I WAS bowled over by the huge response I received to my article about how my dreams during the Covid-19 lockdown all focused on my own football career.
Today I’m delving into that part of my life again to reflect on what drove me on to have the wonderful career I had.
Let’s be honest, it wasn’t skill. At best, I was average in that department.
Current Kerry captain David Clifford has more skill in his big toe than I had in my entire body.
My faults are almost too numerous to list.
My left foot was so weak I rarely used it. Fielding wasn’t a strong point either. I cannot ever recall soaring highest among a bunch of players and cleanly catching a ball dropping from the clouds.
Being physical or tackling weren’t strong points either.
I was lucky to come on the scene at a time when a bunch of wonderfully talented footballers were starting their careers with Kerry. Better still, we had Mick O’Dwyer, who convinced us that we could achieve anything we wanted.
Basketball legend Michael Jordan once said: 'Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.'
How right he was.
The Kerry team I featured on had the latter two attributes in abundance and the rest is history.
So what made me into the footballer I became?
I could bamboozle you with all the modern buzz-words, like process and intrinsic motivation, or delve into some of the inspirational quotations from the world of business and history.
Apple’s Steve Jobs once said: ‘Sometimes life’s going to hit you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith’, while Christopher Columbus suggested ‘you can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore’.
The truth is more mundane: there is no magic formula or silver bullet out there which is going to secure all your goals.
However, all successful sports stars share three common characteristics: a winning mentality, an insatiable hunger for success and a capacity for hard work. And I had all three in abundance.
Roy Keane always reminded me of what I was like as a player. The Manchester United captain once said:
“People say I’m hard or I’m angry and I’m this and that. I just want to win matches. There is no point in going out there and being Mr Nice Guy.
"The 55,000 who attend games at Old Trafford don’t want fellas going out there thinking: if we lose, so what."
I’m currently watching ‘The Last Dance’, the brilliant documentary on Netflix about the career of Michael Jordan. It’s pure gold. Jordan’s comment – ‘I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying’ – resonates deeply with me.
Former Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson suggested that the hardest thing in life was to work hard every day. "Forget about ability. Strip everything back because if you can work hard every day, in whatever job you do, you can be successful."
Think Irish sport. When Jimmy McGuinness took over Donegal in late 2010 they were the 19th-ranked team in the country. He said they would win an All-Ireland in five years – they won one in two. He drilled his mantra – commit, focus, believe and achieve – into the players. So where did my single-mindedness come from?
Rather than attempt to explain it I will quote you a few lines from Labi Siffre’s hit song ‘Something Inside So Strong’:
‘The higher you build your barriers the taller I become...
‘The farther you take my right away the faster I will run...
‘You can deny me...
‘You can decide to turn your face away...
‘No matter cos there’s something inside so strong I know that I can make it.’
My drive came from within as is does with everybody. So, in practical terms, how did it manifest itself?
As I wrote at the outset I was an average footballer but I trained savagely hard – as hard as anybody ever has in this country.
I wasn’t trying to make myself into the perfect footballer because Shangri-La doesn’t exist – even in Kerry.
Instead, I was like Donald Rumsfeld and tried to ‘control the controllables’.
So I worked specifically at perfecting what I was good at – speed, stamina, solo running and repetitive kicking of the ball over the bar – for at least two hours every day.
Again I quote Michael Jordan :‘You do the work and the results will come. There are no short cuts’.
I detested losing – be it an argument, a game of chess or a football match – and this part of my character has never changed, as my family will attest.
I was obsessive about sleep during my career, getting at least 12 hours a day thanks to the indulgence of my mother. During the summer holidays, for example, I would go to bed around midnight, but I never got up before noon the next day.
Before every big match I closed my eyes for 20 minutes and imagined what would happen during the game.
I thought about winning every ball, dummying to the left and kicking the ball over the bar with my right foot.
Nowadays sports psychologists call it visualisation. I was doing it 40 years before it had a name.
Each year, regardless of whether or not Kerry had won the All-Ireland, I raised the bar in terms of my own personal ambitions – be it to catch more high balls or score more.
I was always good at parking games, regardless of how I played or whether we won or lost. I was never into post-mortems and never held grudges. I just didn’t look back.
By the Tuesday after an All-Ireland final I was already looking forward to next year.
Even though I played in 10 All-Ireland finals I don’t think I ever slept a wink the night before any of them. Had I done so, I would have been worried that I was too relaxed. I needed a certain amount of nervous energy to perform at my best.
The culture of Kerry football cannot be underestimated in terms of how it moulded my career. There has always been a tradition of demanding high standards and success from Kerry teams. We don’t celebrate moral victories.
And irrespective of how many All-Ireland medals a player has in their back pocket, in the fans’ eyes he is only as good as his last game. There is never a chance of resting on your laurels.
Being an exceptionally positive person helped me enormously. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, Micko instilled that belief into us. It was something the whole team carried with them, both on and off the field for the rest of our lives.
My glass is always half-full and before games I always believed I would win the duel with my direct opponent.
And no matter how bad things were on the field, or in my personal life, I could always put a positive spin on things.
Take newspaper articles, for example, which I always religiously perused before big games. When I read an article praising me, it always spurred me on to prove the author was correct.
On the other hand, if the article was critical it would drive me on more, as I wanted to show the author he (it was always a he in those days) was wrong.
Unquestionably, the turning point of my career came in the wake of rupturing my cruciate ligament, shortly before the 1981 All-Ireland final.
Virtually every specialist I went to told me that I would never play again. I set out to prove them wrong.
The months after I had what was then regarded as revolutionary surgery to repair the knee was the toughest period of my sporting life.
As every injured player knows, once sidelined you are quickly abandoned by team-mates and the team management.
Ultimately, it is a personal battle to get back.
I trained harder than I ever did before, even though I didn’t know whether I would ever play again.
Occasionally, when I was running 40 laps of a ploughed field with 10lb weights strapped to my ankles, the monkey on my shoulder would suggest I was wasting my time. But I was able to banish those thoughts from my head.
I became a more focused, harder and single-minded individual after the injury. I trained 12 times a week and rested on a Sunday.
It all paid off – though it took me more than 18 months to get back to my best.
My message to today’s footballers is very simple. The team management, the psychologist, the strength-and-conditioning coach, the dietician and everybody else around are ultimately just props.
Everything has to come from within as was so movingly put by Dale Wimbrow in his famous poem ‘The Man in the Glass’.
The last four lines are worth committing to memory:
‘You can fool the whole world down the pathway of years,
‘And get pats on the back as you pass,
‘But your final reward will be heartaches and tears
‘If you’ve cheated the guy in the glass’.