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Dublin: 8 °C Thursday 19 September, 2019
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Duel stars: the boxers in opposite corners at Croke Park today

Olympian Darren O’Neill and pro champion Matthew Macklin hurled for club and county before excelling in the ring.

KILKENNY AND TIPPERARY battle for Liam MacCarthy today. Olympian Darren O’Neill (Barrow Rangers, Kilkenny) and European professional champion Matthew Macklin (Ballingarry, Tipperary) hurled for club and county before gaining renown as boxers.

At Croke Park, on All Ireland Final day, both fighters will be supporting their fellow county men.

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Darren O'Neill Darren O'Neill: excelled underage on the hurling field. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The O’Neills from Paulstown are in England this weekend.

Ollie, father of three, is visiting siblings in England. His eldest sons, Darren (33) and Aidan (30), are travelling with him. The trip was booked before the Kilkenny hurlers ousted Limerick as All Ireland Senior champions.

Only when Darren copped that the return flight from Birmingham landed in Dublin on Sunday at 4:30pm did they realise the folly of their plans.

“Good God! Change that,” Ollie warned.

Dutifully, Darren made alternative arrangements. No sense flying, for this Kilkenny family, while the biggest hurling match of the year was underway. Instead they will hit the tarmac around midday, in plenty of time to take their seats at Croke Park.

“Dad got me into hurling at home,” Darren explains. “When you’re from Kilkenny, you’re nearly born with a stick in your hand.”

Darren O’Neill, Olympic boxer, started out as a full back. Through the grades, his position improved. At St Kieran’s College, renowned hurling nursery, O’Neill anchored midfield. There he won the Dr Croke Cup, All Ireland secondary schools championship, back to back. He partnered James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick, future All Star, in 2003. Richie Hogan, later to be Hurler of the Year, had joined the team for 2004’s repeat success.

“I hurled with some of these guys who are playing at the weekend,” says O’Neill ahead of today’s All-Ireland Final. “I’d love to be in their shoes, to feel that buzz and anticipation.”

Chevron Clarke in action against Darren O'Neill England's Chevron Clarke faces O'Neill, left, at the National Stadium in 2016. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

From the stands, he watches with unease. Between two competing forces, critical instincts and objective desires, his mind compresses.

“I find it hard to be a spectator especially when I’m watching guys who I’ve played with,” O’Neill admits. “I’d be thinking: ‘That’s not what we were taught.’ There’s always the guy who sits in the bar and thinks he knows it all. And I don’t want to be one of them either.”

When these Sundays come, as they often do, a means to watch is sometimes hardest found. During his time with Ireland, O’Neill regularly fought in distant places. Typically, early summer coincided with Kilkenny’s Leinster campaigns. As Ireland’s elite fighters grew in stature, their training camps took them to prized boxing locations: Azerbaijan, Russia and Ukraine.

“I’ve watched Kilkenny matches in the Ukraine a few times,” O’Neill recalls. “You’d be trying to get a stream. I had great banter with Billy Walsh one year when Kilkenny were playing Wexford. I’d still get the odd text message from America before a match.”

Adam Nolan, the Wexford welterweight, also sparred with the Kilkenny man. They even took hurleys abroad to puck about. Best of all, 2009, when the Cats pounced late on Tipperary.

“I remember running down to Con Sheehan from Clonmel to slag him when we won,” O’Neill recounts. When it comes to Tipperary, on All Ireland Final day, there is no more potent mix. Games as sweet as 2014’s drawn decider must reckon with sour days.

“It would definitely be the most sickening to lose to Tipperary,” O’Neill attests. “If it was Wexford you could laugh it off and say: ‘We’re just giving you one.’ Look at our recent history. They stopped us getting the five in a row. And they got us again in 2016. There is that extra bit of bite to it.”

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Birmingham to Ballingarry is an unlikely journey for a hurler. The Macklins, settled in England’s second city, always had Ireland for a summer home. Matthew, his father out of Four Roads, Roscommon and his mother out of Tipperary South, annually retraced that emigrant route.

The maternal line took him to Ballingarry. At wing forward, Matthew Macklin first made his name.

“I got selected to play for Tipperary in the Tony Forristal tournament (U14) when I was hurling for the Ballingarry club,” Macklin reveals. “I didn’t play because I played that same year for Warwickshire in the Féile na nGael. If one of the other counties objected, I could have been illegal and they didn’t want to take that chance.”

Matthew Macklin Macklin outside Croke Park before the 2015 final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Tipperary, spearheaded by Eoin Kelly, won that Forristal (1996) tournament. The following year, at U15, Macklin lined out for his mother’s county and played alongside Kelly, having previously opposed him at club level.

Macklin attests to Kelly’s talent with awe: “At underage, Eoin was just unbelievable. In the U14 County final against Toomevara, he scored 4-11 out of 4-13. He was untouchable.”

Those summers shaped his sporting outlook. Time spent so close to the county boundary, versed in local ways, sharpened the hurling horizon.

“I was brought up hearing about the Kilkenny-Tipperary rivalry,” Macklin explains. “It’s something that I’ve always known about.”

More than bloodlines ran to Ballingarry. His dad, Seamus, worked on the Channel Tunnel with another native. Mick Lyons became his best friend and the families clicked.

“Mick had a son, Keith, who was my age and we became like cousins,” Macklin says. “Mick Lyons’ first cousin is Adrian Ronan, the former Kilkenny player, but I don’t think he really likes him because he’s from Kilkenny!”

Aged eight, Macklin attended his first All Ireland: 1990, Cork against Galway.

“1990 was one of the most memorable as well because it was an unbelievable match,” he notes. “Galway were up five points at half time. Joe Cooney was having a stormer. Tony Keady was dictating everything. Then I think Cork switched Tomás Mulcahy from corner forward out to centre forward and that turned the game around. I have a photographic memory for that stuff.”

 The following year, another first, watching Tipp lift Liam. He lists his years: “’91, ’92, ’95, ’96, ’97, ’98, 2001. Missed a few then. 2005, 2007. Then I was at ’11, ’13, ’14, ’16. There’s not many I’ve missed now. Since 1990, I’ve been to most of them.”

Today marks the latest trek to Croker. On Saturday, he flies to Dublin. Macklin is due for departure the following evening.

“In 2016, I was meant to fly back on the Sunday but I ended up down in Tipperary until the Tuesday,” Macklin remembers. “You never know.”

Matthew Macklin in action against Jorge Sebastien Heiland Matthew Macklin faces Jorge Sebastien Heiland at the Three Arena in 2014. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

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“I’m really struggling to call it,” says Darren O’Neill. “I’d make Tipp slight favourites based on the All Star names they have.”

For all the successes, so much so recently won, Kilkenny have thrived this year as an underdog. Their journey involved a detour following defeat to Wexford in the Leinster Final. Not since 2012 have they traversed this route.

“If I was a Kilkenny player, and maybe it’s a Kilkenny thing, this is exactly what I would want,” O’Neill stresses in relation to his county’s position as outsiders. “If I was one of the Kilkenny players this week, I’d be thinking: ‘Nice one. I have a big name to be marking.’ It’s something to aim for, someone to take down.”

Now 37, Matthew Macklin still harbours hurling ambition. A return to action with Warwickshire was aborted last year when he pulled his hamstring in training. Assessing today’s prospects, he chimes with his counterpart.

“Tipp are slight favourites and I think that’s right as long as they get the mental approach right,” Macklin reasons. “I think they have the better team and the better hurlers.”

Just as O’Neill tempers his judgement, Macklin voices caution: “Kilkenny are never beaten. I wasn’t there in 2009 because I won the European title a couple of weeks after and I was training for the fight. There was a pub across from where I was living in Manchester. I went in there on my own to watch. I was sick for the day after it because I thought they should have won.”

Boxing parallels, with this heavyweight hurling encounter, seem obvious. But O’Neill dispels one notion: “People often think in boxing that you’re going out there with your blood boiling to take the head off some fella. It’s the complete opposite. It’s about being composed and maintaining your discipline. If you get caught with a stupid shot, you can’t go looking to get one back because you drop your defence and lose your game plan.”

Macklin appreciates the psychology. Where Tipperary are concerned, this cuts acutely. Kilkenny dominance during the Brian Cody era has altered the hurling landscape.

“I don’t think the group of players over the last 10 years in Kilkenny have been better than the group of players in Tipperary,” he believes. “Yet they’ve won more. I think that’s probably down to the consistency and the ability of the management.”

Brian Cody Kilkenny boss, Brian Cody. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Tipperary have won the big prize five times in Macklin’s lifetime. Kilkenny, under Cody, count 11 All Irelands. The common denominator is plain to him: “I think Cody, the fact that he has stayed there, he’s the key. Cody has kept them together. He’s a great man manager.”

This year, the return of Liam Sheedy has emboldened Tipperary. Macklin brings their semi final victory over Wexford into focus: “A man down and five points down, to dig in, they showed they have the heart. I think it’s man management. You’ve got 25 to 30 lads on a panel. It’s about keeping the heads right. People are people.”

If the game is decided on ability alone, Tipperary are set fair. Nothing unusual, in that respect, this past decade. As the rivalry intensified from 2009, unanswered questions more often shadowed blue and gold. The head to head reads 3-2 in Kilkenny’s favour. Even that high wire draw of 2014 felt like defeat for Tipperary, the way the Cats refused to die.

Although Cody is the constant, O’Neill perceives a change in the Marble dynamic: “For a decade there, we had the big names and the superstars. You got the ball, hit it as far as you can and let the talent take over. We saw the last day, they fought hard. They were looking for the clever pass, the clever score. That was a real joy to watch.”

One principle remains absolute: All Irelands won in defiance of the other are the ultimate.

“It will be something special,” O’Neill allows.

Macklin sweetens at the thought: “To win an All Ireland is unbelievable but to beat Kilkenny in the final is the icing on the cake.”

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