Football is supposed to be enjoyable. A passion you share with your closest friends. At times, it’s the most satisfying thing in the world. Other times, it can be the most painful experience imaginable.
Let me explain: Building up to a big match, you’re on top of the world, itching to get out there. You have been training your ass off four or five nights a week for the last nine months, eating dry turkey and plates of veg, making sacrifices along the way, moulding your body into the best condition it can be in. Ready to rock.
As we were in the summer of 2014. July 6 was supposed to be one of those enjoyable days. Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Munster Final day, in front of 30,000. But it sank into ignominy. Suddenly the hype turns into this unforgettable sick feeling inside. You haven’t just been beaten. It’s much worse than that.
It’s not a nice place. Shake hands, wait for the presentation, head down and get off the field as fast as you can. Embarrassing is the word I’d use. You have lived this moment all your life, visualizing certain plays what you will do when you get the ball. The weights, the diet, the training, effort, sacrifices - you begin to question the who regime. The most frustrating thing that day was I had been hopping in the league, scoring eight points against Kerry down in Tralee. Come the Munster final, one point, and no glory.
Pain followed by bitterness. Lock yourself in your room for a day or two. Go to work keeping the head down all week, ducking people you know are going to question and doubt you. All the while you are trying prepare for a Qualifier game. Where’s the enjoyment, fun, and craic in that?
I’ll be the first to put my hand up and admit Cork football has had a few heavy defeats over the last few years which were unacceptable. As players, we set standards and bust a gut to achieve them. When that doesn’t happen, it’s painful. I’m well aware of the criticism inside and outside the county. You have to take it on the chin at times, mentally block it out, focus on what you can bring to the table and improve as a team.
Do I think its unjust, sometimes over the top? I do. Maybe it’s to do with the manner of some of those defeats but at the end of the day, Cork only lost two league games this spring, both away from home, and yet the criticism seemed non-stop.
I can’t say it bothers me too much. It’s the emotional pain of defeat that stings so much more. Way more than physical pain ever could. And that’s coming from a fella sitting here with a big awkward half-plastic, half-metal brace on my left leg as a result of a hamstring being torn off the bone for the second time in less than a year.
Sometimes I wonder if the critics saw the pain in defeat more closely, would they be as harsh? Not that their sympathy would be a good thing - criticism can be motivation for a squad which is working as hard as ever and doing so much right. But we ourselves, as players, came through a culture of ‘no excuses’. This was inherited from guys like Graham Canty, Alan Quirke, Noel O’Leary and Nicholas Murphy who suffered as much as any before we came along and yet they kept coming back for more.
Other times, I wonder if those guys, or if we, the current players, engaged with the media a bit more, would that help? Would they come to understand us and, in turn, have other things to write about? But generally speaking, that’s never been our way either. Compared to other county managers and players who will simply be more open, more engaging, more honest - or perhaps just cuter, media-wise.
Injuries, loss of players to hurling or Aussie Rules, fixture congestion, facility issues, 70-hour weeks. You will not hear anyone inside the group looking to those for excuses. Every team has those issues. Get on with it, avoid excuses. Take in on the chin and move on.
If I am really honest, over time we became accustomed to it and turned criticism into a positive. For every sickening defeat we have had, we often came back stronger in the immediate aftermath. fter getting annihilated by Kerry in that Munster final in 2014, we came back to be pipped by Mayo in the quarters. Last year after losing heavily to Roscommon in the league, we were two points up against Dublin going into stoppage time in Croke Park a week later.
Losing to Tipperary last year in Thurles was very tough, but we came through two away games in the qualifiers and put in a performance against Donegal.
When we blew a 10-point lead against Meath in this year’s league and ended up with a draw, we managed to win well in Derry a week later. Yes, we know that results are the only things that matter to anyone outside the camp, but wins tend to follow performance and consistency.
hen I talk about hurt and pain, I mean it literally. There are nights I haven’t slept after a loss. If it didn’t hurt, I shouldn’t be involved. When something is your passion, it always hurts. I am passionate about football. I’m passionate about Cork. I still enjoy playing football so much. I’m frightened at the prospect of not being able to play it again. I want success with Cork. I still see the potential in the group.
Turning that potential into results is a challenge that excites us all. True winners stay the course. They buy into a system and trust it. That’s what Cork is trying to do now and the reality is that it takes time. Getting better at it rather than starting something new every other month. Getting performances. Getting results off the back of that. All the time, staying away from the excuses, irrespective of the criticism.
Go back eight years, it wasn’t so rosy for Dublin. They have worked extremely hard on mental triggers to get to where they are now, very similar to Kilkenny in hurling or the All Blacks in rugby. I think we could learn from such examples - you have to stay mentally strong. Of course, this year’s Allianz League was not good enough based on our own standards. But that doesn’t where we are now or where we want to get to.
Cork is getting ready for championship football. Down to Fraher Field tonight play Waterford. That’s the only challenge that matters now.
I’m very disappointed not to be part of it. My challenge now is different. And yet, with injury comes perspective. My eyes have been opened to so many other people who have been less fortunate than me. It probably started with a meeting I had with Johnny Holland, the Munster rugby out-half who was forced to retire with the same injury. His career is over, his passion gone. I have one more shot before the hamstring becomes too short to repair again. Even for that, I’m grateful.
I’m also grateful for so many other things. My family, my Cork team-mates and those in Castlehaven who have rallied around me. My friends from Union Hall, my employers at Abco Kovex. I realise now these are the people who I may not have made enough time for before while making time to talk football with some random person on the street. With clarity, you see the important things in life. Working with people around me who might be called my ‘support team’, I have seen how gratitude can be so much more powerful an emotion than pain and bitterness.
For the time being, this is my passion.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved