Former GAA All-Star: 'People moan about player power but we put in 60 hours a week'
Sligo's Charlie Harrison admits he's obsessed with football so a cruciate knee injury is not going to curtail his ambitions, writes Damian Lawlor
FOR former All Star defender Charlie Harrison, suffering a cruciate knee ligament injury at the age of 33 was a bitter blow.
Harrison first came to the inter-county scene in 2004, making his debut with London before becoming a regular for Sligo, starring as the Yeats County men won the Connacht championship in 2007 - the county's first in 32 years.
In 2010, he became the fourth Sligo player to win an All Star, when he was rewarded for a series of outstanding performances at corner-back. He has never accepted the status quo that goes with playing for a middle-to-average team.
"I know our limitations and we're a small county," he says. "But I won one Connacht medal and have spent the last eight years in pursuit of another. This was shaping up to be my last year with Sligo, but no way now. I'll have this operation and get back on the horse. We're capable of winning Connacht again if we have everyone right."
Harrison went over on his knee four weeks ago, then played 30 minutes of a league match against Louth before it flared up again the following Friday at training.
A scan showed serious damage was done. Dr Declan Clinton, the Sligo team medic, phoned him with the bad news. Harrison was in the car at the time and had to pull over he was so upset.
These last few weeks, he has not been good company and the whole episode has left him in reflective mode, wondering if the sacrifices he made over the years have adversely affected his life and career. It's the personal stuff that grates. He left two of his sisters' weddings early because of his football commitments and recalls seeing one of his sisters in tears as he left the reception.
"You lead your life at a high tempo 100 per cent of the time - everything is done so you can be at optimum fitness and strength. But you isolate yourself and those closest to you. It's been difficult for them. But you get self-obsessed. Even with gym and training - if I missed a gym session I had the key to my local and I would have to go in there at 10pm or 6am the next morning so as I wouldn't be tortured. Obsessed.
"Then you get a break, like now, and you look back. I'm 33 and frustrated that we haven't won that second provincial title. I've had managers that have set back my career too due to an inability to manage to the level we expect. I've also had two or three top managers. You get a good guy and hope he stays with you; people moan out about player power but we put in 60 hours a week, organising our lives 24/7 and if the manager is not capable of course you're frustrated."
Harrison says his girlfriend and close family are usually the ones to suffer if everything is not right with the Sligo team.
"In summer, everything else takes a back seat. My girlfriend works as a medical scientist and comes home sometimes at 12 but might be on call. I would automatically go to the other bed, so I wouldn't disturb my sleep. You'd turn into a bit of a selfish git without realising."
From the moment he wakes up until he retires for the night, Harrison says he lives in his own little bubble.
"I won't eat with my friends because I've prepared my own food and want the nutrition that fresh and organic food gives. So the lads have given up asking me now. You can become the narkiest man alive. And I get narkier if the team is showing poor form. I know well that we're a small county and we take from a small pool of players; we only have 25 clubs and we're trying to compete against Mayo and Galway. But you can't accept that. We can compete with anyone as long as we have our top 15 players out but once we go past that, from 17 or 18 onwards we are struggling."
As the team drifts further away from another Connacht title the mood darkens.
"Players are losing their lives to this," Harrison says. "Maybe we are slaves to the game, there is definitely an element of truth in what Joe Brolly says. But I really want to sign up for this. I really enjoy playing county football and that is what is needed to play at top level. And it's why I'll burst my ass and sign up for it again next year. To get that second Connacht title. That's what the sacrifices are made for."
A year older, with the injury to deal with and a career move to Dublin completed, it will surely be harder to keep the fire stoked.
Harrison, though, has no worries on that score. He has just been appointed co-ordinator of the GAA's national Cúl Camps, with 90,000 children passing through 1,100 venues. Harrison, of course, wants to take it to a new level and get participants up to the 100,000 mark.
"In the past I arranged my career around Gaelic football but that all changes now. I will drive this job on to new heights and we'll raise standards. That doesn't mean I'll be any less obsessed about football. That won't change because I'm living in Dublin. There are 12 from the Sligo team here, so we'll make it work. And Niall Carew is a great manager. We'll achieve things under him."
If he has his wish, Harrison will bow out with that second Connacht medal, maybe playing his last game in Croke Park, darting up and down the field in that swashbuckling style of his. He has never conformed to defensive football and says he wouldn't play if he wasn't allowed to surge forward and create attacks.
"Luckily, I've never been asked to do sit back behind a line and just watch the other team with the ball. I always want to express myself; that's the life and soul of the GAA. That's why I'll work to get back and enjoy another big day or days with the team. I don't want to end my career getting 30 minutes against Louth with a couple of hundred people watching."
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