Monday 19 August 2019

Persistence has always been key for Deegan

"Paddy is a player who wouldn't come off unless he couldn't walk. His heart is huge and his bravery is everything." - Brian Cody

Paddy Deegan in action for Kilkenny in the Allianz League earlier this year. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Paddy Deegan in action for Kilkenny in the Allianz League earlier this year. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

There is a story told of Paddy Deegan's father Eugene, a former Kilkenny minor who hurled with O'Loughlin Gaels in leaner times. Kilkenny were low on numbers for an away match in the National League one Sunday when the long-time secretary Paddy Grace turned up at Deegan's door to see if he might answer the emergency call. But Deegan was at Mass and the opportunity passed.

Almost 40 years later, his son made his first senior appearance in a Walsh Cup semi-final against Wexford. No fireworks or anything fancy, mind. "Was it down in New Ross? I am not sure where it was," says Paddy Deegan, "but it was a tough day, lashing rain, the pitch was kind of boggy. A massive honour."

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Paddy Deegan lining out with Kilkenny CBS against St Kieran’s in 2013. Photo: Sportsfile
Paddy Deegan lining out with Kilkenny CBS against St Kieran’s in 2013. Photo: Sportsfile

New Ross it was, where, on January 29, 2017, Kilkenny recorded a one-point win. The previous year Deegan had been on the O'Loughlin Gaels team that won the senior championship and reached a Leinster final where they lost to Cuala. The same year Kilkenny had been comprehensively beaten in the All-Ireland final and a team restructure was imminent. Deegan became part of that new design.

He has been part of the wider county senior training panel since 2015, brought in at 19. For two years he absorbed the culture before he managed to graduate onto the team. "I suppose it was a bit daunting coming in at the start," he says. "You didn't know what to expect. But the team and the manager and selectors were extremely welcoming. Obviously it was a big learning curve the first two years I was in here, different level of hurling I suppose to club hurling, that's with no disrespect to hurling at club level. But I suppose the standard and the speed of it is totally different. So it took a bit of getting used to."

Deegan isn't a flamboyant hurler, nor a flamboyant personality. In that respect he is an ideal Cody candidate, more Germanic than French: hard-working and low-key. Asked how he would describe the feeling of making the Kilkenny squad, he gives the following response: "I suppose excitement is probably the first thing. I always say I like playing hurling, whether that's with Kilkenny or O'Loughlins; it's the same, the same attitude."

In 2017 he took the chance when it fell his way and managed to nail down a place, even if the job description tended to be fluid. He came on at midfield after 51 minutes in the opening league match against Waterford in February and after Kilkenny lost by 13 points to Clare in the next match, Deegan started the third round tie at home to Cork which they won, playing midfield alongside Cillian Buckley. In a team frequently changing, in a period of trial and error, he started all the remaining matches against Tipperary, Dublin and the quarter-final loss to Wexford.

His championship debut came in the Leinster semi-final, the county's first summer loss to Wexford since 2004. In the qualifiers he scored three points, playing beside Michael Fennelly, when they overcame Limerick at Nowlan Park. Their journey ended after extra-time against Waterford in Thurles in the final qualifier round, Kilkenny's first loss to Waterford in the championship since 1959.

Deegan, 24 in September, has not arrived on the team at a time of plenty but is no stranger to disappointment. In 2013, restricted in the early season by injury, he failed to make the match day panel as a county minor for the Leinster final, or when they lost in the All-Ireland semi-final to Waterford. As captain of the county under 21s he lost a Leinster quarter-final to Westmeath in 2016.

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Last year brought a league title, Deegan by now occupying a corner back position, but defeat followed in the Leinster final, to Galway after a replay, and the team exited the championship to Limerick. Kilkenny produced a late rally that almost won the quarter-final but they relied on Eoin Murphy to make a number of outstanding saves to keep them in contention. At times the full-back line was under enormous pressure.

When Kilkenny face Limerick next Saturday in the All-Ireland semi-final, it will be the third year in a row that Deegan has played against the county in the championship. He also hurled against Limerick in the league earlier in the year when the All-Ireland champions won by nine points in Nowlan Park.

Deegan is the last in a family of six and the only boy. His father, who was nicknamed Twinkle, played in two All-Ireland finals as a Kilkenny minor, coming on as a sub in the '76 defeat by Tipperary before winning the following year against Cork. In the drawn final in '77 he scored 1-1 and is described in newspaper reports as hard-working, a trait which has been passed on to his son. In the replay he scored two points in Thurles as Kilkenny beat Cork narrowly, 1-8 to 0-9. A year later with the Kilkenny under 21s he was on a team beaten by Laois.

Eugene Deegan hurled when O'Loughlin Gaels was not the successful club it is now. In '78 he won a county intermediate championship which was rewarded with a place in senior hurling for the first time in the club's history. They remained there for only four years and at the tail end of Deegan's career he won a county junior title against Piltown in 1994, helping the club return to the intermediate grade.

The year after he won the junior title, Paddy, was born. His son is asked about his father's influence, if he was obsessive. "No, he's not fanatical. He loves hurling but he wouldn't have pushed it on to me or pushed me towards it. No, he loves the hurling and is very much into it."

His mother Mary comes from Clara. Being the only boy in a family of six, and the youngest, must have been unusual? "Yeah I think they were happy when I came along," he says. His oldest sister is 13 years his senior, and the youngest is just three years older.

He went to school in St John's senior school in Ballybough Street and then moved on to Kilkenny CBS. At Kilkenny CBS he hurled in a historic first All-Ireland colleges final against St Kieran's in 2014 which they lost. Earlier they had beaten St Kieran's in the Leinster final. With his club he also had to be patient, they were not blessed with huge success at underage level until winning an Under 21 championship in 2015.

Not making the county minor panel might have spurred him on to make the most of what opportunities followed. But the impetus came more from within than without. "It was disappointing because I wanted to be playing and having a positive impact on the team," he says. "Look it was unfortunate but these things happen. (You) try and make yourself better.

"I got injured at the start of the year and missed a couple of games and found it hard it get back into the team at that stage then. I came back (from injury) around the Leinster final stage. But I couldn't make it into the match day squad."

Did it motivate him when it came to the county Under 21s? "It didn't play much of a role. I consider myself to be a motivated person and I used my own personal motivation to make the club team first and improve with them and then make the county team."

He is currently hoping to find a permanent primary teaching post, having spent three years studying in Maynooth and then two years doing a masters with Hibernia College which he has just completed.

"I always had an interest in it - I was torn between secondary and primary but I did primary in the end. I got a bit of experience in primary school observing and I liked the atmosphere and everything about primary school so I decided to do primary teaching."

What appealed to him about it? "When I was in Maynooth I went back and observed to get a sense of whether I wanted to be one or not. I suppose the atmosphere in a primary school is excellent. From my teaching practice with Hibernia over the last two years it is a very rewarding job."

In Kilkenny CBS he was mature beyond his years according to Ger Morrissey, who looked after the team along with Matthew Ruth and Niall Tyrrell. "I don't know whether you would have made him out as being a certain inter-county player when very young," says Morrissey, "but it does not surprise me at all given his own dedication to his hurling. He just loves it.

"I know looking at lads in the school that there are lads born with absolute natural talent and a great touch but don't have that work ethic. It's the same cliched stuff but you need the ability to work hard and he is living and eating hurling basically. And he is getting his reward for it.

"He is solid. He has a lot of skill but he is a worker, a battler, he absolutely stays going and going and going. He never says die. He has been asked to do a number of jobs for that Kilkenny team and he just gets on with the job. He likes to attack the ball, I love that about Paddy, when he goes up the field with the ball. Against Wexford he had a go, it went wide, but he had a go. He is confident in his own ability. He is not going to abdicate responsibility. A good, solid lad."

Deegan is now training his sights on Limerick, with Kilkenny's outlook having brightened after beating Cork, following on from defeat in the Leinster final. "We've had a couple of good results this year," he says. "I suppose the Dublin match in Nowlan Park, the first championship match, it was a good win. Obviously we had a couple of losses then against Galway and unfortunately then in the Leinster final. But the games come so fast you have to pick yourself up again."

The odds are against Kilkenny reaching the All-Ireland final. But if odds were the determining factor, Paddy Deegan wouldn't be where he is today.

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