Driving from home to Dublin on Sunday morning to catch the All Ireland Hurling Final it gave me a buzz seeing all the bunting and flags as I approached and passed through Manorhamilton. One sign on the Drumkeerin side of town urged our neighbours to make history by winning five-in-a-row. I thought, ‘now that’s an incentive’.
People have suggested it’s an incentive for the Gaels to prevent them achieving that historic drive-for-five. But it’s not. Our motivation is to win a title ourselves, not to stop anyone else winning. A positive is always stronger than a negative and should stand up better to the white heat of championship competition.
Glencar Manorhamilton’s motivation is equally positive and hopefully that should make for an open upbeat game with two teams going toe to toe to see who comes out on top.
When you look at the Glencar Manorhamilton club’s achievement in winning four in a row it really is remarkable. No other club had even retained the title since Allen Gales 2001/02 victories. It would be untrue to say Manorhamilton came from nowhere because their success at underage revealed a club on the rise.
1999 brought just their second breakthrough at senior grade following their inaugural senior title in 1997. They beat us as reigning champions in the semi-final with Aidan Rooney giving a great display of place-kicking. Naturally I look back on that game as a missed opportunity and it was a tight encounter with one missed goal chance probably the difference between the teams on the day; that and a little bit more hunger from our neighbours.
They deserved their win and I was pleased to see another north Leitrim team take the title a few weeks later in Carrick even though I don’t think anyone would have begrudged that vanquished Fenagh team a county title. They had some of Leitrim’s greatest servants at club and county level in their ranks but they were a side battling against the inevitable tide of time.
How the fortunes of those two clubs have contrasted since. You never know what the future holds in your sporting career.
Personally speaking just being able to tog out on Sunday is a dream come true. In the aftermath of my injury in February 2010 I hit some of the lowest periods of my life. It wasn’t all to do with the fact I had been told I probably wouldn’t play football again but that was a huge factor. I was going through other loses and transitions in my life too.
Sport and exercise was always release valve for stress and pain and not having that outlet compounded some difficult times. There were many restless nights. But I’m an optimist at heart. As I started into my rehab I always dreamt that one day I would take to the field again. I used to constantly visualise myself running out of the changing rooms in Pairc Sean onto the pitch as I got stuck into some mind-numbingly boring and basic rehab that essentially taught my reconstructed knee the basics of movement again.
I needed that goal to work towards otherwise I wouldn’t have pushed myself so hard, too hard sometimes. But that’s something I’ve always been guilty of in my sporting career. It’s taken over two years, on average three of four rehab sessions a week, and the help of some great people. None more so than Gareth Phelan, my lifelong friend and team mate, my occasional chauffeur, my physical therapist and spiritual guru, my dance partner and my brother-from-another-mother.
Keith Fox, my physiotherapist – the Leitrim team physio under Dessie Dolan – has also played a huge part in getting me playing again, along with my surgeon Ray Moran.
Getting back onto the pitch was slow and far from smooth. There were many setbacks. For example, I lasted just 10 minutes into my first league game back – a collision sending my tooth through my upper lip and leaving me dazed and in need of stitches. Just another test, I told myself, to make sure you are serious about this. All along my club mates were continuing their drive to the senior county final while our neighbours were mirroring their every move.
I finally got to taste some championship fare with our Intermediates against Aughnasheelin and lasted the entire game following an enjoyable duel with my old Leitrim mucker Barry McWeeney who was in centre back. The extremely unlikely had just become reality. (Although as I stood just there before throw-in and heard the blessing of the graves carry across from Drumkeerin cemetery I couldn’t but wonder if the souls of the dearly departed the priest was referring to included my football career!)
Since then an ankle injury has seriously hampered any significant training but my residual fitness built up over 37 odd years of near perpetual motion is still in there somewhere, waiting to be called upon. How I’d love to get the chance to use up the last of it come Sunday. I could hang up the boots a happy man.
The poetic thing would be to say that just playing would be enough. But if you are going to dream, dream big. I want to experience the buzz of a county final win one more time.