Friday 20 April 2018

'Heartbreaking' pain of defeat drives Tyrrell in quest to reclaim his Kilkenny jersey

Never before as a league campaign meant so much to Jackie Tyrrell Photo: Sportsfile
Never before as a league campaign meant so much to Jackie Tyrrell Photo: Sportsfile

Michael Verney

With a collection of medals that would make even the most successful blush, it's hard to fathom that the hurt of defeat is what still drives Jackie Tyrrell on. But he's refreshingly honest about it, losing pierces his soul.

Sandwiched in the middle of his haul of nine All-Ireland medals with Kilkenny is the final loss to Tipp six years ago, when chasing the five-in-a-row. The aftermath was a make-or-break season for the Cats as the Premier's young guns threatened to end their stranglehold on the game.

Normality has been restored in the last five years, however, with a quartet of Liam MacCarthy triumphs marking them out as one of the greatest teams of all time. But the pain of losing will never be forgotten and it keeps Tyrrell on his toes.

The four-time All Star was absent for last year's triumph against Galway, a stress fracture of the foot restricting him to the sidelines, but not curbing his influence or enthusiasm. At half-time he was quick to remind his team-mates that no one else was going to collect their trophy.

Tyrrell maintains watching the opposition walking up the steps of the Hogan Stand is the most harrowing experience of a Kilkenny hurler's career. No matter what you've won, that's something which will never be forgotten.

"It's horrific, it really is. It's terrible. It's just a bad, bad place to be," he says.

"You just want to get out of there as soon as possible and I'll remember that better than any of the ones I've won which is terrible. It's terrible to think that but I do. I still remember 2010 and ones we lost, it's heartbreaking."

Standing beaten on Croke Park's hallowed turf is one thing though, at least you're surrounded by fellow sufferers, but the solitude of your own company is an entirely different prospect. That's when it really hits you.

"The worst part of 2010 was, there was so many days in September and October when I'd be driving along in the car maybe of an aul Wednesday or that. You'd be going down the motorway and you feel like pulling in and crying for half an hour," Tyrrell says openly.

"I remember talking to Tommy (Walsh) about it and he said he used to be like that and it's gone. You just want to play it again and it's gone, you just can't wait for the year to start again. I never actually did pull in but you would have that feeling deep down.

"I'd say if I did actually pull in, you probably wouldn't cry, you'd just go 'What the f*** are ya at like?' But you just have that emptiness inside you that's burning a hole in your soul, you realise that actually happened, it wasn't a bad dream."

Knowing how the scars of defeat can drive a man close to insanity helped him articulate just what the next 35 minutes meant for Kilkenny. Their most prized possession simply has to be kept within their grasp for another 12 months at least.

"When you're champions it's yours (Liam MacCarthy), you obviously grow an affiliation for it and think 'God we won that last year, that's ours'. We would regard that currently as ours and we're not giving it away," the James Stephens defender notes.

"If we do, someone else will be coming up and taking it off on the bus that evening. It's mental imagery and I think I told the lads to spend five seconds thinking of the Galway boys going up and jumping up and down and celebrating after. And I think that stuck with them."

After the euphoria of another Celtic cross, off-season was an unusual experience for Tyrrell. With no further surgery required, and the screw remaining in his foot for good, the 33-year-old nursed the injury for three months and despite rumours of retirement, he committed to the Cats for another season, his 14th.

It's an unusual position for him to be in. Having been a regular starter since captaining Kilkenny to All-Ireland glory in 2006, he will be fighting tooth and nail to get his coveted No 4 jersey back, and it's a battle he is embracing.

"I'm definitely relishing the challenge. It's a place I've never found myself in before but I made up my mind that in 2016 I'm really going to enjoy it whatever way it comes. That's the way I'm looking at it," Tyrrell says.

"I didn't come back for a 10th All-Ireland medal. I came back because I think I have something to offer and I don't want to be sitting at home scratching myself! It's a different challenge really; it's really getting back to basics and getting back there.

"I know I have an awful lot of work to do. I had a very inactive off-season last year so my fitness levels probably aren't where they normally would be. But I've been working extremely hard the last while and I think that they'll come back pretty quickly."

Conversations with manager Brian Cody about delaying a comeback never transpired, and he wouldn't have it any other way, as he hopes to play every game possible with Kilkenny this year. Seeing how the careers of greats like Henry Shefflin and Tommy Walsh concluded with bit-part roles also stirs no fear.

Never before has a League campaign meant so much to him. It offers a chance to put himself in the shop window again, an opportunity to prove himself as he has done so often in the past. Usually he is building up steam with Championship in mind, now he admits it's day by day.

"I suppose any opportunity I get I've got to take it with both hands. But also any kind of time you are on a training field and that, you've got to show and display to the boys that this guy is well able to give them the confidence that he's able to do a job for them," he says.

"Show that I'm able to contribute to the team whether it's a league game, a challenge match, training or a gym session ... whatever. You have just got to show the lads that."

With the trip to League champions Waterford tomorrow comes a certain level of nostalgia for Tyrrell. For it was against the Deise, in the opening round of the 2004 campaign, that he made his competitive debut as a raw 22-year-old.

Laying down a marker has never been an issue for him, as Seamus Callanan will atest to in the opening minutes of the 2009 decider, and there's no doubt he has the hunger and drive to reclaim his place.

Corner-forwards beware.

Irish Independent

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