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Flame burns bright as ever for Browne

"IS there any point in asking you if this is your last year?" Tony Browne was asked wearily in an interview last week.

There wasn't, as it happened, despite the fact that he's the longest serving inter-county player in either code. Twenty years on the go for Waterford means he's spent more than half his time on this earth hurling at the top level.

Even the shock return of Graham Geraghty changed nothing. The Meath man is slightly older but didn't make his championship debut until 1993, 12 months after Browne.

Browne's contemporaries are gone, some to the press box, others to junior with the club. Only Tipperary goalkeeper Brendan Cummins, who made his bow in 1995, comes close.

You have to go to '98 to find an outfield player who is still on the go, though Kilkenny's Michael Kavanagh has been confined to a cameo from the bench against Wexford so far this year while Browne is still central to Davy Fitzgerald's plans.

In football, Kildare's Anthony Rainbow was the last of them and he slipped off last winter.

Others like Dublin manager Pat Gilroy and GPA chief executive Dessie Farrell, who both made their debuts that same summer, have long since departed. Eamonn O'Hara, who began his championship career in '94, is the longest-serving footballer still active -- he started both Sligo's championship games this summer. Browne turned 38 last week.

Next on the list are Tyrone's Brian Dooher, and Ciaran McManus from Offaly. But the fact they made their bows in '96, a full four years after Browne, underlines the enormity of the Waterford man's achievement.

"Seeing the likes of Graham coming back, we're probably inclined to think players are finished when they hit the 30 or 31 mark but I don't think that's true. There are a certain few who can push on and do it," Browne said.

"There are more in the game retiring at 31 or 32 who could possibly go on for a few years.

"At the same time, with the talent coming through and managers constantly looking to find someone new, it's hard to stay in there.

"Even Sean Og (O hAilpin) there this year, had Sean something to offer Cork? I think he probably had. But managers are there to do a job, and if they don't want you, they don't want you."

Browne has always been wanted. On Sunday against Tipperary, Waterford will contest a Munster final for the sixth year in his career (eighth final in all including replays) and in this fixture 12 months ago, he was superb.

Defying his age, he played every minute of both the drawn game and the replay against Cork, which went to extra-time in Semple Stadium. Browne wasn't just surviving, though. He was first on to the rebound from Eoin Kelly's free to bag the goal that forced additional time and, right at the death, he was on his own goal-line, in the right place to stop Cathal Naughton's shot with his head.

In his own words, he doesn't know how he got "reeled into it this year" but a chance encounter with Ken McGrath in the gym sparked something.

"He was saying 'Look, I'm going to give it one more shot. What are you going to do?' and I went home and thought about it.

"I met him then a couple of nights later and he said 'I'm going to give it a right shot this year'. I said 'Right, I'll join you so, whether I'm on for 40 minutes or 70 minutes or whatever'. But unfortunately he bailed out on me then!"

And did he try to get McGrath to reconsider his decision to retire during the league?

"For the first time, I didn't. He's one of my best mates and we play for the same club, but usually I would talk to him and see what way he's feeling. This time I knew it was a little bit different.

"He suffered badly with injuries, he just couldn't go on. The cartilage in his knees was basically gone so it was a tough decision for him as well.

"He'd have been a great fella to have around, whether he could given 10 minutes or five or whatever. But I don't think people realise the extent of the damage."

Browne puts his own longevity down to a mixture of luck and preparation. Keeping with the pace at training is not an issue but it's the other aspects that make all the difference.

Stretching, pool sessions and diet are as important as the training sessions themselves for Browne. Drinking over the course of the season is also out.

"The way the game is gone in the modern day, that takes up most of my time," he said. "It's six days a week to be able to still compete at this kind of level. Whereas maybe the younger lads can do three or four sessions, mine is maybe six times a week."

While it's strange for Browne to look around the dressing-room and not see McGrath or Dan Shanahan, there's fearlessness in the young players he feeds off.

"Over the last few years, even though Waterford haven't won an All-Ireland, we've participated in some big games," he said.

"They are well used to going to these games and seeing what they are all about. Looking at some of them the way they train and before matches, there is no fear with them whatsoever. They just take it in their stride and it's a good thing to see."

Irish Independent