s a 17-year-old, on a typically wet and miserable September evening in 1999, my father Hugo drove me to my first trial game for Monaghan in Louth. Growing up, watching re-runs of old Monaghan games from the 80s on old Sony Betamax tapes, all I ever wanted to do was emulate him by having a long career with Monaghan.
After watching him tussle with Jack O’Shea in the middle of the park, myself and my brother Ben would tog out in his old jerseys and do battle on our homemade field of dreams.
Sometimes I feel I have been playing for Monaghan for almost 30 years.
A creditable performance, on that otherwise forgettable night in Louth, marked the start of a roller-coaster journey that would take us around almost every county ground in the country.
Of the 180 or so times I have played for Monaghan since, you could have counted the games he missed on one hand. There were familiar words of advice before every one. Yet over a relatively short phone call last Friday evening, we both agreed now was the right time to leave it behind.
Discussing it with my wife Alison at length over the past few months, we both agreed that, for various reasons, it was time to move on. Crucially it feels right, but if I’m honest I knew long before now.
A qualifier defeat to Longford in Clones marked my final day with Monaghan. With the boys struggling with the after-effects of a gruelling two-game battle with Donegal in the weeks previous, I watched on helplessly as a Longford ambush unfolded. Warming up, hoping to get one last run, I glanced into the crowd only to see my eldest son, Cailean, smiling curiously at me from only a few feet away.
He had been running along the front of the stand, mimicking my warm-up all evening. Making way for youth, I watched the final sub being brought on ahead of me. I knew there and then I was unlikely to be togged out for Monaghan again.
Before walking back to the stand, I motioned to Cailean to go for one last length of the stand together. He won’t remember it, but I will. One last memory to treasure, from an already bulging collection.
With a sense of duty and commitment in the jersey instilled by my father, I was always confident of enjoying a long career with Monaghan. What I couldn’t have banked on was having a career that coincided with so many remarkable team-mates with like-minded values and ambition. Leaders amongst men, their unshakeable commitment to club and county has been remarkable.
Following our heartbreaking defeat to Down in the 2012 Ulster semi-final, Tommy Conlon wrote a reflective piece about us in his Sunday column.
“The truly honourable thing about this team is they stuck together. They stayed the distance. They kept trying to improve. The kept striving and straining against their own limitations. They poured their guts into the pursuit of an Ulster title. They had a window of time in which to do it…They were a good team, at times formidable. They tried to be the best they could be. It wasn’t quite enough. The wheel has turned, the window has closed.”
At the time of writing, few would have disagreed with Tommy, myself included. Yet even in what was unquestionably our darkest hour, as Tommy rightly stated, we stuck together. We have always stuck together.
Our success in the years since was built on the foundations of mutual respect and a commitment that carried us through the disappointment of those previous campaigns. Genuine friendships are forged in such circumstances, that will last well beyond our playing days.
Only last weekend we all joined up again in Donegal to celebrate Drew Wylie’s marriage to his beautiful bride Aoife.
have witnessed a remarkable transformation in the psyche of Monaghan football during my career. Motivated by pride, sustained by hard work, validated with success. I am not going to patronise with thanks the countless people who have contributed to making Monaghan football what it is today. Striking an almost perfect balance between club and county, Monaghan football and all those responsible, should be held up as a shining example of what can be achieved with relatively limited resources. Supporters, administrators, sponsors, and mentors, all with a like-minded sense of duty and passion, for something bigger than ourselves.
I am proud to have been part of that transformation.
Alison and I are finally settled in Monaghan now. With two exuberant boys, Cailean and Daragh, at our feet, a storied football career pales in significance to the fulfilling life we have built together, surrounded by family and friends. Seventeen years ago my mother and father set me on a journey and have provided unwavering support ever since. I hope I made them proud.
Onlookers are continually amazed at the commitment and resilience required to play inter-county football nowadays. For me it was relatively easy to play for so long, when you have a remarkable family and partner like Alison to support you along the journey.
Nowadays, I drive past our fantastic training centre on the way home from work every evening. Dormant at present, but it won’t be long before it becomes a bustling hive of activity for all ages.
The class of 2017 will take the field with an unquenchable ambition to don a jersey I have been privileged to wear for close to 20 years. For me, the ‘window’ Tommy Conlon referenced has finally closed. I look forward to the day that another will open for my boys, and like my father and mother did for me, myself and Alison will be there every step of the way.
Slán libh, agus go raibh maith agaibh.