On a COLD Friday night in late November, in a hidden corner of Tipperary, under floodlights, the glittering career of arguably Tipperary’s greatest ever Gaelic footballer came to an end.
At the age of 34, Declan Browne had finally decided to call time on a sporting career that had seen him excel at both Gaelic codes, especially at football, in a career spanning more than two decades.
His loss to the playing fields will be immense, perhaps in our lifetimes we will never again see a Tipperary man reach the heights Declan Browne did, but the memories and his legacy will last many a generation to come.
His swan song in Ballyporeen on Friday night, lining out one last time for his beloved Moyle Rovers in a County League Final, was a million miles removed from some of the venues he graced at the peak of his powers, but it was never about glory with Declan. He was there for club and team mates, giving as he always gave, oft’ times on one leg, to a cause much much bigger than winning, or silverware or awards.
That he was blessed with a special talent he always knew, and more importantly appreciated. He shared it with club and county, on and off the field, and was an ambassador for himself, his family, his club and his county always.
That Eire Og defeated Moyle Rovers on Friday night was academic in the scheme of things; Declan contributed as best he could on the night scoring three frees. Those in attendance saw flashes of the Declan of old; the brain which always moved so far ahead of the legs was moving as fast as ever; trouble was the legs, because of the years and the many injuries shipped, were losing ground.
How painful it must be for a footballing genius to accept such a scenario; but he wasn’t in Bally for himself, as ever, he was there, as he always has been, for the Rovers or for Tipperary. Sometimes pain of some sort was part of the deal.
In presenting the Dr. Clifford Cup to the winning Eire Og captain on Friday night, County Football Board chairman, Noel Morris, first saw it fit to praise Declan Browne. He said he had “given a lifetime of service to Moyle Rovers, Tipperary, Munster and Ireland at International Rules.” “Perhaps,” he went on to say “his proudest day was in Croke Park and scoring the goal when captaining Tipperary to win the Tommy Murphy Cup” (2005 v Wexford).
Noel Morris also expressed a wish that now that Declan was “gone from the playing fields he still had a lot to offer to Tipperary football and maybe in time we might see him in a management role.”
Eoin Kennedy, winning captain of Eire Og, magnanimously added that “Declan Browne was someone they always admired and looked up to while growing up.”
How true! Declan Browne has been a role model to every Tipperary youngster who ever kicked a ball.
What he has achieved on the playing fields in terms of footballing ability is beyond compare in the Premier County. The list of honours and achievements are unequalled.
Declan made his senior inter-county championship debut in 1996 against Kerry (while still a minor) and continued to play at this level for 11 years up to 2007.
He is the only Tipperary player to be honoured with an All-Star, not once but twice, in 1998 and 2003.
In 1998 his first All-Star award came as corner-forward in an inside forward line that included Karl O’Dwyer (Kildare) and Padraig Joyce (Galway). Indeed in 1998, 12 of the 15 awards went to either Galway or Kildare - one of whom went to Tipperary Town native Brian Lacey who lined out for Kildare in their All-Ireland final defeat to the Tribemen. By coincidence in the past week Padraig Joyce called time on his own career and on Saturday last acknowledged in an national radio interview the greatness of the Tipperaryman.
Declan’s second All-Star in 2003 was at wing-forward with Brian Dooher and Brian McGuigan (both Tyrone) making up the half-line. The Moyle Rovers man was clearly at the very top of his sport in such exalted company.
Declan also represented Ireland in Compromise Rules against Australia in 2003 and 2004. The trip to Australia in 2004 was painful to recall. Declan told me how he arrived in Australia on a Saturday and was very badly “injured” in a warm-up game the following Tuesday which ended any further participation in the series.
He is also the proud holder of seven county senior football medals with Moyle Rovers between 1995 and 2009, one of just four players to capture seven, the others being - Liam Cronin, Robbie Boland and James Williams.
And of course that never-to-be-forgotten day at Croke Park in 2005 when he led Tipperary to a rare national football title at senior level when Tipp defeated favourites Wexford in the Tommy Murphy Cup final.
But Declan Browne had the very special ability that he could hurl at a very high level also. As a hurler his ability to read the game always gave him a yard start, lovely hands, quick feet, and he could strike off left and right with equal ease.
His talent was evident early and he had the honour of captaining the High School to win the Fitzgerald Cup (Tipperary under 17), the first time it was won by the school.
A former teacher in the High School credited Declan Browne with possessing “attributes that included bravery, perseverence, resilience, humility, a man rooted and grounded in his school, club and friends. Qualities he never lost as he continued to the man he is today.”
Declan Browne went on to win an All-Ireland minor hurling medal in 1996 before winning two Fitzgibbon Cup medals with Waterford I.T., and under 21 and intermediate honours with his county.
In the modern era of the GAA only a handful of sportsmen have reached such high standards in both codes of football and hurling. Declan Browne in on that very short list.
When asked after Friday night’s game “Why now?” Declan said: “Quite honestly the fun was gone out of it for me and I knew that the time was right to go now. I wasn’t enjoying it anymore and wanted to go last year but decided to do one last year.”
He added: “Injuries and being scared of injuries was part of it too. The fear of injury was there all the time and I didn’t want to be crippled at the end of my career.”
I put it to him what Noel Morris had said about the Tommy Murphy day being the proudest of his career. And Declan had this to say.
“Yeah, that day was great walking up the steps of the Hogan Stand and all that but my real highlight was the All-Ireland Junior Club Hurling Final in 2008 against Conahy Shamrocks of Kilkenny.”
Strange I suppose for a footballing great to pick a club hurling fixture as a career proudest moment. But those in the know wouldn’t be suprised in the least. Declan always wore his heart on his sleeve, a sky blue sleeve most of the time.
And at the other end of the spectrum when I asked about biggest disappointments as he looks back he answered:
“Two stand out. At club level it had to be the Munster Club Football Final in 1998 when we lost a replay to Doonbeg. At county level it was definitely 2002 and losing the Munster Football Final replay to Cork.”
And so comes the end of Declan Browne’s playing career but there will be much more to follow in years to come.
He will always be remembered as a lighthouse of Tipperary football someone who represented excellence on and off the pitch at all times.
The quality of his skill, of his spirit, of his vision, of his will to win and give of his best, of his sense of integrity, will be an enduring legacy of his character and characteristics he displayed always.
We can only all say thank you for the memories and best wishes for the future.
Declan’s honours include:
Compromise Rules International in 2003 and 2004
All-Star Football Awards in 1998 2003
Tommy Murphy Cup 2005
Munster Minor Football 1995
McGrath Cup 2003
Seven Tipperary Senior Football - 1995 1996 1998 1999 2000 2007 2009
Munster Junior Club Hurling
Munster Minor Hurling 1996
All-Ireland Minor Hurling 1996
Munster Intermediate Hurling 2000
All-Ireland Intermediate Hurling 2000
Munster Under-21 Hurling 1999
Two Tipperary Junior Hurling 1998, 2007