Keeping it all in perspective
Michael Meehan is stoical about injuries and Galway's future, writes Dermot Crowe
This afternoon in Tuam Stadium, in a Division 2 match against Westmeath, Michael Meehan is due to line out for his third Allianz League game in succession. If he manages that much it will mean the longest uninterrupted run in three years. There won't be any of the frenzy that greeted his arrival in Tuam ten years ago for his debut against Donegal when, aged 18, he dazzled the audience with 1-4 from play. But his career looked over at one point and he's playing again. That's enough for a small salute and celebration among those who hold pure football dear.
Injuries are indiscriminate and pay no heed to a player's virtue. Meehan had a career largely unscathed up to 2010 and then his troubles began. In the spring, while scoring a goal against Kerry, he twisted a knee, some green and gold figure slammed in from the side at the pivot, and he was carried off before half-time. Most of the time since has been spent trying to recover from one injury or another and compiling a dossier of lost years.
In the 2010 championship against Sligo, he suffered an ankle injury which has proved his greatest burden and imperilled his career. After two operations the medical outlook wasn't bouncy. He went for a second opinion and that merely confirmed what the first had warned. The initial operation removed much of the cartilage floating in his left ankle. The injury is unusual and hard to read or heal.
"I stood on top of (Sligo's) Ross Donovan's foot and really yanked it and damaged ligaments, and cartilage more importantly; there's only a fraction of the cartilage in my ankle left. It gets sore and stiff with exercise. I cannot do all the training the group is doing because if I do it I mightn't be able to tog out again for a week or ten days. But I have been managing for the last ten or 11 months so I have a fair idea what I can and cannot do on it.
"I am not flying but this is as fit as I have been as in terms of being injury-free and physically fit in about three-and-a-half years. I train off my feet, I do bike work, I do pool work, so that allows me to catch up maybe on some of the hard running I am missing.
"Like, it is an arthritic ankle already, there are early signs of arthritis, but a player no matter what injury he has, he is never thinking of 15 years' time, that you are going to be lame, or might need a hip replacement. That is not in the nature of any sportsperson that is actively playing sport at a young age. They (doctors) might put an argument or a situation like that to you but you don't allow it to register. Ah, look it . . . sport has been a huge part of my life and my attitude was as long as I can do something, I'll keep doing it and push it as far as I can. You don't stop because you are told to stop."
At one stage in the early part of his career he seemed to have the world at his feet. Captain of a Hogan Cup-winning team with St Jarlath's in 2002, he helped Galway win the All-Ireland under 21 title the same year while still a Leaving Cert student. A year later, he was on the senior team and carrying on with spellbinding and virtuoso performances.
Success came thick and fast. The same year Caltra won their first county title. In the final against the highly-ranked Killererin they ran amok and he was a central part of champagne football that no team could live with. On from there a tiny place won an All-Ireland, six Meehan brothers involved, five on the team, one the captain. He was the baby of a family of seven, six boys and a girl. And he was the most precocious and talked about.
When he came on board John O'Mahony was still at the helm and the county had won an All-Ireland, the second in three years, only 18 months previously. The headline acts – Joyce, Donnellan, Savage – were still in fashion. The next year O'Mahony left after a thorough beating from a fast-emerging Tyrone in the qualifiers. An era finished there and then.
It is hard to make coherent sense of what has happened to Galway since but his own career suffered in the same despond. There has been change and failure. The county hasn't won a qualifier since then, yet in all but one of those losses the margin was a point. They have gone through managers with relish and lived the lives of quiet desperation, no longer the feted men of the time when he started.
Last weekend they went down feebly in the second half to Louth after a good opening win over Derry. "We were desperate. It was a draw at half-time, the opportunity was there to have a go at it. We showed a lack of aggression. We folded really I suppose. We have been training hard and I don't think it reflects what we have done, but the match day is the true measure. That is where we have to bring what we're doing out. I feel we are working hard but you have to show it on match day."
Where are Galway now? He takes a long pause. "Alan (Mulholland) is in his second year, Joe Bergin and Pádraic Joyce have retired as well, this is the newest and most inexperienced panel going back probably as far as when John O'Mahony took over from Val Daly.
"That brings a certain element of the unknown to it. Pádraic was massive for Galway and Joe as well, but now let someone make a name for himself. That's where I see it. I see it as an opportunity for that to happen. And I know the hard work we are doing. I would be hopeful it will come together. But it is easy talk. I am conscious of that."
With two All-Irelands at under 21 and a minor in the last ten years, Galway is an underachiever in his eyes. They are looking for more bite in the performance today. Promotion from Division 2 is a goal. Then Mayo loom in the first round in Connacht, a home tie that sets the juices flowing.
In his senior years with Galway there have been some sublime Meehan shows and at the halfway point, in the memorable contest with Kerry on a monsoon day in Croke Park in 2008, he reached a height seen too rarely, scoring 0-10. Half of the cache came from play. They seemed set to kick on from there but Kerry won the All-Ireland the following year and Galway stalled. They haven't won Connacht since.
The 2008 season ended with an All-Star year for Meehan and followed a poor 2007 in which they were beaten by Sligo in one of their worst shows in memory. They later exited to Meath in the qualifiers. At the start of that year he lost his sister Mairéad to whom he was closest in age. She died of bone cancer at just 25.
"It was on and off over seven years, she was very ill for the last maybe four months. I suppose we knew at that stage that she wasn't going to recover. She passed away on the 31st of January and there was an overwhelming sense of grief and the support that came on the back of that was phenomenal. The amount of people who attended the funeral or wrote in the aftermath with messages of goodwill, it was very powerful. It was a great help to my parents, great to all of us. But you know even though she was a long time sick you think you would be prepared for life after Mairéad then but it was difficult.
"And I probably didn't think it at the time, you lose a little bit of focus for sport and for everything after it. At the time I probably didn't think I did. You think about it more then and you figure out how amazing she was, she suffered so much and she never complained, during rounds of chemo, it's amazing to think back, she always had a smile on her face. Really took it on the chin. That would have dawned on me over time and I would have learned from her and how she dealt with things like that. And that would have helped when my lesser things, which are only injuries to a sporting career, it helped me put things in perspective to a certain level when I was injured and couldn't play sport and didn't know whether I was going to play again.
"Like you make sport out to be life and death but it is not. There are no guarantees in life of anything. So I feel it gives me the energy and the will to just have a cut at football, whether I play for Galway this year or not or whatever might happen."
If he could change football as it is played now he would like it "more up and down the pitch" but realises that Galway have to adapt and be as aggressive as what is in the field or they won't survive. He is coaching and teaching at Jarlath's, the first year kids, where it is all skill-based and at its most unpolluted. "I am not coaching them to have 14 men behind the ball."
Ten years on, how does he feel now? "You come to training and you are looking around and you are the second oldest at 28, you wonder how it happens, how quickly it happens." Still time hopefully to weave more of his magic.