Wednesday 28 September 2016

Tomás Ó Sé: Walking away from inter-county football leaves a hole you'll never fill - believe me, I've tried

I'm glad I retired from inter-county football when I did, but wondering if you jumped too soon is just part of the process

Published 03/09/2016 | 12:28

I can't count the number of people who this week have asked me about what Marc is going to do.

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And I'm sure they probably don't believe me when I tell them I don't know. Bar a couple of texts and snapchats, I haven't spoken to him since Sunday and, you know, I'll leave him be. The Kerry lads are off doing their own thing this week. When you're mourning something like they are, it's better to be with people who are feeling the same.

That won't last too long. They have to return to work at some stage. Get back to the real world. And there you'll have people coming up to you talking about the game all over again.

Asking about the ref and this incident or that. They are well meaning but you're already as low as a snake and you're being asked to relive the game several times a day.

In their mind the Kerry boys will be running through the what-ifs. What if we'd have blocked McManamon's run? If Gooch had scored that point? If you'd won that breaking ball you missed by an inch? It eats away at you. There's a process they are going through.

Their clubs will be on to them too. That can make you or break you. I've had both sides of it. Some years, you'd salvage something from the season through a championship run. In others, the bubble was just burst and the enthusiasm was gone with it. These few weeks after a big defeat are only for surviving. 

Difficult

Eventually Marc and a few other Kerry players will come to consider their future. Stay or go? Stick or twist? It's a very difficult thing to assess. Because it's a decision that no one can help you make. You can throw it out to the floor alright but there'll be lads who tell you what you want to hear. Others who'd tell you to go only to annoy you. Others will sit on the fence. 

It's no good though. Ultimately, the decision involves dealing with questions that only you can answer. I see Mattie Donnelly calling on Seán Cavanagh to stay on. Sometimes if it ends horribly like it did for Cavanagh, you are determined not to go out on such a low. Seán's too good to end it like that. I think we'll see him again.

Three years have passed since I left it behind. I went on radio with Dara ó Cinnéide and made it official. Dara is a good friend and it seemed like the right thing to do. 

Coming off the pitch after the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final I think I knew I was done. It wasn't nailed down now but deep down I had accepted I wouldn't play for Kerry again. I didn't hang around that day. The baseball cap came down over the eyes and I double-timed it up Jones' Road. Before anyone could say anything I'd be gone past them. I'd say I was the first man out of Croke Park. It was just what felt right.

Sometimes I think I should have hung around a bit and drank the place in like Marc and Donaghy did with the kids after the game last Sunday. But that just wasn't me. That evening I drove down to Cork. I had the young fella in the car with me. He was upset at the result but didn't really grasp that I wouldn't play for Kerry any more. A huge chapter had ended but that's what I remember of that evening. Me and him and the road. 

That night I took myself into Cork city on my own. I avoided the GAA pubs. Like you wouldn't be heading into Larry Tompkins' on a night like that. 

No one spotted me or recognised me and it was ideal. Or if they did they left me well enough alone. There's any amount of pokey little holes in Cork you can get lost in. And they were the places I'd go, win or lose. 

You wouldn't get that peace in Kerry. People would want to know. They'd have questions. No matter where you'd be, you'd be asked 20 times a night about what you were planning on doing and whether you'd stay on. And there'd probably be a few of them who wouldn't be shy about telling you what you did wrong or that your time is up. You'd spend your night biting your tongue when all you wanted was to blow off steam. That's a bad mix. Lads would think they know plenty but usually the most vocal ones know nothing. And they definitely know nothing in terms of the effort the players have put in.

The problem is, in Kerry, there are no pokey little holes for lads to disappear into.

Retiring is a huge decision. In fact, you probably don't realise how big it is until you actually go. I was in with Kerry first as a 19-year-old. I left at 35. By the time I retired nearly half my time on the planet had been spent with Kerry. Being a Kerry footballer superseded everything. Every winter and summer was hostage to a training session here or a match there. There wasn't an aspect of my life that didn't come second to football.

And when it's gone it leaves a hole that needs to be filled. When Darragh walked away he got into management. The gates were still open at Kerry training at that time and I know he came in to it a few evenings. But he generally stayed away.

I know when Páidí retired he kept going after the thing. He got into management and tried to stay close. When he left Kerry under a cloud, he was hurt. Very hurt. So he kept chasing it in Westmeath, trying to show he could still do it. And even when he helped them make history up there he went to Clare, still going after it. 

You know I think it was only shortly before the poor man died that he had made his peace with everything. 

That's how much football can get into you and stay with you. I still get the same nervousness in my gut before games as I did going into All-Ireland finals. And that's playing with my adopted club when I'm kicking the arse of 39!

Your mind can go strange places. That day I retired I marked Diarmuid Connolly. He got man of the match but I'll argue with anyone that I was far from disgraced that day. And for the last couple of seasons a part of me has always thought that if I really took care of myself, if I stopped acting the b****x and started doing all the right things, like I'd never done them before, that maybe I could have played on a bit more. 

My body was still going well enough. No word of a lie I never missed a game of any description through injury. Never. Apart from a broken foot he got in a freak accident, Darragh was the same. Marc is durable too. So was Páidí. I've heard of others of his vintage having knee and hip replacements. Páidí put his body through more than any of them but when it came to it, he was ready. We were just lucky in that way.

Maybe I was just fooling myself when I was thinking I could still live with the cubs. I've pointed out before that Eamonn Fitzmaurice didn't try too hard to get me to change my mind. And the year after I left, Kerry won the All-Ireland and Paul Murphy was man of the match in the final in the No 5 jersey. 

They had got on fine without me but still I tied myself up in knots sometimes thinking about whether I jumped too soon. Maybe second-guessing yourself is just part of the mourning period.

Jumped

One thing I know is that I couldn't have sat on the bench. When Fitzy retired he said the same to me. He couldn't have dealt with it so he jumped rather than annoy himself. And I know Marc struggled with that this year. For Mahony and Donaghy, it might be different. After last Sunday they might feel there's another spin in them. If they did, I'd be happy. Old dogs, hard road and all that.

Because I know now that once you are out you are out. I remember meeting a few lads from the squad after I had retired. They were good friends but they were on their own buzz that night. I felt like I was imposing on them. I went from being in the centre of it to being on the outside. Things move on like that. They just have to. 

I suppose what I miss most is the craic. Stuff like rolling up your strapping in a ball and trying to nail some fella on the head from the other side of the dressing room. We had some great days as a team, big wins and moments that will live long after me. But it's that sort of juvenile stuff that I miss most. Silly I know.

There were other little things to that stick in your mind. I can remember certain moves that came together in training. I remember fellas turning each other upside down and wondering if they'd ever talk to each other again. Usually they'd be laughing in the shower afterwards. I can still feel the satisfaction after coming off the pitch in Killarney after a hard training session. The sweat rolling off you and the sun still warming your back. You knew the work had been done. There was a deep-seated contentment I got on those evenings. That is impossible to replace.

I don't want to say it's the highlight of your life. I get a serious kick out of family, the kids. That's great but in a different way. Football leaves a hole you just can't fill. I'm lucky enough to have picked up some media work and I enjoy it, more than I would have thought. And it keeps you looking at a game in a slightly different, more detached way.

Others don't have that. When they are gone from it they are gone. And you go from living in each other's pockets and spending almost all your time together to not seeing each other at all. Outside of a handful of close friends, my mates were always the Kerry footballers. Like I don't know when I've seen Mike McCarthy or Tom O'Sullivan or Diarmuid Murphy or even Eamonn Fitz for a catch-up. And I'd have great time for those boys.

So Marc and Mahony and Donaghy and all the rest of the lads around the country should take all the time they need to make their decision. Because when you do walk away, nothing will replace it. 

Believe me, I've tried.

Irish Independent

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