Manager of the Kilkenny Senior Camogie team tells how she got her appetite for camogie management back when she started coaching the WIT camogie team
Ann Downey thought her camogie days were behind her when, out of the blue, she received a call from WIT to coach their Ashbourne Cup team in 2014. Fast-forward to today and the Kilkenny legend is as much involved in the sport as she ever was, having masterminded the Cats’ first All-Ireland triumph in 22 years and also guided them to back-to-back National League titles since returning for her third stint as manager at the beginning of last year.
“I had finished with Kilkenny and was playing a bit of golf when Conor Phelan and Sheila O’Donohue persuaded me to come on board,” she recalls.
“I can safely say now that I would never have got back involved with Kilkenny if it wasn’t for WIT. I got my appetite for camogie management back while I down there. It was a great experience and opportunity which I’m very grateful to have had. I had four great years working with some fantastic people. One of the best things about coaching WIT is it gave me the opportunity to work with players from all over Ireland. We were well looked after and the girls wanted for nothing with the wonderful training facilities they have in Carriganore.”
The 12-time O’Duffy Cup winner, who brought the curtain down on her WIT reign after this year’s Ashbourne Cup campaign, admits things got a bit hectic following her return to the Kilkenny hot-seat.
“There was some juggling to be done at times, but you do it for the love of the game. I wasn’t any different to the girls who play for both their college and county teams. They give as much commitment, if not more,” says Ann, who is showing no signs of slowing down at 60.
Asked how managing college and inter-county teams compare, she replies: “When you coach a team like Kilkenny you are very privileged because the players have all the skills and come from a winning culture. The Kilkenny team I inherited last year had players who had won All-Ireland medals at underage level. Some of the players I had in WIT wouldn’t have had the same skill levels or winning mentality, so that was something we had to work harder on… I don’t mean that in a bad way.”
Winning the Centenary Ashbourne Cup in 2015 was the highlight of Ann’s time as WIT supremo. Marie Morrissey and Ciara Quirke scored early goals to pave the way for a 2-12 to 0-12 victory over UL in the final at DCU. It was sweet revenge for WIT who had been denied a remarkable six-in-a-row of titles by their Limerick rivals in Belfast the previous year.
“We lost a final we were expected to win in 2014 and won a final we were expected to lose the following year,” quips Ann.
“We had a star-studded team in 2014, but lost to UL by a point. Having lost 16 players from that panel, the expectations weren’t as high in 2015, but we succeeded in wresting the Ashbourne Cup back from UL, which was a brilliant achievement with a new team.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t have the same drive last year when we lost the semi-final to UL and this year we were beaten again at the semi-final stage by UCC at the National Sports Campus in Abbottstown. It was a hard one to take because we had produced an excellent quarter-final performance against CIT and the girls had put in a ferocious effort in training. We even trained on December 28th, which showed how much they wanted to win.
“The conditions were difficult for the UCC game, but I wouldn’t use it as an excuse. We didn’t take our chances and the better team won.”
Ann expects this year’s campaign to stand WIT in good stead for 2018. “We had a lot of new players who had never played in the Ashbourne Cup before. This year was a steep learning curve for them and they will be better players for it. It’s a very difficult competition to win.”
Ann is full of praise for Paddy Mullally and Conor Phelan, with this dynamic trio first working together at WIT and now are at the helm in Kilkenny .
“I have worked with the two lads at college and inter-county level, and they really know their stuff. Conor is a pure gentleman and WIT are lucky to have had him as their GAA Development Officer,” Ann continues.
“It was a pleasure to work with so many great people in WIT, from my first management team of James McGrath, Ursula Jacob and Conor to this year’s management, which comprised Paddy (coach), Jacqui O’Connor and Conor (both selectors). A huge amount of work goes into promoting camogie in the college.”
Ann is one of the most decorated camogie players of all-time. Along with her equally famous twin sister Angela, she won a dozen All-Ireland senior medals with Kilkenny – captaining the team in 1989 and ’94 – seven All-Ireland club medals with St. Paul’s and Lisdowney, nine National League medals and three Player of the Year awards. Regarded as one of the best backs / midfielders to have played the game and also a noted squash player and golfer, she managed Kilkenny between 2002 and ’04, and 2009 and ’11 before taking up the reins again last year.
“You couldn’t write the script,” she says of a fairytale season which ended with the Cats winning their first O’Duffy Cup since Downey herself lifted it 22 years earlier at the age of 42.
“The girls had All-Ireland minor titles under their belts and had the experience of playing in senior finals, so the talent was there. They just needed to buy into the training and the rest would fall into place. We’ve some great players in Kilkenny at the moment like Denise Gaule, Meighan Farrell, Aine Gannon, Miriam Walsh and Julianne Malone who I got to know very well from coaching WIT. We’ve had a marvellous run, winning two National Leagues either side of the All-Ireland. The next goal is to try and retain the All-Ireland.”
In the 2016 Kilkenny GAA Yearbook, Conor Phelan was glowing in his praise of the Ballyragget native. “Ann Downey. What a woman. Heart on sleeve. Huge passion. Lives it and breathes it. Phone call at 11.30pm or midnight, talking about this team or that player,” the Kilkenny coach and selector remarked.
How she will be missed on the WIT sideline next year!
By Randal Scally
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