Tuesday 16 October 2018

Carlow's St Ledger in it for the love of it

Daniel St Ledger (left) in action against James McCarthy of Dublin last summer. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Daniel St Ledger (left) in action against James McCarthy of Dublin last summer. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

When he started out, Daniel St Ledger couldn't have known how it would go. He just knew he loved football and he was good at it.

His football life started in Clare with Kilrush but he was back east by the time he was a teenager, where he joined the county's under-age set-ups.

When the moment came, Carlow didn't waste any time getting him into the senior team. St Ledger was fresh out of minor when he was picked to face Meath in Croke Park for his debut in 2008.

He can look back and see the great irony of his bow. He explains now that he was "half-used" to playing at HQ by that stage. The previous season he was part of a minor side that had reached the Leinster final and played at the big house twice in a few weeks.

However, after defeat to Meath that day, he'd step out at Croke Park just once more in the following nine seasons, reflecting just how little joy there has been around Carlow football. Visits there, he quickly learned, were precious.

Despite the lack of days in the sun, St Ledger kept toiling in the dark. Don't ask him why but when winter rolled around and the phone rang, there was never a doubt that he'd buckle up and go again for Carlow. He usually did so knowing that not enough in the county felt the same way.

His perseverance has been rewarded and, after 11 years of unbroken service, tomorrow's Division 4 final against Laois sees the 28-year-old play in HQ for just the third time as a senior footballer.

"I never really thought about it a whole lot," he replied, when asked if he ever considered stepping away.

"It was never really an option to stop really. I never had to make a choice.

"If I had to stop in December and say, 'I'm not sure I'm into this', I probably would have stopped and said to myself 'this is too much'.

"Obviously you have had the dark days where you have been feeling pretty bad after a loss but there's never been an occasion where I said I'm pulling the plug on this completely.

Routine

"It gets an awful bad rep playing inter-county but I enjoy that side of it; the routine, the training, the gym and it lends itself to what I'm doing, even with teaching.

"It's the perfect career (teaching) for football, they go really well together. You are getting skills from both and able to apply them in different ways. It's never been a question I have had to ask myself - that's the honest answer."

To get some idea of where St Ledger and Carlow are, you have to go back to where it started. Meath beat Carlow by 20 points on the day of St Ledger's debut, a result which sent them into the Tommy Murphy Cup.

That competition was already on its way out at that stage, with then GAA president Nickey Brennan describing it as "dead in the water" earlier that year. Nonetheless, Carlow and St Ledger played Antrim. When they lost, they packed up and went home for another year.

Since that first season playing in a competition that was already on the scrapheap, it's been easy for Carlow and the rest of the counties who are regular inhabitants of Division 4 to feel like the poor relation.

When asked if they feel cut adrift from the rest of the GAA, St Ledger replied: "100pc, you'd kind of grow accustomed to it.

"An awful lot of the stuff, you'd base it on how much media coverage you'd get but this year was a really good example where the whole fixture list was changed.

"We were meant to play Laois on the last day but they threw in Antrim-Laois a week after and that could have had a significant impact on how the league finished up if we didn't beat Antrim.

"Stuff like that makes you think if it would happen to a Dublin or a Division 1 side or a Division 1 contest?

"We went over to play London in the league and they had all (UK-based) umpires and officials. Stuff like that makes you think how far removed from Croke Park you are. In another division you wouldn't see that stuff.

"The only way you can get over those things is get up the divisions and remove these things from play as much as possible and that's what we have done this year and hopefully will continue to do. It's the kind of thing you have to put up with."

Carlow have changed things for themselves. They beat Wexford last year and caught the eye with a creditable performance against Dublin last summer, but St Ledger admits surprise at just how quickly the worm has turned.

"It definitely was hard, there's no point in saying otherwise," St Ledger explained. "You had low periods getting 10 or 12 lads at training and coming up and getting beat by 15 or 20 points by other Division 4 teams.

"That was frustrating, wondering how you can be so far off.

"We were getting those beatings and those numbers at training two or three years ago so it doesn't take a lifetime for these things to come full circle.

"You have to get the right management involved and the right people and the players buying and you can actually make a change fairly quickly.

"I know I have said in the past that maybe my playing career would be too soon for any meaningful change and I didn't envisage it in my time. You are hoping at some point in time to see a rise in football in the county but I didn't see it come this quickly."

Tomorrow, there's a chance at silverware. If St Ledger and his team-mates get up the steps, it'll be the first medal of any description he'll have won since he won an U-12 West medal with Kilrush.

Then again, St Ledger has only ever been in it for the love of it.

Irish Independent

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