The Hinphey men, Ciaran, Liam Og, Liam snr, Kevin and Colm pictured with the Fr. Collins cup in 2006 (Pic: Mary K Burke)
After almost two decades of senior club football and hurling, former Derry dual star Liam Hinphey has called time on his club career. He tells Michael McMullan of the decision, the ups, the downs the memories along the way.
Four days after this year's county hurling final, Liam Hinphey took a moment to post a brief, yet the most poignant of tweets.
Fifteen words. Four photos. Three jersies. Red, black and white hearts. The colours he soldiered in.
The former Dungiven and Derry footballer, was putting away his hurl.
“Father time is undefeated,” it began.
A career that juggled big and wee ball, across school, college, club and county had run its course.
“You know when the time is right and you have different priorities,” he stated early in our interview.
His wife Clare had given up work to be their son Liam's full-time carer. The three year-old lives with Dravet Syndrome, a drug-resistant form of epilepsy that leads to seizures and visits to hospital.
“He just needs full time care and we decided Clare was the best person to do it,” Liam adds.
Their daughter Cara is now in P2. On the Wednesday after the final, her and Daddy went for a walk.
“It was a nice evening and it would've been one of our training nights. Me and her went for a walk and I thought 'this is great' to get spending a bit of time with her.
“If it was mid-season, I would've been at training and Clare would've had the two weans.”
An interview to recollect his playing career, meant he'd have to go through with retirement.
A warrior on the pitch, every word coming down the phone was calculated and softly spoken.
In the epicentre of his dual county career, a successful battle with a groin injury forced him to pick one code.
With the time needed to compete, he looked into his soul. It was the wee ball that plucked harder at his emotions.
Years later, as the weeks ticked towards the 2018 club season and with a winter of rehabbing another groin injury, he veered towards another sporting crossroads.
His son's seizures had begun. Family called. Mixing both sports wasn't going to be feasible.
“I cant' play any more,” he reluctantly told the football management.
“It wasn't like I didn't want to, I just didn't have time. Work and home life was getting fairly hectic. I would've needed to have manufactured another couple of days in the week,” said Hinphey, who played senior championship football for Dungiven since he stepped out of minor until the age of '30 or 31'.
“In that time, I played county hurling and football, I was travelling up and down to Belfast four or five nights a week...it was tight going.”
By the time that year's hurling championship came around, he missed the semi-final with Slaughtneil, a game they lost by a point. As the Derry hurling heavyweights were prodding one another in an epic at Ballinascreen, Liam and Clare were in hospital as their son took a 'bad seizure'.
“That was the first big game that I couldn't play in,” Liam said.
The nature of the defeat made it difficult to walk away. They were close. But how could he keep up the level of preparation, if his son's condition needed more care?
“Is it worth it, to put a full year into it,” Liam asked himself. “Championship is what you play for.” He asked again. “Is it worth another nine months of hard work to potentially not play again?”
He decided to give it 'one last big push' for the 2019 season and was pleasantly surprised when new Derry manager John McEvoy rang him.
Collie McGurk had coaxed him back out to play in the semi-final of the Christy Ring against Kildare the year before and Derry wasn't 'on the radar' under the new boss.
“I wasn't expecting John to ask me, but he did. I thought, if it is going to be my last year I might as well play for the county (too).”
Derry lost in the Christy Ring semi-final to Meath, again to the eventual winners before embarking on what he still felt was his last season of club action.
“My attitude before it (final with Slaughtneil) was, just to give this everything. Win or lose, that's me,” Liam said.
Shortly after the final, Geoffrey McGonigle asked him to meet him for a pint. Knowing Geoffrey was staying on as manager,
Liam knew the gist of what was to follow.
“The first words he said was 'if you're not playing hurling next year, I'm gonna bust your face',” Hinphey laughs.
“We got chatting and I said we'd give it a go and see how it plays out.”
His son's cluster of seizures and with Covid bringing a greater risk, Liam didn't lift a hurl until just before the semi-final win over Ballinascreen.
The lack of time to prepare made up his mind.
“I know myself that I was far from my best,” he conceded, admitting that his general fitness wasn't the problem.
“This year, I was trying to play with very little training behind me. Unfortunately, the way things are, I can't commit the time and effort to stay in the shape I need to be at the level I would want to play at.”
Trying to topple Slaughtneil would have to be the target. He compares their professionalism to 'a county team'.
“I'd love to be selfish enough to do it, to train every day...be it recovery, a gym session, swimming or just training.”
He'd love the challenge, but father time didn't agree. It was time to move on.
Along with his brothers Kieran and Kevin, Liam spent hours of their youth hurling in the garden. All-Irelands from the telly were re-enacted, with the odd flood of tears and the smash of a window pane.
Their mother is Mary K Brolly, sister of the late Francie. Their sister Emer began playing camogie again in her thirties, for Bredagh in Belfast, where she won an intermediate title. Like her brother Kevin has with the Lynch's, she has followed father Liam senior's footsteps into coaching.
Even though his Da was a 'big hurling man', Liam 'doesn't ever remember' being forced into the game.
“Da went to Croke Park for every Kilkenny game and he used to bring us since we were no height. I must've been to Croke Park 20 times before I was 10 years of age,” he said.
Along with a group of friends, from the age of 12, they would spend their summers up at the Gaelic pitch, from morning to night. In between, it was just wall to wall football and hurling.
His age group didn't win anything as they moved up the ranks, but playing above himself on Kevin's team bore fruit.
“That was a strong team. The only thing we didn't win was the U14 Féile final,” remembers Liam, who won one of his U16 medals as a goalkeeper.
Two minor titles followed and after losing to Ballygalget in the Ulster final in Ballinascreen, they went on better the following year to see off St Gall's in the decider.
“The success we had at senior level was a combination of those boys coming through. We joined in with Barry Kelly, Emmet McKeever, James Donaghy , Geoffrey, Ronie (Ronan McCloskey), Eddie Friel...that group. It was a really good combination of youth and experience,” Liam pointed out.
It yielded seven senior championships, including one as captain in 2008, with the last coming in 2011.
Along with Dungiven's football final defeat to Loup in 2009, Liam's other disappointment was their Ulster hurling final defeat two years earlier to Dunloy.
With time up, they trailed 2-8 to 1-12, but a Paul Shiels goal saw the Antrim champions punish the Lynch's with a late 1-2 burst at Casement Park.
Liam refers to their missed goal chances, but like all the defeats he takes them in his stride – mentioning them without dwelling too much.
Niall Mullan handed him his senior championship debut in a 2002 defeat by Slaughtneil in Drum, in the week of his 18th birthday.
“I was marking Dermot Doherty,” Hinphey recalls. “ I remember the terrible weather, it pished all night.”
He had just turned 18 and remembers taking a drink that night for the first time.
“Before that, I just didn't bother. It wasn't anything overly religious. It was the time when boys were sneaking cans, I was more afraid of Ma and Da.”
Kevin Lynch's would win six of the next seven championships and, over his career, the 2005 defeat to Banagher was one of 'a few' he felt got away from them.
“We had a goal disallowed and a few things. It's not something I sit up worrying about. I am happy enough with my lot.
“There was one against Slaughtneil (in 2014). They scored two goals in the last five minutes. We sort of controlled that game.”
The words between Hinphey's recollections are consistent. His career was a good one, blessed with talented teams with craic and friendships along the way.
It has been nine years since they won the Fr Collins Cup, but Hinphey didn't see that spell as 'a slog' with any fall outs.
“We have had good management and good setups,” he stressed. “The players put it in. They are great lads, you had 25 to 30 training every night and putting it in. It's a pity we weren't more successful.”
There is also the camaraderie. Niall Mullan gave him his debut and he played alongside his son Darragh. He was managed by John A Mullan and played on the same team as his sons John and Richie.
“There are zero boys I've played with, that if you were sitting in a bar in a few years' time, you wouldn't be able to have a few pints with him. It is something to be thankful for.
“I am lucky enough from that point of view, to have the characters we had around the place. That's one of the good things to take away from it.”
He doesn't believe in drink bans. Teams who are driven, will find their way to balance the work and the social aspect. In his opinion, you need both.
After finals it was about getting back to the town and being in each other's company. First it was into McReynold's, before heading down to the Arcade.
Liam felt the 2014 final defeat to Slaughtneil was one that got away
(Pic: Mary K Burke)
“In the earlier days we'd have ended up in the Carraig Rua. Later on, it was the Tavern or Donegal Charlie's,” said Hinphey, who always appreciated the Monday.
“You get in early and it is the first chance the team gets to sit and have the craic together. Those days were always the best.”
In recent years, without the Fr Collins Cup to show for their efforts, it was still important to unite.
“You have put a lot of time into it...hours and hours,. You have to... not celebrate that you are beat, but put an exclamation mark at the end season and have a few drinks with boys to finish it out...otherwise what is the point?”
Liam's first taste of senior county hurling came in the 2003 season, while still at school. After St Patrick's Maghera's Hogan Cup run, he didn't feature in Dominic McKinley's Ulster championship plans, but started at wing forward in an All-Ireland preliminary round two-point defeat to Kerry in Tullamore, marking his debut with a point.
“I loved my times playing with Derry hurling and ultimately, that's why I didn't go back to the (county) football,” Liam admits.
Pulling his body between both codes told him to choose. He went for his favourite.
“I would rather be playing the hurling and try to push the Derry hurling on a bit. That was the decision I made and I don't regret it one minute.
“We had brilliant days, there was not as much silverware as we should've won, but there were some brilliant years,” he added.
He has two Nicky Rackard Cup medals, but the Christy Ring Cup eluded him. The semi-final defeats of 2018 to Kildare and the following year to Meath, his last game with the county, were as close he got. With both going on to win the final easily.
“We got the final once (2015) and it was the year we were further away. That Kerry team was very strong,” he adds.
“That was always the ambition of ours. We were always good enough, but we didn't (win it) . There is nothing I sit and think 'we should've won'.”
Like with the club, he points to the Derry men he hurled with, who will be 'friends for life'.
“The friendships I have made over the years are more important than that sort of stuff. Big Ruairi (Convery), Breandan Quigley and Paddy Henry...all them boys.”
The WhatsApp group is an active one.
“They are the friends I have and that's not to be scoffed at either. It is an important thing and I am very thankful for.”
By his own admission, Liam Hinphey was 'far from being' the best footballer on Dungiven underage teams.
At St Patrick's Maghera, he didn't play on any of the school teams after 'second or third' year. And there weren't any teachers coming knocking on the door to coax him.
At the start of Upper Sixth, a requirement to pick an activity for the Wednesday afternoon sport slot and the prompt of a class mate helped him make the first step on the road to a senior inter-county football career.
“It was Joe Keenan,” Hinphey begins. “He talked me into going to these Gaelic matches. I went down, started to play well.”
After playing a few games for the 'B' team in the O'Doherty, Dermot McNicholl liked what he saw.
“I started all the (MacRory) group games, I played half-back and ended up being moved into midfield. I ended up having to mark the main men on the other teams. I wasn't a great footballer, but I was good at stopping great footballers.”
Maghera beat rivals St Mary's Magherafelt in the final. In the Hogan Cup semi-final against Coláiste Na Sceilge, he was asked to mark Kerry's Bryan Sheehan and James Kavanagh in the final against St Jarlath's Tuam.
“Winning the Hogan Cup was brilliant,” Hinphey said. “It is a different build up and different sort of camaraderie. You are spending more time with those boys than you are with your own families, because you are at school with them for eight hours a day.”
That campaign made him as a footballer and by Wednesday, Dermot McNicholl, who was also Dungiven's senior manager, 'fired him in' at centre back against Slaughtneil. That was the beginning.
“The thought of playing senior would've been fanciful”, he said of his ambitions at underage. “In terms of my football development, it wouldn't have played senior football for Dungiven or Derry without that (school season).
Liam in football action for Dungiven (Pic: Mary K Burke)
“When I was younger, I was never the paciest. Then I started to mature a bit at 17 or 18. I got a lot faster, so from half back I was able to burst forward. Before that, I was jogging about at one pace.”
Paddy Crozier took over as Dungiven boss and later called Hinphey up when he became the Derry senior manager at the start of the 2006 season.
“I didn't feel out of my depth when I did go up,” he said.
After wondering if he could play at the level, the lure of Division 1 and pitting himself against 'some of the best about' convinced Hinphey to answer Paddy's call.
“I started most of that year,” Liam recalls. He spoke of the night Oisin McConville, Stevie McDonnell and Kieran McGeeney back-boned a strong Armagh side at a packed Celtic Park.
“I think we had to delay the throw-in, because there was that big a crowd...and we beat them. Days like that gave me huge confidence going forward,” Liam adds.
After tailing away, Derry failed to make the league final and lay in wait for All-Ireland champions Tyrone in the championship.
Derry had their homework done 'to a tee'. There was a 'militant month' of preparation, said Hinphey. In the build-up Crozier informed him he'd be picking up Sean Cavanagh if he played in the half-forward line. The Derry boss even had Mark Lynch mimic Cavanagh's dummy at training in preparation.
“It didn't do much good, I fell for the dummy a couple of minutes into the game,” Liam laughs. “But, that gives you confidence from the manager asking you to pick up a role like that.
“Tyrone that day, they played into our hands. Mark Lynch went deep and Davy Harte followed him. No harm to anybody, no matter if you are All-Ireland champions or not, if you leave big massive gaps in front and you have the two Bradleys playing and Big Enda, you are going to get cleaned out and that's what happened.”
Derry held the Red Hands scoreless in the first half and ambushed them, before going out against Donegal in the next round.
“We didn't play anywhere near what we could have. I think we put that much into the Tyrone game,” Hinphey feels.
“There was a quick turnaround for the Ulster semi-final and we maybe couldn't get up to that same level.”
The following season, Derry took Dublin down to the final stretch in a pulsating All-Ireland Quarter Final and in 2008 beat Kerry in the league final.
Liam and Clare then took off for an eight-month trip to Australia, where he hurled with Sydney Shamrocks.
“I came back (June 2009) and did a Master degree and was living up in Belfast. Damian Cassidy was the Derry manager and I was back playing for Derry. James O'Kane was taking the hurling and my Da was helping him out, so I was trying to keep my toe in there too,” Liam explains.
The groin injury flared up and it was time to decide. He chose the hurling path that took him around many a corner and as far as last month and his decision to call it a day.
One hour of chatting later and Hinphey is still content.
“There's a group of us and we have been friends since 12 years of age and still are,” he said of those he hurled with in the club.
“It was great and a childhood well lived. I couldn't have played for so long if Clare wasn't so selfless and happy for me to put so much into it when she was looking after the children.”
It's now father time.
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