Last year Donal O’Grady’s situation became clearer to him in the pub. He was getting a carvery when his status as Limerick hurling captain intervened.
“The man there asked if I wanted everything on the food, and I said I would, but when we came to the chips he laughed and said ‘ah, no chips for you’.
“I was thinking, ‘hey, that’s my call’.” O’Grady’s retirement was confirmed on Sunday. He’ll be 36 this year and both body and mind were telling him to go.
“It’s full on anyway, being a player, but being captain added another layer. You’re trying to get hold of fellas for the paper and nobody wants to talk, and managers have bans in place, so a lot of that falls into the captain’s lap.
“There’s a lot of that which takes up your time. You don’t have time to concentrate on your own stuff, nearly, because you’re worrying about other lads and whether they’re right.
“That’s a dangerous way to be, because people tend to look at the captain and expect eight or nine out of 10 every day.” The Granagh-Ballingarry man says off-field demands on players have ramped up by “at least 50%”.
“Food is a big consideration because body fat is a big issue for every player — the DEXA scans, the nutrition, all of that. There was a time when you might hear about a player, ‘I saw Donal O’Grady having a pint in the pub the other night’, but that’s gone. You’re left behind now if you have a drink. You can’t hide it if you went for pints, because there are urine tests before training to check how hydrated you are.
“You’re weighed before and after training, you’re scanned every six weeks to check muscle mass and so on. There’s no hiding. In fact, forget about the drinking: if an inter-county player is seen going into a chipper for food, it’s more scandalous. A bar of chocolate is a bigger scandal than a pint.
“We were very well looked after with Limerick — there’s a meal there for you, no problem, though one of the lads was telling me that Joe O’Connor, who’s come in with Limerick, has saved the county board a lot of money by getting the players to come in with their meals. You might think that’s a board move to cut costs, but Joe’s logic is prepare your own meal, with the proper food, for after training.”
There were good times, too. O’Grady has no problem finding the brightest day. “2013 is probably the obvious one, winning the Munster title. Winning that day was a return on the uncertainty that the supporters had felt for years — every time they thought things were going right, we fell flat on our faces.
“Putting the joy back on the faces of the Limerick public was the great reward that day rather than getting a medal in your back pocket. People thought we got carried away that year, not a bit of it. John Allen was the manager and he handled that so well, after the Munster final. We lost to Clare in the All-Ireland semi-final but it had nothing to do with getting carried away. Then, the three games against Tipperary in 2007 — the madness of it, a small ball and 240 or 250 minutes of hurling, the two teams being inseparable — then you had Richie Bennis coming in that year, the aura he had. That was a great year.”
“One of his teammates that year, Brian Geary, was the best man he played alongside (“The best to read a puck-out — he’d just look at you and put the ball in front of you”), while an early lesson against Colin Lynch always stayed with O’Grady: “It was a league game but he played as though it was championship. That told me a lot about what you needed to play inter-county.” Above all, though the memory of bringing the Munster cup back home in 2013 is strongest.
“The lads shouldered me down the street that day. I was half-embarrassed. But there were people there in Ballingarry that day from all over Limerick, people I’d say were never there before or since. But they made the effort to get there that Monday. It’s grand to be at the match, but to turn up the following day, to make that trip. That showed what it meant.”
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