Thursday 19 April 2018

'I finally realised that inter-county hurling is not always about winning medals' - Brian Carroll reflects on a Faithful career

Offaly's struggles made Brian Carroll feel a failure - especially given his illustrious lineage

Brian Carroll: ‘Offaly people are different. Traditionally here the ball does all the work. But we haven’t been at the required level in terms of physical fitness.’ Photo: Tony Gavin
Brian Carroll: ‘Offaly people are different. Traditionally here the ball does all the work. But we haven’t been at the required level in terms of physical fitness.’ Photo: Tony Gavin

Damian Lawlor

Brian Caroll rests easy in the lounge of the County Arms Hotel in Birr, reflecting on a 14-year career with the certainty that he made the right call to retire.

His form had flourished in recent seasons. Eamon Kelly, Offaly's new manager, made a couple of calls to see if Carroll was coming back, but a lot has happened. It was time to close the curtain. 

Playing on teams that were subjected to many beatings takes its toll and Carroll is the first to admit that his returns from the inter-county game are modest. He hit 5-194 in league and championship hurling to become the county's leading scorer of all time. That alone, you'd imagine, should have helped him grace many an honours ceremony.

Instead, the sum of his efforts amounts to two Division 2 NHL titles, four Railway Cup medals and two All Star nominations. For almost 10 years, the perception of failure that haul conveys ate away at him.

Looking back, he reckons he aimed for perfection for too long and it only served to destroy his game. A prodigy of the St Kieran's hurling stronghold in Kilkenny, he also made a big impact during his time at University of Limerick. When he joined the Offaly seniors the future looked bright. A new generation had arrived to hang on the coat-tails of Martin Hanamy, Joe Erritty, Brian Whelahan, Kevin Martin et al. In 2000, Offaly won Leinster minor and under 21 championships. Two years later, they reached an All-Ireland senior quarter-final and in 2004 they made a Leinster final. They had a potent mix of veterans and youngsters like Brendan Murphy, Ger Oakley and Rory Hanniffy. Carroll thought the foundations were sound.

"It obviously didn't work out like I hoped," he sighs. "We made that Leinster final in 2004, but we haven't been there since. We've dropped a fair bit off the pace as well, which is worse. I couldn't get my head around it. For the bones of 10 years I struggled with that. The underachievement. The hammerings. Losing big games. Leaving the '04 provincial final behind us. Lads not getting the best out of themselves, me included. All that burned me for 10 or 11 years. I was always feeling that pressure and it started to affect my moods. It was not a good place to be in. You feel a bit of a failure and that's not what sport is about, nor should it ever be. But that's what followed me home from the dressing room."

Added to that was the pressure, some of it self-inflicted but most of it cast on him by others. With a noble hurling lineage like his, expectation is never far away. Brian's grandfather, Jack, played in goal for Offaly and Leinster, and his late father, Pat, remains one of the most respected and adored hurlers of all time - a key cog in the county winning their first All-Ireland title in 1981 and in helping them land another title four years later. Pat won two All Stars and four Leinster senior medals before sadly passing on March 16, 1986, at just 30 years old, leaving his wife Mary and his two year-old son behind.

Originally, Mary wanted to call him Patrick, but his father wanted Brian to have his own identity. The young lad grew up watching videos of his late father. He knows every puck and clash of the 1981 final. For so long he just wanted to be like his dad. Play corner forward. Win with Offaly. Win All Stars. In an interview in 2004, he said: "I obviously don't have any physical memories of him really, but the videos show he was a great hurler. If I could only achieve half of what he did and if people have half that respect for me, I could retire a happy man. I look at his All-Irelands and All Stars and think: 'Give me one of each. Give me a Leinster, let me win something . . . and let me leave then.'"

Now, however, with the passing of the years, he is more sanguine about that aspect of his life: "Around 2013 I finally began to realise that inter-county hurling is not always about winning medals. It's also about where you come from, what team you are part of. With Kilkenny's dominance in Leinster the challenge to win a provincial title was always going to be huge, and that's the wall we came up against. But there is more to all of this than winning. Some people would call it a defeatist outlook, but I say it's realistic.

"It's about trying to be the best and get the most out of yourself on and off the field. I would have scoffed at all these notions 10 years ago. I would have laughed and said it was all about medals. But the realisation hit home that if you're up against the best and you're doing all you can, well there's something in that too."

He cites last year's league quarter-final against Tipperary as an example. On a windswept day, Offaly hung in there against a team far ahead of them: "We troubled them. Once again we didn't win, but I came off the field in love with hurling again. I had been aiming for perfection, and I was playing even worse for that."

Along the way Carroll tried a "bit of sports psychology". A few sessions with Keith Begley, who trained the Offaly minor footballers last year, gave him a fresher approach. "Just because I didn't have medals, trophies or All Stars didn't mean my career was a failure," he says. "I did the best I could."

That mentality helped him thrive again. He was often a light in the darkness. When Kilkenny hammered Offaly in 2014 it was Carroll who stood up to be counted, scoring 1-10 with only five points from frees. "I was gearing up for that game from the previous October," he says. "I had gone to school with those Kilkenny lads and wanted to challenge myself against them. I felt no pressure, but the end result was horrific, let's not forget that."

It was meant to be a turning point. Just like the 6-28 to 0-15 defeat to the same opposition 10 years earlier. Just like the loss to Laois last year. And so on. There have been many setbacks, controversies, internal disputes, let-downs and dog days. Carroll could easily let fire all around him as he walks off. But he won't do that. Instead, he paints a picture of what needs to happen.

Some years back, Ger Loughnane said that Offaly "were the only team in the modern era where you still see players with fat legs, bellies and arses". Some took offence. Others reasoned that there was truth in it, no matter how blunt the observation was. Carroll has had occasion to call out a few team-mates himself over the years: "I wear my heart on my sleeve and let it out. I say things as they are and sometimes that hasn't sat well. Sometimes it has. But if people are honest with themselves they understand that it's not what I say, it's what they do.

"In the future, all the lads can do is approach every game at full throttle and do the same in life. No half-measures. We invest too much time in hurling not to do it properly. People ask what was the worst loss but they were all the worst. They were never pretty.

"Maybe they will help us turn the corner. Kilkenny walloped us a few times but they can do that to anyone. Losing to Laois was perhaps the eye-opener. That was a big thing - the day that we realised the modern game and its tactics had passed us out. Laois set up like they do and it completely fooled us. We couldn't deal with the seven or eight defensive players, and they attacked us in waves. It was alien to our game, but we need to understand that modern hurling has moved on."

Offaly have always looked to play traditional hurling, but Carroll says they must adapt: "It's getting the basic levels right. In Offaly, a review across the board took place over the winter trying to understand the basic levels that are expected from underage to senior. We have no real financial backing, but I'd love to see us think outside the box. How do we create revenue? Let's not always react to what other counties do - let's be revolutionary in our approach.

"That's what made us unique: when we backed ourselves and believed in our own ability. Picking from a model that Kilkenny or Limerick use won't work for us. We need to base it on our structures, and we must be patient too. We can't be aiming to win an All-Ireland soon. We are not at that level, but if we get competitive then that's a start. Offaly people are different. Traditionally here the ball does all the work. But we haven't been at the required level, in terms of physical fitness, from underage to senior and we need to change that mindset. That process is already starting."

After his debut in 2002, Kevin Martin, whom he replaced in the first half, handed Carroll his jersey and the message was clear: it was time to change the guard. That time has come again. The last link to the 2004 Leinster final is gone, and it was a strong link.

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