Friday 22 September 2017

Galway star gives brutally honest reason why he walked away from the GAA in 2014

Sean Armstrong energised after regaining love for game

Playing football in the USA helped Seán Armstrong regain his ‘grá’ for the game Picture: Sportsfile
Playing football in the USA helped Seán Armstrong regain his ‘grá’ for the game Picture: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Some mornings, when he's climbing out of bed after a hard training session or a match, Seán Armstrong's body will forcefully remind him that he has been two years away from inter-county football.

But as he is ironing out the creases and straightening himself out, he is at least doing so with a smile on his face.

Armstrong has found the connection between football and enjoyment again and rewired it into Galway's plans for 2017.

At a time when the exodus from inter-county squads, outside of the top-tier teams, appears to be quickening, Galway have bucked the trend with the return of so many.

In Armstrong's case a sense of "unfinished business" with the game has prevailed.

Loosening

The connection had been loosening for some time before it finally snapped and made his decision to retire at the end of 2014 so much easier.

Even the promise of a new way of doing business and a clear vision, as spelled out by incoming manager Kevin Walsh at the time, couldn't dissuade him. He was out, gone, and his face just gave it away.

Playing football in the USA helped Seán Armstrong regain his ‘grá’ for the game Picture: Sportsfile
Playing football in the USA helped Seán Armstrong regain his ‘grá’ for the game Picture: Sportsfile

"I was very happy to walk away in 2014," he recalls. "If I'd stayed I would have been miserable. And then there was the domino effect from that, a negative influence around the camp. It was a no brainer to get out of there.

"You really have to be enjoying playing inter-county football with the level of commitment. You need to be enjoying going out to training, you need to be going out with a smile on your face. You need to have the bit of craic and the bit of fun because you are seeing a lot of these lads and a lot of this set-up.

"If you don't, if you're not enjoying it, it's a miserable place to be. You have to be getting something out of it to justify how much you are putting into it."

For much of his 10 years with Galway, the weight of expectation on Armstrong and on the county may have felt heavier than it should have.

Far too often a recurring hamstring injury would knock him off his stride. And with it came added detachment from the team. By the end he felt like a stranger.

So he cut all his ties with the game at home in 2015, heading to San Francisco from where he toured the US west coast. He played a bit of football with the 'Ulster' club out there, enjoyed the social side of that and feels it was first step in regaining some of the 'grá' he had lost for it.

When he came home later that year and watched Salthill-Knocknacarra in a county semi-final, the urge to return to club football was palpable.

The lines of communication with Walsh remained open all the time. They would talk without discussing anything concrete about his future but that real desire he needed continued to evade him.

Watching the Connacht final replay win over Roscommon last summer while at a wedding in Mayo, Armstrong didn't feel an ounce of regret that he wasn't there with them, only happiness at what they had achieved.

"I knew the majority of the boys playing, I had soldiered with them," he explains. "I know the level of commitment they put in. I had no regrets though, I was still happy with my decision."

Being exclusively a club footballer again - going to every challenge, every league game, every training session - helped him reclaim the enjoyment that had been lost. And with enjoyment came good form.

In the county final he scored six points as Salthill-Knocknacarra lost to Corofin, prompting some deeper thought. If he was going back, it had to be this year. He'll be 31 in March. At 32, after three years out, it would have been too late.

Risk

"It would have been much easier to say 'do you know what, I've gone from that, it's easier for me to stay away.' You're taking a risk going back because you are leaving yourself open to judgement by everyone to have their say," he says.

"But as you get older you don't really care what other people think - you're just doing it to satisfy yourself or you just feel that you have something still to give. That became the bottom line when I was deciding whether to go back or not.

"I talked to a good few people whose opinion I would value. And it soon became quite clear that if I didn't go back I would regret it."

Unburdened by expectation, indifferent to the potential for criticism, he feels so much "better" for his time away. In fact, it's a firm recommendation from him for any player to step off the carousel.

"If some lads are in there and they are miserable, they're doing no one any favours letting themselves down, they're letting the boys down, just being negative," he says. "Why not head away for a year or two, refresh, re-energise come back and see what you have to offer?"

He thinks back to what Padraic Joyce gave in an unbroken 14-year career and knows that it's unlikely to be mirrored by anyone starting out now.

"Unless you are a freak of nature how you could it any more? Padraic's 14 years, how in the name of God with the level of commitment now, could you sustain that?" he says.

His return comes without pre-conditions, except to train smarter with a problematic back in mind.

"If I was doing the exact same training that a 21-year-old was doing, it was is quite possible that I would break down in some shape or form," he says.

"In fairness to Kevin with the whole medical side of things, we sat down and came up with a tailored plan. When you are doing your conditioning sessions, you're just being a bit smarter.

"He is more concerned about being on the pitch for the tactical side of things, the skills, which is what you want. You want to be out learning the tactics, you want to be sharp. And you want to be able to train and play.

"If you are on the physio bed, you are no good to anyone.

Expectation

"I'm not putting huge pressure on myself that I have to play out of my skin every day, I'm quite happy in myself. I don't care about expectation. I have my own personal expectations.

"Kevin knows what I expect of myself. I'm going back for my own personal reasons. Because I think I can offer something."

Armstrong returns to a Galway camp dripping with positivity and determined to atone for last year's All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Tipperary. In hindsight the pitfalls are always clearer.

"I can see how it became an anti-climax after the provincial final," he says. "We hadn't beaten Mayo in quite some time, hadn't won a Connacht title since '08, so it was a massive achievement.

"Going up against Tipperary, expected to beat them, it was a huge banana skin. Coming down after pitch invasions with bonfires being lit on the way home on the N17. . . a lot of young lads involved hadn't had that success.

"It's a massive learning curve for them and I know they're back raring to go again and have their sights set on making amends. They're in a good spot - I know for a fact management and players are mad for more."

Once more he can identify with that.

Irish Independent

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