Last Friday evening, John Kiely visited Shane Dowling’s home for a cup of tea. News was to be imparted and digested as memories were to be shared.
Together they watched the revised Munster SHC draw on the Six One News. The fact that the younger man, only 27, wouldn’t be involved in it wasn’t lost on either. They could laugh about it but the atmosphere was obviously sombre.
“John is a super guy to speak to in these situations and a very calculated man,” says Dowling, forced to retire early due to a knee injury.
“Obviously, being a principal of a school and an inter-county manager, those are the traits you have to have. When he left, walked down the steps of the house and I closed the door, that was a tough hour after that I can tell you. I knew beforehand it was over but when I spoke about it with John and when I closed that door it was obviously final.”
The following day, Dowling went to meet his parents Paddy and Joan. “Spoke to them, bailed out. Met them on Sunday, bailed out. I had to mentally prepare myself and eventually spoke to them properly on Monday evening. They’re my parents and once I’m okay, they’ll be okay and I’ll be okay.”
Dowling also discussed it with his long-time Na Piarsaigh friends like Kevin Downes, Peter Casey, and Alan Dempsey. He also met up with Limerick captain Declan Hannon for a coffee on Sunday evening. “It turned into more of a coffee on Sunday to reminisce about old times because we had been friends for a long time and came through at the same time. I told Declan he could rest easy knowing he ended my career because the last match I played was for the club against him and Adare last August!” he smiles.
Upon releasing the statement on social media this morning, Dowling sent a video message to the Limerick squad’s WhatsApp group before leaving it.
I didn’t feel a text message would have been appropriate considering it’s different to a 33- or 34-year-old retiring where age got the better of him and I haven’t seen a lot of the lads for months now for obvious reasons, so I put in a video message and that wasn’t a one-take video. It was difficult too.
Dealing with the magnitude of such a premature retirement, Dowling knows he will need some help. “Talking to people is something I’ve got better at in recent years. I met a number of people the last couple of days but there was one particular person I was with and I broke down and started crying. Their answer was, ‘Keep that going. It’s healthy. You have to let your emotions out.’
“The last 10 days, I haven’t slept well. I have struggled to eat because my stomach hasn’t stopped turning. It just shows what it really means to me and I’m not going to hide the fact that it’s difficult and will be difficult. But I have a lot of great friends and met a lot of great people along the way and there will be plenty of people there for me, no doubt. And as one chapter closes, please God another will open.”
For all the respect he has for Dr Tadhg O’Sullivan, Dowling knew he was seeing the knee expert too much for his liking. On his last trip to see him in Waterford, former Limerick manager Tom Ryan rang him to see how he was and he had to be economical with the seriousness of his situation.
After surgery on a microfracture in February, his 2020 season looked doomed although there was some hope that would be the extent of it. However, closer inspection of his right knee showed there was a second hole in his cartilage. “I woke up during the end of the procedure and he still had the camera in the knee and he showed me everything. I have had two microfracture procedures, a scope, and I will have to get another microfracture procedure to fix the next problem.
“After he had a look, I let it sink in for a few days but the answer was made for me. It’s absolutely heartbreaking and I’m distraught. It’s been an extremely difficult couple of weeks knowing that I have to finish up at 27 years of age.
“But I don’t want this to be about my knee but my career and how lucky I have been to be involved with the group these last eight years and the people I have met and the memories I have made.”
And as wretched as his situation is right now, Dowling knows how has been fortunate. He knows there was more than an element of serendipity when he arrived on the scene with both Limerick and Na Piarsaigh.
“I was very lucky with my career, the timing of it starting after the strike and John (Allen) being such a balanced and calm man giving me my debut in 2012.
“TJ (Ryan) then would have blooded a lot of the boys, John brought in, and the last few years have just been incredible with John. I wanted to get back to Gaelic Grounds and training on the summer night and Croke Park, and I just can’t believe it’s been taken away from me.”
The first injury to his knee threatened to derail him in 2018 but from the bench he was a marvel, scoring a goal against Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final and then Galway in the final.
“That 2018 year was one of highs and lows and there’s no need to go into detail with them again. I could never imagine the buzz and experience I got against Cork in the semi-final. The final was different because of the prize at stake but the semi-final, Limerick hadn’t been there for years and the drama attached to it and Dolores O’Riordan singing out over the speakers afterwards and the dressing room then… I was honoured to be part of it.
I have so many videos of the bus on the way back to CityWest, the night in CityWest, and the following day home. I like talking to people and loved doing it the night and the days after and truly the most enjoyable part was the train home, being in the same carriage as the players, the few sing-songs and beers, and looking at what was waiting for us in Limerick. I’d do anything to be there again.
“It is quite difficult to look back on that and I’ve had to make a lot of tough calls and there has been tears along the way but I consider myself to be an extremely privileged person from Limerick number one and to represent Limerick number two.”
Two years previous, Dowling enjoyed his first taste of All-Ireland success with Na Piarsaigh. Whether he gets back playing with the sky blue and white he can’t say - “I just don’t know. I will have to wait and see. There’s no panic with that but it won’t any time soon anyway.”
That St Patrick’s Day of 2016 will never leave him. “It was a very special day for everybody involved. When anybody asks what was better, club or county, I never pick one because they’re not comparable.
“The way I look at it, Na Piarsaigh was only founded in 1968 and hasn’t been senior a whole pile of time. For several years, Na Piarsaigh were fighting relegation almost every year. I consider myself so lucky to be part of a great crop of players and a great management team and a great club. I have some great memories of the elderly people who never thought we would win a county never mind an All-Ireland. Without their efforts, I wouldn’t have got to where I got to.”
Dowling hopes to catch up soon with old team-mates like Paul Browne and Richie McCarthy who also called time on their inter-county careers of late. “By the time Championship comes around, we may be able to meet in the Woodfield (House Hotel) for a pint and cheer the boys on the bus as they go past and live the life like every other Limerick supporter.
“The truth is every lad in the Limerick group will become like me but hopefully a lot further down the road because you only have a short lifespan there. I said to them, ‘Every day you get to puck a ball appreciate it because you don’t know when it will be your last.’”