On the day before he left for Syria, Eoin Larkin talked about tactics, tours of duty and almost jacking in hurling last May.
Eoin Larkin was nearly gone. He shakes his head and smiles, looking back from dry
October. Here he is, the man with a great shout of receiving his third All Star next month. September was kind and Larkin touched on Kilkenny’s best performer against Galway in the All-Ireland final. But he was nearly gone last May.
“I know it sounds made up,” he says. “But it’s true. I had the phone out to ring Brian [Cody] and say I was packing it in. But didn’t the phone ring in my hand and it was Tadhg Crowley, our doctor. He told me that a new American test confirmed I’d glandular fever.”
Suddenly Larkin understood why he had struggled all spring, not able to train, drained out. Previous blood tests, to bafflement, had come back clear.
2015 is in snapshots in this man’s head. One is the first night back training, after the team holiday in Miami. “I was doing a bit of running,” he says. “And I just could not go, and I could not slow down. It was like a big bulge in my stomach. And I just said to Mick Dempsey: ‘I can’t go… It’s like my stomach is exploding.’”
Pain led to the physio’s door and onwards to Gerry McEntee, the surgeon. Larkin recalls: “Gerry sat me up on the bed, and did a couple of moves. He said: ‘Have you a pain doing this? Have you a pain doing that?’ I said: ‘Yeah…’
“He said: ‘I know exactly what’s wrong with you before I do anything.’ I said: ‘Go on…’ He said: ‘You’ve Gilmore’s Groin.’”
Another snapshot flashed after the operation. “I’ll never forget waking up,” Larkin notes. “Gerry was bending over me and said: ‘Well?’”
“I said: ‘Well? Did everything go alright?’”
“He said: ‘Yeah, it did. You’d a small bit of a hole in your stomach muscle as well, with a nerve popping out through it. So I tidied that up too.’”
Eoin Larkin laughs a rueful laugh: “So that was the real pain, the nerve and my stomach exploding…”
He wanted to get back on track, sighting Wexford and a Leinster semi final in June: “I was after allowing myself 10 weeks, in my head, before I got it done, for afterwards. Says to myself: I’ll be back flying…”
Anything but. His return, one Friday evening, became an ordeal. He says: “I was wrecked as in, pure fatigued and no energy. ’Twas very strange. I was eating all around me and sleeping all around me.
“Went and trained again the Sunday morning, but felt no better, despite all the sleep. I’ll never forget the feeling after training. I thought I was going to die.
“This was going on, round the clock, for nearly five weeks. It wasn’t even the tiredness where your eyes are going. It was my whole body. Just shutting down.”
He resisted promptings by Anne, his wife, about seeing a doctor for a week or so. But eventually the burden was too much. His championship hopes were vanishing into a funnel of fatigue and bad humour. Then those blood tests: clear and clear and clear.
“I was going into training, trying to train, and going bad,” Larkin says. “And I was losing it in there, not enjoying it all, not doing myself justice.
“Brian eventually said to me: ‘You may forget about training for the moment, until we find out what’s wrong with you.’
“And then I was losing the head, because things were pushing onto championship time and here I was hardly able to walk around and not training. I was getting real frustrated with myself.
“I said to Anne: ‘I’ve enough of this… I’ll ring Brian and call it quits.’”
Then Tadhg Crowley and his American test intervened. “Once I had the result, I immediately felt better,” Larkin says. “I could make sense of things. Tadhg told me I was most of the way through the fever at that stage, and that around another three weeks would finish it.
“He was right. And by the time the Wexford match came around in June I was feeling fresh again, and I’d been able to do a small bit of training.”
Kilkenny swept through Wexford, with Eoin Larkin in the vanguard. Kilkenny swept on to September. That first half against Galway, when they conceded 14 points and went in four down, was a lurch. Larkin’s voice tightens when he remembers that moment, that dressing room. He sounds like a man looking back over a precipice.
He takes a moment before continuing: “It’s very hard to do… If it’s going wrong, and your head is not in it for the first half, it’s very hard to go in at half-time and get your head zoned in.
“Brian always says to us, probably about a week and a half before a championship match: ye can lose it between now and Sunday, but ye can’t win it. That comment by him always hits home.
“The first time I heard that, I said to myself: what does he mean? But the longer time went on, and I thought about it, the more he was right.”
Larkin picks a topical illustration: “I think it happened with the Irish rugby team against Argentina. I wouldn’t be blaming the injuries and suspensions at all. I was nearly sick of listening about the injuries. Mentally, they weren’t ready for the game. They’d have been better served playing the All Blacks, because they’d have had to get the minds right.”
Anyone who doubts a Kilkenny shrug about complex tactics should look away. Eoin Larkin, who has seen 11 seasons in stripes, believes hurling is unvisited by revolution.
This minimalism comes across as measured and sincere: “I don’t think anyone ever spoke of what Clare did in 2013. When I went back in that January, there was never any talk that we need to change our style or anything like that. We were going to roll with what we were doing. I think Kilkenny hurling evolves by the personnel you have available, rather than by tactics as such.
“You just have to work as hard as anyone and just use the ball that bit better. I think that’s what killed us in 2013. We didn’t use the ball as well as we could have. Ah, we were after being going a long time. But still, once you lose in the championship, the tiredness just goes.”
He elaborates: “I don’t think we ever spoke, in all the years I’m in with Kilkenny, about the way we played. All that anyone ever said to me, Eddie Brennan and any of the older players from 2006 on, was simple: just get stuck into this game hard and see where that takes us.
“That’s all was ever said. Even up to this day, like.”
As he relates, not so much has changed: “Even now that’s all I say to the younger lads. It’s not ‘we have to play the ball here, we have to play the ball there’. It’s just ‘work hard and win the ball’. And we have the hurlers then to use the ball where it hurts. And when we do work hard, that’s when we use it the best. We nearly always take the right option when we’re working hard.”
He battens to this topic: “That would have been the only conversation we ever had inside. I don’t think I’ve ever heard even Brian use the word ‘strategy’ or ‘tactics’. It’s always ‘lay down a marker’. When the tempo goes high, we go high.
“It’s a bit like the Manchester United pressing game, when they were at their best. Scholes, Giggs, Beckham: they always did the right thing with the ball. Brian has always said: ‘Get the tempo up high and everything else will follow.’
“You can go into too much instruction and all that. Hurling is a simple game and people try to complicate it…”
Eoin Larkin’s technique makes him part of a select group, ciotógs who hurl left hand on top and prefer their backhand side. Other examples include Lar Corbett, Brendan Cummins, JJ Delaney, Joey Holden, Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher, Pauric Mahony, Cathal ‘Tots’ O’Connell and Lester Ryan.
Although often misunderstood, there is nothing wrong with these players’ grip, since they write with their left hand. Their liking for taking frees and sidelines right-sided is sometimes mistaken for evidence of incorrect grip. The reality is such players are the mirror image of figures such as Tony Kelly and Tommy Walsh, right-handers who hurl right hand on top and prefer their left side for dead balls.
Eoin Larkin’s father, Alan, once told me that he had to resist pressure within the family about getting the young Eoin to hurl right hand on top. That resistance was stripy gain, because there have been several Eoin Larkins.
First came the young fella, a classic wing forward, a touch one-sided initially but able to step off both feet and a wraith in open play. Eoin Larkin’s ability to round a man in the tight is non pareil. Here was the version who went to Kosovo on a tour of duty in late 2007 and came back to be 2008’s Hurler of the Year.
His dalliance with full-forward in the early part of this decade? Good-humoured out, he laughs at the memory: “It had to be a gear change in the head. It was very tough, now. I won’t lie about that. It was very tough going in there, to the square.
“Brian just asked me to go in full-forward. Well, he didn’t ask me: he told me! I said: ‘Look, there’s no problem. I’ll go in there.’
“But certainly you had to change your mindset in there, because I was so used to breaking onto ball facing the opposition goal. But now I had to stand under a ball coming in, or get out in front if a ball was coming in low. I don’t think it worked out for me as well as I’d have liked…”
Technique is a practical matter too. “That’s why I like playing at 12, left-half forward,” Larkin explains. “It’s more difficult for the back to get at your catching hand under the puck-out. If you’re coming across the other side, at 10, you have to bring your hurl across the way somehow to mind your hand.”
Henry Shefflin’s recent autobiography stressed the selflessness of Eoin Larkin’s roving game and its value to team effort. The man himself considers his evolution: “The way I was playing wing forward, I used always find myself deep. A lot of the time, I was nearly going too deep.
“Brian said it to me last year, in 2014, that he wanted me attacking as well. I just used to find myself getting lost in the game, kinda getting caught back so far I wouldn’t be up where the attack was going.
“Brian just said: go corner-forward and see where it takes you, looking for work. Being picked in the corner puts you a step further up the field. I was another line in, and I wasn’t going to be out as far. I’d never get back any further than midfield or the half-back-line. So, when the attack started, I was able to get up the field as well.”
For Larkin, this innovation worked: “I was happy enough because it gave me a lot of flexibility, out the field. Definitely, I got a lot more scores this year than I did in 2013 or 2014. It took a bit of getting used to as well, because I was so used to getting back that far.
“Even this year, there were times I just told Ger [Aylward] to go out, and that I’d stay in full forward with TJ or whoever. Ger used to go out for five minutes, give me a breather. Then he’d come back in and I’d go back out. So it’s very hard to keep track of, for the backs marking us.”
This rejig works a treat in a time when talk of sweepers abounds. Larkin smiles at mention of sweeper systems: “It’s a tough one, because if I go out and am picking up ball around the middle of the field and the half-forward line, and you’re creating attacks there, what do you do? Do you send the corner-back out to mark me? And leave two on two inside? Or leave the corner-back in there, spare?
“But it only works if you’re getting on the ball. If you’re just running around for the sake of running around, you can leave the corner-back in front of the full-back-line. Advantage them…
“If you get the ball and hit it straight into your man, and he hits it back down the field, that craic kills the whole thing.”
This week, Eoin Larkin the soldier flew to Syria for a six-month tour of duty with the 15th Infantry Battalion. For a family man with three young children, two daughters and a son, there are the natural challenges.
“The youngest is four,” he says. “So she started school this year. She’s that young we’re not sure if she really realises yet that I won’t be around.
“It is difficult. But you’ve Skype and FaceTime and all that kind of stuff now, which you didn’t have in ’07, when I went to Kosovo. That trip, I was on the phone the whole time.
“That’ll make it a lot easier, that I’ll be able to see them and that they’ll be able to see me. I won’t be just cut out of their life totally, like I was in ’07.
“When I went to Kosovo, the other two were very small, a lot smaller than the youngest is now. They didn’t really know whether I was going or coming. But it’s different now. There’re at a better age, I think, than in ’07.”
Hurlers are not immune to the everyday realities. A tour of duty is something of a prize too. “It’s whenever you want to go, really,” Larkin says. “You apply for it.
“Lads are cutting each other’s throat to get out there at the moment, because there’s a few quid involved… It’s hard to make the few pounds now, in Ireland. There was nothing for a while. But now there’s Syria and the Leb open.”
He continues: “There’s a post on the Israeli-Syrian border. We could be tasked with going out there for two weeks at a time. I presume it could be similar to Kosovo, taking up a post and doing patrols. But I won’t really know until we land and we are all briefed.”
Nowhere in our conversation is it mentioned that 2015 saw him join Christy Ring and John Doyle on eight All-Ireland medals won as a starting player. Like many good hurlers, Eoin Larkin is likeable and admirable in equal measure.
Right now, he comes across as fresh and vibrant, already looking forward. 2015 featured some of his career’s toughest snapshots but there is more to come.
“As of now, I am going back next year,” he says. “I’ll have to talk to the boss, Brian Cody. And to the real boss, Anne…! Ah no, I think it’d be good to go again. And I intend to do a fair bit of training while I’m away.”
Eoin Larkin is in Syria. Back in April.
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