‘They were going to the gym and doing weights and that was absolutely unheard of back then’

BY THE TIME Sinéad Millea came into the Kilkenny senior camogie panel, the county was coming to the end of one of the longest winning runs in the history of the sport.

Sinéad Millea in action for Kilkenny in the 1999 All-Ireland final.

Source: Donna McBride/INPHO

It was 1991, and the Cats were six-in-a-row All-Ireland champions. By the end of the year, they would pick up their seventh crown on the bounce. They were queens of all they surveyed.

If the coverage of camogie is just starting to pick up momentum now, it was almost invisible during the early 90s. In the absence of social media, newspapers and rare television appearances were all that could be relied upon to create awareness of the games.

And yet, Millea knew all about the Kilkenny dynasty and the star twins Ann and Angela Downey when she was in primary school. Today’s 20×20 mantra of ‘Can’t See It Can’t Be It’ was something she could testify to before it ever became a promotional slogan for women’s sport.

“Our local school organised for us to go to the camogie All-Irelands,” Millea tells The42 as she recalls those glory days for the black and amber.

You went up and you just wanted to be Angela Downey. You just wanted to do all the things she did. It was fantastic.”

Millea comes from strong hurling stock. Growing up, there were several matches in her back garden where both of her parents would play in goals while Millea and her sister Tracy played outfield.

Her father Joe won an All-Ireland medal in 1969, playing on a Kilkenny team that was captained by Eddie Keher.

And those garden games attracted some high-profile local talent including Kilkenny greats such as Denis Byrne. The girls were much younger than the other players on the field, and bruises were guaranteed.

“We gave as good as we got,” says Millea thinking back on those days.

“Dad would be in goals and you’d be belting [the ball] at him. Ah look, happy times and you kind of honed your skills in the back garden.”

Millea enjoyed plenty of success with the Kilkenny minors, and by the time she was 15, she was promoted to the senior squad along with Tracy.

Tracy and Sinéad Millea joined the Kilkenny senior squad in 1991.

Source: Donna McBride/INPHO

After years of looking on at Kilkenny’s All-Ireland winning heroes, she was now sharing a dressing room with them.

“They were always very kind and always gave great guidance and advice. Initially when you came in, you were in awe. You’re going up to Croke Park and seeing all these brilliant players, and suddenly you’re in the dressing room.

“So there was a bit of awe but you got used to it and you wanted to just train as hard as you could.”

By the time Millea arrived onto the panel, the Downey sisters were already established Kilkenny stalwarts. Ann was a midfielder with a big engine, while Angela was a lethal forward who punished defences. She’s arguably the greatest player to ever play camogie.

The pair were at the coalface of the county’s ongoing success, implementing high standards at training that made all those achievements possible.

No quarters were given or taken.

“They were the standard-bearers in every sense of the word,” says Millea about her memories of training with the Downeys.

“At every training session, you have the banter and the craic. But then once training starts, training started. And you did everything as if you’d be doing it at match pace.

“They’d be urging people on and if you were dragging your backside at training, they’d give you a reminder,” she laughs.

And if you were marking Angela or Ann, you came off with bruises and you knew about it. And that transferred into a match situation.”

And the Downeys didn’t just settle for collective training either. They trained regularly on their own, going to lengths that no-one else was even contemplating at the time.

They were going to the gym and doing weights and that was absolutely unheard of back then,” Millea explains.

“They were ahead of their time. They’d meet at half-six or seven o’clock in the morning and go to the gym in Hotel Kilkenny and work out.

They were working on strength and conditioning stuff before any of that came down the line. It was in the noughties and towards the end of my playing career that gym sessions started taking off. The game has evolved seriously since then.

“They were trying to get the best out of themselves and they were doing that little extra themselves as well the collective training.”

The Downeys finished up their respective inter-county careers with a combined 24 All-Ireland medals. It was an incredible feat that transcended the sport of camogie.

Angela Downey unleashes a shot for Kilkenny in the 1995 All-Ireland final.

Source: © INPHO

Angela announced her retirement from Kilkenny in 1995 with Ann subsequently departing the scene later in that decade.

But just as Millea was coming into a winning environment, the gravy train stopped for Kilkenny. One more All-Ireland title followed three years after the 1991 triumph, with Ann Downey captaining the team to glory.

But the years that followed brought them down a barren path.

Kilkenny would have to wait another 22 years to lift the O’Duffy Cup again. They suffered six All-Ireland final defeats during that period just to compound their struggles.

Millea has always appreciated the huge honour that comes with representing her county, but there were times when it was hard to serve for Kilkenny when things just weren’t clicking.

“It’s always easy to keep playing when you’re dining at the top table,” she says.

“I really admire players who come from counties that mightn’t be always competing at semi-final stage. They stick with it for years and years and they might not ever get the opportunity to ever get to an All-Ireland final.

“To have won in 1994 and not get back to an All-Ireland until 1999. And 2001 was the last time I played in an All-Ireland final.”

With those years of hardship in the rear view mirror, Kilkenny’s graph is on the way up again.

Angela and Ann Downey celebrate with the players after the 2016 All-Ireland final.

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

And that first senior All-Ireland camogie title in 22 years was achieved under the tutelage of some familiar faces.

The sight of the Downeys being hoisted by the victorious Kilkenny players after halting Cork’s three-in-a-row bid in 2016 is an enduring image.

When Ann Downey first took charge as manager in 2015 she brought her sister on board, while also drafting the services of their former teammate Breda Holmes.

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Millea, who played in the forwards with Angela Downey and Holmes during her Kilkenny days, knows exactly how beneficial it is to have those former greats on your side.

Just Angela being on the line and the experience that she has, especially with the forwards. Just knowing you have someone like Angela Downey shouting you on is very motivating for the girls. She just has such a presence.

“You grow a few inches taller. 

“And Angela and Breda Holmes had a great relationship in the forwards when they played together. They had a great understanding of each other. I think they work really well as a unit.”

The Downey siblings shared a telepathic relationship whenever they played together.

From midfield, Ann would instinctively know which direction her sister was running in and delivered the ball accordingly to set-up a score. The connection worked the opposite way as well, with Angela reading her sister’s movement to get on the end of a pass.

Either way, once possession was in Angela’s hands, the hard work was done.

“Angela had a fierce blast of speed and she was doing weights as well so no-one could beat her over a 15-metre dash,” says Millea.

She was out in front and there was just consternation in defence when she got the ball. The crowd would even hum. You just anticipated that if Angela got it, she was going to do something.”

That intuitive understanding between the sisters continues to shine through in their new roles with Kilkenny.

As manager of the team, everyone in the backroom team knows that Ann will have the final say on every call. Her authority is never questioned.

But Angela is always there in the background, offering advice and helping her sister control her emotions whenever her assistance is needed.

“Angela probably wouldn’t be as vociferous as Ann,” says Millea. “If something needs to be said, Ann will be the one to talk and Angela would be a little bit quieter. 

“Now when it comes to motivating a player, Angela becomes a different person. I can see why Ann would love to have Angela with her. I think Angela calms Ann down as well.

She knows what to say to Ann. As I say, they’re extremely close. If she needs to tell Ann to cop on, she will and Ann will take it from Angela because she knows she’ll be nothing but honest with her.”

Kilkenny’s royal sisters are still at the helm with the senior camogie team, and will lead them into another All-Ireland final today against reigning National League champions Galway.

Kilkenny and Galway will square off for the O’Duffy Cup later this afternoon.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

It’s a fourth consecutive All-Ireland final appearance for the Cats, with just one win from the previous three deciders.

Another loss is not an option for such a camogie stronghold. Millea has two All-Ireland medals to reflect on from her career, but she knows how easy it is for a county to slip into a losing streak.

“I think Kilkenny should do it but they will have to match the intensity Galway brought to their semi-final against Cork. They were relentless the way they went attack after attack. They’re strong physical women as well and they’re not going to be easily pushed off the ball.

“There’ll be very little in it. Kilkenny have been in the last three All-Irelands and to have lost by such narrow margins, the hurt of last year’s defeat in particular is still there. We need to win this one, we can’t lose three-in-a-row.”

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