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'I just wasn't physically able' - Kevin Nolan's long goodbye to the Hill

Now playing club football in Monaghan, All-Ireland winner reveals he fought hard against three auto-immune diseases in effort to keep his Dublin dream alive

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Kevin Nolan, who now plays for Cremartin in Co Monaghan, pictured on the streets of Castleblaney this week. Photo: Frank McGrath

Kevin Nolan, who now plays for Cremartin in Co Monaghan, pictured on the streets of Castleblaney this week. Photo: Frank McGrath

Kevin Nolan, who now plays for Cremartin in Co Monaghan, pictured on the streets of Castleblaney this week. Photo: Frank McGrath

Tonight in Croke Park, Kevin Nolan returns to the scene of his signature triumph - where he chose the perfect day to produce a man of the match performance and a Dublin point for the ages.

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Kevin Nolan lifting the Sam Maguire with Dublin in 2012. Photo: Sportsfile

Kevin Nolan lifting the Sam Maguire with Dublin in 2012. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

It wasn't quite the most iconic point of that 2011 All-Ireland final against Kerry - Stephen Cluxton would deliver that several minutes later.

But it was the most important he would ever score, the equaliser that came in the slipstream of the Kevin McManamon goal that lifted Dublin off their death bed.

"I completely zoned out for a few minutes!" Nolan says in happy reminiscence. "Diarmuid Connolly gave me the ball and I'd say he was expecting it back - but I just said, 'Listen, I'm in position here, I'll take the shot on.'"

That was eight-and-a-half years ago. Nolan is only 31 - several months the junior of Cian O'Sullivan and Mick Fitzsimons, a year younger than Philly McMahon, three fellow defenders each now boasting seven All-Ireland SFC medals.

Their former team-mate has two, one of those earned on the fringes of battle.

What happened?

Nolan's journey from 2011 hero to here - a Dublin fan in Croker, watching his native county in league combat against his adopted Monaghan, when part of him would love to be still out there - is a long and circuitous tale of illness, injury and destiny disrupted.

But he's not bitter. Rather, he's loving his new life in Monaghan - married to Lorna, teaching in Castleblayney, playing club football with Cremartin.

"Jesus, it's lovely," says this relocated southsider. "You look out the window, you see a little lake, you see the football field. It's class."

And even if he occasionally reflects on what might have been with the Dubs, he is quick to clarify: "The way I look at it is it could always be worse."

* * * * *

Nolan has long come to terms with the diagnosis that effectively reshaped his life. Within months of his crowning glory came the bombshell news that he had Type 1 Diabetes.

He never made it a secret. Indeed, he has spoken openly in the past about the challenges this posed as he sought to extend his inter-county career through the first half of the last decade.

But as he chats now, almost five years since he was cut from Jim Gavin's panel before the first leg of the five-in-a-row, you get a graphic picture of just how difficult it was, trying to hang onto the coat-tails of legends in the making.

"I actually have three auto-immune diseases," he explains. "I'm coeliac, I've diabetes and I've an underactive thyroid. Unfortunately, with all three of them, they all have their own impact.

"With diabetes your adrenalin increases and decreases - your blood sugars, as a result, will increase and decrease. If you go too low, you could collapse and go into a diabetic coma. If you go too high, you basically don't have enough insulin in your body.

"The underactive thyroid is about metabolism and energy. So, there'd have been times where my levels were, no lie, they're meant to be between one and four - once or twice they were up around 130, 160.

"I know it's calling out numbers, but my GP would have said to me, 'How are you actually still being able to function on a daily basis if your levels are that high, let alone try to play football?'

Balance

"There were three things I was trying to balance. One of them is tough. Two of them is really tough. Three of them can be very tough - but I just try to be as positive as I can."

The coeliac diagnosis - with its profound dietary ramifications - was revealed just days after the 2011 All-Ireland. Then in December, after he had lost two-and-a-half stone, came the news that he was also a diabetic.

Nolan carried on for another three-and-a-bit seasons, chasing the dream. His form stood up well in 2012, even if Dublin's All-Ireland defence ultimately didn't.

The closest he came to reclaiming a regular berth under Gavin came in 2014. "I was happy enough," he relates. "I played in the league semi-final and the league final against Derry."

But then, in a training session ahead of the Leinster opener against Laois, he collapsed. The cause was subsequently attributed to his medication; he was on too high a dose of Eltroxin, used to treat his thyroid condition.

Nolan was selected for the semi-final against Wexford a few weeks later - "and that was the last game I played with them."

Surgery to correct a bulging disc in his lower back followed at the tail end of 2014, but still he carried on.

"I was back from the operation in February of 2015, I was still training away but never made it onto the field. I was still just trying to catch up with lads who were flying fit," he recalls.

"I spoke with Jim and he said because of the lack of game time, to go back and play with the club.

"I was training with Dublin, never playing with them; and not playing with Kilmacud because you were playing with the county, if you get me."

And that was it. Dublin turned the key on the Drive for Five without him.

* * * * *

His sporting life might have been different in so many ways. Back in 2005, Nolan was a talented teen chasing another dream - his soccer exploits with St Joseph's Boys of Sallynoggin got him trials with Leicester City and Blackburn Rovers.

He was due to head back for a second trial with Leicester, and primed to sign for them, when Dublin minor manager (and future GAA president) John Horan told him he would be starting against Meath in a Leinster league fixture.

"I decided to play that instead," he recounts. "I still played a bit of soccer the following year, but then I was selected for the U-17s International Rules.

"That showed me that the GAA is there for life. Soccer, as soon as you get to 18, they cast you aside … there's not one club that you stay with, whereas with GAA you play underage, you play senior with that team, which was a massive thing for me."

Graduating from underage, he progressed faster than several contemporaries, making his senior Dublin debut under Pillar Caffrey in 2008. There followed the "rude awakening" of chasing Wexford's Red Barry for the first 24 minutes of that year's Leinster final; lesson learned, he set about refining his skills as a defender.

Several years later, by then a freshly minted All-Star wing-back, unexpected illness brought him to another sporting crossroads.

Today there is better education, insulin pumps are in vogue and he professes "more of an understanding about how your body works" compared to 2012, when he had to "learn everything really quickly." Time has also afforded him perspective on what he may have lost, and he's grateful for everything he won beforehand.

"I was lucky enough to be part of amazing teams, whether it be Kilmacud winning a club All-Ireland, DCU winning a Sigerson and Dublin winning an All-Ireland in 2011. And being involved in 2013 and '14," he says.

And yet? While at pains not to sound cocky, he admits: "I'd love to have been able to be at my peak. Because I feel looking at lads, 'Jesus, do you know what, I was just as good as them'."

However, trying to keep pace with Dublin's evolution under Gavin became impossible.

"You look at any of the defenders from No 2 to No 7, and any of them can play anywhere. And you have ten of them on the squad that can get in," he says. "I wasn't at full peak and the way Jim was looking for it, everyone needed to be piping hot, ready to go … it's not as if I wasn't trying, it was just I wasn't physically able."

* * * * *

The next big life change came with his move to Monaghan. Lorna hails from Annyalla, a townland between Castleblayney and Clontibret. They had met while Nolan was studying PE and biology in DCU.

Young teachers faced with that familiar conundrum - house price affordability in the capital - they chose to move back to Lorna's native heath.

Initially, though, his plan was to carry on with Kilmacud. Johnny Magee and Robbie Brennan had taken over as joint-managers for a 2018 season that would stretch all the way to a Leinster club final against Mullinalaghta that December.

"We played a challenge match up on Bray Emmets' astro, it was on the seventh of February 2018," he says, the date imprinted on his brain. "And that night I woke up at six o'clock in the morning in crippling pain, and basically never played again for Crokes."

A second back operation resulted. He resumed training with Crokes that summer; but all that driving was scarcely ideal for someone with a vulnerable back. He looked to train with Cremartin as a means of getting fit to play for Kilmacud.

Transferring

"But the way it was working out, I was training with a club I was never going to play with and I wasn't training with a club that I wanted to play with. So I ended up transferring in September 2018."

And that November, three matches later, Nolan was a Monaghan junior league medallist.

Meanwhile, he got involved in coaching at Monaghan development squad level. Marriage came last April. He is teaching in St Mary's Secondary School, Castleblayney.

"They're a mad footballing county," he says of Monaghan. "They'd run through a brick wall if they could get to a football that way, and the fans feed off that as well. They travel to all of the matches in good numbers. It's a way of life up here. It's a religion."

He loves the community aspect, the number of people you get to know.

But he's not quite ready for total conversion: he will be back in his home city this weekend, back in Croke Park.

Still a Dub?

"Oh Jesus, 100 per cent! Not a hope would I be cheering for Monaghan if they're playing Dublin."

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