Neil Ewing: ‘It annoys me to hear people talking about the sacrifice. To me, it’s living’

Earlier this week former Sligo footballer Neil Ewing called it quits after 13 years at the coalface. Success and silverware eluded him for the most part and he fears that the gap between the game’s elite and the next best will only grow unless Croke Park takes action before it is too late
Neil Ewing: ‘It annoys me to hear people talking about the sacrifice. To me, it’s living’

GOOD FOR THE SOUL: ‘Football encouraged you to be the best possible version of yourself as a person. Physically it kept you in good nick. Even emotionally too,’ says Neil Ewing. Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

He played county. Maybe not for one of the big-time names, just like he himself wasn’t a big name, but still, he played county, for over a dozen years, even captained it for a while.

And though the journey was often frustrating, and he’s had and still has words to say about how the GAA could make it less frustrating for those he’s soldiered with and against, and the soldiers who’ll carry on fighting the good fight, when he handed back his gun last week it, was with an overriding sense of gratitude.

What better company could he have been in these past 13 years than the men he shared a dressing room with? What better cause could he have invested so much of himself in?

Neil Ewing, you might remember, was that everyman county footballer who stepped out from the crowd and approached this paper on the eve of the inaugural Super 8s in 2018 “out of a mixture of anger, disdain, and hope”.

And while he brilliantly channelled that anger and disdain to offer up a compelling critique of how the GAA was continuously facilitating the strong getting stronger and the weak getting weaker to create a chasm unthinkable at the start of his career, always there was hope. It was the hope that sustained him. He was more Tim Robbins than John Cleese that way. Hope was a good thing, maybe the best of things, though at times it nearly killed him.

And so for as long as he could play, he kept busy living. Because playing county was real living.

“There are so many people out there that tell you about the good footballer they could have been ‘but… ’ I never wanted to be that ‘but’. Why would anyone want to be that ‘but’? There’s nothing more frustrating or sickening than people telling you how good they would have been only for X, Y or Z or the regrets they have that they didn’t put in the effort.

People talk about the sacrifices you make but it’s completely overblown. There are people who do triathlons, marathons, coach underage soccer teams who put in equal or even more time into their sport and don’t get any recognition for it. 

“Rightly or wrongly GAA players do get some recognition. Maybe not as much perhaps in a county like Sligo but you do get some recognition nonetheless. So it annoys me to hear people talking about the sacrifice. To me, it’s living. And what is living? It’s trying to the best possible version of yourself.

“And football brought that out in you. It encouraged you to be the best possible version of yourself as a person. Physically it kept you in good nick. Even emotionally too. What’s better for a lad than heading off training three or four times and sitting down afterward to have a meal with 30 of your friends and acting like 15-year-olds for 20 minutes? 

“There’s this clichéd notion we can have as a nation that if you’re not out having 20 pints of Guinness and having a couple of takeaways at the weekend you’re not living. But it’s the instant gratification versus the self-awareness and maturity to go for the longer-term gratification. County football gave me that awareness.”

And so when he posted a tweet last Tuesday of his decision, his last line was ‘Peace Be the Journey’. It wasn’t quite a Kobe ‘Mamba Out’ mic drop — ‘Ewing Out’ wouldn’t quite have the same ring to it — but it rang true to his nature and story.

In truth, he wasn’t sure whether to post anything at all. But then he decided it was something to mark, because even a journeyman county man’s career should be noted and celebrated.

“I’m very aware I had a very mundane inter-county career, like hundreds of other lads across the country. But I do think guys who play with the perceived smaller counties don’t maybe get the credit and recognition their career deserves. 

“I’ve seen it in Sligo where some fantastic footballers and servants like Ross Donovan and Brian Curran step away quietly and even people in Sligo didn’t know they’d retired. Whereas in the big counties when lads finish up there’s a bit of fanfare about it and lads on their development squads might subconsciously think that’s something they’d like people to one day say about them, that’s something they want to be part of. 

“And that’s why when Sligo lads retired, I’d publicly acknowledge the careers they had. Because it might just ignite that young fella…”


                        ON THE BALL: Neil Ewing assesses his options in the 2014 Connacht SFC semi-final against Galway Markievicz Park. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile.
ON THE BALL: Neil Ewing assesses his options in the 2014 Connacht SFC semi-final against Galway Markievicz Park. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile.

He’ll always remember what sparked the fire for him. When he was eight, Sligo, coached by Mickey Moran, won through to a Connacht final against a Mayo side that had contested the previous year’s All-Ireland final.

His parents not being of GAA stock, he’d never been at an inter-county game before but the whole county had hopped on the bandwagon for this one. Everything about Hyde Park that day fascinated him: The anticipation, the game itself, and even the disappointment of a one-point defeat. 

The following day he was with his mother in the post office and the man behind the counter was still frothing at the mouth, claiming Sligo had been robbed. The man’s passion stoked Ewing’s. Sligo football seemed to be something of a cause to people. And someday he wanted to be part of that cause.

Ten years on that fire burned even stronger. Sligo won the 2007 Connacht championship, finishing on the right side of a one-point game. By then Ewing was playing underage for the county and the following spring was playing for the county U21s that beat a Galway team featuring Gareth Bradshaw and Paul Conroy.

Roscommon would edge them the next day, triggering Ewing and a few of his team-mates to embark on a bender that would take in a weekday-trip to the Aran Islands, but after they’d returned to dry land and recharged their phones, there was a message from the senior county manager Tommy Jordan awaiting: We’ll see you at training this week.

Sligo haven’t been Connacht champions since. There were a few seasons — 2010, 2012 — where they went desperately close, but the further Ewing’s career went on, the further they seemed to fall away. Some of the fault for that, he’d explain so eloquently in 2018, lay in themselves, that Sligo became underlings. But that there were so many counties like them meant some of the fault also rested with Croke Park.

He still feels that way. That the powers-that-be haven’t properly examined why counties that were so competitive in the noughties have drifted back. That instead of coming up with structures that reflect and perpetuate the gap, they should look at structures to address and close it.

“I wouldn’t discount the need for some kind of tiers but if there are two tiers in this country, it’s not that there’s a top 16 and then a bottom 16. There’s maybe five or six counties at the top and then a huge number of counties in the middle. 

“I’m not saying the team in the bottom of the middle group would beat the team at the top of that middle group but they’d be well able to beat them at least two times out of 10 and be competitive with them most of the time.

“And I think long term there could be a financial issue for the GAA unless they make more counties properly competitive. I read an article in the Guardian last week where Toto Wolff, the head of Mercedes, was talking about the importance of levelling the playing field in Formula One, that more teams needed to be more competitive so the sport could be more sustainable in the long run. And that’s in a sport that has sold out to a private equity company. Or you look at Australian Rules. It has a raft of equalisation policies.”

If Ewing had his way, Croke Park would conduct a football and hurling audit of each county, much the way they monitor and even intervene in a county’s financial situation.

They should be giving a helping hand to counties, even if that hand occasionally might have to wag the finger. At the moment though they’re adopting a hands-off, almost Darwinistic, approach.

I know this might seem overly idealistic and simplistic but we should be trying to make sure every kid and player and county in the country has the opportunity to be the best version of themselves in hurling and football and I don’t think that exists at the moment.

“If you even take Sligo. I’d say we have 10 fellas from the one minor team that contested a Connacht final in 2015. But there’ve been years either side of that where we’ve had no minor come through. We were just lucky with that particular crop that there was a father who was knowledgeable and dedicated enough to put time into them since they were U14 and they could be the best version of themselves.

“There are many people at coaching and administration level in counties that are working hard but sometimes it’s a case of not even knowing what you don’t know. But if you had someone from Croke Park or even Connacht Council as a director of football who’d be able to sit down with each county and review them on a quarterly basis — ‘Right, this is best practice, how are ye getting on’ — it’d make a huge difference. 

“It’d make county boards not so much answerable but accountable. Better. And you could roll that out then within counties. Have directors in hurling and football that can probe and prompt clubs along. You’d start to have higher participation rates, a more vibrant organisation across the board.”

He sees lots of little ways that could make a big difference in every county, but especially a Sligo and his own club, Drumcliffe-Rosses Point.

“Take the scheduling of club games. We’d a situation where every single Sligo league game was played on a Sunday which was a right pain for lads based in Dublin or even for lads based at home that would like to go out for a few pints on the Friday or Saturday night. 

“I know at least three lads who would have stayed playing club football with us who stopped playing over that. Players who had contested Connacht A schools finals with Summerhill and would have been good quality players for our club where sometimes we might only have 12 or 13 lads training during the week.

“There’s this belief around the whole thing that everything has to revolve around football. But that outlook just isn’t for everybody. Even if we made it every second game was on a Saturday, it’d create a bigger playing pool. There are too many clubs and counties losing too many potential players every step of the way and that really tells when it gets to senior.”

The GPA executive didn’t ask to hear more about his views after that 2018 article and he feels that perhaps he himself was a bit too passive as well by not seeking an audience with them. For all the good they’ve done, including for him in such ways as a spot on the Madden leadership programme, he feels they — especially players in the mid-rank counties — need to be more proactive.

“That’s possibly a regret of mine: That we didn’t make more noise encouraging stuff and speaking truth to power that will help future generations. We’ve ended up in a situation now where there’s almost no chance of Sligo winning a Connacht or a Westmeath or Offaly winning a Leinster when that was a dream I signed up for. We’ve to ask: What can we do to make sure that in 15 years’ time that’s different? Because I’ll always say: That’s how long it will take after the inactivity of the last 10 years.”

Still, he had the journey. Even the long bus journeys after a tough loss had an upside to them.

“The further down the country you were, the more horrible the bus back could be. Well, it always started off terrible. But then after about an hour we’d figured out that it [the defeat] wasn’t really our fault and we’d just get back to slagging each other for the next three hours.

“There were a few years all right where when we’d get home, the post-mortem would resume in my own head until probably the Thursday and that’s a regret I would have. My value on myself as a person seemed to be dependent on a national league game the previous weekend. But after having a conversation with [his now wife] Siobhan about it, I said: ‘From now on, that stops.’ 

“And I was also seeing fellas around me who on that Sunday evening would also be in — I won’t say a dark place, let’s have a bit of perspective here — but a disappointing state and yet they were able to say: ‘Yeah, we’ve taken a kick in the balls but let’s stick together and keep our heads down and we’ll get it right next week.’ Lads like Charlie Harrison. Noel McGuire. Mark Brehony. Keelan Cawley. David Kelly. I could go on and on.”

So he does. His first year on the panel happened to be Kieran Quinn’s last but they connected enough that season and through the years since that when Ewing and Siobhan married in 2019 — in November, like a good county man should — Quinn, a full-time and accomplished musician and songwriter, was the band.

Stephen Gilmartin, an old college housemate who somehow combined training as a consultant in emergency medicine with playing for his county, was the groomsman. Another old NUIG team-mate and flatmate, Shane Stenson, was best man. You don’t have to have won All-Irelands or provincial medals to have friends and bonds for life.

“Some of the best memories were the Sunday or even Monday nights after games. I know that might contradict my earlier comment about the 20 pints of Guinness but being able to go out with lads that you’ve put a lot of effort in with were fierce craic. And it wasn’t so much the drinking. It was the slagging, the stories that would be told of something someone did in training that everyone was afraid to reference but now the inhibitions down they could get ripped over it.

“As the years went on it was harder to have nights like that with the league games coming so thick and fast, and with us maybe playing down the country and lads having to head straight back to Dublin afterwards. I’d be very grateful I came in at the tail-end of the wilder years.”

After a dozen years virtually injury-free, Ewing tore his tendon off the bone just before the first lockdown.

He managed to play on with the club during the summer and helped them reach their first-ever senior county final but he was struggling.

“Over the winter I tried different approaches. I tried doing too much, too little, and everything in between. The longer the season was pushed out, I thought I might stumble on the right mix. But I found that while I could get it to 90% of where it needed to be, that final 10% you need for county just wasn’t there. If I was 24, 25, I’d try to manage it through the season but to do that now at 32 would be taking the opportunity away from a younger fella.”

A part of him would still love to be playing against Leitrim this weekend. He’s been very impressed by Tony McEntee’s vision and clarity. If anything this would have been an ideal season for him — pre-season in good weather, then straight into a run of games, then straight into championship — but he accepts it’s no longer for him.

He’ll be fine. If anything Covid actually may have helped ease the transition.

“For 15 years I was on this carousel. It was only when Covid kicked in, I wondered: ‘What do you do for an evening if you’re not driving to Athlone?’

Now he no longer has to hit that road. But he’ll always have the journey. Peace be to it is right.

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