Friday profile: Behind the wheel of the machine
Kevin Moran: 'Animalistic' Deise skipper saves team-mates' lives off the field and 'would die for them' on it – and he could have been a soccer superstar
Published 24/07/2015 | 02:30
When the Waterford hurlers went on a training camp to Portugal in 2007, they were relaxing by the hotel pool one afternoon when John Mullane nearly lost his life. Mullane can't swim but he was bathing his feet in the deep end.
A group of middle-aged Scottish women were sunbathing nearby and as one of them passed Mullane, she pushed him in.
Mullane went straight to the bottom and began to show all the classic signs of aquatic distress. He was panicking. He was waving his arms and shouting but nobody had spotted him with all the commotion going on around the pool. He had already come up once and gone down again.
Suddenly, like a super-hero, Kevin Moran dived in and pulled him to safety.
"Kevin saved my life," says Mullane. "He was over the far side on a sun lounger in a pair of jeans but as soon as he saw me struggling, he took control. Kevin is a good friend and that's the type of guy he is: you'd trust him with your life."
Waterford have been the story of the hurling season so far, and Moran has been the embodiment of that journey - the all-action hero of a team on the move.
He wears No 10 but he cruises all over the field, intercepting attacks, starting counter-attacks. The Waterford system has a lot of different parts but Moran is the machine's main driver.
"His workrate is animalistic," says Mullane. "Kevin is a colossus. He's a beast of a man. He'd put the fear of God into any opponent. He's pivotal to where Waterford are at the moment.
"With Kevin Moran in your team, you always have a chance of winning any game against any opposition."
His athleticism and adaptability always set Moran apart and made him ideally suited to his current role. In his 33 Championship appearances, he has played in seven different positions. He has played in every line bar the full-forward line - and even then, he spent the 2007 League winning campaign moonlighting at full-forward.
"As he got older, Kevin has turned into more of an athlete," says former Wexford star Keith Rossiter, who played alongside him in WIT.
"He has really developed that part of his game. He seems to be getting faster with age. He's a machine. He never seems to get tired. He's up and down the field 100mph, no problem to him."
The journey began on Moran's first Championship start at the age of 19 in 2006 when he played as a makeshift full-back against Laois. He didn't make another Championship start until the following year's Munster final, parachuted into midfield.
When the 2008 Championship rolled around, he was back at full-back against Clare. Moran tore ankle ligaments in training the week beforehand and played with a pain-killing injection. Waterford were without Ken McGrath and Eoin Murphy and their defence was torn asunder. Niall Gilligan took Moran for 1-2.
It took him eight weeks to fully recover from the injury but Moran returned for the All-Ireland quarter-final against Wexford and he started the semi-final against Tipperary, when he had a brilliant match at wing-back.
In the final, Kilkenny targeted his inexperience with Henry Shefflin. On the biggest day of his career, Moran needed to produce the performance of his life just to survive. He couldn't. Waterford couldn't.
They just kept going. Transition and improvisation were a continual theme and Moran was a central component in that process. He was strong and had a good hand and he spent a significant part of 2009 and all of 2010 as a half-forward. Waterford won a Munster title in 2010 but he was taken off in every game.
As he got fitter and more experienced, his game developed. In 2012, he won an All Star at midfield. When Waterford trailed Kilkenny by five points with less than 10 minutes remaining in the 2013 qualifiers, Moran went from defence to midfield and drove the comeback with a couple of inspirational points.
That performance encapsulated the full range of Moran's game, of how much he had evolved. When Waterford got radical with a new system this year, Moran's versatility and athleticism were always going to be key to carrying it out.
"You could always play Kevin anywhere," says Rossiter. "He's very honest; you always knew what you were going to get out of him. When he was younger, he was a little awkward-looking. It's only now that he's grown into his awkwardness that he's become the hurler he is.
"You very rarely see him hooked. He's a great man to take a score but he has great character. He was one of these guys who would die for you on the day. You couldn't hurl with a better guy than that."
Moran was so versatile that he could have followed a different path. When Mullane brought 48 people on his stag party to Newcastle a few years back, he and Moran took in a Newcastle-Spurs game in St James' Park. They watched the game behind one of the goals.
"I'm sure," says Mullane, "that Kevin would have looked on and wondered what could have been."
Moran had been there before in a completely different capacity. And in a far better seat. Newcastle were playing Everton and he sat on a bench beside Craig Bellamy just behind the home dugout.
At his home in Lismore Park, there is a framed photograph of Moran, his parents and the late Bobby Robson from that day. The Morans had just met Robson and his squad in the players' lounge. It was normal procedure for a club trying to attract young prospects.
In his teens with Waterford Bohemians, Moran was a schoolboy international courted by a string of English clubs. He had been on trials to Celtic and Middlesbrough. He had been offered trials with Liverpool, Tottenham and Preston, but Newcastle were his biggest suitors.
He had been over ten times. Peter Beardsley and Alan Irvine at the Newcastle Academy fancied him and they offered Moran a place on their YTS scheme followed by an 18-month professional contract.
Moran wasn't convinced and deflected the opportunity. He went to Blackburn Rovers for a week's trial just to make sure that life was what he wanted. He didn't play well. He didn't enjoy the experience.
"I lost total interest after that," he once said. "I just thought that I probably wasn't good enough to really make it. I was a bit tall and lanky and the coaches were saying that I wasn't good with my head.
"I had some left-peg on me. It was all on the left, boy. I was playing with Irish underage teams but within a year, I had finished playing soccer altogether."
Despite his own doubts, nobody on the Waterford soccer scene had any hesitation in saying that Moran could have carved out a professional career.
"I know for a fact that a lot of soccer people classed him right up there with John O'Shea," says Mullane. "They say that if Kevin had pushed on, he would have definitely made it cross-channel. He would have because he's that type of lad: he's so committed to everything he does. He has those qualities that are required to be a professional athlete."
Initially, hurling took its place in the queue behind soccer. Moran never even hurled in his first year in De La Salle College but when hurling became his priority, progress was rapid. It helped too that Moran was part of the De La Salle club's golden generation, most of whom won the full-set of county underage titles.
De La Salle gradually asserted themselves as a dominant force in the county, winning three county titles and two Munster clubs in five years, and Moran was pivotal to that success.
"For me, the sign of a great player is a lad who will do it for both club and county," says Mullane. "Kevin has been a huge reason why De la Salle are where they are."
Mullane picks one standout moment to underline Moran's immense influence, in the 2010 Munster club semi-final against Sarsfields of Cork. De La Salle were a point down with time up when Moran nailed a massive point from 75 yards to take the game to extra-time.
"I said to myself that day," says Mullane, "'This lad is just an unbelievable leader'."
That claim always had substance. In 2008, Moran captained WIT to a Fitzgibbon Cup. Michael Ryan made him Deise captain, and he was inspirational in that role in 2013 but when Derek McGrath took over in 2014, one of his first big decisions was to take the captaincy off Moran.
McGrath was a clubmate and a colleague of Moran's in the De La Salle staff-room.
"My thinking behind it was, 'I wonder will Kevin need a year away from the captaincy to get the absolute best out of him?" said McGrath. "I changed my mind on that over the winter. Kevin came back as captain and has flourished in it."
It was definitely the right call. "Kevin has revelled in the role of captain," says Mullane. "He was an unbelievable captain under Michael Ryan and he has pushed on even more now. Kevin will talk the talk in the dressing-room but he'll always walk the walk on the pitch with his performances."
His personality leant itself to a leadership role because Moran has always been a hugely popular guy.
"He's very easy going, very approachable," says Mullane. "He would be a great mixer in the squad, a great character. Just a dead sound lad."
"A great guy for a sing-song," adds Rossiter. "He can't sing that well but he had a party piece, the song 'Two Little Boys' that he used to love doing."
A maths and business teacher in De La Salle College, Waterford's brilliant season to date has enhanced the summer living for Moran. This is the life he always wanted.
The lure of big soccer days in England has long faded. Big summer days in Thurles are eternal. These are the days Moran was meant for.