Monday 19 November 2018

Cork's comeback kid enjoying his football more than ever

IN 2001 Cork played Galway in the final qualifying round of the football championship at Croke Park. The Tribesmen, on their way to a second All-Ireland triumph in four years, built up a big lead early on and held off a brave second half rally from the Rebels.

There were a couple of bright spots for Cork. A young full-back named Graham Canty exceeded all expectations by outplaying Padraig Joyce, then at his awesome peak. And there was a man of the match performance from 23-year-old right corner-back John Miskella, giving a display which delivered on considerable under-age promise.

It seemed a safe bet that we would be hearing plenty about Messrs Canty and Miskella in the future. Which just goes to show how wrong you can be. Because when John Miskella lined out at right half-back against Louth in the final qualifying round of this year's football championship it was his first start for Cork in six years. His first start in fact since that outstanding display against Galway.

A good showing against Louth was followed by a fine performance in the unfamiliar role of right half-forward against Sligo. Miskella scored the game's turning goal in the 16th minute, finishing powerfully from 15 yards after a high ball had broken into his path, and his direct running troubled Sligo throughout. He seemed keen to pick up where he'd left off at Headquarters.

Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in American lives. The same is usually true of inter-county football and hurling. Once a player drops off the radar for even a couple of seasons he's unlikely to re-emerge. There are a few exceptions and one of them is John Miskella, the Boy Interrupted of Cork football.

It would be nice to find a diplomatic way to deliver the question which immediately springs to mind. But there probably isn't one. John, where have you been? What happened to you?

"I had four operations on my knees and my ankle needs to be done too but it won't be done till I've finished playing. From 1999, every second year I had to have an operation. The longest I was out was seven months, but a lot of my years were taken up with rehab, spending a lot of time in the gym and the pool. I'd spend the close season building up the knee and then when the next season started I'd be tired, instead of jumping out of my skin to play.

"In fairness opportunities never came for me either. Larry Tompkins wanted a different kind of player so it never broke for me. I never got a run of matches, I'd start one and I'd be dropped for the next. It was frustrating, I wouldn't have minded the injuries so much if I hadn't been trying to break into the team."

In the end, Miskella accepted the fact that his chance with Cork had come and gone. Three years ago he retired from inter-county football and was surprised to find how happy the decision made him.

"It was such a relief to give up. I just thought, thank God that's over, I can enjoy a little bit of life. It was a release to give my body a break and enjoy playing club football and hurling. In those three years I chilled out, I got married and I didn't think about playing at that level again."

But, as Michael Corleone found out in Godfather III, sometimes it's not so easy to quit the rackets. Just when you think you've got out, they drag you back in. Not that Miskella needed that much persuading in the end.

"By God, after the first year I really missed it. But I had no intention of going back, I didn't even play club football last year because I had a knee operation so we were knocked out of the championship before I got back to fitness. It was actually Podsie O'Mahony who said if I got called back would I go? I said 'Jesus yeah that'd be good,' so I got called back. I would have been delighted to make the panel because the panel is stronger now than it ever has been in my time. I went back not expecting anything."

This appeared to be a realistic attitude when he didn't even make the subs bench early in the league. But he started the final league game against Limerick and the chance he must have thought would never come arrived in the second half against Kerry in the Munster final in Killarney.

Kerry had just moved six points clear early in the second half when Miskella was thrown in. With the Kingdom seemingly rampant and Cork apparently fading, it was a far from favourable time to get a possible last shot at inter-county football. Yet the decision proved to be a master-stroke on Billy Morgan's part. More than anyone else, it was the replacement, playing at wing-back, who inspired a comeback which came within an ace of giving Cork victory. Cork football fans turned to each other in Fitzgerald Stadium and recalled just how outstanding a prospect their super sub had been. The resurrection had begun.

Noel O'Leary's suspension for digging the boot into Paul Galvin gave Miskella the chance to start against Louth. He played well but was resigned to losing his place when the Cill Na Martra man came back. Morgan, however, plumped for the erstwhile wing-back over specialist attackers such as Fintan Gould, Conor McCarthy and Kevin O'Sullivan. "Billy has shown fantastic faith in me," says Miskella though he admits the new berth takes getting used to.

"I'd prefer to be wing back though I'll take any place I can get. The big difference between wing back and wing forward is that you're looking for space instead of closing down space. But I like coming forward when I play with Ballincollig and Billy thinks I'm comfortable in any middle six position around midfield.

"When you look at wing forwards these days a lot of it is defending because half-backs are always looking to come forward. It's all about working hard because if you lose your man in Croke Park it's probably going to end up as a score. I thought I could have got a couple of points against Sligo as well as the goal so hopefully I'll kick on against Meath."

Meeting John Miskella, it's impossible not to hope that his unlikely renaissance continues. His gratitude for this second chance is obvious and his time away from the game has enabled him to put football into perspective. We had to arrange the interview to fit in with his time looking after four-month-old Danny, the first child who's made this summer an even more special one for the 29-year-old. He is, he feels, a different guy from the kid who shone back in 2001.

"When I was younger football was the be all and end all. I had nothing else to live for, all I wanted to do was make the Cork team and win an All-Ireland. I was foolish, I'd play club games the day after playing county games and take an awful lot out of my body. But these days I'm more sensible, I take a break."

Danny's mother Claire has her own football connections, her brother Niall was one of the best club players in west Cork during a fine career with Skibbereen. Miskella's best friend is also from west Cork, Maurice Moore, a county senior medal winner with Carbery in 2004 and his training partner as he began the long road back towards peak fitness last winter. "Maurice is into all this fitness stuff so he had lots of drills for me. We'd hop in over the fence to the Farm in UCC, use lights from the greyhound track and run hard, doing 100m sprints, a lot of speed work. We were running around in the freezing cold and the pitch dark, it was very enjoyable."

Ballincollig, a rapidly growing satellite town a few miles outside Cork on the way to Macroom, is probably best known to sports fans as the home of Liam Miller and Colin Healy. But it has a decent Gaelic football tradition too. Healy's grandfather, the evocatively nicknamed Paddy 'Hitler' Healy, played on the Cork team which won the 1945 All-Ireland.

Miskella's buddy Podsie O'Mahony played wing forward on the Cork team which lost to Meath in the 1999 final. John was on the bench that day, a kid with a bright future ahead of him. Things didn't quite work out the way he expected them to. But he's not complaining.

"It did slip away as far as I was concerned. I was gone and had no inkling of coming back. But at this level it's all about getting the breaks. I went back to have one last crack at it so I can't help but enjoy it. Everything that happens is a bonus."

Cork fans know what they'll get from their right half-forward, he's one of those players who runs all day, "I depend on my pace. I can't depend on my silken skills because I don't have any." And it was his ability to cover 40 yards in a flash which put him in a position to nail that goal against Sligo.

Then again, making up ground was never going to be a problem for John Miskella. It's what he's been doing all year.

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