‘Eamonn started selling me the fairytale of another year but he was selling the fairytale to a cold fish’
‘I had endured a year of almost relentless physical niggles . . . I felt tired and , if I’m honest, maybe even slightly soft now’
PROLOGUE ‘I wanted people to ask why was I retiring, not why wasn’t I retiring’ — AP McCoy, in ‘Being AP’
In the end, people probably wanted me to be somebody that I could never be. They wanted sentiment. They wanted emotion. Maybe they wanted tears even. But after all these years it seemed they still didn’t quite get me.
That’s what I said to Eamonn Fitzmaurice, sitting in the kitchen of his house in Tralee six days after the All-Ireland Club final. I knew it was time. Eamonn had texted me after that Dr Crokes win, just a single congratulatory sentence. ‘Well done, we’ll catch up soon...’ He needed clarity and, in some respects, maybe I needed it even more than him.
So after a little gentle, dancing-around-the-houses, banter with Tina, we left her with the baby and settled down over two cups of tea. And Eamonn began selling the attractions of another year with Kerry. Telling me how they could tailor my training. How there wouldn’t have to be any flogging of a ageing body. He re-assured me that I was playing well and could still add value to the group. And he suggested that I think about how it might feel, drawing the curtain down on my Kerry career with a September finish in Croker.
Then, finally, the coup de grace. ‘And remember,’ he said, ‘a Dr Crokes man will be captain!’
It seemed the whole world assumed that I’d go another year, but I’d been explaining to Eamonn why my instinct was to walk away. I’d endured another year of almost relentless physical niggles, a shoulder issue after the Corofin game, a stiffening back during the build-up to the final. Right up to that game with Slaughtneil, it seemed I was nursing something, trying endlessly to coax my body to an effort it simply wasn’t happy to make. I felt tired and, if I’m honest, maybe even slightly soft now.
Eamonn, to be fair, was respectful of what he was hearing. He’d seen the s**t days, the head-wrecking days when I was down in the dumps, but trying to put on a brave face so as not to drag others down with me. He knew me too long and too well to recognise when I was putting on a front. More than anything, he recognised that I knew my body’s limits. But as he started selling me the fairytale, I felt a need to tell him something he didn’t seem to know.
That he was selling the fairytale to a cold fish.
Retirements were never an emotional issue for me and this one was going to be no different. ‘Listen,’ I said. ‘I didn’t pick up the phone when Aidan (O’Mahony) or Marc (Ó Sé) retired. Great friends, great team-mates, but that’s not me. The show goes on, no matter who it is that walks away. I might drop them a text a few days later, but that’s all.
‘I was still a Kerry player, they weren’t. F**k it, we move on. They can’t help me get my hands on Sam anymore!’
And I told him it was the same when Darragh (Ó Sé) went, when any of the other big dogs left. There was no RIP stuff from me. No sentimental bulls**t. I said, ‘Listen Eamonn, I didn’t give a f**k about you when you retired!’
He burst out laughing at that.
‘I don’t mean it that way,’ I protested.
And Eamonn goes, ‘I know, I know. But you’re dead right. Listen, if somebody can’t help me win the All-Ireland, I have to move on too!’
I could tell he didn’t want me to leave his house that night with the door completely closed. And after 15 years, that was fair enough. But, deep down, I recognised that the very things he was selling me, the personally-tailored training programme, the indulgences that would probably never be considered for others, the special treatment in other words would – if anything – just amplify all the doubts now splashing around inside my head.
To be hard enough for Championship, I needed to be hard enough in how I prepared. That meant ten more weeks of torture. Did I have the hunger? The appetite? The anger?
No. No. No.
So when I heard Tony McCoy utter that sentence in the TV documentary on his final year’s racing, it was as if he could see inside my head. I was fine with people asking me why I was retiring, but the idea that they’d ever get to the point of wondering why I wasn’t, would have cut me to the core.
I’m a lot of things you see but, above anything, I’m a proud b*****d. I like to think I’ve a good manner with people, but I don’t play this phoney humble Joe stuff either. I know I was good. On my best days, I sometimes felt almost anything was within my powers.
So the idea of being a five- or ten-minute man? Of, maybe, being a non-playing captain? Nope. Not a hope in hell.
I stayed for maybe an hour that Thursday evening and agreed to mull over things for the weekend. But, if I’m honest, my head was already clear.
The only soul-searching I’d done had been with myself and that was for a reason. Because if I allowed any bit of sentiment into the decision, I’d have been back training with Kerry. I knew that.
The following Monday, I made that final call. Came in the door from work, suit still on, and dialled Eamonn’s number.
It’s not the calmest I’ve ever felt in my life, the heart thumping, perspiration running down my back. My head was a blizzard of questions. How would I replace the adrenaline? The buzz? The thrill of playing in front of 80,000 people? Truth is, I don’t suppose I ever will.
All anyone can do is get on with the rest of their life.
Eamonn’s response was calm. ‘Okay,’ he said, ‘I got that sense last week you weren’t for turning...’
Then he started thanking me for my service and I suppose, in the way of a typical Irish male, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with that.
And you know something? Hanging up, all I felt was huge relief.
I’d taken sentiment out of the decision, weighed up everything completely logically, and made the jump.