Paul Flynn never forgets to count the blessings that made him the player he is
'Even after winning an All-Ireland or even after winning my fourth All Star, you can always improve,' says the Dublin forward. 'The way I look at it you have to take yourself out of your comfort zone'
In 2007 Paul Flynn lined out in the middle of the field for the under 21s beaten by Meath in the Leinster Championship at Parnell Park. "I didn't play that well," he admits now, "but I hit a man a serious shoulder and it was underneath the stand and I think the senior selectors were there at the time." The hit only matters in hindsight. They saw enough in it to warrant another look.
One of those present was Kieran Duff who, being from Fingallians, knew Flynn better than most. The invitation to join the senior training panel that followed came with no promises. Flynn wasn't a stand-out player, by his own admission, but he had a willingness to graft. Those virtues were there from the start and were only a start; they could never be enough. The transformation from those modest beginnings to a four-time All-Star exceeded all expectations.
His first All-Star in 2011 ended the season in which he went from being a good player to one of the best half-forwards in the country. The previous year he started against Wexford and Meath in the Leinster Championship but was taken off at half-time in the qualifier match against Tipperary, and was on the bench for Dublin's last four games, culminating in the All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Cork. The next year he was one of their best and arguably their most improved.
"Even in his first year with Dublin he was very nervous, afraid to make mistakes," says Niall Moyna, who worked with Flynn at DCU and also when part of the Dublin backroom team when they won the 2011 All-Ireland. "A player like that can try too hard. Pat (Gilroy), first of all, believed in him, and then Mickey (Whelan) would have known him through DCU, Mickey would have taught him. I think that had a profound effect."
How did it happen? "Mickey was an influence, as was Pat, on my development as a player," says Flynn (below). "I mean, I was very much a raw talent at that time, very much heart, determination, ball-winning ability, good work rate, and they saw that if I could develop my skills well then you have got the full package as such. They spent a lot of time with me on that aspect of it. Pat brought us our first All-Ireland but he did more than that for me. Even around the mindset of the game Pat had a massive influence on my development there."
How? "I think it takes a few years. When you are into your late 20s, which I'm at now, you realise, you know what works, you are always getting some bit better with your skills but when it comes to your mindset you know how to approach every game, you can trade off your experience in that regard. Like, I have been there before, I know what works for me. So, look, Pat gave me the framework to help me identify what worked for me."
Their trust paid off; he became a vastly improved footballer. His left foot was the weaker of the two but that is not to say his right was perfect. "There were times I could hardly kick the ball with my right foot, never mind my left foot. And I have no qualms saying that at all. Like, I was always a strong passer of the ball. Even at that still there was room for improvement. There are players who are good at shooting. I was identified with passing and Mickey said if I can develop this side (shooting) then you are much more rounded. So it came down to practice; personally going out with a bag of balls and practising."
He was never shy of work. He practised assiduously. "I'd go to DCU, I'd go to Fingallians. Any gate that was open that had a (field with) goalposts I'd go and kick a ball. In the initial stages I remember Pat would come along, maybe he might bring Bernard Brogan, and we'd all work together. You are watching Bernard kick. So you get the chance to see what his strike is like, he is watching yours, you are working with two guys you trust who are only interested in you getting better."
The work started to pay dividends for Flynn and for Dublin in 2011. From having been in and out of teams he nailed down a permanent position and started contributing on the scoreboard. But most of his value came from contributions which were essentially about claiming possession and using the ball effectively.
"In 2011, I had my highest score ever. But it wasn't really strong that year, (I was) averaging maybe one or two points a game, then I kept working on it, never stopped, working on right and left, then when you have the strike right it is about developing it. My first goal for Dublin was with my left (in the National League against Westmeath in February, 2008). It wasn't that I couldn't kick with my left. I am talking about being confident enough to kick or players knowing what your strong foot is. So if players put me on my left foot there is no issue there; that does take time."
His decision to go to college later than most involved some risk and reflected his natural ambition. He started a course in DCU in 2009 and spent four years there, twice winning the Sigerson Cup. In the 2012 final he was man of the match and by then a more complete player. "I suppose coming to DCU he found something he really, really enjoyed, the PE and biology degree," says Moyna. "I think for the first time he found something that really excited him. It allowed him focus because he was in a very, very happy place."
Moyna says Flynn and Michael Murphy, who roomed together and were class-mates throughout, were "inseparable" and they rubbed off positively on one another. "Michael certainly learned to study from Paul," says Moyna. "Paul was a perfectionist, finished top three in his class. Paul probably maximises everything he has and I would say the same academically; he squeezed every ounce. He could not have done any more."
Flynn believes he would not have been the player he is now had he not been through DCU. "I was looking around and every lad on the team had a degree or gone to college and I said, 'I want to go to college,' (as) when I left school it probably wasn't financially feasible. But then the opportunity came. I was lucky to get a scholarship programme and it was a really important four years in the context of my football career too. It gave me the access and exposure to the best sport science and methods of training, training with great teams and coaches in DCU which allowed me develop my own game."
You wouldn't have been the same player otherwise? "No. I think I could have been a good player. But I don't think I would have reached the heights I did. You are involved with the cream of the crop, from all over the country, and Dublin; I suppose that kind of exposure can only make you a better player. I suppose I was always very driven, to be the best I could be.
"Even after winning an All-Ireland or even after winning my fourth All-Star, you can always improve. The way I look at it you have to take yourself out of your comfort zone. In college I remember myself and Michael Murphy, we would go out, we mightn't be training, we would kick ball for a couple of hours, off our right, off our left, just getting it right; that is bringing on your game. He was a better striker of a ball than I was. I was always picking up things from him. You have to be able to open your mind to learn different things every year you go into training.
"You might be forcing shots off your left foot, you might be lifting your head a little on your left, you might be losing balance and not striking it at the right time and like, you know, if you are constantly kicking ball back and forth, there are small things you can see and learn.
"It is not even just football. Not even just football skill. I studied really hard there, and finished with first-class honours, and people sometimes think that when you go to DCU you just go to play football. That's not the way it is. The point I am making is you are in an arena, an environment, where you are able to train as hard as you want to train. You can recover from training. But also you can reach your academic potential as well. I think both go hand-in-hand."
Was it a life-changing experience for you? "Big time. I went in at a time when I was quite focused. I said: 'I want to get a degree here'. Sometimes people come straight out of school and there's, like, you know, maybe they are a bit more relaxed in their approach. They've had a tough few years doing the Leaving Cert, and they feel like relaxing a bit."
Having spent a short time teaching, Flynn decided that was not the career he wanted to pursue. After a two-year spell in human resources at Aer Lingus he joined Lincoln Recruitment Specialists as Business Development Manager. He has also been an ambassador for Pieta House, having lost a friend to suicide in 2012. His pre-match routine includes a visit to his grave and that of another friend, who died from cancer at 18.
"The reason I started doing that was to realise it is only a game of football. Now obviously I give it everything and all of that but when it comes to it, it is only a game of football. It's funny, it's weird, I'm not a spiritual person, I don't go to Mass every week, but it has just become something that I feel settles me to a degree. But then you are saying it is actually a very good thing to do as well, you are not forgetting about them."
Those experiences have naturally left an imprint. "They make you realise how lucky you can be. Some people suffer mental and physical illness, and when you see the devastation you have to look at yourself and say, 'I am lucky, things are going well for me'. It's (his work with Pieta) about trying to let people know there are outlets there to help, that's why I got involved in it. Things like that definitely make you realise if you do get an opportunity in life you take it, and give it everything you have."
Born in Swords, the youngest of eight, Flynn's father is from Ballyboughal in north county Dublin and played for the team as a goalkeeper. Football was always part of life. Flynn's late grandmother, Kitty, was an avid follower who died only a week before he played his first match for Dublin in 2008. "There was a (St) Maur's/Ballyboughal game on one day in the rain," he says, "and she was shoving the umbrella through the railings, poking some of the Maur's lads, she was renowned for that."
He demonstrated his finishing talents in last year's All-Ireland semi-final when Donegal stood off in the first 20 minutes and he chalked up four points, a brilliant demonstration of clinical shooting. This season he hasn't been in the same form and his radar was notably off in the Leinster final against Westmeath, but injury in the earlier part of the year may have been a factor in blunting his edge. At 29 he still sees room for improvement and a few more years turning out for Dublin.
"Our training is very, very competitive. There is not a day you can go training and think it is going to be handy. If there is that day you know you are going to get eaten up by whoever is marking you. The talent we have (in the squad) is phenomenal. And it is down to hard work and preparation, lads looking after themselves and always wanting to get better. We have a good culture like that, wanting to improve."
The thrill of playing never fades. "I have been a Dublin fan since I have been able to walk and I never lost that. My family are Dublin supporters, I am from north county Dublin where GAA is a big part of your life. Every day I play for Dublin I enjoy it, I feel it is a privilege, which it is. Like, obviously you work hard to get where you are, but some players work extremely hard and sometimes just don't make it. So anyone who does make it needs to realise how lucky they are. And that's true for every county player across the country."
It is doubtful if many have worked harder.
The Flynn File
Senior Debut: Came on as a substitute for Philly McMahon in O'Byrne Cup first round win over Wicklow at Parnell Park in January 2008.
National League Debut: Played in opening round Division 2 game against Westmeath the following month, also in Parnell Park, scoring a goal. Only three players from that day are still involved.
Championship Debut: Started Leinster Championship semi-final in 2008 against Westmeath; taken off at half-time.
On the Up: In 2009 he started all three Leinster Championship matches, scoring one point in a 4-26 to 0-11 rout of Westmeath in the semi-final. He also played in the All-Ireland quarter-final when Kerry won by 17 points.
On the Down: In 2010 he lost his place when Dublin played Tipperary in the All-Ireland qualifiers and never regained it, David Henry being preferred for the last four championship games.
Famous Exit: His substitution in the 2011 All-Ireland final (still suffering from a Grade 2 hamstring tear picked up in the semi-final win over Donegal) paved the way for Kevin McManamon's introduction and the goal that swung the match, and title, Dublin's way.
All-Star Fame: Only two players from Dublin have won more than Flynn's four All-Star awards: Stephen Cluxton and John O'Leary, both with five.
Underage Pickings: Flynn had little success as a Dublin player before senior. He was on the minor team beaten by Wexford in the 2004 Leinster semi-final, and lasted only one day at under 21, when Dublin lost to Meath in the first round in 2007.
College Life: At DCU he formed close friendships with Cork's Aidan Walsh and Donegal's Michael Murphy. He enjoyed success over Murphy in the All-Ireland semi-final in 2011, but lost to Murphy's Donegal in the semi-final last year.
Honours Won: 2 All-Irelands; 5 Leinsters; 2 National Leagues; 4 All-Stars; 2 Sigerson Cups.
Paul Flynn is an Avonmore Protein Milk ambassador. Part of the proceeds from the sales of each milk carton are contributed towards the GPA's Player Development Fund. For more information, visit www.beready.ie
Sunday Indo Sport