With ten minutes of regulation time remaining in the 2018 All-Ireland semi-final with Limerick, Daniel Kearney’s legs were gone. He had no more left to give. With the game in the melting pot, Mark Ellis was sent on in his stead, a substitution aimed at protecting an already dwindling lead. For sixty minutes, Kearney had blended attrition with artisanry, augmenting his usual busyness with three points from play. His substitution, rather than an indication of a sub-par performance, underlined the physical toll that Kearney’s combative, nomadic style exacted on his body, it’s lasting-life unsuited to much more than an hour of high-octane hurling.
In fact, he had been replaced in three of Cork’s five championship games up to that point. That he was asked to go again in extra-time, exemplified his importance to the team. That he agreed to go again, typified the courage that had always endeared him to the Cork supporters. Unless this Cork team reach the holy grail, they will eternally (if somewhat unfairly) be shackled by connotations surrounding flakiness and timidity. As a player who embodied the old saying about the size of the dog in the fight, the same can never be said about Daniel Kearney.
When the 5ft 8” Sarsfields man entered the domain of inter-county hurling in 2012, the Kilkenny behemoth was still reigning supreme. With directness very much in vogue, size and physicality were the prerequisites on which their dominance was built. Of course, Richie Hogan and Tommy Walsh were exceptions to the rule, their comparatively slight frames offset by fearlessness and extraordinary aerial ability. Unblessed with such super-human skills in the air however, Kearney had to engineer for himself a niche that would allow him to survive and then thrive in the Land of Giants. He based his game on a simple tenet; that while the initial battle may occur in the skies, the subsequent skirmish on terra-firma is often of the most consequence. It is on this battle-front that Kearney proved his worth, utilising his agility and low centre of gravity to emerge from warrens of bodies and ash, ball invariably in hand. On this, a career was forged.
Having dipped his toe in inter-county waters in 2012, accruing four appearances (three as a sub) in a season which ended in an All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Galway, Kearney cemented his place in Cork’s midfield throughout an otherwise abject league campaign in 2013. It is no coincidence that the upturn in Cork’s fortunes coincided with Kearney’s permanent deployment around Cork’s middle-third. During the not too distant halcyon days between 2003 to 2007, the energy and dynamism exhibited by Tom Kenny and Jerry O’Connor allowed them to converge on any loose balls which reverberated off the impenetrable Gardiner-Curran-O’hAilpin fortification. Matching a fervent pugnacity with boundless reserves of energy, Kearney’s role for much of his early career centred on a similar mandate. As Cork’s half-back line weakened following the retirements of the aforementioned trio, the extra protection afforded by Kearney became an important facet of Cork’s game. While he starred alongside Christopher Joyce and an ageing Tom Kenny throughout the Munster campaign that year, it was his partnership with Lorcan McLoughlin from there on in that carried Cork into September. A first All-Star nomination provided a modicum of comfort following defeat to Clare in the All-Ireland Final.
Provincial success the following year notwithstanding, 2013 proved to be yet another false dawn for hurling on Leeside. Kearney too, regressed to such an extent that when Kieran Kingston was installed as the new Cork manager, he found himself relegated to the role of impact-sub, an unenviable position for a player in his mid-twenties. His sole start under the new manager came in Kingston’s first game at the helm, an insipid nine-point defeat to Tipperary in 2016. He was replaced before half time. The following year, despite an encouraging start to the league, Kearney retired injured before half-time in the third-round clash with Kilkenny. He didn’t return to the starting fifteen that season. In his place, Kingston opted for the novel pairing of Darragh Fitzgibbon and Bill Cooper for the Munster Quarter-Final meeting with Tipperary, both of whom had featured predominantly in the forward division throughout that league campaign. The results were instantaneous, with Cooper’s brash physicality in defense providing the perfect foil for Fitzgibbon’s raw pace in attack. Cork ended the year as Munster Champions while young Fitzgibbon’s debut season culminated in an All-Star nomination. Having started just one of seven championship games since 2015, Daniel Kearney was now very much on the periphery of Cork’s latest revival.
Having played almost exclusively in midfield throughout John Meyler’s first league campaign in 2018, Kearney was selected at wing-forward for the opening round of the Munster round-robin series against Clare. The experiment gifted Kearney the freedom to put his tactical acuity to use, a blank canvas from which he could contort the traditional wing-forward role to suit his own particular set of attributes. In doing so, he developed a style of play which had been a central facet of the big ball game since the turn of the century, the quintessential modern half-forward, perpetually patrolling the middle-third, scavenging for breaks and offering himself as an option for defenders – think Paul Galvin, Brian Dooher or Mark McHugh in all their unglamorous splendor. However, two shots, dropped harmlessly short that day against Clare, certainly bolstered the consensus that the attacking sextet was no place for a player who had scored an unremarkable 1-17 in twenty-five championship appearances to date. Although his profligacy didn’t cost Cork, it inspired a simple alteration that transformed his game.
If the 2016 defeat to Tipperary was Kearney’s lowest ebb, the 2018 meeting with the Premier County proved redemptive. With a slightly heavier hurley at his disposal, he supplemented his usual industriousness with a never-before-seen proclivity for point-scoring. He finished the game with four from play. Kearney’s unprecedented scoring returns continued throughout the season and elevated him to a position as one of the most proficient half-forwards in the game. That year, Clare’s Peter Duggan and Limerick’s Kyle Hayes averaged two points from play per game throughout the championship, the pair ending the season with an All Star and the Young Hurler of the Year gong respectively. With thirteen points over six games, Kearney’s average topped both. In his seventh season of championship hurling, this relatively old dog had learned a new trick.
When spurious rumours emerged from the murky realm of social media regarding Daniel Kearney’s retirement in 2016, the reaction on Leeside bordered on apathy, the indifference owing much to the consensus that his inter-county career was already on the wane. When the Sarsfields man declared his intention to step away from the inter-county game last month, the difference in response was telling. While not quite descending into mournful lamentations, the general response conveyed the wistful understanding that Kearney’s unique blend of qualities was almost irreplaceable. Although Kearney stopped short of announcing his retirement from inter-county hurling, he will be thirty-one when the pre-season drudgery rears it’s ugly head once again next year. For a player whose game is still predominantly based on the more thankless aspects of the game, a return to the trenches will surely be less than appealing.
As the French are wont to say in rugby parlance; in every team, there are piano players and piano lifters. For much of his career, Daniel Kearney belied what was expected from a player of his build to categorize himself as the latter, often constructing the platform on which an artist like Patrick Horgan could perform his opus. It is testament to Kearney’s perseverance and adaptability that by the time he stepped off the stage, the audience realised that he could play a few notes too.