'I would have liked to have had another year'
Brian Dowling knows the value of club glory better than most, as he tells Dermot Crowe
T HE wider hurling audience has been left to wonder what became of Brian Dowling. In 2002, aged 19, he entered a fierce Leinster final battle and more than held his ground.
Launching manic raids in search of a late equaliser, Wexford were being repelled by heroic Kilkenny defending; then Sean Dowling took a ball from Peter Barry and found his younger brother, Brian, tightly guarded, on the sideline, back to goal. In the blink of an eye he turned and hit an outrageous clinching point. We'll be seeing more of him, we thought.
In the league final that May, he scored the last two points that broke Cork resistance in another thrilling finale. Again he had been sent on in the closing stages, his brother Sean introduced a little earlier, and together they nailed three of Kilkenny's final four scores. They had the stuff, that's how it looked. In 2002, Kilkenny claimed a fifth Leinster title in a row. Brian Cody had begun to engrave more of his own personality on team selection, testing new players in the league and repaying their efforts with an extended lease on the jersey.
Brian Dowling remained on the panel that won the next two All-Irelands, while his brother Sean played in the Leinster final win of 2003 and the All-Ireland final that September. After the shock defeat by Wexford in 2004, Sean was dropped and by 2005 he was gone from the panel for good. His brother faded even quicker. O'Loughlin Gaels lost to Newtownshandrum in an All-Ireland club semi-final replay in February 2004, and two days later, still sore from the defeat, he got a call from Cody to tell him that he was being relieved of his duties.
Sean Dowling, 32, had a hip operation at the start of this year and cannot play again. He wasn't on the field when O'Loughlin Gaels won their third county title, but his younger brother Brian hurled, having been a teenager when they won the club's first county senior title in 2001. He teaches in the Ballyboden hurling heartland, at Coláiste éanna, one of the club's feeder schools. Ballyboden stand in his club's way this afternoon as they seek to reach the Leinster final.
With that coincidence looming, the past week has brought mocking student warnings of a bad outcome for the Kilkenny champions and he knows if that's to be the case then school tomorrow will not be an easy or inviting prospect. But he is happy here, now into his third year, having taken up teaching after a summer in Boston four years ago. He has warmed to the school and the people in the community; the bond is strengthened by regular stints coaching the school's hurling teams.
This year they won the Leinster senior B title and the captain, a highly promising Dublin hurler called Cillian Moffat, will be on the bench for Ballyboden today. Dowling knows that many of the school players are Ballyboden hurlers and a good many of the team facing O'Loughlin Gaels enrolled there in their day. Coaching kids -- he also had an input into the south Dublin colleges under 14 side -- has given him enormous pleasure and he has happily volunteered his spare time.
"We won a Leinster B championship, first time ever, that was great. I love the coaching side of it; nothing beats playing but that is the next big thing. I am trying to relate things as best I can to my own experience. Trying to tell them that it doesn't matter making mistakes, don't be negative, stay positive. I know that is the way I like to be treated myself. To see the enjoyment they got out of winning was some feeling, something I will never forget."
With the Dublin south team he encountered Kilkenny CBS and several lads from his home club. The prospect of him ever facing his former Kilkenny team-mates, however, is ruled out. There has been an approach on behalf of the Dublin hurlers but, while flattered, it didn't suit. "It wasn't really an option, because I'm living in Kilkenny in the summer. It would be different if I had a family up here. Then I wouldn't be involved with the (O'Loughlin's) club and matches wouldn't clash. I did think about it, but Kilkenny is my county. I like being up here but I also like going back to Kilkenny. Just wasn't for me."
When Brian Cody phoned him in February 2004, the news that he was being dropped by Kilkenny hit him hard. He had played a few league games in 2002 and was surprised to get a call off the bench against Cork with six minutes left in the final. "It was your first big experience at county level and getting two points in a league final is probably something I will always remember but to be honest it is something I don't really like talking about now. I did it when I was 19 and it was disappointing I did not do too much for Kilkenny after that."
He featured in some league matches in 2003 but at the start of the summer broke an ankle and lost time and form. Playing in the Leinster under 21 final against Dublin was probably a mistake -- he wasn't match-fit -- and the match ended for him in substitution 15 minutes from the end. He never regained his earlier confidence but the club offered a lifeline. They won the county final against Gowran and while his hurling still needed work, there were signs of improvement as the year progressed. "I actually thought my form was coming back, but two days after losing to Newtownshandrum I got that call."
Could you make sense of it? "It was devastating at the time. Like, I was on the panel when I was 18 and to be going at the age of 20, it was not nice. I would have liked to have had another year, even another league, to see how I got on. 'Cos I know because of the injury I did not do myself justice at all. I suppose in Kilkenny Brian Cody always says you hold on to your jersey and if you are not performing others will come in and there are a lot of players capable of coming in. I have no problem with Cody, he gave me a chance when I was 18; just for myself I would like to have been involved at it longer, especially when you look at how successful Kilkenny have been in the last few years."
How did you deal with this? "I probably didn't deal with it great because like most hurlers you are a confidence player and I would have taken it to heart. I was involved with the (county) under 21s that year and probably didn't enjoy it as much as I should have enjoyed it (they won the All-Ireland). And maybe I was trying too hard to get back on the senior panel."
The club has been of great solace. Last year Ballyhale beat them well in the semi-finals, but this year they turned the tables. "We were ready for it, we were fired up. Ballyhale had beaten us three times in four years but they had been on the road a long time. We got a few lucky breaks but you need that. We said we would regret it for the rest of our lives if we didn't win it after beating Ballyhale. There is no better feeling that winning a county final with your club; you wish it could last forever."
Since his father placed a hurl in his hand he has been devoted to the game, and sometimes he has been too hard on himself, too intolerant. His mother's brother died after a long battle with cancer a week before the All-Ireland final. The day of the county final he visited his grave as an act of respect and remembrance. Being there made him look at hurling through a wider lens. "It gave me a bit of perspective. End of the day hurling is only a game; life is more important I suppose."