'Work dried up... it was a no-brainer'
Ireland cricket star John Mooney tells Ger Cromwell how his love of the sport took root early in life – and why going full-time has allowed him to reach a whole new level
For John Mooney, cricket has always been about family. Long summer Sundays spent watching his father, John Snr, play on pitches around north Co Dublin evolved into watching his older brother Paul play before he got the chance to stand at the crease himself.
That opportunity came pretty early and 'Johnboy', as he was affectionately monikered after the floppy-haired son from 'The Waltons', saw his first action at the tender age of seven, when he lined out for his local club North County in an U-13 match.
"I took it very seriously from the very start," says the 2010 Ireland Player of the Year. "As soon as I started playing in the back garden, I was deadly serious. Even though I was too young to play, I used to cycle to training with my older brother. I was at every game.
"I played cricket from such a young age that I can barely remember the first time I did it.
"Obviously, when you're that young and you're playing against lads that are older than you, you're going to be a bit afraid if they hit the ball as hard as they can or bowl it as hard as they can, but whenever I played against kids that were the same age as myself it was just a natural thing. I generally bowled faster and hit the ball harder than most of the lads my age."
Mooney eventually followed his older brother into the Irish set-up, progressing through the ranks to become one of the backbones of the senior team.
A qualified electrician, he gave up wiring houses to become a full-time professional when he was contracted to Cricket Ireland in 2010, something he could never have dreamed of in those early days.
"It wasn't until the mid-noughties that I even contemplated being a professional cricketer," Mooney admits. "In the late '80s and early '90s most people, me included, used to go and watch Ireland play to have a look at the opposition. It was always a bit of a giggle.
"The English sides would come over and spend two or three days on the beer in Dublin and not really take the game seriously. Then in 2003, the Irish set-up got a South African coach called Adrian Birrell, who started to drum a professional state of mind into the players. From there we started to develop belief as a squad that we were going to get better and we started looking at qualifying for World Cups.
"In 2007, we really performed well in the World Cup and from there we got a great sponsor in RSA.
"John Treacy of the Irish Sports Council came out to the West Indies to have a look at us and it all snowballed from there.
"Cricket Ireland got better funding from the International Cricket Council and we were able to get more players contracted, but we couldn't have done it without the investment from both sports councils, north and south, and RSA.
"I was one of those players who was always in the squad. The recession had hit. The work as an electrician had dried up. I was offered a contract and it was a no-brainer."
As a full-time cricketer, Mooney's days are now filled with training or playing cricket, and he wouldn't have it any other way.
"It's brilliant," he says of his two-sessions-a-day routine. "On Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays we're in the gym in Morton Stadium.
"The facilities there are great. We generally have two training sessions a day four times a week. We've got an excellent strength and conditioning coach. And everybody has their own specific programme.
"The more advanced guys in the gym would be doing a lot of power lifting and conditioning sessions, while the younger guys just getting involved in the squad would be doing more body weight exercises and learning proper technique before they then start lifting heavier weights.
"On the other days of the week we would do cricket skills training. We go to the gym, break for a bit of lunch and then drive back to the North County club and do cricket skills; batting or bowling. If it's summer, we're outside fielding.
"You need a really broad level of fitness to be a cricketer. Fast bowlers need a lot of strength, batsmen need a lot of endurance because they could spend an awful lot of time out on the ground, and you also need speed and agility.
"For example, today we played in 34 degrees with 70 or 80pc humidity (for Ireland's World T20 qualifying in the United Arab Emirates). You need to be physically fit and you need endurance because you have to concentrate so carefully on every single ball that's bowled.
"If you don't have all those attributes your concentration is going to wane and your game is going to suffer. It's a really strict fitness programme we're on. We wouldn't need to necessarily be as aerobically fit as a footballer, but we need to have that muscle endurance and power, a bit like a marathon runner might have."
While the Irish team have long since lost their underdog tag, Mooney's own personal game has evolved too since turning professional. Having started out as a bowler, he has honed his batting skills over the past couple of years and feels he is now stronger with the willow in his hand than with the ball.
"I stuck around the squad due to my bowling originally, but since going professional it's enabled me to practise so much harder on my batting, so my batting is doing alright," he says.
"At the minute, I'm a batter who bowls a small bit whereas in the past I've been mainly a bowler who batted a small bit. I'm an all-rounder really. Ideally, I'd like to be known as someone who does both, but depending on form or the format of the game, I will either bat high or early.
"I'm batting No 6 in the team. If I'm needed to bowl, I'll bowl, but bowling hasn't been going too well for me recently."
Having travelled the world and played in far-flung places with Ireland over the past few years, a trial with English county Sussex in May last year reminded Mooney why he took up the sport in the first place.
"It was a great experience but it wasn't really for me. It came at a bad time. I was only after recovering from a grade two hamstring tear, my daughter was only four months old and I had to move away.
"Through a combination of those things I just didn't enjoy it and it wasn't right for me at the time. There is money to be made over there but I'm very settled in Ireland. My wife Helena has a great job and I've got two kids.
"My oldest girl, Elisha, plays for the North County girls team while Robyn is nearly two now and goes around the house with a bat, knocking down ornaments.
"As the years have gone on, the travelling has got tougher and tougher. It's very hard to leave the kids behind, especially this time now. We've been away for five weeks, we come home for a few days and head back out again in December.
"That's really difficult. The support you get from your family is great but when you're away it can be really difficult on family life.
"At 31, I certainly don't want to move away from Ireland. I want to be around my family as much as possible. That's just the way I am. Some people are different, but that's just me."