The future was his.
In 2004, Conor Phelan was full-forward on a Kilkenny U21 title-winning team that contained Tennyson, Fennelly, Walsh, Fitzpatrick and Power. A year earlier, he won it all at the same grade from wing-forward, with Tyrell, Delaney, Rice and Fogarty. Before even that, he was the first link in the chain, his pass feeding Shefflin, who found Comerford for the decisive goal in the senior decider against Cork. Indeed by the end of 2003, his father joked that if he never won another thing, he’d enough to keep him going, since there was a Freshers win and Fitzgibbon Cup with Waterford IT that season too, to go along with a Leinster and National League medal.
Until now though, that stash has had to keep him going. Turns out that future wasn’t his after all.
“I still remember it clearly,” he says. “Noel [Hickey] had his problem with his heart, so they said they’d screen us all. The test was an echo in St Luke’s, there was something spotted there with me the Thursday before we played Galway in 2005. We lost so I went off to get more tests, just to see what way the blood was flowing in my heart. I was innocent enough at the time but I had a leaky valve, that’s not the technical term, but when the blood pushes out through the valve, it leaks back in a small bit and you’ve to push it back out again. That puts the heart under extra pressure and given the demands of county training, they advised against continuing.”
That was the end of it.
His career was no more than the flash of a camera, as brilliant but brief light was followed by a thick and mundane darkness. Cardiologists here didn’t want him taking the risk of any sport, but he went to London for a second opinion. “I guess I was looking for the answer I wanted,” he smiles. And he got it too, being told it was far less serious. But when he sat down with his family to analyse the polarised opinions and options, they all agreed that hurling wasn’t everything, even in Kilkenny, and he’d be no use to any of them should the worst happen. That in mind, they eventually found the compromise of Clara.
“It is a weird situation. Back then, all I wanted to do was push myself to make the Kilkenny team on a regular basis. It was daunting at first, walking into a room with DJ and these guys, a culture shock. But pretty quickly you love being around these personalities and part of their team and suddenly that was taken away. My generation came onto that team with me and it helped make it easier and you see what they’ve won now, not that I’d begrudge the lads any of it. Instead I’d be saying I was delighted to be there when I was, however short a time that was.
“Coming to All-Ireland days, you might get a bit nostalgic but I had three great years. I could’veve been better but I’d hate to look back and say ‘what if’. And look at the flip side. You have to take that on board and it was kind of a blessing in disguise. Cormac (McAnallen) was a year before that and you hear about Sudden Adult Death Syndrome a bit since and it’s a real tragedy. So you feel lucky and then again, a tiny part of you thinks if you didn’t know and never found out, you could be involved in some way.”
That’s why his club has been a saviour, feeding some of the hunger. Phelan goes for check-ups every six months to look for further deterioration and the fact there’s been none means he’s stayed clear of medication, which in turn means he can still line out for Clara. Initially, that was about the social aspect but this season it’s been a throwback to a decade ago, and about being the best. First there was a Kilkenny intermediate title and tomorrow there’s a Leinster final. Few will notice but for him it’s still everything.
“You really appreciate it. It’s nice to be involved. I did enjoy my time with Kilkenny, even all the training, the names, the games that were there. But this is still a Leinster final, no matter the grade. It’s a big deal. It’s great to say you are representing Kilkenny. Club is great, because these guys, you grew up with them, they are part of your fabric. But it’s more than club. We are a Kilkenny team going out there. That’s why, after everything, if we could win it’d be one of the highlights of my career.”
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