FRANK ROCHE – 03 JULY 2013 02:30 PM
HE was back just in time for last year’s championship but, in truth, it’s probably only now that we’re seeing the real Stephen Hiney.
A physical powerhouse but also a leader of men, Hiney has endured the slings and arrows of outrageous injury misfortune to a greater degree, perhaps, than any of his county colleagues.
And that’s saying something, given how the GAA’s answer to the Sword of Damocles – the ‘Curse of the Cruciate’ – has hung over the Dublin hurling camp for long, agonising stretches of Anthony Daly’s tenure.
Now, finally, Daly’s men are getting a clean injury run and the fruits of a fully-fit squad are there to see on the pitch – and on the scoreboard.
On a magical Saturday night in the midlands, it was Hiney – almost as much as Dotsy O’Callaghan – who set the early replay agenda against Kilkenny.
Who rampaged up the right flank before delivering the pass for Dotsy’s first point? Hiney. Who successfully snared a potential hospital pass before arrowing a pinpoint delivery to Paul Ryan in the left corner for Dublin’s second point? Hiney again. Who has kept Eoin Larkin scoreless from play over successive weekends? Got it in one.
In the wake of Saturday’s epochal result, the former Dublin captain was asked what it meant on a personal level, given all his tribulations.
“There’s been a lot of hard work done in the last few years to try and get back into the team,” he confirmed. “But I’m delighted to be back on the team, to be honest, and we’ve a strong panel there with a lot of lads who came in off the line to make a difference. Delighted to be there.”
“Hard work” barely covers the arduous journey back from the trauma of Wexford Park, over 27 months ago, to the triumph of O’Moore Park last Saturday night.
March 13, 2011: that was the day Hiney wrecked his knee in a league match at Wexford Park. An otherwise routine victory was overshadowed by the immediate realisation that Dublin’s captain could be gone; gone for a very long time.
This wasn’t your everyday ACL rupture; he also tore the lateral ligament as well as suffering a partial tear of his posterior cruciate. It was four months – July – before he could even undergo reconstructive knee surgery.
In the meantime, Dublin had already achieved Allianz League history in their skipper’s absence and they’d go on to reach that year’s All-Ireland semi-final, pushing holders Tipperary all the way.
The following June he made his competitive Sky Blue comeback, in tandem with fellow members of Dublin’s ‘Cruciate Three’ club, Conal Keaney and Tomás Brady.
It was a facile (and as it transpired, worthless) 22-point romp for the Dubs against Laois … a few short weeks later they were ripped asunder by Kilkenny. And then, for the deflating qualifier that followed in Ennis, Hiney didn’t even see a minute of action.
Over the winter he had surgery on his ankle and his league campaign was confined to one outing in the virtual ‘dead rubber’ against Carlow. Nor did he feature in Dublin’s championship opener in Wexford Park.
But that fraught stalemate confirmed, for management, that Dublin couldn’t afford to play both Liam Rushe and Keaney in the half-back line; the latter was needed to bolster their attack. Re-enter Hiney in his old number five jersey.
After Kilkenny were eventually put to the sword, Hiney spoke of how this was “just a massive victory” for the county. But he was happy to deflect the half-back plaudits elsewhere.
“He’s a monster of a man in the centre there, and he’s some man in the air as well,” he said of his centre-back colleague, Rushe.
Dublin’s right half-back brings a similar level of physicality; perhaps just as important is the inner strength he brings to the championship table.
John Kirwan managed the young Hiney from under-10 all the way through to the minor team at Ballyboden St Enda’s; he subsequently served as a senior selector to Liam Hogan during the club’s five-in-a-row Dublin pomp.
“An outstanding leader the whole way up,” says Kirwan. “He led by example.”
As a Kilkenny native watching seven Ballyboden players see game-time in Portlaoise, Kirwan had mixed emotions.
But he was thrilled to see his club play such a central role in this famous day; and perhaps even more elated for Hiney.
“I think his presence on the team alone counts for a lot. Even the start of the match against Kilkenny – the first ball went down between himself and Eoin Larkin and he won it fair and square,” Kirwan recounts.
“He would have a quiet disposition, but anything you say in the dressing-room would be taken in.
“On the one hand he is quiet; not a boisterous personality. But he’s very cool, calm, collected – and talks sense all the time.”
Those leadership qualities were identified by other managers even before Daly; Tommy Naughton had already handed Hiney the Dublin captaincy.
“He would be highly regarded within the dressing-room,” the former Dublin boss discloses.
“He keeps a fairly good focus on what’s ahead, rather than getting too excited.”
As if to reinforce that point, even in the giddy aftermath of Saturday’s win, Hiney offered the following pithy commentary on the pitfalls of facing a Galway team lurking in the long grass: “It’ll probably be hyped up in the press going into the final now, and yet we still haven’t won anything.
“We’ve got to the final and we just have to focus in on that. That’s key,” he stressed.
Naughton summarises Hiney as a “doer rather than a talker” … those deeds are reflected by his form graph since last month’s recall.
“The half-back line has been where the biggest improvement has been. Michael Carton is a new man. Liam Rushe is just playing very, very well now,” he points out.
As for Rushe’s ‘right-hand man’, Naughton concludes: “He always kept going, through good times and bad times.
“It’s great to see him playing as well as he is and coming good at the right time.
“He missed out on a few of the bigger occasions …”
And now he’s back for, potentially, the biggest one of all.