Sunday 24 September 2017

' All sorts of things go through your head... It was eating me up'

Christy O'Connor

When the final whistle blew in the 1998 All-Ireland football final, John Concannon was one of the first Galway supporters onto the field.

His match ticket had been secured from Padraic Joyce and his good seat made the middle of the pitch very accessible. Concannon was the first player to hug Michael Donnellan, but Donnellan didn't even realise it was his friend. Elation had screened all clarity. Donnellan just roared before being swept away by the tide of euphoria which had just been unleashed.

All the players were soon engulfed by the ocean of Galway support, but Concannon returned to the Burlington Hotel afterwards to try and meet some of his best friends and former team-mates. He finally got the chance late in the evening, but the interaction was sporadic and the giddy mood stifled any meaningful conversation.

Before long, Concannon had to hit for home because he had work the following morning. His clubmate Michael Rhatigan drove and the excitement of the day inevitably shortened the journey. Concannon was delighted for Galway, his friends and old team-mates. But personally, the day was the most incomplete of his life.

"It was pure elation after the game, but driving home that evening was the biggest regret I ever had," says Concannon now. "I had so much time to think about it on that journey home. All sorts of things go through your head. 'Why didn't I put in the time and effort? Why didn't I stay training?' All those things. It was eating me up.

"It wasn't jealousy, but I was definitely envious of the lads. Some of them were my best friends and of course, I'd love to have been out there with them. John Divilly and Deccie Meehan came into the bank the following afternoon to see me and I had a lump in my throat when they arrived in.

"It was great because I was going off meeting them after work finished. But I was also thinking: 'I shouldn't be at work at all, I should be celebrating having won an All-Ireland medal with those guys.'"

Just four years earlier, Concannon was part of the most successful minor team in 30 years. The young Tribesmen didn't win the 1994 All-Ireland final against Kerry, but judged on the number of players who went on to win senior medals in 1998 -- seven -- no team had emulated such a harvest since the Kerry minor team of 1970, which went on to supply seven players to the county's phenomenally successful All-Ireland campaign of the 1970s.

That Galway minor team in 1994 produced some special players -- Declan and Tomas Meehan, John Divilly, Paul Clancy, Michael Donnellan, Padraic Joyce and Derek Savage. And yet the most talented, and most talked about, of that crop at the time was Concannon.

In that year's All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin, Concannon hit 1-6, with the goal one of the best scored in Croke Park that season; he sliced open the Dublin cover with an outrageous jink before hammering the ball into the top corner of the net from nearly 20 metres.

Most of Galway's best players on that minor team were products of the St Jarlath's College team which won that year's All-Ireland final. Concannon hit 1-4 in that 1994 Hogan Cup final against St Pat's, Maghera and, similar to the minor side, he was their marquee player on a team loaded with talent.

"All through Jarlath's and my time with the Galway minors, I'd always be getting the big scores," says Concannon "You'd be getting the 2-3, 2-6, 1-8. Not blowing myself up, but myself and Michael (Donnellan) would have been the main players on those teams."

Of all those gifted players of that generation, Concannon was once viewed as the saviour. The future of Galway football before he'd even begun shaving. He scored 3-1 on his senior championship debut for St Jarlath's at just 14, while a year later, he back-heeled a ball into the net against St Patrick's Tuam in a Connacht Colleges final.

That match was played before a National League game in Tuam Stadium, but the Galway football fraternity were already aware of his name and brilliant potential.

He was also only 14 when he played on the Miltown team which won their third Galway U-21 title in a row.

Concannon was inevitably the first one of that minor team called up to the senior squad, just months after he'd repeated his Leaving Certificate in 1995. 'Bosco' McDermott brought him in at the end of that season, when Galway were Connacht champions and they'd just rattled a Peter Canavan-led Tyrone in an All-Ireland semi-final. Galway football seemed to be going places and Concannon looked set to be fast-tracked with them on that journey. In his first game against Sligo in the FBD League, he bagged two goals.

"I thought to myself: 'This is easy'," says Concannon now. "I was playing with Ja Fallon, who would have been one of my idols in Jarlath's when I was in first year. It was nearly surreal because I was only a kid. Sean Purcell was also involved with Bosco and he used to bring me up and down to training. Even to be in the same car as him was unreal."

Concannon played the National League and was on the championship panel for that 1996 season. Before long though, his performances for the county bore no relation to the tours de force he had produced for Miltown, St Jarlath's and Galway underage teams.

Val Daly had issues with his commitment in 1997 before he broke his ankle, which effectively torpedoed whatever chance he had of making a comeback. When John O'Mahony arrived, Concannon was part of his initial plans. Yet he never kicked on.

Galway played Roscommon in the FBD League at the outset of the 1998 season and Concannon missed an open goal. The following night, O'Mahony rang and told him that they were releasing him and that they'd be monitoring his form in club matches. He never played for Galway again.

"I got plenty of chances every year in those years," he says. "Maybe I was too light at the time and I wasn't putting in enough hours at training or in the gym.

"My form just wasn't there. Breaking my ankle put me back, but I didn't look after my ankle correctly either. I didn't go to the physio when I should have. I didn't do the recovery and the rehab. Overall, I just didn't show the commitment that was required. I was never a great lover of training. If you could cut corners, I was the one to cut them."

If you scan back to some of those county minor teams throughout the 1990s, there were some excellent forwards who never really made it afterwards; Kevin Harrington (Cork), Peter Sullivan (Meath), Ronan Golding (Mayo), Jack Ferriter (Kerry), Danny Doogue (Laois), Richard Thornton (Tyrone).

Des Mackin was a brilliant minor for Armagh in 1992 and he was still a minor in 1993 when he made his senior debut. Yet of all those players, apart from Golding (who played senior championship), Concannon is still the most vivid in the mind's eye because of his audacious skill level.

There are thousands of gifted minor players who have never fulfilled their potential for almost a thousand more reasons; injury, lack of appetite, drink, lack of ambition, sated ambition, laziness, weak mentality, arrogance, travel, work, women. The same attractions and pitfalls exist for every young player but commitment and ambition will deal with the hazards that pure talent alone often cannot negotiate.

Concannon knows he had the talent. He just didn't have the requirements to allow that talent to flourish.

"I went straight into the bank after Jarlath's, I was living at home and I had no responsibilities," he says. "I always had a few quid in my pocket and you'd be enjoying life more than you'd be interested in training.

"There were certain times where I'd train really hard for about two or three weeks and I'd say to myself: 'I'm going to put in a big effort now. I'll try and do well in the club scene, which will put me back in the picture'. But it always came back to enjoying life. That always took over more than putting in the effort which was required to really make it. I was still young, but I knew that I was never going to get to the required level to really make it."

After his county underage days finished, Concannon no longer had the stage to showcase his talents. Miltown had never really produced a forward of his class and there was pressure on him to deliver, but Concannon's senior career coincided with the most barren in the club's history; they went eight years in Galway without winning a first round championship match. When it was knockout, their season was gone in a puff of smoke.

By 2005, Concannon was finished playing senior football. He was only 28.

"It was a mix of not enjoying my football and injury," he says. "My ankle still isn't right. You'd be half limping now after playing 18 holes of golf. And I've only myself to blame for that."

A year later, Concannon took over the club senior team. He had limited experience as a manager while he had played with the majority of the players, most of whom were only too aware of his track record on commitment. On the face of it, the marriage looked a sham; in reality, it was a dream union.

The Miltown players say that Concannon was a brilliant manager; professional, thorough, diligent and totally committed. Everything he wasn't as a player.

He had good support structures around him in Michael Rhatigan and Martin McNamara, but Concannon was the catalyst for leading Miltown back to their first county senior final in 20 years in 2007.

In truth, it was a redemptive experience for him. "I love the club and I just felt that we'd have a chance of doing something with a more professional attitude," says Concannon. "With everything I had done over the years, I knew if players were dodging that I'd be able to spot it.

"I had no qualms in telling the lads not to do what I did -- cut corners. Because it will get you nowhere. I used to say to the lads, 'There's no point coming to me with lies because I've been there, done that, I can nearly write the book'.

"It's amazing when you get involved in management. People you don't even know will ring you up and tell you that so and so was messing all weekend. I found out so much when I was a manager that it was easy to know then how other people found out what I was doing when I was a player."

Miltown narrowly lost that county final to Killererin. On the day, Padraic Joyce was the difference between the sides. Joyce was Killererin captain and in his victory speech, he acknowledged Concannon.

Apart from being one of his best friends, Joyce knew exactly how much that victory would have meant to his former team-mate.

Concannon was always close to the Joyces. Tommie Joyce was best man at his wedding, while Concannon was groomsman at his. Tommie is the Galway minor manager now and Concannon is one of his selectors.

After they picked the team last Saturday, the two of them went for a couple of drinks. On the theme of minor teams, the talk inevitably drifted back to the golden team of 1994.

"We were talking about different minor players and comparing them to our own time," says Concannon. "Tommie was even saying that Padraic never really developed until he went to Tralee IT. Don't get me wrong, he was good. He started at No 12, for a left footer, in the minor final in 1994, while he was wing-forward too for the U-21s.

"But he was never playing full-forward or centre-forward or in one of the marquee positions.

"I think when he went to Tralee and started playing with the better players, that's when he really came on. He was nearly a full-time GAA player because he was putting so much time and effort into his football. He definitely got bigger and his talent then was unquestionable."

Joyce won Sigerson Cup medals in 1997 and 1998 alongside players like Seamus Moynihan, William Kirby, Jimmy McGuinness, Mark O'Reilly, John Casey and Mike Frank Russell, while Michael Donnellan was also on the 1998 team. Concannon had an opportunity to go to Tralee at that time, but his father died when he was young and his mother wanted him to get a secure job with the bank after he finished school.

"I could have gone to Tralee that time with the two lads," he says. "If I had done the three or four years in college, I would have been used to a more professional training set-up and maybe things would have gone differently for me.

"All that experience would have really stood to me, especially when you look at how Padraic developed. But having said that, Padraic is unbelievably dedicated. He had that drive that I just didn't."

Seventeen years on from that golden minor generation, Joyce is still involved with Galway tomorrow, while Concannon and the Galway minors head to Markievicz Park this evening for a Connacht semi-final. The minor team is loaded with talented footballers, but Concannon is ideally positioned to be able to preach the dangers of becoming a cautionary tale.

"Some of our lads are brilliant footballers, but I was the biggest dodger of all time and maybe that's why I can read between the lines with some of them," says Concannon.

"The biggest thing I'd be trying to get across to them is that they have to put in the time at training. That it's not about just coming to training and having the craic with their friends. They need to become a better player every single time they train. Some of them are such talented guys and trying to get it out of them is the real challenge. But the only answer is hard work."

Concannon is still playing junior football now.

There are times when he will produce that magnesium flash of class, which will light up games on the hidden circuit of Galway club football. It will often remind them in Miltown of his brilliant goal in the 1994 All-Ireland minor semi-final, when he showcased his genius before pointing in celebration to the cluster of his clubmates on the Canal End.

Concannon never made it afterwards and, while his senior career may have been bankrupted by unfulfilled potential and diluted ambition, nobody can ever take those moments of genius from him. In the mind's eye, the memories remain as vivid as ever.

And that is still something.

Irish Independent

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