Tuesday 24 April 2018

‘It doesn’t matter what you have achieved. One stroke of a pen, boy, and you’re gone’

Christy O'Connor

All-Irelands are hard earned, but being a Kilkenny hurler grants you the arena and the opportunity to win them. Being one of the greatest players of your generation also confers a status whereby your reputation precedes you. Yet neither can provide immunity to the contaminant of the current recession.

JJ Delaney is being made redundant today.

Delaney worked with a building products company for five years but they were forced to cut down on overheads and two sales reps had to make way. Delaney was the last one in so he is the first out.

There was a time when a player with six All-Ireland medals and five All Stars would have been coveted by companies trying to sell their products. Those days are long over.

"It doesn't matter what you have achieved," says Delaney. "One stroke of a pen, boy, and you're gone."

He wasn't officially supposed to finish up until August 19 but Delaney had two weeks' holidays to take, so today is his last day of employment.

It was just a quirk of the calendar that it happened on the weekend of an All-Ireland semi-final. Either way, there is no right or wrong time to lose your job.

"It's my first time out of work," he says. "You'll always want to be working and it would play on your mind a bit. But I wouldn't be making excuses out of it either. You just have to get on with it.

"You could look on it as a complete disaster or an opportunity and I'm looking on it as an opportunity. I might go back to college. Who knows?"

Delaney will manage because that is how he operates. When Kilkenny played Wexford in the Leinster semi-final in June, he was basically taken apart. Delaney came into the game having only just recovered from a hamstring injury and Garrett Sinnott took him for three points within 10 minutes before grabbing another point early in the second half.

Yet Delaney's recovery began during the match, when it was obvious that he had changed his tactics by consistently attacking the ball. It summed him up. Whatever way an opponent tries to play him, Delaney will adapt.

Delaney has always been understated. But supremely efficient. When he was voted the GPA Hurler of the Year at the age of 21 in 2003, he was presented with a 1.4-litre Seat car that he wasn't able to drive. He didn't even have a provisional driver's licence.

The 'Kilkenny People' newspaper paid for six driving lessons, but Delaney was still in college in Waterford IT and he wasn't in any rush to deviate from his routine. He took the lessons when it suited, sold the Seat, bought a 1-litre car and eventually got around to getting insured the following summer. All in his own good time.

That relaxed nature doesn't mask the attitude and mentality that marks him apart on the field. Consistent excellence and reliability are Delaney's hallmarks. Calmness and class are both his mark and his master. But consistency is his ultimate calling card.

When you scan back over Delaney's 11-year career, there are only a handful of occasions when he was ever in trouble.

He made a couple of uncharacteristic mistakes in the first half of the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final against Clare but he ended that match in credit; Shane Walsh took him for two goals in the 2009 All-Ireland semi-final, but Delaney had to meet the onrushing Kevin Moran for the first goal and Brian Hogan let the ball through him for Walsh's second goal; Joe Canning skinned him for a goal early in the 2009 Leinster semi-final but Delaney responded by removing Canning from the equation.

"JJ had a very good game that day," Canning said last summer. "I'm man enough to say that he cleaned me out."

There was only one occasion when Delaney was ever cleaned out himself -- against Galway in the 2007 All-Ireland quarter-final. Delaney was just coming back from a cruciate knee injury and was struggling for form early that summer when Alan Kerins skinned him for three points before he was taken for another couple by Niall Healy in the second half. Eventually Brian Cody hauled him off. Delaney responded with a storming finish to that summer.

This Kilkenny team has produced some of the greatest players to ever play the game and Delaney certainly is one of them. Apart from his injury for the 2006 All-Ireland final, Delaney has started every championship match since his debut in 2001 and he has always been one of Cody's most cherished warriors.

Back in 2006, Cody -- a man never given to overstatement -- had this to say: "I have never seen a better defender than JJ Delaney. Never, ever."

Only that Tommy Walsh plays in the same defence, Delaney's status would be even more elevated than it already is. Either way, Delaney doesn't give his perception a single thought.

"Do you think that I'd be that recognised?" he asks. "Honestly, I wouldn't even think that I'd be that recognised at all. I'd rather it that way, too.

"Just go out and do your job and do your bit for Kilkenny. That's the way I look at it. You're not doing it for recognition. You're doing it to get the best out of your career. When you start off playing the game, you're not playing to be recognised down the street. You're playing because you love the game.

"The ultimate prize is to play with the Kilkenny seniors and to try and win as much as you can. We're just lucky that there are no egos in the camp. You do it for yourself, your team-mates, your family and your club. It's as simple as that."

Delaney though, had the perfect genetic make-up for a Kilkenny hurler from his bloodlines and breeding. His father Shem won an All-Ireland medal with Kilkenny in 1974 and his two uncles, Pat Delaney and Billy Fitzpatrick, were two of the most talented and productive forwards Kilkenny produced in the latter half of the last century.

Delaney was always conscious of his background and the legacy that other players had left in the Fenians club in Johnstown.

But his attitude never allowed him to feel smothered by that sense of deep history and responsibility. Like an archetypal Kilkenny hurler, reality and perspective have always guided him.

It is no surprise that Delaney has become the player he is. The only surprise is that he never expected it.

There was nothing preordained about his arrival and Delaney appeared with an almost blatant lack of annunciation. He was just out of minor and was only hoping to make the U-21 panel in 2001 when Cody rang and invited him to train with the senior team two months before the start of the championship.

"It was completely out of the blue, and I thought somebody was pulling the piss out of me," says Delaney. "It took me a while to cop on to who it was and I just couldn't believe it. I didn't know what I was doing in there. You're looking around seeing DJ (Carey) and you're thinking, 'Am I in the right dressing-room?'

"I honestly never thought I would play senior for Kilkenny. I wouldn't be the type of guy who would look forward that much. When I was young, my attitude was to get on the Kilkenny minor team if I could, then make the U-21s. My priority in 2001 was to make the Waterford IT Fitzgibbon Cup team.

"But if you had told me at 16 years of age that I would play for Kilkenny for over 10 years, I'd have laughed at you. It would never have entered my head."

He is a natural wing-back, but Delaney is one of the best all-round defenders the game has ever seen: stylish, classy, intelligent, a leech-like man-marker, a python under the dropping ball, rarely blocked down and an ability to always get the ball away.

But more than anything else, Kilkenny have always been able to depend on him. In the four All-Ireland finals he played in between 2002 and '08, he conceded just one point.

Tipperary posed Kilkenny's defence far greater problems in the 2009 and 2010 finals. Last year's defeat also halted the Cats' bid for five in a row.

"Nobody denied the hype coming into the final but it was just a step too far," says Delaney. "It just wasn't meant to be. There's a reason too why the five in a row can't be done.

"You need everything going your way and we didn't have everything going our way with injuries.

"When you're finished up, you'll probably look back on it as a missed opportunity. But when I look back on it afterwards, you can be proud of what you've done. I know the five will always be the one we'll think about but you can pat yourself on the back that you got the four in a row."

That defeat set off a negative trend in Kilkenny for the first time in seven years. They lost the Walsh Cup final and then Dublin hammered them in the league final. It hinted at a decline, but no serious-minded person had written them out of the All-Ireland reckoning.

Kilkenny's place in the hurling world was just under assessment. So were the players.

"The league final forced everyone to look at themselves," says Delaney. "You can bluff some people but you can't bluff yourself. We really had to look at ourselves as a team, re-evaluate where we were and what we were doing.

"You have to take the positives out of every defeat and the positives we took was that we knew we were light years away from where we needed to be.


"Still, I didn't think too much about it. I wasn't saying, 'We're finished now.' I would have been a lot more worried if we'd shipped that kind of a beating with a full team out, but I knew we had leaders to come back. I knew too that the young lads who were playing that day wouldn't forget that defeat either. Later on in their careers, they will learn from that experience."

Delaney has been down that road. Despite all they have achieved, adversity made many of these Kilkenny players. Delaney plays in his 11th successive All-Ireland semi-final on Sunday but his first was his most chastening.

Kilkenny had coasted through Leinster in 2001 and reality didn't hit Delaney until Joe Rabbitte wandered into his corner for the start of the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway. Delaney tried to keep his head above water but he was on Eugene Cloonan's beat when the forward got in behind him to kick the decisive goal in the match.

Kilkenny regrouped and began their crusade to immortality. And the crusade still continues.

"When you train so hard, the only real benefit you get is actually winning the All-Ireland," says Delaney. "Everybody just wants to be there on that first Sunday in September. There is no better atmosphere. We have got a taste for that and you want to keep tasting it.

"There's always a lot riding on the next game. You can never look back, it's always the future. You never know what's going to happen in the future -- a new team could come and you'd be forgotten about pretty quickly.

"You just have to make the most of what you have when you have it. You know that your day is going to come when you have to leave it all behind you. All you're trying to do is delay that day as much as you can."

No matter what, Delaney will continue to thrive. Because that is what he built to do.

Irish Independent

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