Flame still burning brightly
Tipp veteran David Kennedy is leading a rare double charge, says Damian Lawlor
TWO nights before Loughmore-Castleiney's Tipperary hurling final against Nenagh éire óg, David Kennedy stood up to talk to his team-mates.
Kennedy, their most experienced servant, started playing senior hurling with the club in 1993 and won an All-Ireland at centre-back with Tipperary in 2001.
Following eight years of top-flight hurling with the blue and gold, however, Kennedy Tipp decided they could roll on without him. He wasn't left alone for long though. Kildare came looking for his services and he's been hurling for them ever since.
Now 37, he has spent the best part of the past decade driving down from Naas, where he lives and works as a garda, to mid-Tipperary for training and matches.
It's a colossal commitment considering he has a wife and a young son, Daire, but when he stood before his team-mates, his personal sacrifices were not up for discussion. Instead, his words were laced with caution.
"David made a great speech," says Loughmore stalwart and current vice-chairman Tom McGrath. "He felt his own career was one of underachievement. Now that's a serious thing for an All-Ireland winner to say. But he referenced the fact that in 20 years of playing senior club hurling, he and the club had only one senior final appearance to their name.
"He told the boys how delighted he was to have got a second chance," McGrath adds, "and he spoke of how he didn't want it to pass by. He advised fellas of only 20 years of age, and we have lots of them, that the Nenagh match might be the only chance they get to win a medal for the rest of their careers. This was not an occasion to be trifled with. There was no such thing as next year. The year to do it was now."
And despite playing poorly for most of the first half of that decider, Loughmore hung in to win by a point. In many ways, considering Drom-Inch hammered them in the divisional final, this was a title out of nowhere. And Kennedy had a second Tipp medal to savour.
A few minutes after the game, he was interviewed by Newstalk's Oisín Langan but already his mind had switched away from the win.
First, he spoke of team-mate Eddie Connolly, his next-door neighbour growing up. Connolly had needed brain surgery to remove a tumour after the club's semi-final win. The following Friday, they had to play a senior football quarter-final against Arravale Rovers, although few of them felt like playing. Two days before that match the club held a Mass and the players went training afterwards. They rallied.
On the Friday evening, the emotion in the dressing room was tangible and after an epic extra-time battle they prevailed. Kennedy played for the entire 80 minutes and was considered man of the match in most quarters.
They went on to beat Clonmel Commercials in the semi-final and are gearing up for a county final against Aherlow. And a few minutes after their defeat of Nenagh that was the only thing on Kennedy's mind as he spoke to the media – winning the football final.
Connolly, meanwhile, underwent an operation which went well and the mood had lifted before the hurling final. The week of the Nenagh game, he was fit enough to come to training, donning a big, pink woolly hat. He wasn't spared a slagging.
So once today's Munster hurling quarter-final against Na Piarsaigh is completed, Kennedy and his colleagues will turn their thoughts to a potential county double. Such has been their schedule that it's astonishing someone of Kennedy's vintage can fit in performing for not just one, but two teams.
But that's Loughmore for you; a traditionally obstinate football commune. Football means a huge amount to them – two of their sons, Bill and Jim Ryan, played for the Tipp football team that won the 1920 All-Ireland football final and featured in a challenge match against Dublin at Croke Park that November on Bloody Sunday.
They boast serious history in those parts and they never forget. Kennedy certainly doesn't anyway.
"He's a huge influence on the young fellas, and we have about five of them on the starting 15 aged 21 or under," McGrath enthuses. "David is a father figure to them in a lot of ways, in terms of his commitment he has led the way. Other lads are making a similar journey, from Dublin or wherever, but mostly they are students. When they were 15 or 16, he might not have meant so much to them, but since they have become senior players they see what he is about.
"There is a danger in every club that players might stay on too long, but not David. He is one of four brothers, all of whom gave great service and he uses his energy and experience to get the best out of lads. He is always positive."
Club chairman Dick Egan says Kennedy is also crucial to the club's future. "I just tell any new player coming on board to study David and see how he lives his life off the field, and then to examine just how hard he works on it. Work rate is his calling card."
At centre-forward, he is still good for a score too, notching a point in the county final aside from grafting hard to close down opponents and breaking ball for others on the half- or full-forward lines. Youngsters like John McGrath, Liam McGrath, Joey Hennessy and Tomás McGrath see the way he operates and it sends out the right message.
"They need someone like him," Tom McGrath states. "Liam, for example, is only 20 but has lost seven mid-Tipperary senior finals in both hurling and football. That's a serious disappointment. When you get those type of hits they can destroy a fella, but Dave has the experience to advise them and help counteract those setbacks."
So, while Kennedy continues to make huge personal sacrifices to turn out for his local community, he never sees it as a chore. Indeed, he looks as lean now as he did when he held the centre for Nicky English in the late 1990s and early noughties.
When his Tipp career ended, he could easily have folded the deck and felt thankful for a good roll, but his burning desire for challenge saw him line out for Kildare.
They trained in Donore at 7.30pm twice weekly at the time, but Kennedy raised the bar for the others by being out on the field on his own with three balls by 7.05, flaking sliotars over the bar from different angles and doing his own warm-up. When his spell as an inter-county centre-back ended with Kildare, he transformed himself into a centre-forward. Then when he lost his starting place two years ago, he refused to sulk and adjusted to life as a squad member. Tom McGrath is not surprised.
"He's not one to walk away," says McGrath, who hurled until he was 43 himself. "He'll give you every ounce of what is in him. As I say, it's a family trait. Hurling and football are just part of him."
While everyone else marvels at the effort and sacrifices he makes, Kennedy just shrugs and gets on with it. His desire is fuelled by the goal of getting as much as possible out of his career. Little wonder the fire burns as brightly as it ever did.