Friday 19 January 2018

All doubts are banished by Blue tribe's determination to succeed

Unwanted in his native Galway, Niall Corcoran's talents are valued by Dublin, writes Dermot Crowe

F OR the greater part of Niall Corcoran's career, Galway had unchallenged claims to his affections. He recalls an impressionable childhood moment watching television as Noel Lane scored the winning goal against Tipperary in the 1988 All-Ireland final. His mother was in hospital preparing to give birth to his brother Martin and when Lane scored his father "jumped up in the chair and came down and broke the leg of it. That was my first experience, thinking, what's this all about? From there it took off."

Home was Clonfert, his club Meelick-Eyrecourt, and while Martin went on to become a better hurler, the dynamic that drove the eldest of three brothers helped gain him greater recognition. In 2000, he won an All-Ireland minor medal as a corner-back on a team that included Tony Regan, Damian Hayes, Adrian Cullinane and Ger Farragher. He had been part of county squads at under 14 and under 16 level and spent two years with the county under 21s. But the burning ambition to hurl senior for Galway was never realised.

He had a few trial games under Conor Hayes which led nowhere and when Ger Loughnane took over in 2006, Corcoran was one of 60 hurlers invited to train over the winter months. "I was delighted. We trained in Tubber on the sand track for three months so it was pretty serious stuff. I have never trained as hard in my life to be honest. It was literally a lot of physical work, so mentally it was very challenging -- like, how bad do you want this?"

It is hard to convey how much Corcoran wanted it; the rejection hurt him deeply. "I was very disappointed because I wanted to see if I good enough at this level, that was always in the back of my head. I was in and out the whole time and never really established in the panel. There is only so much of that you can take. You are being told you are not good enough. That was hard."

Harder still was the sense that he had not had a fair crack. Most of their training under Loughnane was physical and despite having started a coaching job in Dublin, Corcoran made it his business to do all of it. He could have done no more. "That was the thing that got to me the most. I felt I hadn't got enough game-time. I think I maybe got half a match in the whole three months. Maybe there was a sense that the panel was picked before the training was finished. To be honest, I was very pissed off not to get a chance."

And this is how it ended and his dream died. They were playing NUIG at Dangan training grounds one Saturday morning and a roll-call of names revealed who would be returning for the next phase of training. If your name wasn't called out you took it that you weren't required.

"That was it. It was ruthless but that's their call, nothing you can do about it. To be honest, I am the type of guy I always look at myself first, what could I have done better? And I did look very hard at myself and it probably placed a lot of doubts in my mind; was I good enough for this level? It did knock the confidence back a lot. Especially after the effort I put in."

He went back to his club and their latest attempt to get out of intermediate ranks failed when they lost the semi-final of the championship to a last-minute goal. In August 2005, he had become a hurling coach employed by the Dublin County Board and stationed at Kilmacud Crokes. After a couple of years travelling up and down for matches and training, he decided to join the Stillorgan club. Logistics played a big part but it wasn't an easy call.

"Probably the hardest decision I have had to make. You are leaving guys you grew up with, like best friends. I've a brother there too (Martin) who hurls with them. It was a big, big decision. I talked with my parents. I talked to some of my close friends, and my brother. I was there (Kilmacud) two years and had been doing a bit of training with the team anyway. I was working in the club so I knew all the players, had met with their families, so I wasn't coming in cold."

He loves coaching and sees at first hand the young talent in the city and the potential for the game. In the year he went to work in Kilmacud, Dublin won the Leinster minor hurling title with some of the players with whom he now shares a dressing room. The emphasis on underage development has started to reap rewards. But he didn't think of playing for the county himself.

Damien Byrne, the former selector, contacted him and invited him to O'Toole Park for a training session in 2008. Corcoran contacted Turloughmore native Declan Qualter, who had been playing for Dublin, for advice. Qualter had nothing but positive feedback and Corcoran went straight into Tommy Naughton's championship team against Westmeath, having arrived too late for the league.

Injury to Philly Brennan opened the door and he held his place for Dublin's four championship matches, including a draw and replay against Wexford and a qualifier defeat to Cork. "I was probably a bit apprehensive. How would I be received? But they were great guys, they don't mind where you are from as long as you can hurl and are willing to put it in. I was lucky I suppose Ross O'Carroll was on the panel, I knew him pretty well, it helped me settle in.

"My first year I wouldn't count it as a great year. I struggled a bit with the pace. It was my first introduction to (senior) inter-county hurling. I missed all the league and had to get up to speed pretty quickly. You have the usual doubts: are you good enough, can you play at this level? I remember marking Rory Jacob, a fantastic player, in the second game especially he took me to the cleaners. After we lost that replay in Croke Park, we'd Cork next and I was told I was going to be marking Joe Deane. And I knew I had a couple of games where I'd felt I'd let myself down and that Cork game was probably make-or-break for me. I will never forget going out on the pitch at Páirc Uí Chaoimh and looking around, just saying, 'Jesus, like, where else would I rather be?' As big and all as the occasion was, sure why not? I had absolutely nothing to lose. I was still very nervous but after the first ten minutes I settled into the game and I suppose I got on pretty well in that game. If there was a defining moment with Dublin, it was that game; I just felt I had to prove myself."

And he has played every championship match since, the eight that have followed during Anthony Daly's reign. When his form wobbled against Cork in the league last year, they left him on the field, and he held his place the next day. That gave him a huge surge of confidence and a lasting appreciation for their trust. Pat Horgan scored six points from play and yet Daly's faith in Corcoran didn't shatter.

"He (Daly) is so passionate about the game and is a great guy to listen to for motivation," says Corcoran, "but I think the biggest thing about him is the experience he has brought from his own playing days and how he relates that back to us. That it can be done. You can go on to win All-Irelands."

That trust and the belief in their destiny was rocked by last year's defeat by Antrim. "It was a long winter. You were listening to guys, 'ah sure Antrim beat you'. We had high expectations of ourselves and I suppose that inconsistency really caught us. The biggest change has been our attitude and work-rate. I suppose that was reflected in the win over Tipperary, the way we worked, and coming back in Waterford when we looked dead and buried. And against Galway in the Walsh Cup when down to 14 men."

Facing Galway gives today's game added edge for Corcoran. Two years ago at Parnell Park, he was on the team that handed Galway a trimming in the league. He marked Farragher, a county minor colleague in 2000. "I felt I'd a point to prove. Felt I needed to put down a marker. That this is where I belong. Now it is like playing any other team."

His relationship with hurling is intense, he admits, but he is savouring every moment. "When you've got a lot of knocks over the years and you get your chance, you're not going to let it go. There have been a lot of disappointments, so finally when you are making the breakthrough, that's very enjoyable personally, you want to make it last; it won't last forever.

"Everything is right at the moment, I'm really enjoying it. I am working with a great bunch of guys and I've no regrets about what I've done."

He doesn't seek to hide his ambition with Dublin. "The ambition is the All-Ireland medal." Is this feasible? "We think it is. Definitely think it is. If that's not your goal then where does your motivation come from?"

You could not have said that up to recently? "Probably not. We are quite a young team but we have matured over the last couple of years. The league has gone well but championship is where it's at. In the championship we want to be a team to be reckoned with."

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