Ciaran Whelan Interview: Still the key man in the middle

You need a thick skin in this game. Analysing football, and playing it.

Ciaran Whelan Interview: Still the key man in the middle

Last Sunday around Croke Park before any team took to the field, Ciaran Whelan could sense an edginess and anger in the air among the hordes of Tyrone supporters descending upon the place.

Among The Sunday Game production team, the 39-year-old is known as probably the most thorough and conscientious of their football analysts, on a par with the meticulousness of Donal Óg Cusack. They’ve seen him there on Sunday mornings at 8am to closely study three off-Broadway qualifiers so he could comment authoritatively on them, even though only a couple of minutes could be given to them later that night.

They’ve noted how he takes away multiple DVDS with behind-the-goal camera footage so that in midweek, between coaching the Donabate U10s and the Dublin U17 development squad and working with Allianz Insurance and being a husband to Fiona and dad to Jamie and Tania, he’ll select the best clips to make the best point for the show’s pre-game analysis.

For last Sunday, he brilliantly dissected how Kerry defended in last year’s All Ireland final, and tracked the Donegal runners, identifying that how Kerry last set up against a similar structure to Tyrone’s was of more relevance than showing anything from the quarter-final landslide over Kildare.

Even from this remove you can see that he’s one of the most measured, fairest, insightful observers of football now, just as when he played you could appreciate he was one of the most exciting and best midfielders of his generation.

But he’s mindful that’s not everyone sees him like that, maybe even you.

You might have viewed him as a dirty player for that belt on Nigel Crawford in 2005 and Ronan McGarrity in 2006 and his role in the Battle of Omagh and that he’s no one to talk about discipline to the nation.

He’s more than aware that you could dismiss him and his views for never having won the All Ireland his talent and hype-driven hometown seemed to demand. Tyrone especially could throw all that at him. Never mind the day he pulled down an astonishing seven first-half kick-outs against them in an All Ireland quarter-final. He didn’t win a Celtic Cross, he was right in the thick of it that messy February day in Omagh. And then he tells the nation that Tiernan McCann should apologise. As if with his record who was he to lecture on such matters.

Actually, probably better than anyone. What Tyrone folk missed was that Whelan was being empathetic rather than sanctimonious. “I’d have done a couple of things I wouldn’t have been proud of, especially towards the end of my career when I got older and crankier.

“I would reflect on that hit on Ronan McGarrity in the All Ireland semi-final against Mayo. I took a lot of flak over that and deserved it. I woke up on the Monday morning to texts quoting news stations describing me as a thug and it was hard to take. But when I reflected again on the challenge later that day, I couldn’t defend it. It was terrible; desperately late. I’d finished his game, he had to go off. So I texted him and apologised. And he accepted it, maybe reluctantly, he was obviously sore and pissed off, but I actually felt better after doing that.”

A couple of years later there was a league game against Meath in which he was one of five men sent off after he’d floored Seamus Kenny. Then GAA president Nickey Brennan condemned both teams and after some candid words from a close friend, Whelan decided to call manager Paul Caffrey that evening to say he wanted to publicly apologise. Then he picked up the phone to the Evening Herald. Put up the hand. Accepted responsibility. By owning his behaviour, the burden - and suspension - was reduced.

“That’s why I felt for Tiernan McCann. He would have to have been remorseful for what he had done. And if he had apologised it would have nipped the matter in the bud quickly. People would have said ‘Fair play to him, he’s only a young lad, cut him some slack’ and moved on. But unfortunately Tyrone went into victim mode and that ‘Whatabout’ mentality. I didn’t think he should have been suspended - I thought it was stupid from the GAA to try to suspend him - but I’d still have got some of the brunt of their anger. But I have a thick enough skin from my playing days.” As a player he wasn’t big into watching full matches all over again - “that used to wreck my head.” Even when video analysis became more refined, Whelan was a lot more insular than he is now.

“I only watched midfield. That’s all I was interested in. The one other thing I would be looking at would be the keeper’s kickouts - what were his sweet spots. You take Brendan Kealy now with Kerry. I know exactly where his sweet spot is from watching so many videos of him recently.” In 2005 he’d identify Pascal McConnell’s. But then famously Tyrone copped it, moved Joe McMahon to midfield and McConnell started kicking the ball as far away as possible from Whelan. It led to the most frequent accusation levelled at Whelan in his playing days - for all his brilliance and flamboyance and scoring power, he had a tendency ‘to drift in and out of games’.

“I look back on games like that and it’s quite an easy job to nullify a midfielder. In my last Leinster final in 2009 I came on at half-time to nullify Dermot Earley. We ended up winning by a kick of a ball and I got great credit for apparently getting on top of him in the middle of the park, but I didn’t! I just came on and stopped him. It can be a strange one that, and how it’s perceived, but that’s the nature of the beast. You learn to accept criticism. Just as I have had to learn to live with the current one: ‘he never won an All Ireland.’”

Does it constantly come up?

“I hear it day in, day out,” he smiles.

For 14 years he soldiered with Dublin. The year before his debut season they’d won the All Ireland. Two seasons after he finished up at 33 and a second child at home, they’d win it again. He and Pat Gilroy had even discussed at the start of 2011 about him returning to the panel and he’d be given access to the county team’s medical staff to help with his comeback attempt. But the body broke down. It wasn’t the leg that was most affected by that year.

“2011 tore my heart out. People who deny it are talking through their arse. You were gone and all of a sudden your dreams were enfolding in front of your eyes without you. Of course you wanted it [the win] for the lads involved. I was delighted for them. But you were gutted for yourself.” Whelan watched that All-Ireland final from The Sunday Game gantry, and that night would work on the highlights show where he’d put on the brave face, stoically describing himself as one of the ‘Inbetweeners’ that missed out on ‘95 and 2011. But inside a part of him was dying.

He’d call out to the Burlington that night. Extend his congratulations to former teammates and the young guns while they and supporters would extend their warmth and... sympathies. It was definitely sympathy.

“Everyone I meet that night was very warm to me because they recognised it was heartbreak for me. It was definitely the right thing to pop out.”

It was all still a bit surreal though. The following morning he found himself in a car heading to Derry. You might remember he was a coaching assistant on the show Celebrity Bainisteoir. Hadn’t bloody Dana dropped out taking a club team in Derry, to be replaced by Majella O’Donnell, Daniel’s wife, and the show’s producers had clearly impressed upon him that he was “urgently required” up north to show her the ropes.

So here he was, heading to Derry because of Dana, when he could have been on the tear with the boys in blue and Sam Maguire. It was like life was playing some kind of cruel joke on him. But as time went on he’d come to realise life had been more than fair to him.

“I had to go through a period where I’d to say to myself, ‘Ciaran, you’re going to have to have the mental strength to deal with this.’

So you reflect on the fact that there were hundreds of guys out there who didn’t win All-Ireland medals, loads of near misses. You reflect on what you’ve got. Kids and family ground you to a certain degree. I was lucky enough to manage my professional career well while I was still playing. And over a period of time I found I was able to deal with it. By 2013 I was a supporter again.

“At this stage to be honest with you, I couldn’t give a f***. Because whether I’d that medal in my back pocket or whether I don’t, it’s the person you are, at the end of the day. You look at a lot of sad stories of people who had been successful. In some ways you kind of say ‘Listen, it wasn’t meant to be.’ I don’t bear any crosses at this stage.” If anything, he now considers himself more privileged than unfortunate to have played when he did. By the time he was 25 he had been on two victorious and unforgettable tours of Australia with the International Rules team.

At home no player of the noughties played in front of more full houses. Nowadays Dublin might only get 60,000 being part of an All-Ireland quarter-final double bill. Ten years ago Whelan and co played a Leinster semi-final against Wexford in front of 82,000. You wouldn’t get it now but then Dublin weren’t as dominant in Leinster as they are now. Sometimes Whelan meets supporters that are only half-joking when saying they almost preferred it when they weren’t quite sure whether the boys in blue would prevail in a game in Leinster.

That day against Wexford, they would, just about, thanks to a late Jason Sherlock goal. The following day seven of them went playing golf in Hollystown. A friend drove a school bus back in those days so they came up with this idea of going all around Dublin, rounding up every other member of the panel, just as they found them.

Coman Goggins’ mother chased them out of the house swinging a tea towel. Barry Cahill was dragged out of bed in his pyjamas when they called over unannounced around midnight. For six hours the bus drove all around Dublin, hoovering up unsuspecting teammates as the others sang and drank a few cans en route. They even picked up Cathal Jackson, owner of Copper Face Jack’s, and at two o’clock that morning, all landed into his nightclub.

So yeah, when Whelan thinks of his playing days, there’s a lot to fondly remember; how priceless to have been there the night Barry Cahill strutted around Copper’s in his pyjamas?

Dublin football still gives to him just as he still gives to it. He coaches the U17 county development squad, a lot of them being players he would have taken at U13 four years ago soon after he’d finished up playing in blue, before then taking the senior club team in his native Raheny for a couple of seasons. The U17s have only played one competition so there’s little emphasis on tactics in their weekly sessions; instead it’s all about skills development, just as it is with Jamie’s U10 team that he takes in Donabate.

“I think any underage coach who is not challenging their kid on their weak side is doing everyone a disservice. I was very lucky in that one time when I was trying to establish myself in the Dublin set-up I’d a bit of an injury in my right groin for about six weeks. For the 20 minutes before our warm-up I couldn’t kick off my right. I was forced to do everything off my left. And that actually was the making of me. I often say it to players now, before training, just pretend for a while you don’t have a right foot and you’ll be amazed.

“But I had no left-hand handpass. You look at the Kerry lads like Darragh Ó Sé; left and right. Anthony Maher’s pass to Johnny Buckley last Sunday for his first point. Left hand. Whereas I’d have to go (motions off his right) and next thing your arm is pulled and it’s not going where it should be.” If anything, he’s busier now than he ever was a player, between coaching, work, family, and naturally, The Sunday Game. His prominence on television is something he considers good fortune and a privilege, something he never aspired to as a player. In truth, he avoided watching it.

Ask him what he made of the panellists when he played and he pauses before answering with his customary candour.

“Probably didn’t like them. Because I got a lot of stick.” Was it unfair stick? “On mature reflection a lot of it was reasonable enough. The various incidents I was involved in; I could have no issue with that. The thing about drifting in and out of games, I thought that was it was maybe unfair and overplayed at times. But as you progressed through your career you learned to ignore them. You really wouldn’t give a hoot and I rarely watched it when Dublin playing.

“ I consider myself lucky to be in the position I am. When you’re retired you can often be measured by medals and stuff like that. And I would have finished my career not being the most likeable player outside of Dublin so it was a bit of a transition period in how you were perceived...”

There he goes again, bringing up again the gaps in his CV even though he won six Leinster titles and two All Stars, and even though he was only sent off once in championship football and those incidents with the likes of McGarrity and Crawford were isolated.

“But that’s what people remember,” he says. Yet the players you played against; the likes of McGrane, Darragh, Earley, Nicholas Murphy; typically they would have felt you played honestly, whereas with other players of that era they’d have expected them to be harping in their ear and niggling, thumping, belting them?

“I wouldn’t disagree with you. One thing I never got involved with was sledging. I played the game. But those four or five incidents can hang over your career. That’s the nature of it.”

He’s changing that, bit by bit. Our understanding of the game, and with it, perceptions of him.

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