We shall never see his like again

Tony Browne departs...

We’ve all had a good laugh over the years at the expense of Ger Canning, and his suggestion during the 2004 Munster final that Tony Browne was “coming to the end of a wonderful career” certainly ranks up there alongside his assorted spoonerisms and malapropisms. Still, you really should view it with mirth rather than irritation because 1) he said nice things about the great man, and 2) was it really that unreasonable an observation at the time?

Saying that Waterford went 29 years without winning the Munster title in 2002 – now that was off the wall.

Speaking for myself, I was on a hair-trigger for a number of years with the retirement tribute. The photo above was taken conscious of the idea that it might be the last time that we saw him in a Waterford jersey. But that was nearly two years ago and when the moment came on Thursday, I wasn’t ready at all. Here was a man of such stature that I managed to feel a twinge of disappointment that my son was born on July 2nd, a day after the birthday of the great man. Had the passage of time and being up to my elbows in nappies meant that I couldn’t get inspiration to say something on his retirement? For shame!

Thankfully Twitter came to the rescue, erupting with so many tributes that #TonyBrowne started trending. It got me to thinking seriously about what made him great. It’s important to do this because the lull right at the end of his career might give the impression that his reputation was built around his longevity, which would do him a terrible disservice.

Tony Browne Waterford Comhraile na nOg

(photo taken from a hoarding in Cathedral Square)

He was, of course, a great hurler, a combination of style – witness his delightful flick of the wrists which finally pushed us past the point of no surrender in the 2002 Munster final – and teak-tough bravery – sticking his face in the way of the last shot in the 2010 final replay. Then there was his presence. From the first moment I encountered him up close, addressing the crowd after the Under-21 victory in 1992 with a panache that belied his tender years, he oozed confidence without ever being arrogant. In a sport dominated by culchie understatement, he had a townie swagger that separated him from his peers and made him stand out on the national stage. You only have to look at the various points of the four green fields from where the tweets hailed to see how he touched so many lives beyond his native county.

What made him so special in Waterford though was how he, more than any other player, restored our sense of well-being after the horrors of the 1980′s. The other legends of the 1992 team, Fergal Hartley and Paul Flynn, were great hurlers too. But Hartley didn’t have that swagger and Flynn was too mercurial, and when Waterford burst back onto the national stage in 1998 it was Browne who was the poster child for the county. It was he who was at the heart of the turmoil with Clare, it was he who pulled us up by the bootstraps in the quarter-final against Galway, it was he who kept us in that tension-soaked semi-final against Kilkenny, and it was he who finally gave us something tangible to show for it all – only our fourth-ever All Star and Hurler of the Year. My brother told of how Tony came to Tramore to award some medals and an old man approached him, tears in his eyes, and thanked Tony for giving us back our dignity. He set the bar very high that year, and he never let it drop over the seasons that followed.

The final word I leave to Enda McEvoy: