Paul Kimmage: Cutting the umbilical cord is never easy, as Alan Quinlan has found out
In October 2011, five months after he had played his last game for Munster, Alan Quinlan was watching a training session in Limerick with two colleagues from Sky when he was reminded by Pat Geraghty, the Munster media manager, that the session was "closed".
Quinlan at first thought he was joking: "Yeah, whatever Pat."
But Geraghty wasn't backing down: "Look, are you media now or what?" he snapped. "If you're media, you can't be here for this."
The rebuke stung and forced Quinlan to think about it.
He's right. I am no longer one of the boys.
It was his first reminder that he had crossed the line.
The five years since have been mostly plain sailing: a successful autobiography, a well-read newspaper column, 53,000 followers on Twitter and a regular TV slot as an analyst with Sky. Quinlan was insightful and articulate but always quite mindful about what he should and should not say.
These guys are still my friends.
Until the Munster game in Paris last weekend when his comments made headlines: 'Quinlan: Munster embarrassing and disgraceful'.
I was reviewing the papers on Sunday morning with Vincent Hogan on Newstalk's Off The Ball. We were intrigued by the story but hadn't seen the game or heard Quinlan's words. As we were waiting to go on, Joe Molloy, the show's presenter, played a recording:
"I'm trying to think of words to sum it up: embarrassing, disgraceful, humiliating, all those words come to mind. The emotion of watching that having played for the club for so long . . . you know, Munster have no divine right to win these games, and people watching all over the UK and all over the world probably, and in Ireland, will be kind of wondering what I'm going to say: it's embarrassing.
"This whole organisation needs to be dissected now and they need to look at the structure from the top to the bottom including everyone, and figure out what's gone wrong. They're lacking a bit of talent, there's no doubt about that, we've said it in the last few weeks, but a Munster team that plays with no spirit, no heart, no passion - that really upsets me. It drives me demented and it does all the Munster fans who follow them all over Europe and go to all the games.
"They have no divine right to win anything just because they've won before but that performance was . . . borderline disgraceful, it might be a bit extreme to say disgraceful but guys falling off tackles, no desire, no structure, no shape and really, really upsetting to watch."
The comments were, as Molloy observed, as strong as it gets in the world of rugby punditry. But what, we wondered, would Anthony Foley think?
"He'll see it as a betrayal," Hogan said.
The words struck a chord.
In the spring of 1990, a few months after my debut as a reporter with The Sunday Tribune, my first job overseas was a memorable trip to France that started in Biarritz and an interview with Serge Blanco and ended at Paris-Nice after a week with Stephen Roche.
Bike racing still excited me. I followed the stage from Nevers to Lyon in one of the team cars and spent the day swapping banter with friends and former team-mates: "Salut Polo!"
"I bet it's easier in there than out here!"
"Are you taking plenty of notes?"
It felt great to be one of the boys again.
An American reporter, Sam Abt, was covering the race for the International Herald Tribune and was interested in my transition from rider to writer. We met for a chat before one of the stages and it was obvious from his report, and its brilliant pay-off line, that I had yet to cut the umbilical cord: "He is still saying 'we'."
Three months later, everything would change with the publication of Rough Ride. I returned to the Tour de France but there was no red carpet. One of my closest friends spat at me; others just turned their backs. I loved the sport and had hoped some truth would do it a service but that's not how they saw it.
The word they used was betrayal.
Last Saturday evening when the game had ended, and Quinlan left the Sky studio in London for a flight to Dublin from Heathrow, he was struck by an irrational urge to glance over his shoulder as he walked through the airport.
Is that you Axel?
Is that you Zeebs?
On Sunday morning he awoke with a column to write for the Irish Independent and felt under siege:
"Embarrassing. Humiliating. Bordering on disgraceful. Strong words and I didn't like using any of them. Yet when Alex Payne, the Sky Sports presenter, asked me to sum up how I felt on Saturday night after watching one of the worst Munster displays of my lifetime, I spoke from the heart.
"There was a way out. I could have trotted out the usual clichés, insincerely suggesting the team will be disappointed with their display, that they'll be hurting. I gave my whole life to that jersey and I'm not saying that those players, or anyone in the Munster set-up, owes me. Nor am I looking for attention.
"What I am looking for is change, for someone to stand up and say: 'Quinlan, you're wrong. We are on the right path. This is what we are doing to make things better.' But if I am wrong then stand in front of me and tell me how. Please."
A day passed. And another. He kept looking over his shoulder. Nobody picked up the phone. Nobody stood in front of him. Should he seek a meeting with Foley and try to explain? Twitter seemed easier. Thanks for all the feedback from my comments on Sat good and bad. It shows that loads of people care. I took no pleasure in what I said.
Brian O'Driscoll saw the bright side: Your stock is going through the roof now mind.
Quinlan wasn't convinced. Not what I wanted kid. I'm in hiding.
Why was he in hiding? What exactly did he want? To be back in that dressing room again with Zebo? To stand and fight with Foley in the trenches? To be one of the boys? Why did it hurt so bad?
He had done his job and called it as he had seen it. He had crossed the line and his transition from player to pundit was complete. He was media now and the training sessions were closed.
But what if deep down he wanted them open? What if deep down he still wanted to go back?
Sunday Indo Sport