'There is an amount of self-sacrifice that goes with it' - Marie Crowe meets the GAA's ultimate man-marker
Vinny Corey has become the ultimate man-marker by curbing his ego and putting his team first
Vinny Corey makes it sound very simple. He has just been asked what it takes to be a successful man-marker. He doesn't need time to think; he clearly knows the role but, equally, he plays it down. "You need a lot of focus and concentration; you need to stick to the task as best you can; and depending on how the match unfolds you need to be able to bring your own game."
The reality of course is that there are few harder jobs on a football field than keeping the likes of Michael Murphy, Diarmuid Connolly or Sean Cavanagh in check for 70 minutes. All it takes is one slip, one lapse in concentration, for players of that calibre to cause lasting damage. But Corey has the art of man-marking perfected; he's an expert at it even if he doesn't want to admit it.
On three occasions in Ulster finals when tasked with marking Donegal's main man, Corey has held Murphy scoreless from play. However, he is not prepared to discuss the specifics of any of these battles; he's intently focused on what's coming next. But there's no denying the fact that he has regularly made life difficult for countless footballers who have carried the star player tag.
"I just prepare how I would for any game," he says. "You'd be looking at strengths and weaknesses of players and opposition as you would any game. You'd be trying to see what you can do to try and negate them. But you need a lot of luck because these top forwards are very good and if they get good ball in space you are in trouble . . . you need the bounce of the ball."
But does he like playing the role?
"I don't know if I like it - it would be great if you were going out playing centre half-back and playing your game," he says. "Not having to worry about someone else, that would be the first choice, but if you are asked to do something else you have to do it, and that's it. There is a certain amount of self-sacrifice that comes with it."
But when you are the ultimate team player like Corey, the glory comes when the team does well. He has no interest in individual accolades or time in the spotlight. He doesn't feel the need for Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Indeed the only reason he sits down for this interview is because someone important to him likes to read this paper and he wants to give them a surprise. On the pitch and off it, he is always thinking of those around him.
"The biggest compliment you can get in a team sport is that you are a team player," he says. "That's what you are striving to be, and some boys can do that and some boys can't do that. You are only as strong as the boys around you, and if you didn't have them looking out for you and on top of their game you are in big trouble as a defender. If you do that and do that well, you are sure a performance will follow."
Corey has worn the white and blue of Monaghan for 15 seasons. He is the oldest player on the team now but never thinks about that. He has adapted his lifestyle over the years to get the best out of himself. As he has got older he realised that there is less margin for error and that there is no substitute for hard work.
"When I was in my early 20s I could have those few bad nights' sleep, go for a few nights out, maybe have the few bags of chips and I could recover," he explains. "But when you get older you have to be conscious of everything.
"It's not the two hours a day you are training that is the most important, it's the other 22 around it. You try to do things as best you can to give yourself every chance. You have to put some extra time into managing your lifestyle but if you do that there is no reason why you can't add a few years to your career."
Being the most experienced player doesn't mean he has any extra responsibilities; it's not a burden, because everyone on the Monaghan team has their role to play, and age is just a number when it comes to backing each other up.
"It doesn't matter about age," he insists. "No one is going to ask for your birth cert on the pitch. You are there to give hits and get hits, and anyone who is on the pitch is trusted to do that. It's not about thinking 'oh that player is only 19, I better run over there and help him out'. Whoever is nearest will do that. It's not one person's responsibility, everyone helps out.
"And the same goes for leadership: it can come from anyone in the set-up. We were hitting a lull against Fermanagh and Owen Duffy came in off the bench and showed leadership. He went at them and kicked three points. As did young Conor McCarthy by taking on the opposition, by saying 'I'll take this kick myself, I'll take the shot'. That's leadership at key moments and it's not exclusive to the older men on the team."
Corey joined the Monaghan set-up in 2002 and a year later made his Ulster championship debut against Armagh. They were the All-Ireland champions while Monaghan were a mid-table Division 4 team. No one gave them a chance. Corey was handed the No 2 jersey - which was a surprise to him and indeed to most people in the county. He usually soldiered much further up the field but the manager had other plans for him. He ended up playing around wing-back, marking Paddy McKeever. Monaghan pulled off a shock win, giving the county a lift in the process.
But that was all the action Corey saw that summer. An altercation with an Ulster Council official after an Ulster under 21 final a few weeks previously resulted in a two-month ban. It was a harsh lesson but one he learned from and since then he has never been sent off, or suspended. Discipline has always been a key part of his game.
In fact Corey has learned a lot of lessons during his career. He has seen the game evolve, preparation trends come and go and levels of commitment increase. When he landed on the scene there was a huge emphasis on strength. Armagh had raised the bar in terms of size and he was part of the chasing pack.
"Back then I was very skinny, probably a light frame," he recalls. "In training I'd have been wiry enough, strong enough but I didn't have the physique you'd need for that type of football. I remember getting a few shoulders off a few senior players, hitting the ground and thinking I'd have to do something about that.
"I was in college in Maynooth. I had a gym membership and I was given a programme to do with some exercises but there was no coaching around the exercises. I knew the main ones - bench press, squat and all that - and back then you were staying away from leg weights. There was a perception at the time that it would nearly slow you down. There wasn't the real education around strength and conditioning that there is nowadays, and you see it in young lads who are in the position I was in. Physically they are much more developed than I was at 19 or 20. I see the young boys on the panel doing core work - I didn't hear the word core till I was 21 or 22.
"When I started, with those Armagh and Tyrone teams everything was about bulk, whereas now it's about movement - athletic and explosive movement - and being flexible. Players need to have a range of movement that is good for playing Gaelic football. It's more specific to the game."
As the years passed, Armagh and Tyrone continued to dominate Ulster; although Corey still hoped that Monaghan would win a provincial title, doubts started to creep in, but he persevered, never losing sight of his goals. Slowly but sure surely things started to come together and Monaghan were moving in the right direction.
"There was a combination of things that changed football in Monaghan. When Banty [Seamus McEnaney] came in and we won that Division 2 league title in Croke Park, that bit of pride was restored in the jersey. Before that you wouldn't have had too many going to matches, but after that there was more expectation in the county and people were expecting us to win the Ulster title.
"Back when I first started, we got a text that day to say where we were training that night, and it could have been anywhere in the county. But then in 2007 Monaghan got their own centre and training pitches, so that was another big help. Along with that, more effort was put into development squads. Lots of effort was put in behind the scenes. They tried to put things in place that would facilitate teams and facilitate winning. And also a good crop of players came along with good drive and the right managers."
The perseverance paid off and Monaghan were crowned Ulster champions in 2013 and again in 2015, making all the hard work and commitment worth it. Corey is a teacher in Boyne Community School in Trim, and a father of three; his first daughter was born when he was 21 so throughout his inter-county career he has been juggling football and family.
"It is my family making the sacrifice, not me," he says. "I'm doing what I want to do - there's no one holding a gun to my head saying I have to play. But I don't see it as a negative thing. I know you have to spend a bit of time training in the evenings. And you are going out the door a lot, but sometimes it's no harm for your children to see you go out the door and commit yourself to something that is bigger than yourself. And whether you achieve it or not, I don't see the harm in a child getting to see you trying.
"There's going to be times and moments where you miss out on an event, like my oldest girl's Irish dancing class, or her accordion recital, and there are times when family occasions like weddings have to be curtailed, but that is part and parcel of it. And if you don't do those things then you aren't an inter-county player . . . it's just not for you."
Football is definitely the life that Vinny Corey wants and loves. He signed up for it, he has put in the time and effort and reaped the rewards.
And although he's known in the game as a man-marker, five minutes in his company and it's clear Corey is so much more than that.
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