DECLAN BROWNE IS preparing for his first taste of championship football as an inter-county manager.
You might remember the Moyle Rovers star tearing it up as a senior footballer with Tipperary during his playing days, and winning All-Star awards in 1998 and 2003.
Until Michael Quinlivan won one of the prestigious individual gongs last year, Browne was the only Tipp footballer in history to accept a prized statuette.
Now, he’s preparing the county’s U21 footballers for their EirGrid Munster championship opener against Limerick at the Gaelic Grounds tomorrow evening.
Browne’s experiences as a player in the U21 grade were memorable for a variety of reasons and remarkably, he played senior championship football for Tipperary, in 1996, before making his U21 debut.
Browne represented the Premier County in the U21 grade in 1997, 1998 and 1999, when talented crops fell short in the province.
“We were beaten in 1997 by Cork after a replay in a semi-final, in Clonmel,” Browne recalls.
Interestingly, that team contained Loughmore-Castleiney duo David Kennedy and Paul Ormond, who went on to win All-Ireland senior hurling medals with Tipperary in 2001.
“In 1998, we were beaten by Kerry in a Munster final by five points, but Eamonn Hanrahan had a goal disallowed for a square ball.
“We were well behind in that game but chased them down. In 1999, we were well beaten by Cork.”
Browne was still an U21 player when he won the first of those two All-Star awards but Tipp fell short in the grade before finally landing a Munster title in 2010, with a famous victory over Kerry in Tralee.
Further success followed two years ago, when a team containing AFL export Colin O’Riordan and current Tipp senior hurler Steven O’Brien defeated Cork.
Browne is monitoring the progress of the current crop and five senior panellists are expected to start – Jack Kennedy, Willie Connors, Emmet Moloney, Colm O’Shaughnessy and Aidan Buckley.
Guiding the players is a stellar backroom team, headed up by Browne but also containing his former Tipperary senior team-mates Philly Ryan (Clonmel Commercials), Peter Lambert (Ardfinnan) and Liam England (Inane Rovers, Roscrea), along with Andrew Lacey of Arravale Rovers.
“In fairness, when I got the job, I had to surround myself with good people that I trust and get on with.
“That’s what I’ve done. We’re all family people and we understand that it takes time, and it is very, very time-consuming.
“That’s why I have the lads as well. If somebody misses a training session, there’s someone there to cover and keep the continuity.
“If we only had three, there would be pressure for somebody to be there the whole time, not that we’ve missed a whole lot anyway.
“It’s a short, defined championship and that helps when you have a young family (Browne is married to Niamh, and they have two daughters).
“You can still plan holidays and it’s not affecting the real time with Niamh and the kids, and holiday time.”
Browne smiles: “In fairness, our wives know us a long time now! They’re very understanding and it’s like the old saying, we couldn’t do it without their support.”
Donning the ‘Bainisteoir’ bib brings a similar buzz to when Browne was preparing for a championship day as a player. The same, but a little different, he explains.
“You get the same buzz but it is different,” he confirms.
“When you’re playing, you only have to worry about yourself but being part of a management set-up, there are a lot more things going on in your head.
“You have to pick panels and tell lads they’re not in the squad. That’s something I had to try and get used to fast. That’s GAA, that’s sport, that’s life.
“You have to try and keep everybody happy, the best you can, which is not always possible, and that’s unfortunate.
“But they’re a great bunch to work with, we’ve trusted them and they’ve trusted us. It’s a good mix.”
Tipperary are favourites to see off Limerick at the Gaelic Grounds, and book a semi-final clash with holders Cork, but Browne is taking nothing for granted.
Gleaning information on the opposition, particularly in the underage grades, can be a difficult task but Browne says that he was careful not to over-analyse Limerick either.
“Control the controllables. We’ve watched Limerick but if you get too caught up in it, you lose focus on your own set-up.
“In the U21 grade, it’s knockout, one chance. Take your eye off the ball and you’re gone.
“We’ll control what we can control. The Limerick minors beat Tipp last year so it’s never easy in these one-off games.
“Someone could be sick, someone could be carrying a knock, so you’re hoping everything goes to plan.
“Limerick are the same, they’ll see us as a scalp. There’s no mention of Cork or Kerry or the other side of things. We have to focus on Limerick and that’s not blowing up Limerick or downing ourselves, that’s just the way it is. You can’t take your eye off the ball.”
From 2018, the U21 championship will be replaced by an U20 grade, but Browne isn’t too concerned by that just yet.
“That’s it, you can’t look too far but if you think of it, next’s year’s squad is the minor team that reached the All-Ireland final (in 2015).
“We’re very young this year, only four or five on the age, and next year’s squad is gone.
“At the end of the day, who knows where we’ll be next year? We’ll just worry about what’s going on with Limerick on Wednesday night, and that’s the bottom line.”
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