Friday 23 March 2018

Dublin's forgotten man: How a run of bad luck forced 2011 All Ireland man-of-the-match off the radar

Kevin Nolan has slipped quietly away from inter-county football

Kevin Nolan, Dublin, celebrates with supporters following his side's victory in 2011
Kevin Nolan, Dublin, celebrates with supporters following his side's victory in 2011
Dublin’s Kevin Nolan in action against Andy Moran of Mayo during the NFL encounter at Croke Park in 2014. Picture: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Croke Park was still reverberating to the impact of Kevin McManamon's goal in the home straight of the 2011 All-Ireland final when Kevin Nolan pushed up to create a little aftershock of his own, a booming point from over 50 metres bringing parity when the din of excitement from what had happened seconds earlier was still palpable.

In the fog of McManamon's goal and Stephen Cluxton's dramatic winner, it is often forgotten how many other clutch scores there were in those frantic passages of play.

Kevin Nolan lifting the Sam Maguire trophy back in 2013 Picture: Sportsfile
Kevin Nolan lifting the Sam Maguire trophy back in 2013 Picture: Sportsfile

For Nolan, it was his first ever championship point and a signature moment of an inter-county career that promised so much, still delivered plenty but fell short of where it might once have been headed.

Then 23, he was named man of the match. He couldn't have known it then of course the bulk of his time with Dublin was done by then as a volley of blows that came his way in the years after eventually eroded his sustainability to remain an inter-county player at the highest level.

Diagnosed as a coeliac in the days after that 2011 win, it was compounded two months later by further diagnosis of a type one diabetes condition that now sees him regularly injecting himself up to six times a day into the abdomen.

Further problems accumulated. In late 2014 he was forced to take six weeks off work to recover from back surgery to repair a bulging disc that left him walking with discomfort.

When Jim Gavin met him and informed him after the 2015 league that there was no longer a place on the squad for him, it had been almost 10 months since his previous start against Wexford in a Leinster semi-final, his only championship start for the current management.

So he slipped away quietly, very much a forgotten man of Dublin football.

At the time it hurt, a tough end after two-and-a-half years wandering on the periphery. Even now there is a sense of frustration that there weren't a few earlier signposts on the road from management to point him in the direction he was ultimately heading.

"Jim spoke to me, he said I wasn't part of the plans. During his time I would have had the advice to, 'Keep going, keep doing all that work.' But again I think they could have been more precise.

"Things might have been said just to keep you happy, 'You're doing really well, you'll get a look in,' that was happening constantly but there was never really anything to back it up," he reflected.

In hindsight, he was always playing catch-up. Despite the diagnosis, he had a strong 2012, his best season in his own estimation, but a short break at the beginning of 2013 put him in the slipstream of others and he never recovered the ground.

His style of football, he senses, might not have fitted either. "I'd like a kick pass. Maybe the game being a bit more defensive and with not enough space in the forwards, there's not enough kicking into the forwards," he reflected.

"There's a bit more running the ball and putting it through the hands so maybe my game wasn't fully suited for the game-plan Jim wanted and looking at it, he wants lads getting up and down the field and he obviously saw that I wasn't able to do that."

In releasing him Gavin may well have done him a favour however. "I was training Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday we'd have a match and if you didn't play you do a running session on the Sunday morning. So ultimately I was training to train. I wasn't getting game time. I was putting in time but I wasn't playing. There's only so much you can do of that.

"There are people in sport be happy to associate themselves with being a county player. I just felt that it was having a negative impact on me."

Yet the privilege of playing for Dublin is something he would still jump at the "chance to get all over again," he insists.

Paul Caffrey gave him a 2008 introduction, starting him in the 2008 Leinster final against Wexford when he thought he was there to 'make up the numbers'.

But an early yellow card prompted a 21st-minute withdrawal and it was two years, under Pat Gilroy, before he was able to make him mark again.

In the meantime he accumulated some big honours, an All-Ireland club title with Kilmacud Crokes, a Sigerson Cup with DCU, his disciplined man-marking a stand-out feature in both campaigns. Gilroy saw him as a holding half-back and he thrived, all too briefly though.

The upshot of being let go when he was, however, was an ability to see another way of life other than football. He spent the past two summers in New York and learned to appreciate being off an inter-county treadmill. Thus he can understand why his Kilmacud Crokes club-mate Rory O'Carroll and Jack McCaffrey chose their paths this year.

"I was so driven, so focused on football and college. My social life would have been minimal because of the effort I was putting in.

"It was a privilege to play with Dublin but being out has opened up my eyes to other things apart from sport. I'm not getting any younger, I do see other areas of life that need to be satisfied, relationships, family, friends. I was just focused so much on the sport. It wouldn't be a regret."

Nolan admits that being diagnosed as diabetic, on top of a coeliac condition was "tough" but he always sought to be positive about it, to manage it. And for that first season in 2012 he did.

"It's not impossible, if you prepare well. I just saw the insulin like my boots and a gumshield, I have to get it ready."

But the dangers were never lost on him. "You come in from Croke Park, you're there trying to talk to the lads, trying to get yourself relaxed and at times you're nearly checking the bloods just to make sure the sugar is right because at the back of your mind... I wouldn't have minded collapsing during a training session because it is behind closed doors but I would have had a bit of a fear that if I'm up for a game here and it affects the sugars and something was to happen in Croke Park and you're in front of other people, parents, girlfriend. If things happened it could have been distressing for them as well as the players. It's a challenge but nothing that's not doable."

The diabetes, he has been told, could have been triggered by a reaction to the 2011 win and the celebrations that went with it.

"I don't drink or smoke but the fact that we won in 2011 my body may have reacted to that and kicked off the diabetes. That's been said to me."

He'll watch with interest today knowing that many of his former colleagues acknowledge how poorly they played the last day.

"I just hope the real Dublin that I know can turn up, does turn up. Mayo have a serious team as well, but there is belief with Dublin. I know they know they can do better."

Irish Independent

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