Routine was always the same for Christy
20 December 2006
Christy Heffernan played in six All-Ireland senior hurling finals for Kilkenny between 1982 and 93, winning four of them. Here, he explains how the routine before and after the Big Day hardly changed over the years.
It doesnt seem that long ago since Christy Heffernan was wreaking havoc on hurling defences the length and breathe of the country. But from spending time talking to him about his All-Ireland final rituals, you realise that a lot has changed over the past decade or so.
The big Glenmore man played in six Liam McCarthy Cup deciders between 1982 and 93, winning four of them. But in this era of sports psychologists, dietitians, personal endorsements and blanket media coverage, its strange to think how laid back and different things used to be.
“I played under two different managers in All-Ireland finals – Pat Henderson and Ollie Walsh – and both men used to stress the importance of getting a good nights sleep before the game. If that meant having a few pints, well so be it. As long as you slept well, that was the main thing,” Christy recalls.
“We didnt take things as seriously as teams do now, but it didnt seem to do us any harm. Before wed leave our hotel on the morning of the game to head for Croke Park, we had a puck around in the car park or maybe in the nearest open park. That wouldnt happen now.”
According to Christy, Kilkennys All-Ireland final routine was much the same in 1993 as it was 11 years earlier.
“It was important to have a routine. I think it was a big help to us that we were able to sleep in our own beds the night before. We used to get the train from Kilkenny on the Sunday morning and spend a few hours in a hotel before the game.
“The hotels we stayed in included The Aisling, The Hollybrook in Clontarf, the Green Isle and the Grand Hotel in Malahide. We even based ourselves in The Ambassador in Kildare one year.
“After the All-Ireland final, we would go back to the hotel where we would spend the night. A banquet for the two teams was held in the Burlington Hotel every year on the Monday and we would then travel back to Kilkenny by train. And win, lose or draw, there would be a parade around the town that night. It was the same routine every year that I played.
“The hype would die down after two or three days and youd go back to your club after that. If Kilkenny were lucky enough to win the All-Ireland, the Liam McCarthy Cup would do a tour of the county during the winter months.”
The road to Croke Park began in earnest for Kilkenny in the springtime when they commenced a tough training programme. By early summer, the hurls were out and it was time to hone the skills for the championship battles that lay ahead.
“All our stamina work was done in the early part of the year,” Christy explains.
“Once we had that out of the way, we could concentrate fully on hurling. The training was all skills-based coming up to a big game. The practice matches were had among ourselves were as tough as any competitive match.
“There was no holding back in training because of the competition for places. If you didnt perform in training, you didnt make the team – it was as simple as that.”
The Waterford-based insurance broker and auctioneer remembers how some of these practice matches were played before sizeable gatherings in Nowlan Park, but he suggests that they werent all there to look at the hurling!
“The numbers watching training increased coming up to the All-Ireland final. And while a good few of them would be genuinely interested in what was going on, a lot of them came down just to scout around for tickets,” he jokes.
Christy and his team-mates didnt start focusing on the All-Ireland final until the week after their All-Ireland semi-final.
“We always went back to our clubs for a week after the All-Ireland semi-final. That hasnt changed since my time. If you got injured, that was your own hard luck and this is something that has caused a lot of rows over the years.
“Everyone had their own routine in the build-up to the final. I never read the papers, but I didnt have any problem with doing interviews. I always tried to keep it simple when Id be talking to the media. The last thing that you would want to do is to say something stupid and rise the other team.
“On the Sunday before the final, the team would be named. Regrettably, this doesnt seem to happen anymore and when managers do get around to naming their team, its a shame to see some of them giving the wrong line-outs.”
Christy made a dream All-Ireland final debut in 1982 when he scored two goals in a blistering 45-second spell to help the Cats to a landslide victory over Cork. Kilkenny repeated their victory over the Leesiders in 1983 with the Glenmore man again featuring prominently at full forward.
Kilkennys next two All-Ireland final appearances in 1987 and 91 (when Christy was captain) both ended in defeat to Galway and Tipperary. Heffernan was a sub in the 92 and 93 finals against Cork and Galway, but came off the bench on both occasions to play his part in the victories.
Surprisingly, he was more nervous for the latter two finals than he was for his first final in 82. “No matter how many All-Ireland finals you play in, the nerves are always there. I was less nervous for my first final than I was for my last two. Thats because I didnt know what to expect.
“I was a lot more wary in 92 and 93. The fear of losing was playing on my mind. I had lost two All-Ireland finals in 87 and 91, and I didnt want to lose another one,” he says.
Christy played under Pat Henderson in the finals of 82, 83 and 87, while Ollie Walsh was in charge for the finals of 91, 92 and 93.
“Pat and Ollie were completely different. Whereas Pat was a bit of taskmaster, Ollie was more relaxed. He had a way about him and that seeped through to the players. But both men were very good at getting us prepared and into the right frame of mind coming up to the All-Ireland.”
Heffernan is one of Kilkennys most celebrated hurlers. As well as winning four All-Ireland senior medals, he won one All-Ireland under 21 medal, four county championships, two Leinster club championships and Railway Cup honours. Christy, whose brother Ray was also a noted player with Glenmore and Kilkenny, received an All-Star award in 1982.