In the first of a series of Championship insights, our new football columnist Colm Cooper empathises with those injured, frustrated and worst of all, forgotten.
Ten minutes from the end of a throbbing game of hurling last Sunday, Tipperary’s Cathal Barrett moved to edge himself in front of Cork’s Luke O’Farrell. If it wasn’t a do-or-die ball, it wasn’t far off it. In that furnace, every play is the one the result hinged on.
If his knee didn’t quite buckle under him, it certainly hyper-extended. Everyone winced for half a second and moved onto the next play. Some stayed watching Cathal. Wondering where was he on the tell-tale scale of pain, physically and psychologically.
The medics made towards him quickly, checking the crossing traffic of hurlers like a pedestrian running across Fifth Avenue. I invited myself into Cathal’s grief and traded for him what was left of this epic for a guarantee his summer wasn’t destroyed too.
There are seldom seen GAA players who live in this purgatory, on a ledge midway between the ones who never start the championship and the ones who nearly go all the way to September. Cathal Barrett got the scent of summer Sundays into him, and by the looks of things, will have a few more this campaign. He’s one of the lucky ones.
Well luckier than some.
The costliest point I ever scored came in an All- Ireland Club semi-final in February 2014. It’s the reason some anoraks are confused whether I have four or five All-Ireland medals with Kerry. I have five, but the fifth one means much less than the others because I didn’t kick a ball in the championship that summer. I was thinking clever goal against Castlebar in February and I delayed a fraction. I wasn’t as clever as I thought.
In Santry Sports Clinic a couple of days after, the consultant Ray Moran looked at the scans, looked at me and walked back over to the MRI machine. He never said, but I think he was hoping the MRI had malfunctioned. Darran O’Sullivan drove me up to Santry that day. We lived in the same Ballydowney estate in Killarney, and there’s very little we wouldn’t say to each other, but we never mentioned a possible diagnosis en route to Dublin.
Coincidentally Eamonn Fitzmaurice was in Dublin that Monday, and came across to Santry. When Ray Moran explained the scan, I heard two things: Pretty Bad and Season Is Gone. I thought it best to bring Éamonn in. They both could see the colour was gone from my face. What does that mean? Timeframe? You are trying to digest and process the information as quickly as you can but your brain is in quicksand. You ok with that, Ray Moran asked?
Well, I’ve just got a punch in the gut from Evander Holyfield. Ray said another thing. I can get you back, but I can’t tell you how long it is going to be. That was the biggest concern of them all. You hear cruciates: nine months, 12 months. But he wasn’t even able to give me that because of the severity of the injury. At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate the significance of the other stuff, the posterior cruciate, the medial ligament, the fractured knee. All I heard was the year was gone, and I just blanked out. Nothing could be worse than that.
Or so I thought. I got very low at home afterwards. With a leg brace for the knee fracture, I couldn’t even get around the house on crutches. It was a huge struggle to get up the stairs to the bedroom. Darran would call over nights to make sure I was alright. I think he could sense the problems already. There are 90-year-olds with carers more independent than I was. I couldn’t cook, couldn’t make a cup of tea. I couldn’t sleep and the painkillers were wearing off. If I moved a certain way in the bed, I was afraid I’d do something bad to the knee.
Those days are long. There was some euphoria the first week but then everybody goes back to work. They move on with the flow of the game. You look at the four walls, and face the question that confronts all us injured yesterdays: What will I use now as a crutch?
There’s only so much sport on television you can watch. There were Monday nights I was sat looking at my knee. I might have watched a championship game the day before: I am never getting back to that level. What if I get another bang on that knee – I can’t bend it now, much less walk or even jog on it. Jog? Jogging seemed like a different sport, a different country, you are so far detached from reality at that stage.
And worse than any of that, it destroyed the one characteristic of mine I always considered bullet-proof: My self-belief. In my ability. In my skills. The knee injury poured acid into my central confidence system. Before, if I had a shit game, I never had two-in-a-row. No matter how bad things were going, I always knew I could turn it around quickly. Even in a match, if I lost the first three balls, it didn’t matter.
I would be thinking all I need here is one, and I’ll stick it - whether that was the 21st minute or the 59th, it didn’t matter. That sort of stuff was always there to summon. But after the Castlebar man collapsed the right knee, it was the only stage of my football career when my belief and self- confidence deserted me.
I wanted no-one. There were people calling to the house, but there were days I wasn’t in the best of form. I was bad company. Everyone meant well but there were days I closed the curtains literally and mentally. My family would sense that and pick up on it very quick. Others probably thought ‘Grumpy Colm, not giving a shit about anyone’. But if the world wasn’t against me, it was as good as.
Or so I reckoned. Football saved me that summer three years ago. Which is odd when you think I never kicked a ball. Myself and a buddy, Brian McMahon, sneaked as best we could into Ennis for Kerry’s championship opener against Clare.
By the Munster final, I was knocking around Kerry training, getting extra physio from Ed Harnett and watching the late night matches at the World Cup in Brazil with therapist Ger Keane putting in extra hours with me. Ger might call close to 11pm. Come on away, Ger. It beats looking at the ceiling.
By the All-Ireland quarter-final against Galway, I was fully out of the grieving phase. I was stepping off boxes, going around cones in training. By August’s semi against Mayo in Dublin, I had a track-suit on. The replay was on a Saturday in Limerick.
We were loading our bags onto the bus from Killarney when Éamonn Fitzmaurice just walked by me. You’re togging today. That was it. I don’t remember what time of the day it was. I got light-headed with the kick of adrenaline. I didn’t even have time to ask him a question.
You’re togging today.
I went down to my regular spot on the bus and said nothing to anyone. Looking out at the fields on the way up to Limerick I was even wondering had I heard him right. Did he say it to the wrong player? Where was he going with this? Fitzy’s under pressure. Maybe he meant to say something else. That’s why I stayed schtum.
Travelling with the team? Yes, I got that. Being around the dressing room? Sure, inclusive squad, everyone together, I can see that. After all, I was able to do all the warm up stuff now, working in pairs and threes, moving around. But I had no hope of playing. Maybe Fitzy felt, any one per cent here could make the difference. Did he think it would give the boys a lift? Like, this fella’s coming lads.
Both Kerry and Mayo players were on the field in the Gaelic Grounds at the same time and James Horan was coming off the pitch against me. How’s that knee? Yerra, not too bad it’s taking its time.
Fifteen minutes later, I am kicking around in the warm up! Whether it galvanised the team or got an extra 1% out of the performance, I don’t know. I am sure of one thing though - it gave me a shot of adrenaline I never anticipated getting that August.
The week after the Galway quarter-final, my mother had died. At a moment you’re thinking ‘what else can go wrong in my life’, football was a tonic for me.
The day after the funeral, I trained with Kerry, which was a surprise to some. But I needed it, I needed to be part of something, to be in that environment. A belonging. Kerry were on a journey, a crusade that summer, I knew I couldn’t contribute on the field of play, but if I can be around the place, maybe help someone in some moment?
Within three weeks of burying my mother I had gone to togging out in an All- Ireland semi-final in Limerick. Then it turns out to be a game for the ages, Kerry winning a titanic battle and heading for an All-Ireland final. The shot of adrenaline that gave me...
Of course, three weeks away from a final, and there’s questions around the place now. I was doing more in training. No contact football, but no-one outside training knew that. The last night they played a bit of football in the stadium, I joined in.
Now the last night before an All-Ireland, fellas aren’t bulling. It was a bit of shadow boxing, I played 25 minutes. Pa Kilkenny was on me. I don’t know was he told leave me be, but I’d say he was.
One thing though, and it was all and everything I needed. I made a great pass over Marc Ó Se to Barry John Keane. F**ing hell, there’s something in here. That’s all I wanted. Éamonn was cajoling me along.
There was never a ‘you won’t be playing, you won’t be involved conversation. I’d had an assessment with Ray Moran after the Mayo replay. He said the knee looked really good. I danced around the questions. If I’d asked could I come on in an All-Ireland final, I gave him the chance to say ‘No’. I didn’t want to hear No. I didn’t need to hear No.
I was asking questions I couldn’t get a No to. I was going back to Kerry delivering the precise words Ray gave me. It’s very good. Great shape, great progress. I wasn’t lying. Bending better than it was, extension quite good. I was accentuating all the positives and wondering what Fitzy had in mind for me. They say the hope is what kills you.
Three years ago, at the worst moment in my career, it was the hope that kept me breathing.
Compromise key when it comes to club v county
Much as it is in other counties at the moment, Kerry finished a block of county championship games last night before the inter-county players are handed back to Éamonn Fitzmaurice for the summer.
Quite a few of the Kerry squad missed first and second round games recently, raising a few eyebrows and questions.
Clubs get their backs up when their star players, who they seldom see anyway, arrive back into the set-up carrying a knock and kicking their heels.
I don’t ask anymore, because I’m gone, but I suspect the Kerry lads have been going through a phase of hard training inside. There’s an 11-week gap between the end of the league and the first round of the championship and if any county is doing a bulk of hard running or gym sessions, it’s now they are doing it. Éamonn Fitzmaurice is saying: ‘This is my pre-season, I need to get a block of serious work done here’. That’s his right.
The problem is that at the same time, the club manager is arguing these are the biggest few weeks of his year.
It might be for the lack of a county player that their championship plans go up in smoke. Having the boost of an inter-county man means they emerge the other side and accept they won’t see the inter-county lads until Kerry are gone from the championship.
Who’s right and wrong? This is the part of the year you pick up injuries if you’re with the county. Back, calves, hamstrings are under pressure. Most counties are in the throes of it, although Ulster squads are a bit further down the line because all the landmines are in the short-term for them.
I always felt coming back to Dr Crokes at this time of year that I had to lead. Maybe it’s a club thing. It was my job, my responsibility. But that’s difficult when your body is fatigued.
But let’s remember, the measurement of Éamonn Fitzmaurice and his management team will be the progress of Kerry in the championship.
The absolute rights and wrongs are few and far between in May. When it comes to club v county, compromise is king.
Lack of identity a big problem for Cork football
When you’re from Ardshanavooly in Killarney, you grow up watching the thunder of red pouring into the town every July from the county bounds. The rivalry between Kerry and Cork has lots of texture. There is harmony and slagging, occasional bitterness but mostly good craic. But that’s from the Kerry side.
I’ve seen Cork football develop and collapse through chapters of change, but this enigmatic period seems to be the one with no clear end in sight. I don’t know where Cork football is at, but worse than that, I don’t think they know where they’re at. They won’t lose in Dungarvan tonight in the Munster first round, but they’ll go down there edgy — and not in a good way.
Preparing this article, I wrote down some words that come to mind: Disjointed. No confidence. No discernible pattern. How could there be? The same Cork seldom shows up two days in a row.
One Sunday, they come to Killarney and should beat Kerry in a Munster final. The next day, they’re beaten but nobody expects a capitulation at the hands of Kildare.
That’s two years ago, but how much has changed?
Are they lacking leaders? I think so. We had battles with Canty (below), O’Leary, Miskella, Lynch. They were stubborn and feisty and full of character. They had a bit of Cork about them. I don’t see those characters now.
Any side with intent has three or four leaders gong out every day. Name the three leaders on the Cork team this summer? Can you?
I could have a fair cut off naming most of the top eight starting 15s in the football championship, but the one I should know best, I’d be well short.
Fellas left the Cork set-up when their age indicates it wasn’t just mileage on the clock was behind their decision. They clearly felt this was a project not worth hanging around for.
In fairness to Brian Cuthbert, he must be feeling harshly treated on reflection.
Though his tenure ended ignominiously against Kildare, they seemed to be developing a method.
Continuity would have been a big step forward. Cork can go into a game thinking ‘this is our team, this is the system’. But when it doesn’t work or click into place, they seem to abandon that plan and start afresh. Invariably when you do that, you blow up. Players go off doing their own thing, and they get completely lost.
To heap insult on top of everything, they’re now seen as a ‘dangerous’ team for Kerry, like some League 1 One side at home to a Premier League team in the FA Cup. But it’s an understandable comparison. They can do it for one game. And that’s frequently against Kerry. But will they raise a gallop against another top four team? If the counties meet in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on July 2 , it’ll be a hell of a scrap, irrespective of league divisions or form. But if things don’t go right for them, they can blow up very easily. That’s either lack of confidence in what they are doing or where they are going.
There are counties this summer that could take a scalp in the All-Ireland quarter finals. In fact there’s a couple, including Cork. But can they take a second or third scalp? On the evidence available, I don’t think so. They could catch a few of the top eight on their day. But they don’t look like they could beat two of them consecutively.
You think they’re still top eight? Which of these would they beat on league form? Dublin, Kerry, Mayo, Tyrone, Donegal or Monaghan? No. Galway or Kildare? Maybe — it depends which Cork turns up.
Colm Cooper will be writing for the Irish Examiner every week and you can read him first and exclusively in the Irish Examiner's bumper weekend sports supplement.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved