Colin Ryan typed the letters y-e-s into his phone and felt a rush of emotion. Happiness, sadness, relief, excitement and anticipation. A friend had just invited him to his stag do in February and for the first time in ten years, he was in a position to attend such an event at that time of year.
For the last decade, Ryan has been fully committed to hurling; for him, February usually means it is National League time. But not this year: the 28-year-old has other plans. He's decided to take a break from the game that has ruled his life since 2007, an extended one which could ultimately end up being a complete one.
There are many reasons for Ryan's decision: he's an all or nothing kind of guy. He wants to give 100 per cent to Clare hurling and unless he can do that, he feels the cause would be better served without him. Over the years, he's missed countless weddings, stag nights, weekends away and family occasions. There's always been a training session, a match, a camp or just a ban on social occasions that has prevented from enjoying so many special days.
Of course, people keep telling him that there will be plenty of time for those kinds of things in the future. However, he's not so sure about that. He's watched life pass him by while he's waited for the ball to be thrown in, but he's decided that this year, he wants to live in the now.
Taking a step back probably rests a bit easier with a Celtic Cross in your back pocket, but all the same, it was a decision that wasn't made rashly.
Ryan first voiced his thoughts last summer, shared them with his wife, Louise, and when he said "I don't think I'm really enjoying this anymore", a weight lifted off his shoulders. He knew he'd reached a crossroads and had to face what he was struggling with. "It's almost easier to get into it than it is to get out of it," he jokes.
Soccer helped him see things clearer; he committed to Newmarket Celtic, his local club, after Clare exited the Championship in 2016. Ryan is one those athletes gifted at all sports. He went to England as a teenager and had trials. The club that came calling was Portsmouth; after a successful first trial they wanted to have a second look at him, but their attempts to lure him back were futile. He was hooked on the small ball and no big promises could break the spell that hurling had put on him.
Back then, the game was different. Ryan played six years of under 21 championship with Newmarket-on-Fergus and no one batted an eyelid. The word 'burnout' was never uttered and he never felt that he was overexerting himself despite regularly training twice a day.
In those days, players turned up to the pitch ten minutes before training started, hurled for an hour and then went home. Fast forward ten years and it couldn't be any more different. With Clare, he arrives at a session 40 minutes early to practise frees, they will train for over an hour and then stay back after for meetings. When they are not on the pitch, they are in the gym. It's all consuming, mentally and physically.
Ryan has also committed to the Clare league's Oscar Traynor soccer team. Before Christmas, they won all three of their group games and now a quarter-final tie looms at the end of the month. So the games will come thick and fast for Ryan and that's the way he likes it. "There is no three-month build-up and three week post-mortem; when the game is over, we know we have another one the following week, so win or lose, we move on quickly," he says.
He'll hurl with Newmarket, too; in fact, he feels he owes them some time. They've always been there for him, a constant support and he's looking forward to giving back.
He has discussed his predicament with many trusted friends and colleagues; the new Clare managers, Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor, were top of his list. He felt he needed to explain to them how he was feeling and talk it through. They accepted his decision and haven't closed the door on a return. However, when the League is over, the landscape could look completely different for both parties.
His team-mates have been a good sounding board, too; they understand how he feels. His close confidante, Brendan Bugler, said "sure no one enjoys training in November or December", but he didn't put any pressure on him to play.
He spoke to his old manager, Davy Fitzgerald, last week. The two have always been close and Ryan feels he is a better player because of what the new Wexford boss taught him. In 2012, when the former Clare goalkeeper took the reins, he highlighted areas of Ryan's game that needed improving and then worked with him to make that happen.
Coaching to that level was something that Ryan hadn't experienced in a long time. His game improved significantly. By the end of that year, Ryan's club had won the county title and by the following September, the Liam MacCarthy Cup was residing back in the Banner.
Unfortunately, the good times didn't last and there was no repeat of the 2013 success. The team faced harsh criticism for the defensive style of play that became their signature. Hindsight can give great clarity and Ryan thinks that while at times it was necessary, it didn't have to feature in every game. "I think different horses for different courses," he says. "Definitely, there were some forward lines out there who were in form, ones that you might have needed to consider it for. But it's hard to think it was needed for every game. If you ask every player, I'd say they would prefer to lose a shootout 5-16 to 2-21 than to lose a game 13 points to 12."
He feels that the Clare players should have been more proactive on the field. That perhaps their biggest issue was that they should have been able react better to what was unfolding during the match, to take the game by the scruff of the neck and change the outcome. But that's easier said than done when you are training to systems and you have a responsibility to the team to do what you are supposed to.
Ryan has the utmost respect for Fitzgerald and what he has done for Clare. He knows he will never go public about his players in the way that Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly did with Mayo a few weeks ago. It would never be the Clare man's style to criticise his teams, past or present. He will always have their backs and Ryan feels he deserves great credit for that.
Although there has been no criticism of the players from Fitzgerald, his father Pat didn't take the same approach. In his county secretary report to Clare's annual convention, he firmly laid the blame for the poor year at the feet of the men who wore the saffron and blue, stating that certain players needed to analyse their own performance and commitment over recent years.
"I think Pat was sticking up for Davy - he's still his father - but I didn't think there was a place for those comments in a secretary's report," says Ryan. "I didn't think it was the forum for them. If someone had asked Pat his opinion of that outside of the forum and outside of being secretary of Clare hurling, he could have very easily have said that. But I don't think it was the place for it, in the record books in a secretary's report."
Ryan knows his own mind and is not afraid to say what he thinks. Maybe on June 4, when Clare take on Limerick in the Munster semi-final at Semple Stadium, we'll see him bending over the sliotar to strike a free, if not he'll be there in the stand wishing the best for the team. He's been a true servant of the county and one who deserves to do what's right for him. Fortune favours the brave.
Sunday Indo Sport