It was a Saturday morning when the house phone rang. My mother answered and a few seconds later popped her head around the door to whisper that the county senior manager would like to speak to me. I laughed and told her to stop messing. She repeated herself in a more forceful tone; she wasn’t joking! I leapt off the couch and hurried down the hall. My hand was shaking as I picked up the handset….Hello?
This was the phone call I have dreamed of receiving from an early age. I spent hour upon hour in the back garden pretending to be an inter-county star. I watched every hurling match on TV and even recorded them to replay over and over. I would go to every club and county match possible. I would go and watch the county panel training before the big games. Hurling was my life.
As I started training with my school team I quickly learned that hurling is not as easy as it seems in your head while belting the ball around the back garden. For a start there always seemed to be a whistle happy adult standing over me telling me I had picked the ball off the ground or taken too many steps. The other big difference from my back garden was that in school there were other kids to compete with. I soon realized that it’s much harder score goals and points when someone is trying to take the ball off you! Another factor against me was my size. I was very small when I was younger. The bigger kids would just jostle me to one side whenever I got near the sliotar.
For a couple of years the idea of ever playing for my county started to seem unrealistic. I was struggling to make my school teams let alone the county squads. Then suddenly I got a growth spurt. It was almost overnight. Before I knew it I started to catch puck outs and give shoulders. I could hold my own physically and people suddenly started to notice that I could hurl. All throughout my late teens I hurled at a high level. I represented my club, my school and my county with distinction. People began to mention me as a possible senior county prospect. But I was still skeptical. Until that phone call….
I tried to sound composed as I spoke into the headset. The county manager was friendly but direct. He informed me that there was a trial game the following morning and he would like me to attend. He said the selectors had been monitoring me for the last two years. They were aware that I was young by senior inter-county standards but they had faith in me. He didn’t offer any guarantee regarding the trial but wanted me to come along for the experience if nothing else as I was a player for the future. He ended by asking me if I was interested. I somehow managed to squeeze a yes from my mouth. I could barely breathe let alone speak.
I was in total shock. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. My stomach was doing somersaults. I told my family the news and they were obviously delighted. For some strange reason I decided to go to the pub that night with my friends. I was unable to sit still at home so I thought it wouldn’t do any harm. I obviously wasn’t drinking and was home by midnight but looking back now I shouldn’t have gone out. I was to later learn that there are spies all over the town that are more than happy to report back to the county selectors whenever they spot any of the county men out socializing.
I arrived into the dressing room the next morning for the trial game. Most of the faces I recognized from club games. I also noticed that I was the youngest player there. None of the established stars were present but some of the bit part players had been brought in to see if they were worth keeping on the panel. Surprisingly I wasn’t nervous at all, I was excited and mad to get going. The manager came in and said a few words. He said he was looking for honesty and hard work. He wasn’t looking for selfish individuals – I kept that in mind. I was familiar with the player I was marking and felt confident of getting the better of him. There were only thirty players there so I played the full match.
I was playing in the forwards and scored two good points. I also hit a few wides which I was disappointed with but I got on a lot of ball and worked hard. I was satisfied with how it went and knew I had given it my all. I left the pitch that day not expecting to make the panel due to the caliber of players in contention but felt it did my chances of a call up in the future no harm. We were told we would receive a phone call the next day whether we made the panel for the league or not.
The next day I was I college and I couldn’t keep my eyes from my phone; anxiously waiting to be put out of my misery. My mother rang me a few times to see if I had heard anything! It was a very long day and the lectures seemed to drag on for eternity. On my way home from college that evening my phone started to buzz with a number I did not recognize. My heart skipped a beat; this was it. It was the manager. He said they had been encouraged by what I had shown in the trial game. I was on the panel. I was going to be training the next night with my heroes. I was obviously delighted but also filled with a sense of determination. I hadn’t made it yet; the hard work started now.
That first night that I walked into county training I was extremely nervous. I was about to tog out in the same dressing room as my idols. I started to have doubts about whether I was good enough to be there. Do they know who I am? Where do I sit? Do I introduce myself? Most of the lads there were very welcoming and chatted away to me. However there were a couple of lads that made no effort to acknowledge me. They looked me up and down with indifference. I’ve never forgotten that and I have always gone out of my way to welcome young players into a dressing room ever since.
It was a pre-season training; a tough slog. We trained on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. The level of training was crazy; four nights a week in November! The club competitions were still not finished and here we were training flat out for the following year. I returned home from training each night feeling wrecked and the following mornings I would be in bits. I’m not surprised there are so many players nowadays having hip replacements and multiple knee operations.
The training was tough but I was young, fit and eager. There were no weights sessions back then, just core work and stamina work. We finally had an actual hurling session towards the end of November. It was, wet, windy and cold. Just rising the ball out of the mud was an effort. I was starting to realise that there was more to being an inter-county hurler than the glamour of All Ireland’s in September. In the hurling sessions I was marking players who had All Stars and All Ireland medals and this did take me some time to get used to but after a while all the lads stopped being famous inter-county stars and just became my teammates and friends.
The manager didn’t say a word to me personally, he just watched on silently. You never really knew if he was impressed or not so you had to just keep on driving. We continued to train hard up until Christmas, and then we were given a two week break. I enjoyed a few pints over the Christmas but I was also anxious to retain my fitness levels so I ran the roads around my home most days (even Christmas day)! I headed into the New Year with much optimism. I didn’t know it at the time but the oncoming months were to be the busiest of my hurling career and I have no doubt that that is where my burnout began. But before the fall comes the rise and my career was rising fast.