Saturday 18 November 2017

Third coming built on belief

Tony Browne, back for his 19th season, tells Damian Lawlor why Waterford can conquer Munster

A SNOWY Tuesday night in Waterford city and a blizzard spatters the Walsh Park sod, sending the senior hurlers scurrying for shelter. But Davy Fitzgerald knows no sympathy. He allocates players all around the field and arranges two teams. Soon the hurling is hard, the hitting fierce.

This is Tony Browne's third night back; it's Ken McGrath's first after seven months away. The two are marking each other and they immediately grin at the prospect. Skin will fly.

"It was hardly a coincidence they paired us off but by Jesus we had a right cut off each other," Browne says. "There were some serious flakes. Ken was just back from injury and I was carrying my shoulder but neither of us gave an inch. He couldn't have picked a dirtier night to return with the cold of it but we ripped into each other. We were laughing at it afterwards, two oul' lads leathering away. We're probably so old we'll have to bring hip flasks with us onto the subs' bench against Offaly today in case either of us comes on."

Browne's delighted to be back. It's his 19th season playing for the Waterford seniors and he'd scarcely function without them now although he'll face that reality some time soon. For the moment, however, he continues to defy time.

Way back in 1991, he made his league debut against Galway. The memory of it is hazy although he recalls trying to mark Pete Finnerty at one stage. That's more than he can remember from his first championship outing a year later, however.

"I came on against Clare in '92 and I was nervous, but that's about it. It's just so long ago. I'd like to sit here and tell you about all my memories but I don't have any. Just too long ago."

The endgame has loomed ominously these past few seasons but he's not yet ready for the final whistle. To prolong his career a little, he's taken the last few pre-seasons handy enough, worked hard on prehab, stretching, diet and core conditioning. From January to March he usually goes solo, but this year he took part in a fitness regime devised by Limerick specialist Gerald Hartman and travelled to all of Waterford's league games. And still he wasn't sure. It was only after talking to Fitzgerald, McGrath and Dan Shanahan that he came back to the fold.

Look at him now; 53 championship games later, with Munster titles and All Stars in the bag. And as he sits down to chat, the former hurler of the year explains his decision to go to the well one last time.

"I came back because we're 70 minutes away from a Munster final. Clare are our initial target and I won't look past them, but we're after finding some great youngsters here and I really believe in them. No point in bullshitting people or playing it down, I came back because I feel we can win a Munster title. People have written us off because we're too old. But without the likes of Ken, Dan and I, the average age of the league team is only 23 or 24.

"Davy was another factor. People have their mind made up about what sort of a manager he is, but he's a real modern manager. He gave the older lads a break and handled us all individually. He was bloody superb with me and I respected that. I was going to train full steam ahead with Mount Sion so I decided I'd do all that hard work with Waterford too -- there's no real difference in how top club and county teams prepare anyway. And I'm faster now than I was at 25. That's the truth. Ultimately, it was hard staying on but it would be harder letting go. But basically I'm back because I still believe."

Before Christmas, Browne travelled to Buenos Aires with the All Stars and you could see even then that summer was on his mind. While many players rightly availed of the opportunity to let their hair down, he watched himself every day. He sipped a few beers here and there, enjoyed the tour, but apart from the odd steak, he ignored the huge variety of rich food and drink that Buenos Aires had to offer. Little wonder he's still in unbelievable condition, a trait he puts down to good heredity.

"It's a mixture of a good diet and decent genetics," he says. "I have four brothers and one of them, Mossy, is some detail. He'd have a few smokes most days and he'd stuff rubbish down his gob, but Jesus he could run around all day long. If only the chap was good at hurling we'd have the Bionic Man on our hands."

On that Argentinian trip he clicked with Joe Canning. At 21, the Portumna lad is 16 years younger than Browne, but they discovered a lot of common ground.

"I just said to myself 'here's this young icon, the future of the game with it all ahead of him and here's me on the way out'. On the outside, we should have nothing in common but we actually got on great and the same with Noel McGrath from Tipp. Those young lads were not long born when I made my senior debut so I take great pride from still being around, I suppose."

It's not by fluke he's still producing the goods either. At the start of his career, there wasn't much science to his preparations; he'd go hard for the county on Sunday, do the same on Monday for the club and squeeze in two or three training sessions afterwards. He scoffed at the idea of weights, played anywhere he was needed, starting out as a forward, shifting to midfield and ending up in the backs, where he became Waterford's de facto leader: the statesman of the team.

But as the years passed, he adjusted and it's helped him survive three eras of hurling. The first of the big strapping player, the second of the super-fit, hill-running hurler and the third of the super-touch and skilled stickman, inspired by Cork and Kilkenny. Browne endured each challenge with relish.

"Maybe that's relevant because I'm now playing with my third different Waterford team," he reckons. "There was the Shane Ahearne gang, then the 1990s team and now we've another bunch of youngsters like the Connors brothers and Maurice Shanahan. These guys have had Munster success at minor and U21, with our schools and colleges too. The future's bright."

Inside the Waterford brotherhood, though, the elder statesmen will continue leading the way, carrying the flame well into their mid-30s. Browne is their most capped player, Dan Shanahan is starting to regain form while McGrath will be reinvigorated after his long break. They've seen and heard most everything over two momentous decades, with Browne widely seen as the team's spiritual enforcer on the pitch.

Such status spans back to when he delivered the keynote speech at half-time in the replayed 1992 All-Ireland U21 final against Offaly. At 19, he was their captain and laid himself bare with an oration that drove his team out of the dressing room with fire in their bellies. They landed their only ever title at that level.

He carries the secrets of Waterford's successes and failures over the past 19 years and thus his experience will be essential in their ongoing quest for the Liam McCarthy Cup. He may be well into the second half of a hurler's life but his performances haven't dipped an inch in the past three campaigns. In fact, since 2006 he's managed to play 1,471 of the team's 1,540 championship minutes.

It should only be a matter of time before he reclaims his rightful place in their defence, particularly with Michael 'Brick' Walsh missing through injury. "I walked into that dressing room that first night back like it was 1992 all over again," he smiles. "It felt strange and exciting. There were no smart comments or anything from the lads because they knew I'd spent four nights a week in the gym. They knew I'd the work done.

"I don't pick and choose with Waterford hurling; I work harder than anyone. Sure I have to. I can still train as hard as any of the lads; the only difference is the next day they'll be ready to go again and I won't. That's the only difference."

"There's a lot of help out there from other sports," he adds. "When I first started, a lot of the trainers weren't properly qualified. But the modern trainer has so much expertise that I've availed of many different programmes to keep me going. It's all about balance."

That applies to his personal life too. Up to six months ago, the construction industry paid the bills. But work has been scarce and Browne's had to look elsewhere for opportunities. He wants to further his professional career by developing a reputation in sales or business. He's enrolled in the GPA's Career Development Programme and remains open to any opportunity.

Politics offers one. He has been courted by Fianna Fáil ahead of the upcoming Waterford by-election. Browne's family are steeped in politics; his grandfather Patrick 'Fad' Browne served as a TD in the 1960s and '70s while his father, Tony senior, also represented the city as a councillor. "Going into politics is something I'll look at but not right now," he says. "I'm giving hurling everything this year and then I'll step back and look at where I'm at.

"Standing for Fianna Fail is not an option at the moment but the family is steeped in the party. I have too many other things happening right now but when I retire from hurling I won't rule it out. Politics is a game you have to be very passionate about so I'll have to be careful with what I choose to do."

That's further down the road. Today, he's simply hoping for 10 minutes against Offaly and maybe 10 minutes against Kilkenny in two weeks. After that, it's a battle to get his place back.

"I'd love a few minutes in those games, just to get my bearings again. But the bigger picture has to be Clare and then making another Munster final. That's keeping me going. People keep banging on about not winning an All-Ireland but I still sleep at night. I've had some unreal battles with the best in the game and I don't need to prove anything to anyone."

When time finally catches up with him, Browne will be able to bask in the glow of an an incredible sporting career. And he will look back with great fondness on it all. At least on those parts he can remember.

Sunday Independent

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