Daragh Ó Conchúir
|Posted on 25 May, 2020 at 6:40|
IT IS only a couple of weeks more than 12 months ago to the day - February 20 to be exact - that Rosaleen McGrath went to watch John play football, just as she had done all his life.
One of the drugs removed the lining of his mouth and throat. He was riddled with mouth ulcers and couldn’t eat, causing his weight to plummet from 12 stone to 10½ but John McGrath made a full recovery (Photos by Dave Barrett)
She was a little concerned about her 24-year-old son because he had been complaining about a toothache for a fortnight. The dentist insisted that the tooth didn’t need to be extracted but John was in agony and couldn’t play in DIT’s Sigerson Cup loss three days previously.
This was Wicklow though, and having had a stop-start career at senior level since making his debut four years earlier, he wanted to build on a promising couple of games.
Trips to Carlow and Leitrim had yielded eight points for John (six from play) and three to the team in their bid to get out of Division 4 of the Allianz League. With London visiting, there was no way he was going to let someone else impress the manager, Mick O’Dwyer.
He scored a point early on but there was no hiding the struggle. He couldn’t track his man and seemed unsteady on his feet. Fortunately, Rosaleen and her daughter, Áine didn’t hear the clowns speculating that he must have gone on the lash after DIT’s defeat.
When John beckoned to the sideline that he could not continue, Rosaleen started crying. Áine was taken aback. Why cry, just because he was being substituted?
“When have you ever seen John asking to be taken off before?” came the knowing response.
From there, things moved very rapidly. Within days he was hooked up to a drip undergoing chemotherapy, a three-pronged tube pumping different medicines into his heart.
John McGrath would miss yet another championship with Wicklow, but that was the least of his worries right now.
WHEN hindsight kicked into overdrive during endless hours of lying in bed with nothing to do but think and wonder, he pinpointed something that happened at a friend’s 21st less than three weeks earlier as the first sign that all was not well.
He was only going in for an hour, as the Carlow game was on the following day. During a bit of messing, one of the lads hit him a dig in the chest. The pain was much more severe than it should have been. His shoulders were sore as well. His bones were sensitive.
He soldiered through the discomfort, scoring three points before being harshly sent off – a decision that was overturned during the week.
Five points against Leitrim the following Sunday seemed to confirm his rude health but nothing could have been further from the truth. Mid-way through the first half against London, as he struggled to breathe, he finally read the signal his body was giving.
After taking a blood test on Tuesday morning, he went to bed and was still there when the call came from his GP at 3.30pm, telling him he needed to go to St James’s Hospital. Immediately.
“They’ve a feeling it’s leukaemia.”
Reeling from the shock and not even sure what it all meant, he rallied the support crew. Within the hour, his girlfriend Carol and his family were with him at James’s. He had a room in the Burkitt Ward by 7pm. By Thursday, chemotherapy had begun.
Everything was moving very quickly, an indication of the situation’s gravity. There is no garden-variety cancer and Burkitt’s lymphoma isn’t amongst the rarest. But it needed instant attention. McGrath’s mind was melting with thoughts of the worst case scenario.
“Yeah, definitely” he admits now. “It was a major shock. When I went in, I was under pressure. I didn’t know what was going to happen.
“The first nurse I met acted as if nothing was wrong. My mother and my girlfriend were also calm. My Dad (Paddy) wasn’t so good. He got a bit faint and we had to get the nurses in to give him a little check!”
Paddy was fine, but not his son. Not even fit, strong, inter-county footballers are immune to debilitating illness, the various indignities that go with it or the spectre of death.
There were many low points. The first arrived within 24 hours of being admitted, when he had to go to the Rotunda to have some sperm frozen because of the chance he would become infertile if a bone-marrow transplant were needed.
It never came to that, but he wasn’t to know it at the time. It made him feel useless. Helpless.
Then came the chemotherapy.
“I got sick the first three or four days. You couldn’t hold anything in. I’d eat and it would come straight back up. It was very tough. After that it was okay but when you were thinking in those first few days that you had 16 days in each cycle and four cycles, it was so tough to think you could do it.
“They had a tube coming into my chest, with three prongs, leading all the drugs into my heart. Once it gets to the heart it pumps quicker to the entire bloodstream. Two hour bags. And you’re just lying there, getting sick.”
He was confined to his room because of the risk of infection. Chemotherapy kills the good as well as the bad and so McGrath’s immune system was shot.
Once, he chanced a little trek into the outside world. Within minutes he began sweating and got a headache. A dash to the nearest public toilet and the vomiting resumed. So from then on, he never left his isolation chamber apart from when a cycle was finished and he could go home.
One of the drugs removed the lining of his mouth and throat. He was riddled with mouth ulcers and couldn’t eat, causing his weight to plummet from 12 stone to 10½.
You don’t feel like a member of the human race when your body is falling apart and that can lead to emotional breakdown. The closest McGrath came to dismantling was listening to a woman talking on The Ray D’Arcy Show about her son, who had died of leukaemia.
“I was on my own listening to it. I got the link and sent it to Carol. Everything he had gone through was like I had gone through. I just broke down.”
Carol came to the rescue. She is a remarkable woman. The couple had met the previous summer and knew pretty quickly it would be more than a fling. They had just moved in together in January and this wasn’t how they’d dreamt it.
“It was tough for her, going into an empty house when it was supposed to be an exciting time, the two of us moving in. But over three months in hospital, she never missed a day. She is a rock.”
So Carol reminded him that his consultant had said the first cycle of treatment had gotten rid of the tormentor in his blood completely. His story was not that child’s story.
It still shook him though. He pictured the leukaemia returning. It was one of the few times he truly despaired. Carol sent D’Arcy an email, passing on her commiserations to his guest, but also telling him “you’re after scaring the shit out of my boyfriend”.
The last scare arrived as he swotted his way through the summer in a remarkably successful bid to pass his construction management exams in August. His blood levels were low and so another test was required to see if it was a reaction to medication or if the leukaemia had returned.
He was in the library when the phone rang.
“They don’t ring you when it’s good. When I go for my check-ups, they say, ‘go home and we’ll ring you if there’s a problem’. So I was in the library and they said ‘John, how’s things?’ I said ‘look, I’m in the library, I’ll walk out, just give me two seconds.’
“The walk out of the library was the longest walk.”
They only had initial results but they were positive and they wanted him to know. He was taken off one of the tablets and everything returned to normal.
Which is how it has been since. McGrath is very anxious to emphasise the fact that more recover from leukaemia than don’t. You only hear the bad news. Just like that poor mother and her son on the radio.
“I met one girl. She was remarkable. She got leukaemia two years previous but was pregnant so she couldn’t start the treatment until she had the baby. She was perfect, recovered and everything was good.
“She was told she might be infertile but had another baby that year. She was so perfect. When I was in there she was diagnosed again but she was always smiling. She’s good now, out again and I’m friends with her on Facebook. She’s 100% and it’s great.”
She was the only fellow-sufferer he got to know and that only happened because they were the only two in the waiting room when he went for a chest x-ray. Generally, he found something to read or just kept staring at the floor.
That was his way of dealing. He’s afraid it sounds rude but the fact is he couldn’t afford to get too close to other patients. He didn’t want to know their stories, especially those that were back a second or a third time. He needed to remain positive.
“When cancer is mentioned, people talk about chances, percentages but there’s no point. Everyone’s different. From Day One, I didn’t want to know about leukaemia.
“It was something I didn’t want to get into. Even the full medical name of what I had I just didn’t want to know. I’m still not sure. You’d have the lists of your drugs for your whole cycle. They’d be telling you what each one does and I’d be just ‘yeah, yeah’. I didn’t want to know.”
It was made clear from the very start that he needed to be upbeat. If you’re low emotionally, you’re more susceptible to being low physically. That increases the likelihood of picking up an infection.
The message was delivered regularly by the staff, his family and through other avenues. Baltinglass manager, Tommy Murphy said something in particularly that altered his mindset.
“He said ‘every day’s treatment is a day closer to recovery’. It got me through the first month.”
That positive affirmation came into play when the doctors told him that he could begin his second cycle quicker than normal, because his recovery had been so good. He jumped at the opportunity. A day closer to recovery.
Where once his room was a jail mired in misery, it was now an oasis of laughter, slagging and card-playing. It was this environment that enabled the chief concern about his hair loss to be that it might grow back curly and ginger.
“I was in the shower one day and it started coming out in my hands so I shaved it tight then. Carol had a few nice hats bought for me in preparation.
“I was actually a bit worried because I was told it might grow back different. It could be curly or a different colour. So I was looking in the mirror every day, anxious to see what would happen. Thankfully it came back normal. A little darker maybe but I’ll take that.”
Communities rally around in troubled times and the GAA is one large community. Baltinglass, Wicklow, Ireland. He had cards covering an entire wall in his room. Good wishes arrived via email and text, many from people he didn’t know. Others he had just heard of. Tyrone All-Star, Seán Cavanagh was amongst the hundreds who got in touch.
The highlight though, was Peter Canavan’s visit. It was almost worth getting leukaemia, going through four cycles of chemo, puking his guts out and losing the lining in his mouth and throat for that. Peter Canavan is his hero, his favourite footballer of all time. So Carol got in touch and the Errigal Ciarán legend called in. That was a real fillip.
So too was getting in contact with Jarlath Corrigan, whose son Cian died six weeks short of his 12th birthday from a spinal cord tumour. Born and reared in Dublin, Cian became immersed in Dungannon Clarkes when the Corrigans moved to Tyrone.
After their brave son’s death, Jarlath and his wife Rachael designed a jersey in his memory, celebrating his three loves – Dublin, Tyrone and Dungannon Clarkes – and boasting his favourite No 7. All proceeds go towards the Northern Ireland Children’s Hospice and McGrath was inspired.
“I spoke with John a few times on the phone last year while he was receiving treatment” recalls Corrigan. “He is an absolute gentleman and we are delighted to hear he is recovering well and back playing the game he loves so much.”
Not alone is he back playing with Baltinglass and DIT, McGrath is also manager of the college team that booked a place in the All-Ireland JFC final on Wednesday. Most remarkable of all though, is that has now returned to the Wicklow fold, targeting a championship return.
As a former minor and U21 captain, he was always tipped for stardom. Yet, despite playing league football on an annual basis, he has only managed limited championship action due to injuries, suspension and college commitments.
This year though, he won’t see much of the league as he builds himself up to the required standard again, dealing with niggling back and hamstring injuries, as well as a wrist problem incurred while snow-boarding in January. Maybe on this occasion, his timing will be better.
“I got the ball at one stage, 30 yards out and popped it over the bar. First time back. It was some feeling”
He is in no doubt that football saved him. And not just because he had the fitness and strength to fight.
“I was feeling tired playing football. I couldn’t sprint properly. You can imagine how bad people are when they’re feeling it walking. I was feeling it a little quicker.”
So he wanted to get back. Especially as Baltinglass had been drawn in the same group of the senior championship as deadly rivals Kiltegan. The target was set.
Without telling his mother of course.
It started on a treadmill in June before he dipped his toe into training with the lads at the end of July, trying to sneak past Rosaleen on the way out the door. He recounts the first real hit he took with relish. He was able for it, and what’s more, it was a sign that he wasn’t being pitied.
For the same reason, he loved the slagging over his fertility, even though he never had to have the bone-marrow transplant in the end. Best of all though, was that heavenly first ten minutes of game time.
“That was the nicest feeling I’ve ever had. I was like a kid running around. I wanted to get on everything. I wanted the ball. Running here, running there, mad to get on it. The greatest feeling ever.
“I got the ball at one stage, 30 yards out and popped it over the bar. First time back. It was some feeling.”
It became serious from then on. With 20 minutes remaining against Kiltegan, Baltinglass were four points in arrears. Murphy gave McGrath his head and was rewarded with a point in a nail-biting victory.
It isn’t the win that is remembered though. It is how local jousting was suspended for one brief moment, as supporters from both sides united in applause to greet McGrath’s score. Rosaleen was there, as usual.
This time her tears were ones of joy.
This article was commissioned by and appeared in The Irish Examiner on March 3, 2012, and would win the McNamee Award for National Media.
John went on to have a lengthy career with Wicklow and Baltinglass, and just eight weeks after this article was printed, a little over a year after being diagnosed with leukaemia, he was contributing to Wicklow's National League Division Four Final victory at Croke Park over Fermanagh - ironically managed by Peter Canavan, his footballing hero who visited him in hostpital.
John and Carol got married and earlier this year (2020) celebrated the birth of their first child.
"If everyone waits until they find out the money's not there, it will be too late" - Nallen calls for radical action to save racing
|Posted on 16 May, 2020 at 9:55|
LEGENDARY point-to-point producer John Nallen has called on racing’s superpowers such as Coolmore, Godolphin and the Aga Khan to forego prizemoney from elite races such as the Irish Derby to help fund more industry racing in what he expects will be challenging times after action is restored on June 8.
Nallen, who has educated countless national hunt winners over 20 years, including past Cheltenham Festival heroes Minella Rocco and Minella Indo and last season’s Grade One-winning novice chaser Notebook, also proposes that prizemoney be reduced in all major races in both codes.
As owner of Hotel Minella in Clonmel, Nallen has had two significant businesses brought to a standstill by Covid-19.
From the racehorse perspective, he argues that not just does Horse Racing Ireland need to consider some stringent measures now but the entire industry must adjust to secure a future for the industry, which he maintains faces a very bleak future when the white flag is raised.
The spring point-to-point season was cancelled in Ireland on March 24 and while there is an autumn calendar, Nallen does not believe that the buying demand will exist.
“Even if you have the autumn, there’ll be no market for the horses” he says. “Are the English people going to buy them? Things are worse there than here and it’s going to be a while before they’re thinking about toys for big boys.
“The bottom line is that the stock that was worth something is probably worth half of that now. The rest of them were going to be a struggle anyway. That’s the reality of it.”
Providing more racing of any kind needs to be the priority he insists, not just of administrators but the major players and service providers, who need a viable industry to continue to prosper. To that end Nallen reckons, racing should not be looking for handouts given the strain on the wider economy and society but should consider what it can do to help itself.
“I think racing, instead of looking to the government for a dig-out all the time, can do plenty to help ourselves and help people stay in business.
“I think there’s a lot to be said for some of the big prizemoney to be ploughed back into a fund that helps smaller operators. Fellas need to stand up and be counted.
“When push came to shove about running point-to-points when there was no gate, it was agreed that the prizemoney from the four-year-old maidens would go back in to help with the cost of running the meeting, because winning those races gave the horses a value that the producers could cash in on at the sales.
“For the flat racing over the summer, there should be something similar, where big owners make some sort of pledge. If a stallion’s value is €2m after winning a classic, do they really need the €200,000? Couldn’t that go back into a fund?
“If you have four fellas in a pub with a syndicate that happened to have a horse that won a Group One race, you’d hate to be saying they couldn’t have any money but it’s something that the likes of Coolmore, Godolphin and the Aga Khan could do, make that pledge where their return in value of the horse is far greater than the prizemoney anyway.
“It only applies to the top five per cent of connections involved anyway. But they win by the far the majority of the prizemoney and prizemoney is not the main reason they are in the business, no more than winning prizemoney for four-year-old maidens is in point-to-points.
“To be honest, it could be the same in a lot of those bumpers, where a first-time out winner would immediately be worth a lot more than the prizemoney. If you got your bumper winner sold, you could return the prizemoney and it could be put towards the provision of an extra bumper – not to raise prizemoney on one that’s already there but put on an extra race. It’s more middle of the road racing we need and there isn’t going to be money there for it.
“That fund would be overseen by a committee, like the EBF, and they could work with HRI to help finance additional industry racing.”
He expresses concern that with a focus on getting racing back, no plans are in place for helping the many struggling operators.
“They have been putting up the prizemoney for the big races that makes no difference to the owners anyway. They should have been helping the middle-to-lower tier but it is absolutely vital now because there will be carnage.
“They might have to half the prizemoney and increase the racing. That applies to jumping as well. If the Galway Hurdle was reduced to €100,000, would that have any effect on the quality of the field? The spare money would fund two or three more races.
“If they do halve the prizemoney though, they’ll have to halve the entry fees to help the majority of owners who are keeping horses in training.
“I think everyone would rather three maiden hurdles at three and a half grand than one for 10 grand, the way things are likely to be when jump racing does get going again. They’ll have to get their heads around it. Everyone’s game is in trouble.
“If the value of our stock is halved, service providers such as vets, feed and transport companies and so on have to adjust their prices too so that people can pay for horses in training. We all want this to continue.
“If everyone waits until they find out the money’s not there, it will be too late.”
It isn’t all doom and gloom however, Nallen suggests.
“You have a great chance to build television audiences. The amount of people that are bored because they can’t see anything only the news. You could get people into racing that had never been into it before.
“Now it might be no good to them, a lot of people might never have any interest, but you won’t have competition.
“And advertisers will know that there isn’t competition for live sport – there will be a savage opportunity there. People are just hanging for something to watch. They’re starved for live sport. There has to be a chance in that.”
|Posted on 9 May, 2019 at 11:45|
CHLOE FOXE is taking time out from completing a college assignment to chat. The conversation flows, the 21-year-old at ease with discussing sport and life.
Though she will only turn 22 in May, the third year UCD computer science student is a long-established dual Wexford player, and also played at underage level for the county in soccer. She will be going on placement in a data analytics role with Liberty Insurance shortly. There is potential for consultancy there, “which could be cool”.
Keeping all those plates spinning while achieving at a high level academically is not for everyone but Foxe revels in the demands – not that she would view them as such.
“It’s absolutely incredible to be honest. It’s a year and a day the other night since we started training for what was effectively 2018 but turned into 2019 now” Foxe details.
“We said to ourselves last year (2017) was fun (to finally win the first Senior County Camogie title in the club’s history). But if you are coming out in November to train and you are on the beach in December, you are not looking in the past, you are not looking in the present, you are always looking to be in Croke Park. You can’t be thinking, ‘Oh I am here today and whatever happens tomorrow.’ You have to be thinking about the All-Ireland Final and going up the steps.
“I have played with six teams over the last year. I am playing UCD O’Connor Cup (third level ladies football). That is coming to a head now (with the Semi-Final next Friday). UCD Camogie, Wexford football I am still involved with, obviously Wexford Camogie when it gets back on track.
“It’s the enjoyment factor for me. Most people who know me know I don’t like to be bored with college work and everything. I feel like I get more of it done when I have more things to do. You are setting yourself a time limit to finish things, instead of saying ‘I have a week to do that now and I will finish it on Friday.’”
Getting over Oulart-The Ballagh was special for the Piercestown/Barntown contingent. To repeat the trick felt like they had really arrived and they were readier for Kilkenny giants Thomastown, who had gotten the better of them 12 months previously and were chasing a third consecutive Leinster title.
Now, they are looking to dash another three-in-a-row dream, that of all-conquering Derry queenpins Slaughtneil, but at half-time in the All-Ireland Semi-Final against Cork representatives Inniscarra, it looked like they were on the way out, leading by just a point having played with a very strong wind.
“We have a really special group of players. The core of the team is in and around my age group or below it. We would have won multiple underage titles and gone to Féiles together. On the other side, you have the more experienced members of the panel. If you were looking in, you might say, ‘I can split the group in a distinct two groups of players.’ I don’t think it really comprehensively describes the team that we are.
“That is where we have come from last year. We have seen that it doesn’t matter what age you are. Everybody has a responsibility on the pitch even if that is going to the next ball, or if something needs to be said, it doesn’t matter who you are. We are all part of the one team. That is something that has really brought us together this year in terms of collective responsibility.”
Kate Kelly was a hero of Foxe’s growing up and was still around when she first came into the Wexford panel. Kelly was retired when the teenager broke through but remained a member of the backroom staff. To have trained with such a role model and have that brain to pick from was cherished.
With St Martins, there has been Noeleen Lambert and Mags D’Arcy.
“Very similar to Kate” she agrees. “Players my age who are in with Martin’s now; myself, Amy Cardiff, Sarah O’Connor and the likes, we have seen those girls in 2007 and 2010, 2011, 2012 going on to win All-Ireland Championships with Wexford.
“There is actually a photo of myself and Mags when she called around to my school. When I look back on that now it’s quite surreal in a way. Now we are playing together on the same team. She is always pushing everybody and always demanding the best. Noeleen Lambert is similar. They are the driving force for the younger players.”
When D’Arcy dropped in with the O’Duffy Cup, Foxe was in Clongeen but her parish didn’t have a Camogie team. So her father Ger, a selector for the Wexford football team that reached the All-Ireland Senior Football Semi-Final In 2008 under Jason Ryan, brought her down to St Martin’s when she was a child.
And they are glad he did. Her heroics in the All-Ireland Semi-Final, when she hit nine points and six of thoseinto the wind in that second-half, will be long remembered, while she also scored a second-half goal in the provincial decider to help overturn an interval deficit against Thomastown.
And now, having lined out at Croke Park for the Mini-Sevens in 2009, when she overcame the nerves to slot a free, she is ready to return with silverware on offer.
“I am just eager. People are making it out to be this big occasion. But I would say every player on the team has been willing this our whole lives. When you are in your backyard and you are seven or eight years old, and you are banging goals, you are saying to yourself, ‘This is to me in Croke Park’. In a way you have been psychologically preparing a lot of the time.”
Ready to go.
|Posted on 20 December, 2017 at 7:15|
RACING is all about opinions but some count more than others. When it comes to rating horses under national hunt rules, senior handicapper, Noel O'Brien and his colleague Sandy Shaw, have the last word.
That type of power could give some people a touch of a God complex but while O’Brien has to have confidence in his judgement, this is not a dogmatic individual. In truth, 33 years of having your opinion appraised, and proven right or wrong publicly on an almost daily basis, is likely to keep you grounded but you couldn’t ever imagine the Kildare native ever being anything other than down to earth.
He has always favoured an inclusive approach towards his job. He makes the final call but is open to suggestion and discussion. He invites it, which is why he is the most visible and accessible Turf Club official in the country. He needs to be able to stand over his decisions so is happy to have as much information at his disposal as possible.
It seems a thankless task but it is one he relishes; gaining as much satisfaction and enjoyment from it now as he did when he started in 1981 as assistant to then senior handicapper Captain Louis Magee, the man who devised the double handicap system in response to Arkle’s dominance.
He makes no bones about his role in what he describes as “the game” – and the irrefutable fact that a trainer has a very different role. That doesn’t amount to cheating on the handler’s part though, he insists. Take, for example, a horse running on unsuitable ground or over an inadequate trip.
“I know some people have a degree of suspicion about that but trainers are trying to get the optimum mark. And that’s the game. They have one job to do, I have another job to do.
“I genuinely think though that sometimes trainers are trying to find out about their horses themselves. You can’t be dyed in the wool about stuff like that. Like handicappers, trainers are learning all along.
“People said Annie Power was a certainty over three miles. She stayed but was she as effective as she would be over a shorter trip? There are no guarantees.”
Originally from Caragh, a village situated between Curragh and Punchestown racecourses, O’Brien was hooked on racing from his first visit as a six-year-old to the latter festival in 1966. The now defunct ‘free side’ complete with such delights as swing-boats and chair-planes were an attraction, but nothing like grasping the 20p each-way docket while propped up on the rails, almost able to touch the passing horses, and being overcome with the intoxicating feeling brought on by the hooves thundering off the sod as they galloped past.
A career guidance teacher from Cork by the name of Mick Hayes had a huge influence and is directly responsible for O’Brien’s career path. The appointements they had in the Tech in Naas (now Piper’s Hill College) invariably centred around likely winners rather than what the teenage Noel might consider a likely future.
It all worked out in the end though, as Hayes organised an interview with the Turf Club. O’Brien, being from the bog, thought it had something to do with Bord na Móna initially. He created the right impression though and spent two years in accounts, followed by two years in declarations, before Magee took him under his wing in 1981.
There have been many changes in that time in terms of technology, although the basic principles of the job remain the same. Amongst the changes he has overseen that he feels have improved the system is the need for a horse to be within 45 lengths of a winner to get a handicap mark, the requirement of only two chase runs to be rated over fences, the inclusion of hunter chases as being eligible for rating and extending a horse’s novice season until September if it wins towards the end of the season proper, thereby increasing the competitiveness of March racing for example.
“The one thing about handicapping is that experience teaches you an awful lot. Where you can get a big head after a close race, you understand that in the very next race, something could bolt in by 15 lengths.
“I’ll watch the races live with the stewards. I would say nine times out of 10, what you see live is what you’re going to go on eventually. You’ve seen it, your mind has come to a conclusion. We’ll then go back inside and watch it from the different angles and it is amazing how much extra you’ll see.
“But as regards what you’re likely to put the winner up, or the second or third, that’s what you’ll probably do on the first run. But with the others, or horses that were unlucky in running, you’ll use the other views, reports from the jockeys and trainers – all of that is part of the process.”
He still gets nervous, particularly on the big days. His opinions are dissected from the moment the weights are published and invariably, he’s after getting a bashing, ever before the white flag has been raised. Yet he understands that.
“It’s a hugely important job. The impact handicappers have on the racing industry is huge. It affects people’s livelihood if they think a horse is rated too high, or at times too low. All handicapping is, is one man’s opinion. Five or six of us could watch a race and sit down and come up with a different opinion. Who’s to say who’s wrong? But I decide what the official rating is and I’m very conscious of that. It’s a huge responsibility because it affects people.
“If the favourites of the handicap were winning every time, if I’m setting a puzzle, it means the majority of people have very easily solved that puzzle and that’s not good. But the favourite (Shutthefrontdoor) won the Irish National and myself and Sandy were so thrilled because you had 12 or 14 horses in contention in the second last before the favourite won it.
“In the previous two years it was 50/1 and 33/1 outsiders. It shouldn’t be a given that a favourite will win or an outsider will win. If the handicapper has done his job, every horse should have a chance of winning it.
“It’s not just handicaps though. It’s every national hunt race over hurdles and fences. If you look at the Grade 2 in Fairyhouse, Thousand Stars was rated higher than Get Me Out Of Here but the punters took the view that Thousand Stars wasn’t as good as he was and that was an understandable position to take. As it happened, the race worked out in our favour. But what you’re trying to do is get competitive racing.
“You had 8/1 the field for the National and at one stage it was 12/1 the field. That’s the majority of people not being able to find the winner. As it turns out, they found the right one, but at the end of 3m 5f, to have that many horses in with a chance… if anyone wants to know what makes a handicapper’s life, that is it.”
There are down sides though. And they don’t revolve around being accosted by an angry trainer or owner.
“If you don’t get sickened by a horse bolting up in a handicap… for me personally, it’s an absolute sickener. Even after all these years. People think you get used to it. There was one in Fairyhouse the other day, Lots Of Memories bolted up in a handicap hurdle. Embarrassing? Absolutely. So you look at ‘why did I get that so wrong?’ You’re trying to explain it to yourself. Yes, the big results might give you the big head but you’ll be brought very, very quickly back down to earth.”
He is always working but that doesn’t prevent him enjoying racing, just as he always did. The big days in particular still tingle his spine, with the past week at the venue he first fell in love with the sport 48 years ago always a highlight. He loves the fact that the public can become attached to jump horses, because they’re around so long and will never forget the reception afforded to Sprinter Sacre last year. Or, one suspects, to Sizing Europe this year.
He thinks his relationship with the trainers in Ireland is generally a good one.
“I’m probably the wrong one to ask but I would say ‘yes’. I think national hunt trainers are the salt of the earth. They understand that I’m doing the job as best I can and as fairly as I can. And I think while yes, they won’t be best pleased a lot of times – that’s the nature of what handicapping is.
“But I’m hoping they see that what I’ve done, I’ve done fairly, and that I believe at that point of time to be the right decision to make. If they come to me and state a case why a horse should be lower, I do listen and I do change it (if the case is a good one). It can’t be written in stone.”
But what if he has been embarrassed on multiple occasions by a trainer? Surely, there is a temptation to err on the side of caution with the rest of that handler’s representatives.
“That’s the hardest part of it. But handicapper’s assessment and decisions can be appealed to a higher body. So it’s not just a case of, a trainer’s horse bolts up a few times and I decide next time to give him 10lbs more than he deserves. I can’t just do that willy-nilly. I have got to be able to justify any decision I make.
“I’m answerable as well and that’s the way it has to be. That’s something Louis Magee taught me early on. You can do what you want once you can sit down with somebody and explain it.
“That’s something I think national hunt trainers are good about. They might hate your guts for what you’ve done to their horses but if you can explain it to them, once you make a logical case for what you’ve done… happy might be too strong a word but they’ll be more accepting of it.”
Speaking of relationships, the one between between the Irish and UK national hunt handicappers is far more positive now, after “a rocky period” up to the turn of the century.
“I think at one time we were working from different angles with different objectives shall we say. But since the Anglo Irish Classification, we get together on a more regular basis where we compare notes; there are more English horses running in Ireland and more Irish horses running in England, it’s easier to compare and contrast.
“If you look at the results of Irish horses in handicaps in Cheltenham over the last number of years, I don’t’ think Irish trainers have anything to complain about at all. The English handicappers take on board what we’re saying. It’s their decision but I would have to say they have been very fair in the majority of cases. The proof is in the eating.”
He is adamant that four-runner pattern races are not the blight that many observers view them, preferring four top-class runners in a contest that each have a chance of winning, rather than four contenders and four no-hopers.
The recent Irish Grand National was close to his best day in the job he reckons, because of the sight of that cavalcade of horses barrelling towards the second last. The worst day leaves him more sombre, but typical of the man, he finds the positive too that his passion for racing guarantees.
“Any horse getting killed is a bad day but the worst was when John Thomas (McNamara) had his spinal injury. I was talking to him the previous day on the steps at Cheltenham and he was saying that it might be his last season. He’s such a lovely individual… for what he’s achieved and to be so humble, chatting away.
“(Who knew) that following day he was going to be where he is now? It tells you about those guys in national hunt. They are literally risking their lives. That evening… normally Cheltenham is so buzzy, they’re all having a great time, but you really felt a darkness descend. It was a horrible, horrible day.
“When you see then though what happened in Limerick on the fundraising day… it’s what’s best about racing. People just responded brilliantly. They couldn’t do enough. It was a lovely postscript.”
This article was commissioned by and appeared in The Irish Field in April 2014.
|Posted on 20 December, 2017 at 6:00|
NOEL O’Brien is the Irish senior national hunt handicapper, responsible for rating every horse that runs under national hunt rules. It makes him one of the most influential people in the sport.
Noel joined the Turf Club in 1977 and moved to the handicapping division four years later where he assisted Louis Magee. He became the senior handicapper in 1995 and works in conjunction with Sandy Shaw to assess the form of horses running under national hunt rules in Ireland.
Q: If you were to explain handicapping to the uninitiated, how would you do so?
A: At its very basic, it’s about equalising all horses’ chances of winning. The job of the handicapper is to make an assessment a race and the horses in it relative to each other, so that the horse who finishes last and or the horse who finishes first would theoretically have an equal chance of winning were they to next meet in a handicap race.
Q: How do you calculate your ratings?
A: Ratings are never made on one run. Over hurdles it can be three runs, over fences two in which to get a handicap mark. Our instruction is that we handicap horses on their best form and after that it’s a continuous process, where horses run against each other all the time. The more horses run the better the chance we have to assess their form and that form we translate to a rating, which converts to an actual weight in a race.
Q: It is very subjective though. What makes you qualified?
A: I would say 100% it is subjective. A horse might fall and you might think he was definitely going to win but your friend might think he was held. In our case, the difference is that taking all those variables into account, it is our job to make a decision. It’s the job I’m hired to do and I’m doing it 35 years so I’ve had a few years’ experience! I’d be conscious of the fact that it is subjective though and really, it’s not a right or wrong interpretation of a race. It is just AN interpretation of a race. For the handicapper, whatever assessment he makes, when those horses run in a handicap, he gets to see the fruits of his labour run before his eyes.
Q: Is it a bit of game then, with the trainer attempting to get ahead of the handicapper in terms of securing a rating that gives his horse a good chance of winning? And is there a difference between that and a horse being stopped?
A: To me, there’s a huge difference between stopping a horse and giving a horse a run that’s an education for the future. You could ruin a young horse giving it an unnecessarily hard race just to get two or three places closer when it can’t win. An educational run, within the rules, is considerably different to stopping a horse. There is a perception at times that there’s a lot of skulduggery in racing but genuinely, there are times when horses surprise trainers as much as handicappers. They might find that what you thought was a two-miler, after two or three runs you say to yourself he might want three miles. Or that he’s better going left-handed than right-handed, that he prefers better ground. Trainers find out as they go along the same as the handicapper. Of course there IS an element of a game in it. There’s no point in saying the trainer wants to show the handicapper his full range of talents straight away. Once they’re within the rules, I think all’s fair in love and war.
Q: Is the worst-case scenario for you something bolting up by 10 lengths in a handicap? And five jumping the last together is the dream?
A: Absolutely. If you get a close finish in a handicap you’re thrilled. And if a horse bolts up you’re not feeling so good. If a horse bolts up at 33/1 and nobody else saw that he was thrown in, that eases the pain somewhat. But your double whammy is a horse bolting up and he’s been backed off the boards. Not only have you made a mistake, you’ve very publicly made a mistake.
Q: Do you get a queasy feeling when the money is going down and then the horse hacks clear turning for home?
A: That’s a good description… a queasy feeling. If it happens, you look back at the information on which you based your rating and if you would have made the same decision, it’s okay and you move on. There’s nothing as bad looking back on a line of form and thinking you could have put him higher.
Q: Being a form expert, I presume that means you back a shedload of winners?
A: I am not allowed bet in Ireland, which has saved me a fortune over the years! The term ‘form expert’ should come with a government health warning. Sometimes people look on form and bring it down to the bare mathematics. If it were that simple, you wouldn’t be in journalism! You have to understand it’s horses we’re talking about, a few hundredweight of animal. They are not machines and there are so many variables.
Q: You’ll be working non-stop next week but as a racing man at heart, I know you are looking forward to it. Is there any particular horse or race that is exciting you over the coming days?
A: You see the death of Vautour and how deeply felt that was within racing. When you see a horse of that level, a potential superstar, one of the best we’ve seen in years, that puts perspective on what we might see over the next week. Getting the horse there is an achievement in itself. But where you lose the likes of Vautour, another superstar arrives in the form of Douvan. We may not see him over Christmas. It’s good to see Faugheen entered. The great thing about the Christmas period is the clashes in all the different categories. The possibility of Min taking on Identity Thief is mouth-watering. With the quality of national hunt horse that we have in Ireland at the moment, we truly are in a golden period.
This article was commissioned by and appeared in The Irish Examiner on December 24, 2016.
|Posted on 16 August, 2017 at 5:05|
I MOVED to Kildare the week before Christmas in 2002, to take up a new job as sports editor of The Kildare Nationalist. It was exciting and scary, to an equal extent. I have always struggled out of my comfort zone.
Ted Corcoran, some guy who doesn't fit his shirt anymore, Adrian Melia, Eric Donovan, Michael Carruth, Aoife Trant and the legendary Jennifer Malone (front) at A Question Of Sport. To help fundraising efforts for Adrian's highly expensive treatment, check out the Friens Of Adrian Melia page on Facebook or @melia_friends on Twitter
I had much to learn but in Eamon Timmins, the editor, who proved far too qualified for the job and moved on to much worthier pursuits as chief executive of Age Action Ireland and now, head of communications and stakeholder engagement with the Charities Regulator, I had a most willing and generous teacher.
He told me early on that there were certain contributors that I needed to meet face-to-face, for they were big personalities, key people, walking advertisements for the paper. You had to get them on board.
No-one contributed more to the sports section than Adrian Melia. He provided the vast majority of the imagery.
As I quickly discovered, he was passionate about it. And he hated poor use of good photos. I was a complete rookie in terms of laying out pages but it made sense to give a quality shot a platform. Particularly a good action pic. So from that perspective, we were on the same, ah, page.
We got on from the start really but who wouldn’t get on with Adrian? That sunny outlook isn’t for everybody I suppose. Some just can’t wait for an excuse to be glum. But even now, when he has plenty reasons to complain, Adrian doesn’t. We became so friendly that heoffered to do the photos for my wedding gratis. As usual, he was well outside the box when putting it together and it was worth every penny we didn’t pay.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of Adrian’s work was his care for the people. The participants, their families and the diehards on the ground. He was on the coalface and saw those pouring time and energy into keeping clubs and the sports that weren't mainstream alive.
There was no disparity in his coverage, even if there was in the paper’s. Again though, we were like-minded when it came to providing publicity to as much sport as we could, regardless of the nature of its profile and following. That meant his schedule was ludicrous but 10 minutes was enough for him to attend a gig and produce a quality shot.
Adrian considers himself blessed that people care enough about him to organise fundraisers such as the hugely successful A Question Of Sport and the Auction For Adrian, which takes place at Naas RFC tomorrow night (Thursday, August 17), with the doors opening at 7.30pm. He is astounded by the level of support, by how many turned up at A Question Of Sport and how much money they shelled out - in excess of €17,000 was raised by that event.
This money is as much lifeblood to Adrian as any treatment he is getting to counter the cancer that is attacking him so aggressively. Because without it, he cannot get that specialist treatment in Germany and England. And that treatment, which he is undergoing under the watchful eye of his medical team here in Ireland, will, we all hope and pray, reward Adrian's monumental positivity of spirit and battling qualities. It is very expensive however, which is why so many are doing what they can to help him get it.
He wonders why it’s happening, why so many outside his inner circle care. But because of who he is, what he has done, where he has travelled, his circle is quite large. The consequence is that everybody knows Adrian. He has made people happy by getting faces in the paper, making ordinary Joes look like Ronaldo or Messi for a minute, and because it’s in print, for eternity. He invariably has had a kind and encouraging word along the way too. And had a word with the sports editor to get a story in print.
So that is why. People that don't know Adrian know him. And care. So I really hope people can support Auction For Adrian. Many of Adrian's magnificent framed photographs are available as well as a host of spectacular lots including signed sports memorabilia (Lions polo shirt signed by Sean O’Brien, Robbie Henshaw, Tadhg Furlong and Jack McGrath anyone? Maybe a signed Kildare GAA jersey? Or TJ Reid's broken hurley from the 2015 All-Ireland final, framed and signed by Brian Cody? That type of thing), 6 Nations rugby packages, paintings by Alan Redmond, Newbridge Silverware and much more.
For more details on the auction or if you want to donate directly, check out the Friends of Adrian Melia page on Facebook or @melia_friends on Twitter.
|Posted on 22 July, 2017 at 0:00|
"That man should be made a saint. Words can't describe how amazing he was, and still is, for me.”
“The only standard is the highest level of protection. Nothing less than the highest level is adequate”
IT WOULD be wrong to call him unheralded because the chief human protagonists of the racing world and in particular the jockeys are forever hailing the unassuming 62-year-old who has changed the game completely in Ireland in terms of their safety and welfare.
Still, huge swathes of racing supporters have not heard of him and he is one of the great heroes of the sport.
Ever since he was appointed senior medical officer on January 1, 2008, he has tirelessly and selflessly dedicated himself to raising the standards of care and safety, the latter being his prime driving force in a bid to prevent serious injury where possible.
He speaks in rapid-fire fashion, which is appropriate for a man who could easily do with a 50% increase in the hours in his day but manages to somehow fit in an extremely busy general practice in Newbridge with his race-day duties, the after-hours care, the continuing support, not just medical but as a friend via phone calls and visits to the likes of John Thomas McNamara, Shane Broderick, Jonjo Bright and Robbie McNamara, who have been confined to wheelchairs in recent years as a result of injuries suffered while racing.
Then there is the research he has driven, or participated in. The papers published. The lobbying, the campaigning. It is why the helmet used by jockeys in Ireland has for a long time been considerably superior to an arcane European standard, although the European powers are close to making an improvement in that area thanks in no small part to his endeavours. So too with the safety vests.
McGoldrick has spent many years striving for a more enlightened view on weight structures in an era when the general population is getting heavier. He is also a leader in the area of concussion, responsible for the rapid improvement of tests when jockeys fall and the urgency of educating the regular world as well as fellow GPs to the symptoms.
Of late, he has become prominent in the area of depression, having been chosen by legendary jockey Kieran Fallon to announce his retirement and the reasons why.
That was an indication of the trust placed in McGoldrick but then it was The Doc who quickly made the diagnosis, giving the multiple champion and classic winner an explanation, relief and a path towards salvation after a very troubled period.
Jockeys are hard men and women. The hardest. And yet they go weak at the knees when Adrian McGoldrick walks by.
That’s good enough for me.
“Kieran’s had quite significant depression ongoing for the best part of three years which has gone undiagnosed in England and America.
“As soon as I can get a bed organised for him he’ll go to hospital here in Ireland, hopefully get him managed and get him ready for the next stage of his life.”
Dr Adrian McGoldrick
THE Fallon announcement was not McGoldrick’s first of this nature, although when, again at the jockey's request, he informed the racing world in January 2015 that the then 22-year-old Mark Enright was taking a few weeks out from riding to deal with depression, it was not to declare the end of a career.
It was also different in terms of the profile of the individual in question but then that serves only as a reminder that illness has no prejudice.
What Enright did was for himself but he provided a huge service to the industry. The reaction was wholly positive but most importantly, the flow of jockeys coming through McGoldrick’s door with symptoms of depression increased significantly. Well known point-to-point trainer and producer of high-class national hunt horses, Willie Codd also went public about his battles with depression subsequently.
And because Enright’s story appeared on the front pages of the Racing Post, there was a similar reaction in England, where Dr Jerry Hill is chief medical adviser to the British Horseracing Authority.
“It received a lot of coverage” recalled McGoldrick on Monday. “A lot of jockeys both in Ireland and in England came forward both to me and to my colleague in England suffering from depression. Certainly that was a real eye-opener for me and it was one of the reasons that I spoke with SarahJane and Ciara Losty to do the study and they did a phenomenal study.”
Drs SarahJane Cullen (exercise physiologist and assistant team manager at Team Ireland's basecamp for the Olympics in London 2012 and Uberlandia 2016 in preparation for Rio) and Losty (sports psychologist to the Irish Olympic team in London and preparation for Rio 2016) are lecturers in Waterford Institute of Technology but the link was that Cullen had achieved her doctorate and also served a research fellowship with the Turf Club and even after moving to WIT, retained a role with racing’s regulatory body driving the jockey research programme, providing sports science support to jockeys and establishing a long-term athlete development pathway involving sport specific support and educational strategies.
At McGoldrick’s request, Cullen and Losty prepared a questionnaire that was filled in anonymously online. While the duo are continuing their analysis, some of the early statistics that emerged were stark.
A staggering 57.1% of professional jockeys exhibited symptoms of depression and that figure increased to 65.2% in the 18-24 age group.
A similar study of elite athletes in Australia reported only 27.2% displaying such symptoms, which would be around the average in general population, while specifically in the 18-24 age group of the general population, the Irish average is 28.4%.
That is perhaps reflected in some way in the gulf between amateur and professional jockeys displaying such symptoms, mirroring a difference between civilian life and the day-to-day grind of race-riding for a living.
“They’re still looking through the research. We’re not sure what the reasons are but one of the several issues that I’m looking at is talking to my colleagues in England to see would the BHA replicate the study, to see if there are similar issues in England. I’m also writing to my colleague in France.
“It would be very important to get that done and see if there are similar issues. We found it to be over twice the norm and if that is replicated, then we can look at addressing it but we have a lot of work ahead of us to analyse the data and review it and seeing if it’s replicated in England and France, and America and Australia too.”
The distinct causes remain unknown at present but initial analysis reveals certain lifestyle characteristics.
Jockeys struggling to make weight and without a diet plan, injured jockeys and jockeys feeling stressed all had heightened depressive symptoms, while more than half of the professionals had suffered a concussion at one stage or another.
“We’ve been looking more at the sports physiology than the sports psychology for a long time and done constant research on it. I think we need to take a breather and stand back and look at the psychological element, the stress that they’re all under.
“The Irish Jockeys’ Trust provides a fantastic, discreet service to riders that are in distress but we need more support structures.
“A big step forward is that HRI (Horse Racing Ireland) are funding a new 24/7 phone hotline service for everyone involved in racing right across the board, from jockeys, trainers, anyone involved. It’s going to be called the Industry Assistance Programme and will be launched next Tuesday in Galway. It will be an opportunity to speak to a counsellor immediately if someone is suffering acutely and then we will have a network of counsellors around the country and that is a major advance.”
This is absolutely critical. Enright was back in the saddle less than three weeks after receiving therapy.
“There is a stigma around depression and stress in the horse industry as jockeys worry they could be perceived as being soft and that would affect the amount of rides in races they get” said Enright in a previous interview.
“But they should realise they aren’t – depression is an illness. If a person has a bad flu they go to the doctor and it should be the same for mental health problems.
“Jockeys need to forget about stigma. It’s like taking the cork off a bottle. Once you release what is going on in your head and talk to someone it’s like a wave of sheer relief enveloping you.”
It is frightening that Fallon went undiagnosed for so long. Who knows how long he might actually have been battling depression? Not every doctor is a McGoldrick which is why education and definitive structures are vital.
“What happens in racing is that we all rely on Adrian and if he doesn’t pick up on something it won’t be picked up and he’s already going a million hours” says Cullen. “He’s unbelievable. But we want to have a team of people that can provide the necessary support in this area.”
The key now is to find out if the data uncovered in Ireland is replicated right across racing or are just peculiar to here. Then, it is to determine the reasons so as to better inform that education and support.
“Is there anything inherent in racing which is causing this increase in depression?” wonders McGoldrick. “If there is, how do we address it as an authority here in Ireland and across Europe.”
“I think it’s brilliant that we’re finally are finding that depression is a common thing. People will talk about anything bar depression. It’s been a very positive 18 months since Mark came out. I’ve had a big number of jockeys coming to me with depression.
“We’re scratching the surface. We’re only beginning to open this up. We need more research.”
“Irish racing very lucky to have @AdrianAmcgold looking after their jockeys top man #saint”
Former jockey @DavyCondon1 on Twitter
“In racing, there are three key areas with regard to jockeys having a safe work environment. Having safe ground is down to the clerks of the course and they do a great job at that. All I can do is make sure that jockeys have the best helmet and the best vest”
THE conversation with McGoldrick has to take place after 9pm because Moorefield Medical Centre has been jammed all day and he is practically fitting two weeks of practice into one having been on duty during Killarney’s July Festival most of the previous week.
But there is no hint of lethargy. He speaks quickly, no doubt because he has a million and one things to do but is unfailingly polite, obviously earnest and passionate about his work. Mention his name and people within racing smile
“We need more research” could be the story of his life, as he yearns to render existing boundaries obsolete.
A native of Rathangan, he used to cycle the 10 miles to The Curragh with his older brothers to watch the Irish Derby. In 1985 he became the track’s racecourse doctor and it was a natural fit, as so many of his patients were jockeys, trainers and stable staff.
His first research was into dehydration in jockeys – the late Ned Gowing, founder of Anglesey Lodge Equine Hospital provided a makeshift lab in which they took blood – and having confirmed that jockeys were seriously dehydrated, resolved to educate and illuminate for the purpose of improving procedures and safety.
Since 2004 he has been involved in research on the consequences of jockeys making weight alongside Dr Giles Warrington, the senior lecturer in sport and exercise physiology at University of Limerick.
New minimum riding weights were introduced in Ireland and jockeys must meet with the Turf Club dietitian Gillian O’Loughlin and a sports physician. The aim is to remove old techniques such as boiling hot baths, sauna and flipping – the practice of forced vomiting after eating – as methods of dropping weight.
McGoldrick has seen the emesis bowls provided at some American racetracks for jockeys to vomit into and was horrified.
“I see that it’s an issue in England but to my knowledge, I wouldn’t be aware of it being a problem here” he opined in an Irish Field interview with this writer last February. “It could be and I’m sure it is but certainly not to the degree it is in England.
“The Irish stewards and HRI have worked on the minimum weight over the last year and got it up to 8st 4lbs in the flat; we got our medium weights up to the very maximum we can get them in Europe. Weight structures can’t move any further in Ireland until we get France and England onside to increase weights.
“I think even England and France acknowledge that we’re drawing our jockeys from the lowest .5% (point five) of the human population (in terms of weight). Jockeys are just getting bigger. Certainly Ireland has been to the forefront, purely thanks to the stewards of the flat committee and Jason Morris, the director of racing at HRI.”
Now he says: “We’re still behind. Jockeys are getting bigger. In France, a significant number of jockeys are making the minimum weight so they might not increase it but I think will go up sooner rather than later in the UK or Ireland, where jockeys are having more of a difficulty.”
An improvement in the European helmet standard is just around the corner for the first time in 20 years, the delay caused largely by manufacturers’ resistance. McGoldrick has had Ireland operating on a completely different plane but his concern extends beyond Ireland and the same applies with the safety vest.
“In racing, there are three key areas with regard to jockeys having a safe work environment. Having safe ground is down to the clerks of the course and they do a great job at that. All I can do is make sure that jockeys have the best helmet and the best vest.”
As an extension of his work in Europe, a test is being introduced in relation to concussion that he hopes will be introduced at the end of the year. Elsewhere, Professor Michael Gilchrist of UCD is one of three leads of a Pan-European research study looking at equestrian, motorcycle and ski helmets. He is exercised by this because helmets save lives. But head trauma persists and when the material exists to improve protection, he wants it deployed.
Much like depression, concussion is a relatively recent hot topic where the medics are playing catch-up in terms of data.
“The bottom line is we don’t know the minimum threshold for the brain to suffer concussion” he said in that recent interview. “Potentially the g-force which the brain does induce concussion varies from day to day depending on whether you’ve had a sub-concussive blow in the previous few weeks. So we’ve a lot to learn. But all we do know is that certainly, if you suffer concussion, you must be fully recovered before you suffer a second concussion, potentially you may have long-term problems from it.
“Our standards would be as high as any in the world. I have to thank Michael Turner in Britain. When I took over eight years ago, Michael Turner already had a concussion protocol in the UK. I based our concussion protocol on his; it was a slight adaptation to it. Our standard is very robust. I am absolutely very happy with our concussion standards. Certainly, very few concussions slip through on the racecourse and rightly so. Every faller must be examined and must be assessed for concussion.
“My big concern is trying to get knowledge out to riders and parents of riders, or if concussions occur while riding out away from the racecourse, that they will treat them appropriately. They will contact me, or somebody else and that they will not ride. That’s the big problem. Certainly, we can monitor concussion on the racecourse. The problem is in the non-elite setting. That’s my concern, that concussions occur when jockeys are riding out. And the concussions that occur among recreational riders.
“You see a lot about concussion in rugby and racing, but the elite sports count for less than 5% of all concussions. 95% of concussions occur in recreational sports.”
He is part of another working group attempting to draw up an education programme for GPs in relation to concussion and has presented a draft guideline. It is required for casualty doctors too because remarkably, some hospitals still don’t manage concussion based on current guidelines.
In Ireland, professional jockeys undergo a baseline concussion test every two years, by which they are assessed comparatively after every fall. For amateur riders, the test is required every five years. If they fail a test after a fall, they are stood down for six days. A second failed test leads to a further 14 days off. If, after that, riders still doesn’t pass, they are referred to a neurologist. As well as that, having suffered a concussion, they must sit a new baseline test the following year.
McGoldrick is also a member of the International Concussion and Head Injury Research Foundation’s technical committee chaired by the aforementioned Turner. ICHIRF is carrying out major study labelled Concussion In Sport, that received a lot of publicity earlier this year and is investigating potential long-term effects of concussion.
Some studies have suggested that wearing gumshields reduces the risk of concussion.
“Some jockeys wear them but I would like them all to do so. I have a meeting with the Jockeys’ Association in August and we’ll be talking about that. With anything that comes in you like to get a consensus so that they want to do it rather than being forced to do it and that has been the way until now so we’ll try get the same.”
“The only standard is the highest level of protection. Nothing less than the highest level is adequate.”
Dr Adrian McGoldrick
HE HAS overseen so many enhancements. The Turf Club has a physiotherapist, John Butler, who arrives on a track once a fortnight and all the major festivals. Nutrition at the tracks has improved although some still have a way to travel but the finger is on the pulse. If jockeys have to pick up a takeaway on the way home, a visit to the sauna is likely in the morning. It should be a given, it wasn’t but it’s getting there.
In three years, he will have to retire from the Turf Club and the shoes will be gigantic to fill. But he will continue to research, to push, to campaign because he is a doctor and he became a doctor to help people.
“That man should be made a saint” said Enright at the beginning of the month when news of Fallon’s travails emerged, and McGoldrick’s role in his diagnosis and sourcing of treatment.
“Words can’t describe how amazing he was, and still is, for me. He’s a gentleman and the most unassuming man you could meet.
“When I had my breakdown I was in the house with (fellow jockeys) Mark Walsh, Bryan Cooper and Robbie McNamara and I thought my world was ending. Getting off the couch to make a cup of tea felt like climbing Everest. Everything had gone pear-shaped.
“They rang Adrian (and) he came to see me. He told me I had depression and that I'd be fine after a month. He was amazing.
“Even now, if I have a bad day, I can ring him up for a chat. That is massive.
“We're very lucky to have him in Irish racing.”
Good enough for me.
This article was commissioned by and appeared in The Irish Examiner on July 23, 2016.
|Posted on 14 July, 2017 at 20:00|
LUKE WADE is an 11-year-old from Old Parish, Co Waterford who is entranced by football and so you would expect his favourite footballer, apart from his father Seán, to be Colm Cooper, Bernard Brogan, Seán Cavanagh, Michael Dara Macauley, Stephen O’Neill, Colm O’Neill or Michael Murphy.
Johnny Doyle with wife Siobhán and his three daughters (Photo by Adrian Melia)
Not Luke. Luke downloads photos of Johnny Doyle on his aunt’s ipad and has a Kildare jersey with the Allenwood totem’s name above the number 13 on the back. This week, amidst all the hoopla surrounding his retirement, Doyle made the kid’s year by autographing that jersey.
That pretty much encapsulates Johnny Doyle’s appeal. He was more than a footballer with skill and talent. He was a guarantee. You know exactly what you were getting. Every drop. Not just in the game, but in the preparation. He did it right and was acutely aware that he was just a player in bigger game.
He did it for himself but he did it for others too and not just those close to him. The responsibility he felt was his essence, woven into his fabric as a result of his early years following his father, Harry around in the Allenwood dressing room, and the treasured memory of running onto St Conleth’s Park as mascot when the Blues won the intermediate championship in 1991; 13 years before giving a man-of-the-match performance on the same pitch when an historic first senior title was annexed.
Sharing a bus with Harry, Pat Mangan, Ollie Crinnigan, Liam Balfe, Tommy Carew and co when Kildare won the Over 40s All-Ireland left an indelible mark, as did the depth of emotion and connection he felt to the All White cause when Mick O’Dwyer called up his cousins Dermot and Ken Doyle.
Jennifer Malone was one of the many visitors to the Kfm studio on Tuesday morning, when a planned hour-long tribute show overran by 30 minutes such was the depth of feeling Doyle’s retirement had stirred.
Regular visitors to St Conleth’s Park will recognise Jennifer, a girl with Down Syndrome who is invariably in amongst the players as they do their post-match cool downs. You’ll notice a trend here, but Johnny Doyle is her favourite footballer.
When she came into the studio to present her hero with a bouquet of flowers, she was heartbroken that she would never see him in the Lilywhite jersey again. She hugged him fiercely and took some persuading to let go.
“People talk about what it means to play football and what it means to represent your county” he began as he attempted to explain his jumbled thoughts. “The first person that runs out onto the field for a number of years is Jennifer.
“I consider myself lucky to have represented Ireland... But I never forget coming out with the Cormac McAnallen Cup under the Hogan Stand and the security guard came in and said ‘There’s someone here to see ya’ and I got my picture taken with Jennifer. To me that summed up what it meant.”
It’s just important to him, even in an era where he acknowledges players are more removed from their supporters because there is less in common. Unless you’ve experienced it, you cannot comprehend the sacrifice, the commitment, the pain, the injuries, the fact that you’ve never had a summer holiday for 15 years. You’ll say you understand, but you don’t know.
Yet while he learned to be selfish in terms of being as prepared as he could be for Kildare – often, to his heartbreak, at the expense of his family and club – it was a form of selflessness too.
“It’s important that you just didn’t go out there to represent yourself” he says, sitting in his jeep four hours after the radio show. “You were representing people you never even met. And they got a kick out of it, all over the world.
“I remember reading a book and someone said to Seán Lowry, before what was probably the biggest game in the history of the GAA (the 1982 All-Ireland football final) about the importance of representing. Offaly people will stick their chest out in New York, Offaly people in Australia will have a pep in their step in their morning and their dreams are on your shoulder.
“It is something that has stuck with me for a long time.”
It explains a lot. Doyle came home many times as a young lad and threw his gear in the corner saying he was never going to play again. But the setbacks helped shape him and gave him context.
He didn’t make the Kildare minors and was on the fringes of the U21s. He recalls not being picked for the first round of the championship against Wexford in his last year at the latter grade and crying in his car. His great friend, Dermot Earley came out and told him it would work out.
“You get over those disappointments and you just go again. You go again. You learned that it worked today and for some unknown reason it mightn’t work tomorrow and you just have to put the head down and keep working at it. That’s all I ever knew.”
So he continued to give it everything and he improved as he got older. Continuously. Better at 25 than 22, better at 30 than 25, better at 32 than 30. That takes doing.
Being Johnny, he’ll be quick to say there was a lot of luck along the way, a few breaks. He was “stunned” when Mick O’Dwyer “pulled the rabbit out of the hat” and picked him for the 2000 senior championship, little more than 12 months after that U21 devastation.
“I couldn’t believe it. I actually thought he meant Ken Doyle.”
There was a Leinster title the first year and the only other silverware garnered at inter-county level was a Division 2 medal – he was captain – and a few O’Byrne Cups. But he swears that he didn’t take anything for granted after that memorable debut season. And he is certainly in no way bitter.
“I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d ever sit in a Kildare dressing room let alone lead them out in an All-Ireland final or Leinster final. I just worked hard at it.
“I don’t know if there is such a thing as a natural footballer. I remember talking to Mickey Harte about Stephen O’Neill and he said he works extremely hard. They say the same about the Gooch. He just works hard.
“It was the same with Pat Spillane. People saw the end product of all his work but didn’t see what was going on. Reading his book, he was probably the most unnatural footballer but he just put himself to a new level. And that was always in the back of my mind. You can be what you want to be.”
Not getting any major injuries certainly helped. From the day the 10½ stone waif stepped out in a No 11 jersey that was about three sizes too big in a Leinster quarter-final against Louth at Croke Park on June 11, he never missed a championship game, with last year’s qualifier defeat by Tyrone his 67th.
Between league and championship, he played 154 times, with only four of those as substitute. Two of those substitute appearances came as Jason Ryan aimed at easing him back this term.
After not raising a flag in the 2000 All-Ireland semi-final, he scored in 50 consecutive championship games until the 2011 All-Ireland quarter-final. He’ll tell you there were a fair few times when he only got “a few handy frees” to keep the run going. What he won’t say is that a number of those frees were awarded for fouls on himself.
It was remarkable durability. He reckons his father was tough – “Harry never advertises pain” - and maybe some of that rubbed off on him. It makes sense, because Harry was the greatest influence on his career and telling him that the Kildare journey was over was the most difficult part of the entire process.
Ironically, he reckons that having stressed for so long about not being able to bulk up – he finished off at 12½ stone and Kieran McGeeney used to shake his head in disbelief when considering how such a fairly standard weight was in fact a two-stone increase on when he started – his frame probably contributed to his longevity and endurance.
It wasn’t that he never got hit – “I was probably too slow to get out of the way” – but it was never anything bad and never anything he couldn’t handle.
McGeeney said during the week that Doyle was the epitome of the culture he wanted to instil in Kildare. But ultimately, it was what drove him that prompted him to call it a day in the end. When the motivation wasn’t there to the power of infinity anymore, he wouldn’t have been true to himself had he held on. Even if he could do it to the power of 100, even though he thinks he’s still good enough to make the team, he would feel like a hypocrite if he wasn’t going as hard as he once did.
“For the last five or six years when you’d be beaten in Croke Park the next question would be asked ‘Is that it for Johnny Doyle?’ and I’d say ‘Lads, you’ll be right one of the years’. And there was never any doubt, even though I might have visited that some years, ‘Can I give any more?’ Really and truly, there was never any doubt, I was always going back.
“This year, when Geezer finished up, I was thinking with Jason coming in, it’s probably time. A new brush sweeps cleaner. I spoke to Jason. As soon as he was happy he was taking the job he rang me and met me and said ‘Go away and do what you have to do. Don’t make any announcements. You might feel one thing now but maybe after Christmas you’ll feel something else.’
“And if I’m honest, there was a bit of me that felt he could maybe do with some experienced lads and I wanted to give him that support. Because in fairness I’m a Kildare man, he’s a Waterford man, and we’re asking him to do a job and he should get support from the supporters, from players, from county board, the Supporters’ Club. He’s been brought in to do the best for Kildare and there’s no doubt about it he will strive to do that.
“But the big thing for me was I preached for a long number of years about the importance of it, the responsibility. It wasn’t just when you went out on the field, it was everything you did away from the field. The way you conducted yourself in public. You weren’t just letting yourself down by stepping out of line, you were letting me and everyone else down because you were a Kildare player. And that was important to me.
“You tried to instil that, especially in the younger lads coming through. If you are taking the responsibility, you take it all. You don’t come today and say ‘yeah, that suits me, that doesn’t’. There’s a big responsibility putting on the jersey and I preached that for years.
“When you can’t give that commitment – and I was certainly one that tried anyway to lead by example – when I felt I couldn’t do that, it was time for me to go.”
Already with a two-year-old daughter, the Doyle family grew by two at the end of last year when Johnny’s wife, Siobhán gave birth to twin girls. That was a factor but not the big one. As it happens, Siobhán persuaded him to return to the fold, so that there would be no regrets.
“You have to have that drive, you have to have that hunger, you have to drive the people on around you. When I went in there, Glenn (Ryan) was full of enthusiasm, Anthony (Rainbow) and Willie (McCreery). You looked up to them and fed off them as well. You don’t realise that people probably do the same off you now.
“If you thought for a split-second Glenn was losing faith, or Willie, or one of the guys, sure you were bet. You fed off it. They might have thought it in the back of their mind but they pushed to the bitter end.
“If that is compromised, I wasn’t doing myself, the management (any good) and I was certainly letting down the players.”
It isn’t that it wasn’t there; it just wasn’t there to the same level. It was on the wane.
“There’s no doubt about it, it was. I didn’t want it to and I mulled it around in my head a long time. It’s funny though, making the decision was the hardest but once I had it said and happy in my mind, it was easy. The clouds dispersed a little bit and you were happy with that decision.”
He didn’t want to overstay his welcome either and have the decision made for him, not that this was likely under Ryan, who told him he wanted him to play and just planned on easing himself in. In hindsight, the fact he’d even been willing to consider such a process was a sign.
McGeeney revealed on Tuesday that he had hinted at a similar routine one year, suggesting that as he got older, the legs had to be minded.
“Don’t worry about my legs” said an insulted Doyle.
This was the man who responded to a McGeeney text gently slagging him for being beaten in a 150m sprint by Eoin Doyle (13 years his junior) in pre-season training for 2013 with the firm promise that it wouldn’t happen again. It didn’t.
This was the man described by Eamonn Callaghan as the hardest working player he’d ever known. But the fire was beginning to dim.
“I’ve always said that. It’s the stage and when you get on and get off. I was on it a long, long time and I was privileged to be there.”
So he told Ryan Thursday night and the manager expressed the opinion that it was a premature call, but respected it. Ryan asked him to hold on until Sunday and Doyle appreciated the gesture. He refused to tell the players or make any announcement before the game though. He didn’t want emotion to affect what was an important game for the squad in terms of rebuilding confidence, and preparing for the championship. And he’s not one for fuss anyway.
“I got 10 minutes at the end of the game and I enjoyed that. Bar the family and a couple of close friends in the stand, nobody else knew. I got satisfaction, slipped away on my own and it was nice.”
Some sections of the Kildare support still pining for McGeeney made an attempt to read something sinister into the announcement, hinting at a disjointed camp, or a badly-organised one. That agitates him. Nobody was more publicly vehement about wanting the Armagh man to be kept on but he doesn’t see virtue in allowing any residue of bitterness from that saga to impact on the future.
It’s like his response to the number of times he heard that it was now or never for Kildare. All he could think of was that if the 15 lads there dropped in the morning, there’d be 15 more to take their place. Something bad happens, you move on. You go again.
So no, he’s not downing tools because he’s disgusted with the set-up or because Kildare are going nowhere. And certainly not because Kildare have been relegated in the league, an experience he has endured on a number of occasions and survived just fine.
“Jason Ryan deserves a lot more respect than that. So do the players. All I can do is state the way it was. It’s up to you to believe it. If you want to believe it you can, if you want to make something else of it sure there’s nothing I can do.
“But there’s no way it was anything else. It was just my time. It just happened to be that Jason was there. It could have been still Kieran, or it could have been Kevin McStay or whoever else might have got the job.
“We’re relegated and that’s unfortunate. It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last time. We won a Leinster title in 2000 after being relegated so it’s not the be-all and end-all. There’s a lot of good lads there, a few lads coming right back from injury, mad keen to play football and I don’t think it’s as gloomy a place as some people think it is.”
There were so many good days, even on the bad days.
“You just took every year as it came. You’d bad years and you sat in Neeson’s on a Monday, gave out, did a bit of bitching. But then you’d go back to the club and the itch comes again.”
The highlights reel will include numerous double-digit scoring contributions – he was leading scorer in the championships of 2008 and 2010, with the latter campaign providing him with his sole All Star.
They should also show the multitude of lung-bursting 80m runs back towards his own goal to force a turnover, although they probably won’t. There were the trademark points that started with a dummy solo on his right and a left-footed finish. The sensational score against Dublin in the 2009 Leinster final, with his head swathed in bandages.
For this writer, the ultimate was the catch in the dying throes of the 2010 All-Ireland semi-final. Down were winning by two points and Doyle told the Kildare goalie – his clubmate Shane McCormack – to send the kickout in his direction.
A slight, just-about six-footer up against Kalum King, the behemoth kickboxer, and a flurry of other bodies. No contest. Doyle soars and fetches cleanly. (12.05)
“I said to Shorty, float it out there. I don’t know what… you were just in the zone. We were after getting back into it a bit. Coulter’s goal might have sunk us but the lads battled hard. We lost Darryl Flynn in that game after getting a bit of a belt so with him and Dermot gone, we were without our first-choice midfield. So I just said to Shorty ‘just put this one out to me’ and in fairness to him he did and I was lucky enough I ended in the right place at the right time.”
He was fouled and Kildare got the ball upfield quickly. From another free, Rob Kelly’s thunderous drive was finger-tipped onto bar by King. There would be no fairytale, no realisation of the dream he harboured while shaping his frees over the hedge onto the gable end at home, and breaking the odd window along the way.
He says now that they sold themselves short in that 2009-2011 era in particular and believes that had Dermot Earley been available, and in the form he had shown the previous year when free of injury, they might have gone all the way in 2009.
It wasn’t to be and the pain seeped out, just as it had done 10 years previously in his car after being left out of the U21 team.
“We were so close. I kicked a lot of ball on my own, up at the school pitch behind the church in Allen. You played your county finals up there on your own, kicking the winning free to beat Sarsfields or kicking the winning penalty in a Leinster final.
“Jesus, we came so close to getting to an All-Ireland. If the truth be known, I was thinking about what I’d have said in an acceptance speech, what it would mean and I suppose the emotion poured out of me. Looking back on it, it’s probably a bit embarrassing. It bucketed out of me. What can you do?”
As for the future, Doyle thinks of something a friend said about thinking he’d save €100 a week when he gave up smoking but instead just found the money went elsewhere. So it will be with hist time.
The GAA will be involved, that’s certain. First and foremost, it will be playing with Allenwood. He feels he owes them as not once did anyone say anything as he agonised on a sideline while the Blues lost key games such as a relegation play-off by a couple of points, knowing he could have made the difference.
They slagged him, of course, when he showed up for training. “It must be championship week” rang in his ears, even if it was Christmas, but that’s the life of the county player and he always enjoyed the banter. Now, he’s looking forward to giving back to the tradition that founded him.
With three daughters, he could find himself involved in ladies football – and make no mistake, the girls will be encouraged to play.
You’d think Noel Mooney and co will be in touch at some juncture, in a bid to get him involved with the development squads.
The only problem for Johnny is that he’s not good at saying no and there are only 24 hours in the day. But he’ll manage, and he’ll smile doing it.
On Kfm, amongst the many callers was Phyllis Fennin, mother of another great friend and long-time colleague of Doyle’s. Tadhg and Johnny won an All-Ireland medal at Kildalton Agricultural College, with Fennin a star of the Leinster championship winning side in 2000.
Doyle often woke on the Fennin sofa to the smell of a fry wafting from the kitchen and has remained firm friends with the family.
Phyllis read out a poem she had written and the final line was the most appropriate, particularly in light of what Doyle had said in a Q & A in November 2000, when asked how he thought he might be remembered.
“As someone who gave everything for club and county on the field and was a good friend off the field”
Phyllis knows her man and that’s why she concluded with the following.
“This is not the end, because Johnny Doyle will remain everyone’s friend.”
He made Luke Wade’s year during the week and the autographed Kildare jersey will be worn all summer in Waterford. Jennifer Malone will always want to hug him. That is the soul of the man, it is his legacy. He didn’t win an All-Ireland but he is fine with that.
“I said in a meeting one night, ‘I’m fucked up with listening about ’98… time we made our own history.’ We got close. Unfortunately we didn’t get there. Sometimes the journey is as good as the destination.
“Obviously the history books will say you never won an All-Ireland medal but if you had one in the morning, maybe it would be in a picture frame or in the wife’s jewellery box. It isn’t the medal in itself. It’s the memories, the friends you meet along the way and I have all them.”
No better buachaill.
An abridged version of this article appeared in the Irish Examiner in April 2014.
|Posted on 6 July, 2017 at 0:25|
“Someone told me when the time is right to give up you’ll know and that’s what I’ve gone on. It never crossed my mind this winter but you do take it year by year. There’s no point saying I’m going to be there for the next 10 years. I’m not!”
Kate Kelly, 2015
“You think about it a lot more too when you’re older. You think about whether it might be your last game. You get a little more emotional, a little more worked up about it” (Photos by Inpho)
THE support on her wrist is an irritant with the club championship scheduled to get under way on Monday. She got a bang that has taken a week for the swelling to reduce and been told to come back for an x-ray. It will wait until Tuesday.
This is a woman who has wrapped a broken finger in lollipop sticks to play, who even tried to go out in a 7s match with her AC joint in ribbons. She couldn’t strike the ball so it was a full-forward, catch-and-hand-pass job.
She will be at Innovate Wexford Park this afternoon as the Yellowbellies get their Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Camogie Championship under way against Offaly but for the first time since joining up 21 years ago, her role will be as a supporter, to her former teammates and brother John, who is joint manager.
Kelly has been throwing on a Wexford jersey every year since an underage blitz in 1991. Clubmate Emma Carroll sat with her on the bus. Sitting behind them were Claire O’Connor and Michelle O’Leary. Áine Codd was there too. They graduated to become fixtures and leaders on the senior squad, with the next batch of kids calling them The Zimmers.
One by one, they all stepped away but Kelly was as constant as oxygen. As reliable too. An All Star in the scheme’s inaugural season in 2004. Player of the Year three seasons later. Last November, a campaign that saw her finish top scorer with 5-49 was rewarded with a record-equalling ninth All-Star.
She pointed a stunning winner to deny Tipperary in the All-Ireland quarter-final but the semi-final ended in defeat, after extra time, to Cork. Kelly landed a free from distance early in the supplementary period to give Wexford the lead. It was to be her last ever score of the 27-315 she would accumulate in 88 championship appearances.
“I didn’t feel my game changed a whole lot” says Kelly sitting in the canteen at WIT where she works as IT and card services manager. “More than anything it was the recovery. I found that a bit harder. And last year, motivation to go training. When the games were on, I loved it as much as 10 years ago.
“You think about it a lot more too when you’re older. You think about whether it might be your last game. You get a little more emotional, a little more worked up about it. You have to learn to manage your nerves a bit more.
“In saying that, I always enjoyed it so once you get out on the pitch and you’re over that first few minutes, as (former manager) JJ (Doyle) used always say, ‘Express yourself’. When you’re out there and into it I don’t think you think of anything else.”
It is telling that she had tried to slip away quietly. Kelly informed the players a month ago and wanted to leave it at that but she underestimated her status. The queries were coming thick and fast and so a statement was issued. What happened next took her completely by surprise.
“I was very overwhelmed by the reaction, which was quite touching to be honest. I didn’t expect it by any manner of means. It was mixed emotions, people congratulating you and also commiserating. They don’t know really what to say and I didn’t know what they should say either!”
She had never been one for taking stock and seems to have been completely surprised that anyone would care that she was calling it a day.
“Maybe in five or 10 years’ time we’ll sit back and realise what we achieved when we did but at the minute it just feels part of what we’re doing, trying to achieve again” she said in this interview two years ago that also contained the introductory quote to this piece. Now?
“Maybe I just didn’t like to get carried away with myself. I just played. If you get carried away with what people are thinking or saying about you, that you’re this and that, it only adds more pressure if you’re going out the next day to live up to something. So it’s easier maybe to block it out.”
In truth, she is being asked to explain something she never thought about it. It was simple.
She just played.
PEGGIE Doyle won All-Irelands with Wexford alongside her sister Mary in 1968 and 1969. Seán Kelly was like-minded in that he lived for Gaelic games. They fell in love, married, settled down in Screen and had nine children.
Kate recalls a simple but idyllic lifestyle around the farm and they all played. Even now, there is only one of the lads that doesn’t tog out anymore. The eldest, Denis, is 42 (“he won’t give up!” ) and coming off a brilliant year with the juniors. The youngest, Joe, is 27 now and scored 2-7 when the Shels won their first county senior championship in 2014. Mag played with Wexford too.
“My Dad was fanatical and my mother won two All-Irelands with Wexford. And we always played in the yard. There was the gate and a pillar across where we made two goals. We were just constantly going to matches. If we couldn’t all fit in my father’s car the rest went with my aunt, who lived down the road and had two sons, so that was packed too.
“Growing up, wherever we went… if we went to the beach, we brought our hurls. Even if you went walking across the field, you always brought your hurley with you – you might need it to knock down something to walk through!
“This time of year, silage season, when all the lads would be in and after they got their dinner, we’d go out for a big puckaround in the yard. It used to be crazy.”
Peggie has filled every role in administration between county board and club committee, and is currently secretary of the GAA club. She has also served as selector and manager at various levels and was involved in the establishment of the camogie club.
“She hurled with the likes of Oylegate and married into the Shels and has been involved in every way. I’d say she’s done every role. She was chairperson for years, over us as a team and my father was over us. That was their hobby. That was what they lived for. I don’t ever remember doing anything else. We never did any other kind of hobbies. Maybe there were just too much of us and it was easier to bring us to the hurling field!
When she got the call-up to the senior panel, Wexford were coming off three All-Ireland Final losses in the previous five seasons and the team was breaking up. Meanwhile, that same year, the hurlers had everyone dancing on the crossroads.
“We used to go to all the games into Wexford Park or Croke Park. And when you got old enough to travel yourself you were working out whether to go on the train with friends. We’re having the banter about it now that the buzz is back around the hurlers. We may get the old crew back together. Four or five in one car, four or five in the next car. There’s a whole generation in Wexford that’s missed that.
“I remember ’96 with my aunt in the car after the All-Ireland, out through the sun roof the whole way home. It was crazy! You look at my niece and nephews. They haven’t seen that. But at least they got it on the women’s side.”
It took a while. Kelly and her compadres were coming off winning an All-Ireland U16 title in 1995 and with not much experience left around them, endured some awful days. The 43-point hammering (7-24 to 0-2) at the hands of Cork in Oylegate on July 3, 1999 was a low point but it didn’t sour them.
“You don’t think about it. You were just delighted to be playing with Wexford. Maybe I had an optimistic outlook and thought we were gonna win every time. I was never fazed by it. I do remember one year, my mother coming home saying they were thinking of pulling out the senior county team and just having a junior and she went crazy, saying there were people wanting to be over the team and players wanting to play. I suppose there was a few years that it wavered a bit. I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was the ’95 team, so much of my clubmates there as well. Maybe we just enjoyed the banter of it. It was good craic.
“We went off to Dundalk or Derry one year to play and were staying overnight. We went to the cinema and someone said ‘The bus is on fire’. We didn’t believe it but when we ran out the bus was on fire! Some great memories. We were hanging out with our best friends, having some laugh.”
In 2000, another Wexford team reached an All-Ireland U16 decider and as Mary Leacy and co emerged, so did hope. Leacy was joined later on by her younger sister Úna, who would become Kelly’s regular bus buddy. It was fitting, given that the Leacys’ mother Margaret O'Leary was a teammate of the Doyle siblings in the late ‘60s.
They got to a League final in 2004 and another three years later. Cork beat them by a point second time around but rivalries were resumed shortly after in the championship and Kelly hit six points as Wexford prevailed by 10 in Ballincollig. When the teams met again four months later, in the All-Ireland Final at Croke Park, Úna Leacy plundered two goals and Kelly three points to cement the O’Duffy Cup’s residence in the Model County for the first time since 1975.
“The semi-final day to me was a great day. Just getting to the final. And the four weeks that came after that… it was like we were floating around on air. I don’t think it fazed any of us. And when you look back on our performance against Cork, everyone went out and tore into it, hooked and blocked. They were going for three-in-row and it was our first day in Croke Park.
“All the supporters came out onto the pitch... I remember trying to make my way up through the crowd and I was nearly getting knocked out, people turning around saying ‘Who’s this one pushing?’ and then seeing it was me. It was brilliant.”
They were completely taken aback by the homecoming.
“My mother kept saying to me ‘You know Kate, I don’t’ think you realise this is going to be big when you get to Wexford’ and I was ‘What are ya on about? There’ll probably be about 10 people.’
“We came into Wexford and they made us get off the bus and walk over the border. The TV cameras were there. I was like ‘Yeah, yeah. Done. Whatever.’ So we got into Gorey, we went under the bridge and around the corner and there were people on the sides. We were going mad on the bus saying ‘For God’s sake, there’s a few people after coming out, would you not let us off the bus to get out to them?’
“We went around the corner and the whole street was packed. We couldn’t believe it!”
They were unable to get over the line the next couple of years and we wondered if they were one-hit wonders.
“I think after 32 years, it was our dream to come true. I remember still bouncing around on Cloud Nine the following April or May. We went on our team holiday in March and when we came back, people were still wanting us to bring the Cup to places. Maybe unbeknownst to ourselves we were still living in the past.”
They were utterly dominant however from 2010 to 2012, completing a rare three-in-a-row.
“There were so many leaders that could step up to the mark. You weren’t relying on one person. It could have been anyone. And winning builds confidence. It just is a different mentality. You can understand why Kilkenny (hurlers) kept winning because it’s just a confidence thing. You don’t see yourself being beaten.”
Others are sated by one though.
“I think we were so disappointed in 2008 and 2009 that we weren’t going to get caught again after 2010. Everyone was as focussed when they went back. In 2007, it was everything that it should have been. It was magical but it was 32 years built into celebrating. It wasn’t that we didn’t try the years after, maybe we were trying too hard. But we were lucky we got the opportunity again in 2010.”
Kelly was a gifted footballer too, every bit as good as with a hurley in her hand. She won two All-Irelands with the Shels and played in another with Wexford just two weeks after the first time scaling the mountain with the camogie team.
The memories flood back, rushing from the furthest reaches of her mind, each having value and meaning. Losing an All-Ireland club camogie final in 2002, winning the county in 2013 after a lengthy gap. The physical battles with Gemma O’Connor and Therese Maher, Jacqui Frisby getting in the flicks and touches that drove you mad, Linda Mellerick running up and down the pitch like an Energiser bunny, being helpless as Ann Downey dominated.
My, what a time.
RETIREMENT didn’t come easy, not least because she doesn’t feel diminished physically or in terms of ability. Her last campaign confirmed as much. She has just turned 37 though and got married two years ago to Shels man, Chris Gordon.
“I just felt it was time to call it a day… wanting to do other things, give it a year or two with the club, seeing how they go through the process. Be more relaxed about it, not be so focussed on nutrition and fitness. And I suppose maybe working in Waterford didn’t help. Maybe if I was at home and had a little bit extra time at home in the evenings... it was a culmination of a few things like that but I probably just felt it was time.
So much has changed in 21 years, when mobiles were homes and there was no social media. Training meant laps and backs and forwards. Now it’s gym work, DEXA scans, nutrition, recovery. She embraced it all – anything to get better – but it takes over your life.
“I never really saw it like that. Maybe I wanted to see what was on the other side before I had family.”
Kelly has 14 nephews and nieces. More grandchildren for Seán and Peggie would be nice.
“Hopefully. I’d like to have kids. We’ll see what happens.”
She is treasurer of the WGPA and believes giant strides are being made in terms of the treatment of players and the profile of camogie and ladies football. Meanwhile, she coaches the club U18s and will always be involved. She has known nothing else.
What will she miss?
“The big day I suppose and the excitement of getting ready for the big match. Throwing on the purple and gold jersey. The high level of competition and playing at the top is huge. And obviously the county girls. Now I’ll just go back to fighting with them all the time! But it was great going out fighting against other counties together. You’d have to say I played with some of the best players and you’d miss that. You’d miss playing against some of the best players from other counties too.
“I always thought I’d like to get to Croke Park and then I’ll give up but it just slipped away. I tried it for four years. I should have given it up at the three-in-a-row! But I never even contemplated it.
“I’ve done some miles around the country playing matches. Some enjoyment.”
You had a good run.
“I had a great run. Yeah.”
She hasn’t looked through the scrap books she and her mother have kept from the start lately, or watched any old videos or DVDs.
“I’m kind of avoiding it. It is kind of emotional. You’re giving up something you’ve always done and always known. It’s just a big change. Even the game next Saturday, I’d be a bit apprehensive about going.
“It’s just been a way of life. It’s just been something I’ve always done so it’s hard to imagine that I’m not going to be running out with them. Maybe it’s a bit raw.”
“It is tough.”
Her eyes have moistened considerably now, giving you the deepest, most human indication of how difficult the parting is. More than any words.
“When people say it was a sacrifice, I don’t feel that’s how it was. It was something I loved doing.”
This article was commissioned by and appeared in The Irish Examiner in June 2017.
|Posted on 9 June, 2017 at 10:15|
ANNA FARRELL has noticed a transformation towards camogie among the general public in Kilkenny. It had been difficult to gain any traction while the hurlers were dominating the landscape. Failing to get the job done themselves didn’t help but performing in the margins is the ultimate barrier to establishing a profile.
Last September, the Stripeywomen finally bridged a 22-year gap but by then, Farrell had already seen a change.
“I think the television coverage of the semi-finals last year really put camogie on the map” says Farrell. “There were two great games, both went to extra time. Our game was so high scoring.
“Kilkenny were playing Waterford after us and we had a big crowd coming in and ever since then there’s been a lot more talk about the camogie in Kilkenny. We need that. We need to have the younger ones coming into us in the next few years. There seems to be a lot more interest than there was previously.”
Double headers are vital she maintains, for exposure, parity of esteem and performance levels.
“Unbelievable. It changes the way you’re playing. When we heard those Kilkenny hurling fans coming in, whenever we got the ball there were roars. You never see that in camogie. It drove us on even more. We were in extra time, the legs were starting to give out but when you got that extra roar from the crowd, we just wanted to finish it off. It just gives you such an adrenaline rush. I loved it and hopefully we can get more of it.”
The 25-year-old succeeds Michelle Quilty as captain this year after Thomastown annexed the county title, following up with provincial honours. She is fulfilling her duties at the launch of the Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Camogie Championship, which gets under way next Saturday.
The form is good, not least because she is healthy once more, having missed the successful National League campaign with a shoulder injury.
“There’s so many people that have been injured and new girls coming in playing unbelievable and taking your spot. Coming back now, I’m wondering where I’m going to slot in. Training is unbelievably competitive and that’s what drives you on. You have to be better to make the team. We might not have had the competition before.”
Clubmate Jenny Reddy is one of those that have stepped up to the mark. Reddy is Farrell’s midfield partner with Thomastown, and is engaged to her cousin.
Family is important. Helen and Martin Farrell have adopted most roles with Thomastown, taking teams and committee roles. Martin oversaw the 2014 championship victory, Thomastown’s first at senior level in 57 years. Helen is secretary.
Since 2014, Anna has had sisters Shelly and Meighan alongside her with Kilkenny. Eimear was involved in the club triumphs, despite being just 16, as were cousins Ciara and Aoife. The only boy in the clan, Jonjo is a two-time All-Ireland winner with Kilkenny. There is only one topic of conversation at the dinner table.
“We never had very much trainers with the (camogie) club only my mam and dad. It’s always been in our family. They absolutely love hurling, they wouldn’t miss a game. It could be an U14 match they’d be down watching it. They’ve trained us and they’ve pushed us so hard. They’re always harder on their own but it made the three of us try harder and do more. Everyone says that when you’re playing with the county team, you have to treat it like your family but it’s absolutely brilliant to have your sisters there with you.
“If you see somebody pulling on one of your sisters it’s like a red flag in front of a bull, you absolutely lose it altogether” she says laughing.
“Sisters are probably harder on each other than anyone else. It’s absolutely brilliant to have them there though because you know they’ll always have your back anyway, no matter what’s going on.”
The bull reference is apposite given Helen’s interview on Morning Ireland the morning after the All-Ireland.
In it, she revealed that the girls were leaving for training once when their father told them they had to help get two bulls in off the road.
Something similar happened again recently, Anna discloses.
“What if he runs at me?” she mimics herself asking her father.
It cut absolutely no ice but the upside is that the adrenaline is flowing nicely for the warm-up.
Tactical astuteness and flexibility was a notable feature of Kilkenny’s play last year under Ann Downey, Paddy Mullally and Conor Phelan. For her part, Farrell has been deployed in a few different roles.
“You do what you’re told, don’t you?” she chuckles.
“I have always played in the forwards. I only started playing midfield in the last year or two when I got back really fit. I always love running at goal, attacking the goal, that’s my favourite thing to do but then you can’t all do that. You need someone to mark the other girls. When you have people like Orla Cotter or Ashling Thompson playing midfield, or Niamh Kilkenny for Galway, you might get a point and it’s great but they might get two or three on the other side. So you have to be able to adapt your game.
“But if I could run at the goal all day I would!”
The Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Camogie Championship commences on Saturday, June 10. For a full list of fixtures go to www.camogie.ie.