Saturday 24 March 2018

'It was tougher on my family than it was on me' - Cork star Cahalane opens up on online abuse

Damien Cahalane has made the Cork No 3 jersey his own this year - and silenced the online snipers

Damien Cahalane: ‘You know every day you’re going to be under pressure so you have to put yourself to the pin of your collar in training’ Photo: Eoin Noonan/Sportsfile
Damien Cahalane: ‘You know every day you’re going to be under pressure so you have to put yourself to the pin of your collar in training’ Photo: Eoin Noonan/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

Everyone has that run on the tip of their tongue. After the newspaper men have concluded interviewing Damien Cahalane, where it was the opening question, he sits at another table with some radio journalists and the first query is about the run too.

So he is back, in mind at least, in the Munster final. Injury time with Clare pressing for a winning goal, all the momentum behind them, and the ball flitting dangerously around the Cork goal. When out of the dust and fury comes Cahalane, racing away, ball on the stick, nobody able to catch him. He runs and runs, until he reaches the Clare half of the field.

It was, in all ways, an heroic intervention, a lifting of the siege. The ball ended up in the lap of Patrick Horgan and soon he was splitting the Clare posts to put the matter beyond doubt. The memory for Horgan of not closing the deal in September 2013 is still acute. He is still reminded of it. Of how Clare struck preposterously late to deny him the winning point in the All-Ireland final. Of how they spoiled an ending. Not now. This was conclusive and final.

But you expected Horgan to do things like that. You didn't always expect it of Cahalane. Four years ago he was a spectator when Cork failed to find that moment of closure when they needed to. He had spent the previous year in the hurling squad under Jimmy Barry-Murphy and then returned in 2014 to try both games, before deciding to abandon football, the game of his father Niall, for the last three seasons. Those years coincided with some decidedly unsound Cork defensive performances and an unhappy experimentation with a sweeper system.

Cahalane, used in a variety of roles, was viewed as gutsy and honest but lacking the repertoire of skills needed for inter-county hurling. Would he ever master it? Would he have time?

Those who shook their head when his name came up are now full of contrition and happy to make a full apology. This year Cahalane has been outstanding at full-back in a Cork defence which is unrecognisable from before. Starting off on Seamus Callanan in the first round of the Munster Championship, his form is a triumph of hard work and perseverance and of the faith shown by those around him. But fundamentally it has come from himself. Seán óg ó hAilpín memorably said that criticism of Cahalane had become so universal that if it rained on Patrick Street he would feel the finger of blame pointing his way.

Two years ago his brother Conor, a Cork under 21 hurler this year, went to his defence after seeing the family name being pilloried on Twitter. His older brother was aware of it but says it didn't trouble him. It meant nothing. Those were not the views of people he deemed important or relevant to him.

"I wouldn't be huge into reading anything about myself on social media," he says now, looking exceedingly relaxed. "You know it was probably tougher on my family than it was on me. That's where maybe it started to affect me a small bit; where it was affecting my family.

"It didn't bother me whatsoever. I was able to take it and, believe me, if you'd sit in on a conversation with my friends for an hour and listen to the abuse they give me you wouldn't be long seeing where I'm coming from in terms of having a thick skin and everything else. They constantly abuse the back off me. But I suppose in the way it affected my family it affected me a small bit. But I just had to go back to them and say to them that it wasn't affecting me, so it shouldn't affect them either."

How did it impinge on them? "Probably my brother, reacting to what went on on social media. And you just kinda know that maybe at times where they (family members) tip-toe around you a small bit or whatever.

"In general, I would say it wouldn't have affected me but maybe in the way the family tip-toes around it. If they'd come out and started slagging me about it maybe it would have been a bit easier."

Do you believe him? Is it possible that a young player so evidently keen on proving that he could cut it as a county hurler would not be hurt by such personal criticism? He says he is fortunate in this case in having a naturally stubborn streak, which he laughably agrees is probably hereditary. His father, Niall, was a fine footballer but equally known as a stout-hearted personality.

In 2015, the year of the offending tweets, Cork went into the season as Munster champions. They were beaten by Waterford, by 10 ten points, in the National League final, although Cahalane only played the last 13 minutes. They were beaten by Waterford again in the Munster semi-final. Their season ended with a heavy loss to Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final, the abiding image being Jonathan Glynn's early goal after a rampaging run through the middle of a gaping Cork defence. Cahalane was picked in the middle of the field, having had stints at full-back, corner-back and wing-back during the year. Galway scored 2-24 from play and hit 23 wides and Cahalane was sent off for a second yellow-card offence 16 minutes from the end.

To come from there to here is a quantum leap for Cahalane and his team. He's asked if he is a better player than he was in 2015. "You know what I think, that every player in the Cork panel is a better player than they were three years ago. If they weren't then that would be disappointing."

But you, are you better? "Yeah, I think I probably am, but I think that goes back to the work I've done. As I said, trying to improve a few per cent every time I go out. I'd be happy with the improvement I've made to date but I'm not settling for that either."

When he was struggling, even those who had their doubts about Cahalane would speak admiringly of the time he was spending in ball alleys trying to speed up and refine his hurling. If he failed it would not be through lack of will or effort.

He is asked about this commitment away from the hot lights of the championship match day.

"Yeah, obviously every day of the week. Everyone is doing it now. You are training every day now. Whether it be weights, recovery, hurling alley on your own. I am happy with the work I am doing but not happy where I am yet."

And he is asked if he ever thought leaving football for hurling was a mistake. "I don't think so and maybe, as I said, that was my own ignorance (being a help). I was after making my choice and (decided) I am not going back now. I am not going back (to be) seen as a hurling failure. I wanted to prove it to myself. Rather than to anybody else. I didn't need to. I didn't feel I needed to. I wanted to prove myself to myself, that I could do it."

To quit would have been easier and hardly a crime but that, he says, "wouldn't have been in my personality either."

How much comes from your father? (laughs) "Probably 100 per cent of it. And on the other side, the Clearys are on the other side of my family so they all have All-Ireland medals, they're multi-disciplined, basketball, football, everything, so there is a competitive streak on that side of the family as well.

"You get a bit of slagging at home as well because of it (family tradition) because my sister Maeve, she has a couple of All-Ireland camogie medals, so I am lagging behind a bit at home now and I'm getting a bit of slagging over it. I've a couple of Munster hurling medals. That's it. Obviously everyone wants to win an All-Ireland medal.

"Whether that be this year, or in 10 years' time, I am just going to have to keep on trying to improve and see where that takes me."

But back to that run, in the Munster final, and how the pendulum doth swing. Four years ago Cork were laying siege to the Clare goal, threatening an equalising green flag and it was Séadna Morey who came out with the ball and made an inspiring and relieving bolt from his own defence before setting up the clinching goal for Darach Honan. Now, it was Cork's turn. What was going through the mind of the runner?

"Where is the next man I can give the ball to!" he smiles. "That was just about it. Luke [O'Farrell] pinned his ears back to get across me - he said he was roaring at me for about 30 seconds, I don't know how true that is, but he ended up getting across me. He gave it to Hoggy (Horgan) and Hoggy did the finishing job.

"Afterwards, people were saying to me that there was a huge roar from the crowd but you don't really hear it. Especially as I was under a bit of pressure at the time, thinking, 'Where is the next man I can give the ball to?' So I wasn't too worried about the crowd roaring or anything. It's great to be involved in games like that, have something to look back on. But look, it's done now. It's in the past. You're only as good as your next game - or next run."

Cork, like Cahalane, have defied expectations. They have beaten more top hurling counties to reach the All-Ireland semi-final than any other contestant. Their run has easily been the most challenging.

It no longer seems unreasonable that Cahalane will be the natural successor to Diarmuid O'Sullivan, even if the position has changed enormously in terms of the job's brief since the current Cork selector retired. But some imperatives last. Presence still counts and heroic interventions. The kind to lift a team and maybe swing a result.

"Every day you go in you're going to be marking a top-class forward in the full-back line," he says. "Forwards now, they're so strong, pacy, the skill they have now is incredible. It just keeps me grounded in my preparation. You know every day you're going to be under pressure so you have to put yourself to the pin of your collar in training."

The win over Tipperary changed everything. A year before they were no match for Tipp. "To win a game compared to last year, it was huge. Going in to the next day (against Waterford) we knew it would be another tough game as well. But we were confident in the knowledge that we won a tough game. Nobody expected us to win a game at all; we were in bonus territory. So we could go in relaxed."

The transformation in Cork's defending is one of the most striking changes from recent years. "I suppose that was obviously one of our aims at the start of the year to be defensively more solid and I think the defenders that are there and even the fellas that are pushing us in training, the fellas have a great understanding that comes with playing games. So fellas are happy with the improvement we have made there, but we're still not the finished article yet, we have a lot to learn yet. Hopefully the next day we can bring another decent performance."

Diarmuid O'Sullivan's role as an advisor and mentor is also acknowledged. "Yeah, do you know what, he's a guy I grew up watching and I grew up watching Cork winning All-Irelands in the mid-noughties.

"These guys were gods in my eyes, so to be able to go to training and learn from them and be able to ask questions and listen and take information and constructive criticism off of these guys is huge. Just constantly learning off them is unbelievable. From Sully to Pat Hartnett to Pat Ryan to Kieran (Kingston), John Meyler, being able to go to any one of them about any different facet of your game is huge."

West Cork, and his football interests in Castlehaven where he plays his club football and has won county championships, still remains close to his heart and family roots. Football gave him a chance to get down and see his family as a child. The logistics of travelling from the city weren't a deterrent.

"Dad was still playing football until he was 43 or something so when we were young it'd be easier for us to travel to training down in west Cork with him than I suppose my mother having to drop us somewhere else in the city. He was going down training anyway. So he'd take us in the car with him and it gave my mother an evening off. You get used to the travelling. It was never a major issue.

"I used to like going down. We used to get to see our grandparents a couple of times a week whereas if we weren't playing football down there we mightn't see them from one end of the year to the other. It was great.

"Some of my happiest memories are of travelling up and down in the car."

He was playing there as long as he can remember, with St Finbarr's offering him a hurling outlet in the city.

"We don't get down as often as we'd like now I suppose with my brother being with the Cork under-21 hurlers and me being with the Cork senior hurlers and everything else, you know, you don't get to get down as much as you'd like to. When we go down, we go down an hour down the road, an hour's training, stay an hour with the grandparents and then shoot on back the road, back to Cork."

Cork's new blood has given the team a surge of confidence of optimism, with the crowds travelling again in huge numbers to support them.

"They're playing super stuff," Cahalane admits of the newer recruits, "and there's a freedom there with it. But to be fair to the management they're instilling that in players and it's filtering right down to the leaders within the group and the leaders are filtering it through to the less experienced players.

"So that's coming right from the top. It's not something that the players came in and were so sort of carefree and whatever.

"The management have done huge work on that, fed it through to the leaders, and the leaders filtered it right through to the less experienced players.

"But it's great. You can see everyone there, all 26 and the guys who are training as well and pushing the 26, there's a huge drive there for places, whether it be in the starting 15, the 26, or the panel. That's where that's coming from. If you don't pull up your socks and get on with it, then there's going to be someone there to take your place."

His own place will never be taken for granted. But it will take a good man now to take it from him.

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