Wednesday 18 September 2019

A phone call, a game of golf and a couple of days in Davy Fitzgerald's - How Lee Chin rediscovered form

Wexford star admits he lost confidence in 2018 - and had to step away from the 'bubble' to discover why

Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald with Lee Chin
Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald with Lee Chin
Eyes on the ball: Lee Chin in action for Wexford last year when, he readily admits, his form dipped. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

A couple of days after Wexford lost to Galway in their third Leinster round-robin game in successive weeks, Lee Chin left home and pointed his car for east Clare.

His destination was Davy Fitzgerald's house just outside Sixmilebridge, a sanctuary of sorts for a spinning head.

Lee Chin at the launch of the Circle K service stations in Gorey last week. Photo: Naoise Culhane Photography
Lee Chin at the launch of the Circle K service stations in Gorey last week. Photo: Naoise Culhane Photography

The genesis of the trip was a phone call between player and manager in the aftermath of their nine-point defeat to the All-Ireland champions.

Chin had not gone well against Galway, hadn't been going well generally since the latter stages of the 2018 league and was searching for answers, direction even.

Fitzgerald suggested a trip over to him for a few days, away from the hothouse of a county preparing for their final group game against Kilkenny later that week.

There they played a game of golf, talked it over and, in Chin's case, relaxed until it was time to return.

He did so with far more clarity than he had left with earlier that week, an uplift in performance in Nowlan Park on the following Saturday night the product of his refuge out west.

It said much about his state of mind for the game at that time that Chin felt the need to escape the treadmill of week-to-week hurling; but it also showed the personal touch from a manager, to throw open his doors in such a holistic manner, something he wouldn't always be credited for.

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By his own admission, Chin had got himself in too deep to the point where every small error was being magnified to problem status and thus was having an overall impact on his game. Galway brought it all home.

Pastoral

"After the game we had a phone call, he knew I was upset. It was affecting me," recalls Chin. "I told him that I didn't feel I was contributing and I couldn't put my finger on what it is.

"He said, 'I want you to come down to me for a couple of days.' It was something that I said yes to immediately because I felt, 'This is maybe what I need, I need to get out of this environment for the minute'. We had good conversations. It was nice."

That almost pastoral element to Fitzgerald is something, Chin says, they "can't take for granted" in Wexford. When a group of them pulled up in cars outside the same house a few months later to convince him of the players' desire to see him stay on for a third year, they knew what they wanted.

"It's not even what we wanted, we knew what we needed," he recalls now. "In the next year or two we don't know what's going to happen but if we don't try we'll never know. We didn't know what he was at, we knew he was considering taking a break and it was probably selfish of us to put that pressure on him. I think it meant a lot to him when we got down to him that day."

The season had petered out badly for Wexford. The loss to Kilkenny came after spurning a sizeable lead, Chin admitting that the toll of games and training had caught up. When they made their championship exit to Clare in front of a paltry Páirc Uí Chaoimh crowd, it was one of the hurling season's few underwhelming moments. For Chin, the lesson of the season was to be less obsessive about it. Clare for a few days in June gave him a glimpse away from "the bubble" of what he had immersed himself in.

When he headed for Thailand and Australia in early October, meeting up with girlfriend Sarah who had been 'Down Under' for the previous year, there was further perspective.

"I'd class myself as a confident guy in all the right ways but sometimes you can get so caught up in it and wanting to win so much that it can be almost a bad thing," he reflects.

"When I stepped out of the bubble, it put things in perspective again. You're away and you start to realise it's just a game, although I still want to win, I still have that hunger to win but it can bring you back a little."

Trying too hard to replicate the good days and good performances was, ultimately, a source he identified for his dip in form in 2018.

"When you have days like that (Kilkenny in 2017) you just want more and more and it makes you hungrier and hungrier, but some days you can lose why you were performing in those games. I was a bit naive at the time, you don't try and recognise why you did well on a particular day, what you do is get caught up in the atmosphere and the feel-good factor of winning big games. You find, when you go out the next day, that you're searching for that feeling again as opposed to actually going out and getting that performance again.

"Every player suffers this, it's a thing in sport. It could be one game where you didn't perform well in and the next day you try harder and it gets worse, it can be an ongoing thing. Unfortunately, for me it got that way towards the end of the league.

"Then it was a roll of games consistently that I felt I'm not myself in and you kind of lose your way, you start trying harder, you start to try different things which is a good thing, you go searching it. It's all to do with my head more than anything."

Sometimes he felt himself assuming far more responsibility than he should. "And I'd only blame me for that. It wasn't anybody else. It was just expectations I put on myself. It's probably not the best thing to do as a player. You're just there to fulfil a role. That's what everyone is there for."

Chin has approached 2019 in a different frame of mind, even these weeks he's committed to playing club football with Sarsfields, something he had detached from in recent years.

"I found this year that I am enjoying myself a lot more, having a bit of fun, even after games, if you don't actually have the best performance or you know you are not up to scratch some days you're able to let it go a little bit easier. Last year I was holding on to things that were going wrong, even in games, the smallest things. You could miss a ball and I was letting it get to me so much because, as I mentioned, all I wanted to do was win, win, win. Sometimes it's just, 'Hey, these things happen'. And that's just the kind of attitude I have now."

There's a business venture in the pipeline too that will remove the perception of 'full-time' hurler after his admission last year that he wasn't holding down a permanent job to allow more time for his hurling. That drew a reaction with the decorated Kilkenny hurler Jackie Tyrrell suggesting that his slump in form may, in some way, be attributed to lifestyle, stripping some of his edge.

"It was quite funny, kind of being portrayed in the media and other places as being someone sitting at home just waiting to go training or up in the morning going to the gym and maybe going again in the afternoon, that you have so much time on your hands. That's not the way my life has been lived. I honestly wouldn't be able to live my life that way. I'm a very active guy which is what anyone would describe me as. People don't see the things that I would have done throughout my day. They would have heard the word of being full-time hurler and thought, 'All he does throughout the day is sit at home."

"My days were full of doing other stuff. I was at home helping out with the family business. Now, they wouldn't have put too much pressure on me but even the other stuff I was doing, I was on the road to Dublin two or three times a week. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't working a nine-to-five job five days a week but I think it was blown a bit out of proportion with regard to what I was doing in my daily life. Although people always thought it was always about hurling, it wasn't."

For Wexford and Chin, this feels like a defining year of Fitzgerald's tenure. Beating Tipperary in the league completed the set of wins in the last two-and-a-half years over all the established hurling powers but how do they convert that into silverware? They didn't progress as far in the league though he suspects they may have got more out of it in 2019.

"This is our third year and I could see throughout the league that instinctively we are doing things more at our ease now than what we were doing in the previous two," he says. Playing centre-forward or even midfield would give him a better feel for the game he wants to play but Chin accepts others may make more compelling cases for those shirt numbers from game-to-game.

He may well have that freedom of expression in the months ahead but one thing he's sure of is a clearer mind, away from the chains of obsession that wrapped around him in 2018. Lee Chin was speaking at the opening of Circle K's largest service station across its global network on the M11 at Gorey, Co Wexford. The opening of Circle K M11 Gorey will create 40 new jobs and is set to cater for up to 20,000 motorists daily

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