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Sunday 4 December 2016

Ciaran Kilkenny: I've no regrets about picking football over hurling

Ciaran Kilkenny
Ciaran Kilkenny

FOR a man of 21, Ciarán Kilkenny has had to make a few pretty hectic decisions pertaining to his sporting and personal lives so far.

Crossing hemispheres to begin a career as a professional athlete in a game he had never played before was, in 2012, a fairly monumental call.

Coming back, just months later, to shun the pro life and start teacher training and take up where he left off in his GAA career was, you'd imagine, an equally weighty choice over which to ponder.

Ditto, the big decision to play football rather than hurling at senior inter-county level, having briefly and, in hindsight, perhaps slightly naively, flirted with the possibility of doing both.

"To be honest, playing in Croke Park on a sunny day in front of the crowd and supporters, and the buzz leading into the game, after the game, and the week up to the game, after being injured last year there's nothing more special than that," he says now, like a man with no regrets.

"It's an unbelievable feeling and I'm happy with the decision I made coming back, playing with Dublin and the talent that we have there and the lads we have around. The lads have such pride for the county, it's just brilliant."

At 21, Kilkenny has an All-Ireland senior medal as a starter in 2013 but it's not been all wine and roses either.

He has played in - and lost - All-Ireland minor finals in both codes.

He's been singled out for unusually personally criticism by no less a distinguished football man as Jack O'Shea as not being quite as good at football as those who praised him had suggested.

And he's been through a year out with a cruciate ligament injury and all the rehab such a blow entails at a time when those more impressed with his talents than Jack O'Shea thought he might move into the very highest bracket of footballers.

"You would go through times when it's very tough," he recalls of the lengthy struggle for physical normality.

"You're down on yourself. But you just need to get your support…we have a serious medical background there…strength and conditioning.

"You just bounce on them. Get over the line and then get over the next line. Keep pushing on and talking to other lads.

"Kevin O'Brien did it at the time. If ever I had a tough time, I would have been on to him. Just drive each other on.

"I was lucky my family were supporting me and please God, touch wood, I won't get another serious injury like that. I learned a lot from it now."

At first glance, Kilkenny appears stronger again than he was when struck down in that League game against Kildare last February.

"When we did tests and stuff like that to see if you're on the same kind of levels, some of the scores I had improved on," he reveals.

"It lets you focus in on some aspects of your body. You're in the gym so much and mentally, you improve much more because you're after getting over this mental struggle.

"It makes you appreciate it a lot more and makes you hungrier as well."

Never moreso than during the All-Ireland semi-final when Kilkenny sat in the Hogan Stand, helpless as his team capsized.

"It was tough to watch on when you can't do anything about it. Fair enough if you're available for selection.

"But if you're not even able to do anything or push lads on or anything it's a hard situation to be in."

Nice then, to be Man of the Match last Sunday in his return to Championship football, albeit on a day when Dublin used Longford merely for calibration purposes.

"It was an honour to get it," Kilkenny says, ever stately in his public utterances.

"Obviously Bernard or Dean or any of the lads could of got it.

"I thought a lot of the lads performed really well.

"I suppose it was a nice tough for my first game back to get it. But the main thing was that we got the win and we got through the game."

A game that spawned the seasonal debate over who exactly benefits from hidings like Sunday, the severity of which - while not unique - certainly isn't pretty to watch.

"I think it's great to win your own province," says Kilkenny, outing himself as a GAA traditionalist.

"It's where you're from. It's the province that you're in and there's 12 counties in it, so I think it's a serious achievement to win the Leinster Championship and the Delaney Cup.

"Things like that you'll appreciate a lot more when you're older and looking back. Winning the Delaney Cup is something to be proud of."

So, doubtless, would the claiming of an All-Ireland medal in hurling be, to add to whatever tally of silver he winds up with from football.

The question makes Kilkenny sit slightly uneasily, though when he describes hurling as "the greatest game in the world," it's fairly apparent that that the desire to play it for Dublin one day remains strong.

Anthony Daly, he says, "rang me up a few times."

"And I was going to go out training a few times. But in the end I just made the decision to stick with the football."

Something he'd care to do in future, perhaps - a la Conal Keaney?

"Sure I don't know what I'm doing next week," he says.

"I dunno. That's a tough decision," Kilkenny concludes.

"I'll just concentrate on football now and see where I go from that."

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