Erin’s Own coach Pa Kearney: 'I had broken my back and was unable to walk'

Pa Kearney was one of Waterford’s brightest hurling talents.

Erin’s Own coach Pa Kearney: 'I had broken my back and was unable to walk'

A Déise minor and U21, Kearney further rose to prominence when scoring the crucial goal for Ballyduff Upper during their 2007 county final victory over Ballygunner.

Justin McCarthy called him into the senior set-up the following spring and despite the manager’s departure in the wake of Waterford’s nine-point Munster championship defeat to Clare, Kearney was retained by Davy Fitzgerald as the county bridged a 45-year gap to their last All-Ireland final appearance.

Little over a year later, a car accident brought the curtain down on Kearney’s hurling career. The then 22-year old was rushed to Dublin’s Mater Hospital where he twice underwent surgery on a spinal injury. From there, he was transferred to the National Rehabilitation Institute in Dún Laoghaire.

“That was October of 2009,” recalls Kearney, “and I stayed in Dún Laoghaire until the following January.”

For the first eight weeks at the rehab clinic, he was confined to a wheelchair. And if he’s being honest, he wasn’t sure if he’d ever walk again.

“It was a scary time,” says Kearney who has coached Erin’s Own to tomorrow’s Cork SHC final against champions, Glen Rovers.

“I had broken my back and was unable to walk. That was the reality of the situation. I was told pretty much straight away that I would never be able to play again, but when you spend time in a wheelchair and when the little things you take for granted on a daily basis become difficult, that’s when your outlook on life changes and you realise what’s really important. You begin to see everything in a different light. I’ll never forget my time up there. You get real perspective when you are without the use of your legs.”

Back home in Ballyduff, the community had rallied around Pa’s family to provide a helping hand in covering his medical costs. A table quiz in An Sibín was organised, a night of musical entertainment was run in each of the local pubs and there was also a monster raffle which garnered support from the hurling community far beyond the Waterford/Cork border.

“The people of Ballyduff and neighbouring Araglin were exceptional. I was up there for 13 weeks and I had someone up nearly every day. Now that was no mean feat, given it is two and a half hours from Ballyduff to Dún Laoghaire. It was all them that kept me sane and kept me going during the first couple of weeks. It was them who pushed me. I owe them so much.”

Kearney slowly got back on his feet and was allowed return to Waterford on Christmas week, the first time he’d been home since the accident.

“It was the great work of the physios in Dublin that got me back on my feet. I was young too and that was a help. I know I am one of the lucky ones. “There are several there who didn’t get back walking and I wasn’t going to feel sorry for myself that I couldn’t play again.

“I should have been on crutches for longer than I was, but I was stubborn in that sense. I got an early release in January as things started to go right for me. It was a total life change in the space of a few months. I spent the rest of 2010 rehabbing and building back up my strength.”

But the love of hurling refused to die. In 2011 and just 23-years young, Kearney entered the world of coaching when joining the management ticket overseeing the Araglin junior hurlers. He remembers it with fondness.

“I’ll always be grateful to them for giving me my start. It is an awful loss to anyone when you have to step away from the game, be it through injury or retirement or whatever. The game was something major to me. It was a no brainer to me to travel some other avenue within the GAA to keep the interest going. The nearest thing you can get to playing is training and managing so that’s where I went. It was a big change, but I enjoyed it.”

He was involved with the Waterford minors the following season and also assisted Ballyduff Upper in both codes. Modeligo came calling for the 2014 season and Kearney steered the club to Waterford and Munster junior glory. By the time their All-Ireland quarter-final against British champions Fullen Gaels came around in January of 2015, Kearney had informed club officials that work commitments meant he would not be able to oversee their first season back up at intermediate level.

“I’m working in Blackrock and there was a change in my hours which didn’t see me finishing until half six. It is an hour and 20 minutes back to Modeligo and you can’t have lads training at scandalous hours just to suit yourself. It was disappointing to have to step away.”

Then Erin’s Own entered the equation.

Martin Bowen had taken over from PJ Murphy as senior manager and put in a phone call to Lismore native Seán Prendergast who had coached Erin’s Own to county success on the last occasion – 2006 - Bowen had donned the bainisteoir’s bib.

“Seán recommended Pa,” says Bowen, “so, I made contact with him and he came on board with us.

“Pa had a tough time of it a couple of years ago, but I couldn’t speak highly enough of him. He is an absolutely brilliant modern-day coach. A lot of our success has to be attributed to Pa.

“He even came up against his brother Mikey when we played Cork IT in the first round this year.”

Kearney’s younger brother was corner-forward on the Waterford U21 team that blitzed all before them en route to All-Ireland glory.

Pa, having been invited onto the extended backroom team by manager Seán Power, was present on the sideline in Thurles for their final coronation.

“So far, it has been a great year for us,” the 29-year old remarks.

“Nothing compares to playing, anyone will tell you that. But coaching is the next best thing. You are still there, you are still involved and you can still have an influence.

“It is great to see the enjoyment and excitement you can bring to a club by getting to a day like Sunday. Now, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss playing. I can jog away but not for long periods of time. Otherwise, the body would get fierce sore.

“I can’t engage in physical contact either. In the winter, I play a bit of indoor soccer with the lads from home as you would miss playing with them.

“Coaching life is a pretty long season so that is more than enough to occupy the time.”

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