There but for the grace of God go I — the inevitable thought that crossed Conor Phelan’s mind when he learned of Anthony Foley’s sudden death last weekend.
Coroners have confirmed that the Munster rugby hero was affected by a heart condition and nobody knows more about those than the former All-Ireland medallist with Kilkenny.
The 33-year-old won All-Ireland U21 and senior medals with Kilkenny in 2003 but was forced to quit the game two years later due to a leaking valve in his heart.
He underwent major surgery in November 2014 and only returned to club duty with Clara last weekend as a substitute in their county semi-final defeat to Ballyhale Shamrocks. He learned the same day of Foley’s passing.
Phelan counts himself fortunate that he found about his own heart trouble in time after a routine screening of the Kilkenny panel in 2005 following a separate issue with colleague Noel Hickey.
Being ordered to quit hurling in his early 20s naturally stung but Phelan is grateful to be still here to tell the tale, especially when others weren’t so lucky.
“I’d probably still be playing away otherwise, I wouldn’t have known what it was,” said Phelan of the valve problem. “If it split then I was in trouble so it puts things in perspective.
“I feel very fortunate. You look at Anthony Foley there, may he rest in peace, and that puts things in perspective. I suppose it was a double-edged sword for me. I was very fortunate that I knew about it.
“At the same time I was just 21, on the crest of a wave, thought the world was my oyster. My generation, the likes of Tommy Walsh, JJ Delaney, ‘Taggy’ Fogarty, these guys went on to win multiple All-Irelands afterwards. That’s probably where the regret is on my side.
“But I had a great three years when I was involved. I was just lucky that the county board took the initiative when they did to get us all in and get us screened. Only for that, I wouldn’t know where I’d be now.”
Phelan works as a GAA development officer at Waterford IT and is determined not to be ruled by his condition. He’s facing major surgery again in 12 or 13 years but plans to put his heart to good use in the meantime.
“The surgeon said to me: ‘Try to use it if you can. You went through all this hardship to be able to be active and fit and to able to work on a farm so use it’.
“I’ve a twin brother too and he’s still playing away so you don’t want him to be winning medals and you not there! I joined Gowran Golf Club and the tennis club in Kilkenny just to get back doing some non-contact stuff but then when I went to the surgeon three or four months ago he said: ‘Listen, you can get involved in some level of physical activity’ so it was great to be able to do that and to get back hurling.”
Phelan was on the line at Croke Park last month as part of Ann Downey’s backroom team for the successful Kilkenny camogie side and will jointly manage Ireland’s U21 hurling/shinty team this Saturday in Inverness.
His is clearly a full heart, if one that requires monitoring, and he was delighted to return to club activity last weekend against a Ballyhale side that was inspired by Henry Shefflin and TJ Reid. Clara relinquished their county title but as Phelan knows, some things are bigger than sport.
“I would’ve liked another couple of weeks to get back up to speed,” he said. “But it was great to be involved. I was with the backroom team there the last two years when I was out sick. That was great to just be around, carrying hurleys or whatever, to still have that bond, but it was nice to be able to tog out for a change and do the warm-up and actually play.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved