels his football pedigree helps to set him apart: "He's capable of playing full-back without a hurl, he has the football tackle and knows when to have his hand in and when not to, he reads the play expertly. He's just a natural."

When Galway's hurlers exited the All-Ireland race in the 2014 qualifiers, Burke appeared as a substitute for the footballers against both Mayo and Tipperary later that summer and has represented Galway at every grade in both codes.

In 2009, he claimed All-Ireland minor hurling honours at full-back; four years later he was an integral part at centre-back as the All-Ireland U-21 football title was secured, while he has twice tasted All-Ireland club SFC success with Corofin - Turloughmore have no football side.


Emulating his father Gerry, who claimed club honours with Corofin at midfield aged 39 in 1998, Burke completed the inter-county set of medals with All-Ireland SHC glory last September while his older brother Ronan, 27, was an unused substitute that day and is still part of the Galway squad.

Were he part of a less-demanding era, Burke (a cousin of Tribe football attacker Ian Burke) could have been preparing to face the Dubs last weekend and Corofin team-mate Gary Sice has made no bones about saying that Kevin Walsh would love to have him.

"Every team in the country could do with a Dáithí Burke. There's no doubt about that," Sice said at the end of 2016. "I'd say Mícheál Donoghue would cut the hand and head off anyone that came looking for him. I'd do the same.

"Dáithí came at five years of age and has played with us since. He has an All-Ireland Féile title (won aged 11), and I think his team went unbeaten at underage all the way through. He's a great bit of stuff."

Moore actually views Burke as a better centre-back - but acknowledges his morale-lifting displays at full-back - and describes him as a bit of a physical freak to be able to do what he has done in both codes in recent years.

"He's a rare kind of an athlete in that he has the endurance to play midfield in football and the speed and explosiveness to play full-back in hurling.

"That's a rare blend of speed and stamina that not too many athletes have," the former Galway captain says.

"Being full-back, you're probably going to be marking one of the marquee players on the opposition team as he has been all year. What gives the crowd such a lift is that there's danger every time the ball goes in and yet he comes out with the ball time after time. The goal is safe and there's a safe pair of hands when Dáithí is manning the square."

Not since the days of Clare's Brian Lohan or Cork's Diarmuid O'Sullivan has a full-back gone about their business in such a commanding manner. They both exhibited a 'thou shalt not pass' mantra and Burke has that same ruthlessness. The scary thing is, the best may be yet to come.

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