Still part of the Tribe

He’ll be in the Galway dressing room today - the minor one. Two years ago Tony Óg Regan’s dream of a senior All-Ireland with his beloved maroon and white was smashed by a phone call from Anthony Cunningham. Bitter now? No. Hurt? Wouldn’t you be?

There’s no place he’d rather be. And yet it’s one of the toughest and most anguished he’s ever known. Today, Tony Óg Regan heads into Croke Park on All Ireland final day on a Galway bus, looking to bring home the cup.

This past summer, he has served as a sport psychology consultant to Jeff Lynskey’s county minor side, enjoying their journey, excited by their potential destination. At the outset of the championship few could have seen them playing into September, and even fewer when they trailed Kilkenny by a couple of goals more than once during an All Ireland semi-final last month. Yet here they are, with - and possibly because - Regan being on board.

But while those Galway teens will be out there in that amphitheatre he has helped steel them for, another maroon-and-white-coloured team bus, with Anthony Cunningham at the front, will pull in underneath the Cusack Stand.

Regan was on that same bus with Cunningham in 2012, the last time the Galway seniors were in Croker this time of year. He was there in 2005 too when he was still only 21 and Conor Hayes was at the helm. Each time that bus pulled out of Croker without the Liam MacCarthy, but never with the dream shattered.

Then in the winter of 2013 that dream was smashed, never to be actualised. Anthony Cunningham phoned Regan to say he’d some bad news for him: he wouldn’t be on the panel for 2014. Even now it still hurts.

“Since I was 16 years of age all I thought about was winning a senior All Ireland with Galway. I was that age when I won at minor and while I was watching the senior match that day, all I wanted to do was go on and win an All Ireland senior medal. Two weeks later I was back building myself up to win at senior. For 13 or 14 years I was in dressing rooms geared towards trying to achieve that. So when that’s taken away, it leaves a huge void.

“Right now my focus is mentally preparing the minors as well as I can. There’s no doubt during the week there are constant thoughts of the senior game and how the lads are going to do. I just hope the lads can pull it off and win it but it’ll be really hard not to be part of it, just as it was with the semi-final [against Tipperary]. It is a huge regret that I won’t be involved in their dressing room, but this is the course I’m taking now.”

It was while coming to terms with one door closing, Regan opened up another. From his own playing days the mental side of the game had long intrigued him, and needing some new project to channel all his energy, he started this time last year a Masters in Sport and Exercise Psychology course in Waterford IT.

Regan still has a couple of modules and a thesis to complete, but already he’s done some progressive work with progressive set-ups. He’s helped the county minors, a couple of free-takers from another senior county team, and some work with the Galway senior footballers as an apprentice to Gerry Hussey, the practitioner renowned for his brilliant work with the Irish boxing high performance unit.

You can see why those Galway minors and others have warmed to Regan. While physically he’s a fiercely big, strong man, he speaks softly, eliciting an empathy and rapport with those who encounter him. He’s been that soldier in that battlefield. He’s killed and he’s been killed. He’s seen how the mind has been his worst enemy and how you can train it to make it your best friend and weapon out there.

He remembers how carefree and confident he felt in his rookie year of 2003. Galway played just the two games that summer, but in their one-point win over Clare and one-point loss against Tipperary, Regan impressed; whether they needed him at centre-back or full- back, he was willing and able to douse the fire. A couple of papers observed if Galway had made it to Croker, he’d have been on their Young Player of the Year shortlist.

The following season the papers weren’t quite as effusive. Nor were the discussion board forums. At times they could be scathing. In his naivety, Regan read them.

“If you lost the first couple of balls, you’d be saying to yourself that you were living up to the opinion others and you yourself had of you. I didn’t know how to control my thought process and play with more confidence. Physically, technically and tactically I was doing everything you needed to do, but mentally I wasn’t preparing myself right.”

If he had the reflection skills then that he has now, he’d have realised that he was almost putting too much into those other areas. He would overtrain, trying to compensate for not having mental skills that could have more effectively addressed his confidence deficit.

“If I wasn’t doing six or seven sessions the week of a match I wouldn’t have felt I had all the boxes ticked. I’d have been doubting myself whether I’d done enough to be going out marking what I’d have then perceived to be better players. I’d be thinking I wasn’t ready for this level.”

In 2005 he’d bounce back to have a fine season, more than playing his part in helping Galway reach the All Ireland final. The following season wouldn’t go remotely as well for the team but Regan’s individual game went to another level again.

These days John McGuire is based in California, having devised an ingenious golf app which everyone from Graeme McDowell to President Obama uses and endorses. But back in 2006 he acted as a mindset consultant to his native hurling county team. Regan found his work hugely beneficial, especially the power of visualisation.

“It would really help me the week of games. I’d block off 10 to 15 minutes for it every day, just to focus on my own performance and seeing myself doing everything positively and well. Then I was actually able to switch off and relax the rest of the day - ‘Right, I’ve covered that this morning’ - and give my focus to other things like work or family or relationships.”

When Conor Hayes’ tenure as manager came to an end though, McGuire’s services were hardly going to be retained by Ger Loughnane. The Clare man had more primitive ideas as to how to build mental toughness and McGuire’s methods fell to the side.

“We’d 60 guys on the panel and Ger would run the guts out of us for three months. He was probably expecting to break half the squad but only two or three lads dropped off. I always felt the Galway lads never had any trouble training; they’ve always been very honest and committed. It was maybe more stuff around the tactical and the mental that we were falling short and weren’t tackled adequately over the years.

“Ger had his strong points. He got on fine with the players even though he was standoffish. He was never going to put his arm around your shoulder and encourage lads who needed to be encouraged; he’d leave that to Colum Flynn, the physio. But he didn’t really get the best out of us over the two years. In 2007 we pushed Kilkenny close, but the following year, against Cork in Thurles, when three points and a man up at half-time, Cork just came out and tactically blew us out of the water.”

Regan personified the malaise. With little confidence and form, he played only one championship game during Loughnane’s two years in charge. When John McIntyre took over in the autumn of 2008, Regan was one of the first players that he culled. Regan was 25. He couldn’t let that be the end.

“I felt I had let myself down the previous two years playing for Galway. I wanted to prove to myself and everyone else out there I was able for that level.”

He devoted everything towards returning to it. He worked with the international sprinter Gary Ryan to increase his speed and agility. He’d pound the walls of the ball alleys of St Mary’s College and the NUIG sportsfield in Dangan. He’d train and play with the county intermediate side. The work showed in his club form with Rahoon-Newcastle, and the following autumn McIntyre recalled him to the senior panel.

Regan would play arguably the best hurling of his career that 2010 season. He’d win his second of three All Star nominations, win a league, and be Galway’s outstanding player in their thrilling, heartbreaking All Ireland quarter-final defeat to Tipperary. Three minutes after the final whistle had gone that day, Regan would still be lying on the ground, emptied, devastated. And faultless. Seamus Callinan had got away for one goal that day but it would be the only time he’d have the ball in his hand the entire game. In every way Regan was a different animal to the one Tipp and Lar Corbett had ransacked in the league final two years earlier.

Mentally he was just in a different place. He’d recommitted himself to some of the exercises in a couple of Bob Rotella books that McGuire had recommended. He’d again visualise daily, sitting on the floor of his bedroom like a Zen master. He’d write up his own positive affirmations, remind himself of all the work he had done. He’d routinely watch video clips of himself playing well, be more mindful of how he talked to himself and not to be constantly doubting or berating himself.

“I just knew consistently in league and championship games my head was in the right space for 90% of the game. I don’t think any player is going to reach a level of 100% where they have no doubts or they don’t look at the scoreboard or they don’t recover from a mistake as quickly as they could. But I now had the tools where my concentration and confidence was bulletproof. I knew how to get out of a bad moment quickly and focus on the next play and next moment. I wasn’t looking back and I wasn’t looking forward.”

Just like Loughnane though, McIntyre’s tenure would end in Thurles, leaving everything and everyone connected with Galway open to question. When Damien Joyce, captain for that 2011 season, was instantly cut by Anthony Cunningham,Regan quaked when he saw the new manager’s number come up on his phone. He was more fortunate; he’d three months to prove he was worth retaining.

Regan would do just that, meeting his short-term goal of being among the top five in the group in various fitness tests. He would flourish throughout 2012, and so would Galway, dominating Kilkenny in Leinster and threatening to do the same when the sides met again September.

Then in that drawn game, Henry Shefflin famously came out towards centre forward and Kilkenny won a few frees before half-time to eat into Galway’s seven-point lead. The body language and leadership Shefflin oozed when his team needed it most would prompt Shefflin himself to identify that day as his most important performance for Kilkenny, but while it happened on Regan’s domain around the ‘40, the Galway man didn’t feel as if he’d been outplayed.

There’d be one puck-out alright that he should have caught but popped out of his hands, and Shefflin duly claimed it to pass it out to Eoin Larkin for a point. But that was the only ball Shefflin would get into his hand in those 15 minutes before half-time. “In the second-half then he had five possessions but he didn’t score from play off me. I didn’t foul him for any free. He was just doing what he should have been doing, hitting his frees and so on.” Whether or not it was because of the perception of Shefflin altering the game on Regan’s beat and turf, Regan would not see a minute of championship action the following summer. And still he didn’t see the call and cull from Cunningham coming that winter of 2013. At 29 he felt he still had so much more to give.

It was put in the shade though by something that had happened only days earlier. Niall Donohoe, who had played alongside him in that half-back line in those 2012 finals, was found dead at just 22. Now there was someone who had so much more to give.

“Everything else paled into significance with that. Niall had become the life and soul of the dressing room, cracking jokes, mimicking former Galway selectors and characters from about the place. Even the way he played, it would remind you of a Sylvie Linnane-style character. He played with the kind of abandonment and freedom you’d love to have had in your own game.”

Regan went to Donohoe’s funeral as part of the Galway team. At the month’s mind he was a former player. That was a bit of an awkward moment, but it wasn’t his own grief he was most concerned with at the time.

“Losing matches and getting dropped wasn’t really on my brain path that winter. I felt really numb for months after what had happened to Niall.”

By the summer, being on the outside of the Galway bubble really hit home. Truth be told, it still hurts. It’s why he threw himself into this Masters and it’s why he has chosen as his thesis the whole area of transitions and how players and managers cope with life outside the bubble and the arena, having known the heights and the thrills only it can really provide.

“There is a huge void though of being part of a dressing room trying to achieve a goal and suddenly you’re taken away from 30 friends that have lived with you and each other for 11 months of the year. You might keep in touch with four or five of them but it’s probably easier to withdraw from them as well because they’re still in that bubble, while you’re trying to get into a place where you’re comfortable not being part of that bubble. If I was 35 or 36 it would probably be easier to accept. But at the moment it’s still really raw.”

There are support systems that have helped. Family, especially his dad, Tony ‘Horse’ Regan, best known for being Mr NUIG sport, and now chairman of the local club. The club itself, be it the team that are still unbeaten in this year’s championship, or the under-age teams he takes for a session every week, just as he would when he was playing with Galway. His sport psych mentor Hussey has come it across all in his time, and is a source of wisdom.

Through it all Regan is becoming a fountain of common sense and wisdom himself. These last few weeks he’s been able to advise and listen to the minors and help them with their preparation for today. Back in the 2005 All Ireland final his aggression and focus in the opening 20 minutes wasn’t where it needed to be; peripheral matters, like distributing tickets and being asked where the team would be the Tuesday with the cup, distracted and detracted somewhat. They’re to think of nothing beyond 3pm today; everything after that will take care of itself. He’s also taken through a visualisation, with in the background the sound of the crowd and the Artane Boys band and Amhrán na bhFiann playing. During the parade, that national anthem, how are they to be thinking?

“Just to really feel within yourself that this is your arena. That physically you’re in the best shape of your life; technically you’re sharp; tactically you know your role, and mentally you’re looking forward to the challenge and showing what you can do.”

Come 3.30 he’d love to be in that arena once more. But he was in it, there with lions and Cats. In that knowledge, he’ll help plenty of others reach and embrace it as well.

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