DICK CLERKIN: Winding down after the pain and gain

Under lights last Friday, the curtain fell on our club championship campaign. We lost by the minimum in what was a replay after an extra-time thriller the previous weekend.

Four tough club championship games on the bounce following our exit to Tyrone... it was hard going on a body that had been conditioned for substitute appearances all summer.

For county players, the weeks following a championship exit can be a strange time. Operating in a kind of limbo between seasons, players are sometimes unsure of what to do or how to behave.

Is it okay to take a total break from training? Or will it leave me too far behind when we start back? Maybe if I keep training now, I will be flying for next year? Or will I burn out?

With no defined off-season, county players have never been too sure where they stand. The reality is that no break is often afforded and this has just been accepted as par for the course.

So, with things winding down and winter looming, my own thoughts are fast forwarding to next year. If I’m going to have a chance of playing, I need to actually have a proper off-season and make it count.

No doubt about it, the body is slowly starting to creak at the seams. Over the past 12 months, I have had four cortisone injections into various joints. Some were needed just to help me sleep at night.

And don’t talk to me about the ordeal of putting on a pair of socks the mornings after rigorous training sessions. Not effectively allowing my body rest and recover last year nearly cost me dearly. Now I must be sure not to make that mistake again.

Earlier this season, I was struggling in training. I was starting to get concerned the legs might just be gone. Knowing it could be my last year I tried to put in a big effort to give myself the best chance to be fit come spring. With our second baby due in January, I knew I couldn’t rely on the weeks after the birth for getting any meaningful work in. But, as hard as I was pushing, the legs just weren’t responding the way they normally had.

Struggling at the back of runs, it was getting a bit depressing and embarrassing. When you’re trailing behind the sub keeper, you know something’s not right!

Allowances can be made in the early season because of the slow pace of the games. However, come early February things were heating up. I came on midway through the second-half of our League clash with Cork and for the first time in my career I knew I wasn’t operating at the level required for inter-county football.

I went to Malachy (O’Rourke) the following night at training and told him that I wasn’t match fit and didn’t want to be considered for selection until I knew myself that I was up to it.

It was a huge risk; there was no guarantee I was going to get back, and even if I got up to speed, it could be too late. Someday the body will wilt, event if the heart and head are willing. Maybe that day had come? It was the first time in my career to ever do something like that. But I knew it was the right call, for the team and for me. Had I kept forcing the issue I would likely have kept slipping and become totally despondent. If my number was up, then so be it; but I didn’t want to finish sitting on the bench in a league game, forgotten and forlorn. I got quite down in the days and weeks that followed. Retiring like this was not something I had envisaged.

After speaking with our physiotherapist we quickly recognised that a lot of my trouble was linked to a long standing ankle injury. Putting it simply, my left ankle had become partially locked and was effectively shortening my stride. As there was no real pain I thought it wasn’t doing any harm; a stubborn ignorance. Anyway, working closely with the medical team, I proceeded to train on my own for the next number of weeks.

Away from the match fit squad, I was free from the frustration and could just focus on getting myself fit again at whatever rate the body would allow. I played little or no football for the rest of the league but I could feel the body was starting to come right. The acid test came against Dublin in the league semi-final. In the week leading up to that game, we were on a training camp in Portugal. I got a lot of good work done and for the first time that year I felt that I was close to the pace of things. Even with 15 years under my belt, I was like a rookie with butterflies in the stomach when Malachy told me I was going to feature.

If I still had what it took to play at the top level, this was where I was going to have to prove it - against Dublin, in their back yard, with little or no football played all season. Yes, I was bricking it.

I went into the warm up area on my own to try and get the head right before we took the field. I knew this was a big moment; if I didn’t go well and with only a few weeks until the championship, a poor showing could spell curtains. Disappointingly, we narrowly lost out after a great contest. It was a great opportunity to beat Dublin in Croke Park, but in a broader context it was ideal preparation for us going into the Ulster championship. On a personal level things thankfully went well. After a tentative start, I went on to kick three points, but more importantly I felt that bit of zip and freshness back in the legs. It was massive confidence boost.

“You’re not finished just yet,” I said to myself as I came of the pitch.

We still have some important club league games to play over the coming weeks, but there is never the same intensity or buzz once the championship is over. The gradual wind down after a long season now begins in earnest.

A small bit of keyhole surgery on my ankle is pencilled in. A few months re-habbing that will also allow me to work on some other things. I’ll be busy. But it’ll be worth it in the end.

It always is.


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