Friday 24 November 2017

Fairytale title sees wheel turn full circle for Gaels and Regan

Last week brought joy and nostalgia for Colin Regan, writes John O'Brien

YOU remember that bone-jarringly cold winter of 2010-2011? Colin Regan still shivers at the memory. He was laid up at home, his knee racked by chronic tendinitis, unable to work or drive, a virtual prisoner in his own home. Told he'd never be able to play football again. "I felt like an old man," he winces now. "Wondering if I'd ever be able to walk again."

Inside he knew, though. He didn't shout it from the rooftops or take out an ad in the Leitrim Observer. But he knew. Despite the bracing pain, he knew he'd walk again and he knew he'd lace up his football boots once more. He was 35, but he wasn't ready to go yet. He'd always had this thing about leaving football only when it felt right to do so. Call it quits with the game on his own terms.

While it was playing for Melvin Gaels that Regan had ruptured two knee ligaments, it was Melvin Gaels who would help him get healthy again. The year he was laid low, the club had suffered relegation to intermediate, but they bounced straight back up, playing good football, the team infused with youth again. A county title didn't seem beyond the bounds of possibility. Regan sensed a fairytale ending and wanted part of it.

So he had what any stricken athlete yearns for: a target. All the punishing gym sessions, the relentless pounding along Sandymount Strand, it all dripped with purpose. In the spring, he stepped gingerly onto the field for his first league match in two years. A stray fist propelled one of his lower teeth out through his upper lip. The stinging pain felt raw and almost welcome. He was back where he wanted to be.

The cause wasn't his alone, though. He thinks back 12 months. As part of his new job heading up the GAA's substance abuse awareness programme, Regan devised an initiative asking people to give up drink for the month of January and asked his team-mates whether they'd accept the challenge. To a man they signed up.

Then they came together to clear a patch of scrubland behind the community centre in Kinlough to create a new training area. One player brought a digger to clear the site, another his welding gear to build an exercise unit and so on. It wasn't Carton House, but it helped spare the main field and it suggested what they could achieve when they came together as a team, a lesson they carried onto the pitch.

And so the year passed and the fairytale unfolded. Regan made it onto the field for the second half of their semi-final rout of Aughawillan and for the last 15 minutes of their emotional triumph over neighbours, Glencar/Manorhamilton, seeking an historic fifth title in succession, in Carrick-on-Shannon last Sunday.

How sweet was it? As sweet as these things get. Regan sees no need to exaggerate their circumstances. Kinlough's population mushroomed during the boom years and he reckons that will see the Gaels through the tough years to come. In the times we live in, though, the sheer joy of these occasions is inevitably tinged with nostalgia. Sunday evening in north Leitrim was no different. "When I picked up my phone after the game," says Regan, "I saw texts from everywhere: London, Australia, Canada, New York. One guy listened to every kick on Ocean FM. Others followed it on Twitter."

One of his nephews, home from Australia, had rattled off the names of 27 people from the Kinlough area based in Perth, several Regan recognised as guys who could have been part of a county-winning squad.

So it goes. Three of the squad, including goalscorer James McGuinness, will hit the emigrants' trail now and won't be around when they take on the Roscommon champions in two weeks. A bank holiday weekend!

When the euphoria of last Sunday had died down, a thought struck him. It was almost 20 years to the week since he'd won his first senior medal with the Gaels and in 1998, when they'd last been county champions, they'd scored 2-7 in the final, just like they did last Sunday. At the end of a fruitful, satisfying career, that sense of symmetry felt neat and poetic.

And if the end is drawing near, there'll be no sense of loss or sadness about it. He'll be leaving on his own terms now, a choice of his own making. What more could an ageing footballer ask for?

Sunday Indo Sport

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