Thursday 24 May 2018

'I am one of the lucky ones'

A serious back injury threatened to derail Brian Hurley's career before it took off, as he tells Dermot Crowe

Brian Hurley
Brian Hurley

Dermot Crowe

IN scoring seven points from play against Kerry last Sunday, Brian Hurley revealed his conspicuous talent with a virtuoso performance of finishing off both sides. He is right-footed but that's only to say he started with his right; now he can kick just as well with his left. There is no weak side as many markers have ruefully discovered.

Hurley was introduced to the Cork team for last year's championship, not having featured in the league. In 2010, he was on Brian Cuthbert's minor team that lost the All-Ireland final to Tyrone, before taking his seat to watch the senior team win the Sam Maguire. Paul Kerrigan, who pocketed an All-Ireland medal that day, isn't surprised by Hurley's progress.

"I always knew he would play senior," says Kerrigan. "He is obviously after settling in quite well. I think it was important he played every league game this year, as he did not play any league game last year. He will know himself that it is championship that will test him."

Hurley, 22, is already setting his form in context. "It was great, going down to Tralee and – think it was 21 years since we won in Tralee – but it was just a win. I have no doubt Kerry will be back at the business end of the championship. They are always there or thereabouts. The league is for trying out things and I am sure they were trying out things. It won't be the last of Kerry, that is for sure."

Kerrigan sees Hurley on a different plane because of that rare ability to strike a ball beautifully from distance off either foot. In last year's county final against Kerrigan's Nemo Rangers, Hurley was outrageously good, scoring 0-12, five from play. Castlehaven won by two to retain their title for the first time.

On that score, Hurley credits Seán óg ó hAilpín with invaluable early advice. "I'd say I met him at 10 or 11 and I asked what can you say to me and he said work off both feet and both hands whether it be hurling or football. And what he said to me was kick three times off my left and once off my right. So it stands to me now, you can't be shut down on either side."

But it is one thing being told; he followed it to the letter. Now when he is coaching kids, he delivers the same fundamental lessons. "So when they come to 15 and 16, to a Cork trial, they have two feet. But I worked at it, kicking off the wall at home, three times off the left and once off the right, I kept rotating it. Then I suppose I went into the net behind the goal in Union Hall and I'd say I was about a year trying to get it over it. But I eventually got it over. And I brought it into my training and it just developed into my game. Look it, you might be in front of goals sometimes and mis-hit it at a young age – it takes time. I think at 14 I had it. Now I can take frees and stuff off the ground with my left but it is not going to come overnight. A lot of practice comes into it. But major advice at the time. I'd like to thank Seán óg for that."

This is a rather touching story because it reinforces the connection between the top players and those who look up to them. That connection is paramount. Hurley as a boy was, like many of his age and older, in awe of Seán óg. He didn't speak to him; he wanted to but hadn't the nerve. "I met him at an airport, the first time, and I was too shy to talk to him. I rang my aunt 'cos she knew him and she wanted me to talk to him on the phone and I hung up. He wrote me a letter then. My aunt got him to write me a letter. I think I still have the letter at home."

The advice was contained in the letter. Three times on the left, once on the right. A dozen years on, Cork have a deadly finisher off both feet.

Union Hall is Hurley's home place in West Cork, a small fishing village where he grew up "20 yards" from the local pier. Working in the fishing industry and going out on boats is part of life there, in this part of Castlehaven parish, home to around 1,100 souls.

When they went to the county final last year, and the year before, he remembers all the boats tied at the pier, fishing deferring to football. The lifting of weights and fish crates, he thinks, contributed to a stress fracture of the L4 vertebra that left him sidelined in 2011.

"I am very lucky. I had a stress fracture on my spine which is a pretty serious injury. I was lucky to have good people around me. I had Michael Dempsey in Carlow IT, who is involved with Kilkenny and has a lot of contacts. I was in Waterford a few times. John Cleary had more contacts and Declan O'Sullivan was the physio, he was brilliant. Eanna Falvey was great to me and I ended up with Pat Kiely in Santry.

"I was practically going for surgery – had my bags and stuff with me up there and Pat said, 'No you are too young for an operation' and there would be no more options if I did get the surgery. I worked in rehab for four months, cycling and stretching, stretching, stretching. And then more stretching. I suppose I am one of the lucky ones. I came out a year later. What I am trying to say is look how easy it is when you are not injured to just go out and play.

"When I was trying to play with a back injury, I was only doing damage to myself. I remember playing a club game against O'Donovan Rossa and I couldn't even wash the muck off my knees because there was so much pain in the back. I was benching, trying to act the hard man, really. I was benching big at the time at the age of 17 and everyone was trying to impress and all that and I suppose I got caught up in that. Plus, I was working in a fish factory.

"It was coming and going (back injury), I felt a lot of stiffness in my back. I didn't feel the crack coming, I didn't actually feel it on the day it happened; it was behind muscles and stuff, I got injected a few times. We were involved in the Munster (minor) final against Kerry in 2010 and I went into the Armagh game afterwards and then we played Galway and we lost to Tyrone in the final. I was getting injected in between games, it was my call, I just wanted to play ball at the time."

His visit to Pat Kiely in Santry in late 2010 provided the news he wanted to hear. "I met him again in January when he told me there was no need for surgery because I was doing the exercise and we had seen the progress I was making."

He is asked if the experience frightened him. "I suppose it did because all I wanted to do at that age was to play football and the parents really got scared. It was a serious issue. I played that game against O'Donovan Rossa, there would be big rivalry between the two clubs. Jaysus, the auld fella wouldn't talk for about two weeks afterwards. At the time I didn't take too much notice at all, all I wanted to do was play ball. Looking back now I obviously would have done it a different way."

Cork face Dublin in the Allianz Football League semi-finals today, having already defeated them in Croke Park earlier in the campaign. Cork's football has been widely admired and is notably cavalier compared to recent years. "There has been a freshness around the squad and a freshness around the management. Lads have been given their chances and it has been good to see so many do so well."

Hurley says the younger players are used to playing with each other. "We have our own belief in the camp and we have our ways of going about it. People weren't looking at us as much at the start but now they are. Initially they were saying we wouldn't be around at the end of the year. Now they are saying we could be. Conor Counihan had his way of playing football and Brian has a different approach. It is a different game plan and a rotation of players. New players have come in."

The last match against Dublin is broached as a sign of Cork's rising stature. "We believed in ourselves and we came up for two points and nothing else. We got them and we're happy. We just said we would go for it. Obviously, they're All-Ireland and league champions. It was a good game, it could have went any way but we came out on top in the end. Colm O'Neill kicked two or three massive points, one from the sideline. It's great to have that extra talent in your team; you need these kind of players."

A fishing tragedy off Union Hall that claimed five lives in January 2012 is recounted. "I would have known the skipper. I work in the fish factory and he would have landed in to us. My house is 20 yards from the pier. I woke up that morning at around quarter to seven to a chopper, thinking, 'What's going on here?' There was something about that morning – a dull, dull morning, lashing rain. I said, 'There's something wrong here'. I threw on the clothes, went outside. I'd say I was out the harbour in 10 minutes in one of the lads' trawlers, we went out for a look.

"I took a break off college; I'm a member of the coastguard unit there as well so I was involved for three, four weeks. The whole community pulled together. It affected the community big time. But it made it stronger and stronger. There was a food kitchen set up every day. Every shop, every woman, every man making food for everyone that was coming down. There was a couple of thousand people down there every day. It wasn't easy. There was a fund set up for petrol and diesel for boats.

"You even had the Castlehaven team down there helping, other teams from the surrounding area helping as well. So there was a great response from West Cork. I keep in touch with some of the people from Waterford who lost their family members."

He is asked if this year is too soon for Cork to win an All-Ireland. "Look it, Dublin had a few young lads last year and they were there at the end of the year. No, I wouldn't look at it as an age issue at all. It's how much you want it and how much you are willing to go for it. We have a good mixture, a lot of older fellas and a lot of younger fellas. Our aim is to be kicking ball late September and hopefully we'll be there."

On that upbeat note he concludes, a four and a half hour drive to West Cork ahead of him.

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