Tuesday 20 February 2018

Ger Siggins: It was easy to get through the shitty days because of the promise I made

John Mooney has had his struggles but now he is looking forward to a new phase of his life

John Mooney: ‘I’ll have to prepare for having all the free time, but I’m looking forward to it and I have loads of ideas for the business. I’m happy. My time is done.’
John Mooney: ‘I’ll have to prepare for having all the free time, but I’m looking forward to it and I have loads of ideas for the business. I’m happy. My time is done.’
St Patrick’s Day 2007 — John Mooney catches Umar Giul in the World Cup victory over Pakistan
‘He caught the ball, and in tribute to his other sporting love, soloed back into the middle’

Ger Siggins

The game John Mooney recalls as his best day in an Ireland shirt isn't an obvious one. Having retired last week after 182 caps, his fondest memories are of a game in which he took one expensive wicket, scored just six runs, had an agonising attack of cramp and spent the evening spewing his guts up.

As he prepared to deliver the first ball of Ireland's 2015 World Cup he heard one voice among the 8,000 packed into the Saxton Oval in Nelson.

A woman's voice rang out, "Come on John Boy!" and he smiled.

Frances Mooney has been her son's biggest fan from his earliest days in the Man O'War club in north County Dublin. And family is very important to John Mooney.

"I can retire really happy because of that World Cup," he recalls. "That day we beat West Indies I had every member of my immediate family there, 28 of us. Throughout the day I could pick out the voices of my ma, my brother-in-law. At the end of the day they all gathered on the bank crying; the older ones with tears of joy, the younger ones because they were tired."

He wasn't feeling too well, however.

"Helena and the girls all had a tummy bug and I insisted on seeing them as I hadn't seen them in two months. And about 30 overs into the game I started cramping. I knew it couldn't be cramp because we're so scientific about avoiding it and have precise measures of fluid intake for two days before a game. I was trying to run in with my legs stiff and straight, it looked hilarious. I was in bits in the dressing room and I missed all the celebrations."

That Mooney had the drive and commitment to convert his talent into 182 caps and three World Cups also comes down to family, and one sad summer evening.

His father, also John but known to all as 'The Ranger', was an international cross-country runner and talented cricketer. At practice in Man O'War, he collapsed and died in front of his son. John Boy, aged 11, lay across his lifeless chest and promised him he would play for Ireland.

"All the shitty days, all the days you're freezing in North County, or up in Queen's, or in the 40 degrees of Mombasa. . . it was easy to get through them all because of that promise I made to my da. But not just for my da, but my ma too. She was left literally with nothing, five kids and a roof over her head. And for me and Paul to go on and play for Ireland, and see her smile . . ." He drifts away.

"She was devastated when he died; it took her two years to go back up to the Nevitt to watch a game." The club moved to a new ground and with a seat there honouring The Ranger's memory it was easier for her to return.

Frances deserves an honour herself, for the commitment she showed her boys. Back in the 1990s the Irish Cricket Union lived hand to mouth, and a player picked for an Ireland under 15 tour had to pay his own fare.

"Sometimes she didn't have a penny but she always had enough to make sure I went. I might have only had one pair of runners or a tracksuit, but she wouldn't let me be seen like that so she bought extra stuff. That type of pressure was always on her, so for her to get me and Paul playing for Ireland was incredible."

But while tragedy and poverty provided a spur, it also sowed the seeds for an even harder struggle for Mooney. He dealt with his father's death through alcohol. Drink and depression impacted on his game from the very start. His first cap came in August 2001.

"We played against the England amateurs, and we were pretty abysmal. I took it for granted playing for Ireland, and it was just a glorified drinking session. There weren't an awful lot of committed players there. Sometimes cricket got in the way of the drinking, and it was only when Adi Birrell - a non-drinker - came in as coach that the game became serious."

Those years between 17 and 21 were when Mooney got lost. "I was at a really bad stage of my life; if I had kicked on in cricket and left alone the drinking and the partying, it would have made a huge difference to my career. One thing always rankles: I had been all the way up the underage sides with Niall O'Brien, and at that stage he went to Australia and worked really hard at his game. I went to South Africa and worked in a pub. It suited me perfectly at the time, but looking back that was the biggest mistake I made. If I had gone to Australia with someone as level-headed as Niall was towards his training and his cricket . . . But I didn't commit to it, and when I got back to Ireland I settled back into drinking and partying. I always went training and always played, but there were days when I was going straight from a party to play a club game.

"All I wanted to do was play for Ireland and enjoy the party lifestyle. But I eventually realised I couldn't do both. I didn't give it up, but instead of partying till 5.0am I'd leave at 2.0am. I've always said I'm not an alcoholic, but I can drink very easily, and every day. And cricket gave me a great excuse to drink every day.

"If I'd gone to England I wouldn't have made it anyway, the way I was. But staying at home with ma and focusing on becoming an electrician, and Helena, gave me the chance to become a better player, and I started to grow up."

The penny dropped with the arrival of the new coach.

"I didn't play too many games under Adi but he taught me everything about how to go about being a professional cricketer. Phil Simmons came in and was technically really good for me, but Adi had that professional mindset, how to win, how to come together as a team."

Birrell brought Mooney to the 2007 World Cup, telling him before a game against Scotland the summer before. "It was August 5, 2006, my father's anniversary. I bowled really well and got very emotional about my da after the game."

In the Caribbean he made just one appearance but played a part as a sub-fielder in the stunning win over Pakistan.

"I was standing in front of the party stand where they were making noise all day. But when Umar Gul hit the ball miles into the air they went quiet and the silence almost put me off."

He caught the ball, and in tribute to his other sporting love, soloed back into the middle.

"I had a Man O'War GFC banner I would hang up at the ground. I have very little memorabilia in the house but I have a photo of me with that banner in the game against Australia. Because I hadn't played yet I was 50/1 to be leading run-scorer and two of the Man O'War lads won €1,000 backing me."

Simmons took over soon after but when Mooney was dropped he took a time out. "I told him I would be available when he thought I should be in the starting 11. I went away and finished my apprenticeship. And I worked my socks off every day and 18 months later I rang and told him I was ready. Six months after that I was in the team and was never out of it after that. Simmo showed great confidence in me."

Mooney and Kevin O'Brien played a big role in the victory over Bangladesh at the 2009 World T20, a partnership they drew on two years later in the win over England.

"I don't care if we never win another fucking match in our lives as long as we beat these bastards," Mooney told the Irish media manager Barry Chambers as he waited to bat. When he finally got to the middle Ireland needed 56, with six men out. "I was facing a lot of dot-balls, but then hitting the boundary off the last ball of the over and that was driving them mad. They were very predictable, so I knew I could hit boundaries.

"Collingwood, Bell and Prior gave us loads of chirp but I knew that was a sure sign they were rattled. Kev got out with 11 to win but once Trent hit his first ball for four I knew we'd win.

"I hit the winning runs and the emotion took over. I threw the bat away. I could have killed someone."

The famous win secured, the team left the arena. "We sang the song, which must have gutted them in their dressing room next door", chuckles Mooney. "Our staff even nicked their beers which they weren't in the mood to drink."

Mooney's troubles were well-known in cricket circles, and they flared up in 2013 ahead of the Inter-Continental Cup final against Afghanistan.

"John was having problems," recalls Trent Johnston, "and Paul asked me to keep an eye on him. He wasn't sleeping and was in a bad way. I knew if he played we had a much better chance of winning than if he didn't, so we had a long talk. It was my last game and he told me he would do it for me." It was the only game in which Mooney took five wickets in an innings for Ireland - and he did it twice in a brilliant, match-winning display.

His depression came back like a hurricane in 2014 when he came home early from a tour to the Caribbean. "I'd been drinking quite heavily leading up to it", he recalled. "I hadn't prepared well leading up to the trip, then when I got there I was drinking again. We played a game and I had more drink after it and next day I just couldn't get out of bed. I had no will to do anything.

"There's players I'm closer to - Nialler and I have been friends for 20 years - but the Cricket Ireland support staff are fantastic, S&C coach Brendan Connor, physio Kieran O'Reilly, especially Simmo when he was there, and Warren Deutrom. They all knew two years before anyone else, and they did everything to help me."

O'Brien and Simmons found him crying in his room and decided he would be better off back home.

"It wasn't being away or being on tour", he insists. "It's bad anywhere and everywhere. It's bad when I'm sitting at home. If I'm not keeping busy it's very easy to slip into a negative frame of mind. I sketch, practise mindfulness, stroll on the beach, even skateboard. Anything I can do for an hour and know I'll enjoy it."

Last summer he went public in an RTÉ radio interview, revealing how he had suicidal thoughts and had been admitted to psychiatric hospital. The next day, in Malahide, he hit his one-day best score of 96.

His final World Cup, this year, saw a Zimbabwean newspaper lay into him over what it saw as cheating in claiming a disputed catch. The reporter sneered that Mooney's word couldn't be accepted as he was "an alcoholic" and "suicidal".

"We were playing India and Simmo called me out the back and told me - but it didn't mean anything to me. It's a free world, and you have to have free speech, although coming from Zimbabwe he doesn't even have that. He was entitled to write what he wrote but no editor in the world should have published it. But I got great support out of it."

This summer Mooney's displays carried an underperforming Ireland into the World T20 in India in March, but he won't be joining his team-mates in Dharamsala.

"The first real sign it was time to go came last summer at the Australia game. I was running around organising things for my gym, my mind completely elsewhere. I was trying to get someone to cover my shifts and we were about to play the world champions. I could have been playing for Balbriggan.

"On the tour of Zimbabwe and Namibia in October my mind just wasn't on it. When I was training or playing I was fine but when I wasn't my head was back home trying to organise things and I realised the two weren't going to work together.

"I'd been talking to Michael Caulfield, our sports psychologist, and he told me that the first day you think about retiring you've already retired.

"On the second last day in Namibia, standing out in the field, I broke down. I got very emotional but I was way out on the boundary and no-one could see. I was there for 30 or 40 minutes and it was then that I pretty much made my mind up.

"We wrapped up the game next morning and got into a huddle and I told the lads. I got a bit emotional and had to cut short what I planned to say but I told them 'Balbo' was going to take the song over."

The song is a huge part of the team's ethos. That it happens to be Ireland's Call is beside the point. It is a show of pride, passion and unity, sung only when the team wins.

Mooney's first act on deciding to quit was to organise a new keeper of the flame. "Andy Balbirnie is perfect. He shares a lot of the same qualities as me. He's a great leader, a great speaker, he commands respect in the changing room even though he's only a young man. He has that passion too and he's going to be there for a while. So I asked him to take over and he nearly choked on his cornflakes."

He asked his team-mates to keep his decision under their sunhats. "I wanted to see the new contracts. We're not the best-paid players in the world - that's not Cricket Ireland's fault, it's ICC's - but I wanted to see my new contract first. It didn't change my mind."

The 2016 contracts were sent to the squad last Friday when a team-mate rang for a chat. "I knew I was gone. I'd texted William [Porterfield] to say 'I'll be in touch Tuesday morning' because I wanted him to know first. This team-mate asked me did I know about the Masters tournament in Dubai for retired players. It was the first I'd heard of it but within 40 minutes I had an email offer of a contract for the auction."

On Monday morning Team Virgo paid $31,000 (€28,200) for his services for 17 days in January/February, when he will line up alongside Brett Lee, Graeme Smith and other stars. "I can supplement my year's wage in those three weeks so it gives me space to grow the business."

He's happy that he's retired, but regrets how quickly it all happened. "Mam's been 30 years going to watch me playing for Ireland and Leinster but she was away for a family weekend. To have to tell her over the phone was very upsetting. I was sorry not to be able to tell Cricket Ireland either but they're a bit at fault too. I'm a married man with two kids and I didn't even see my contract for 2016 until December 4. There was a lot of uncertainty there."

Mooney is about to throw himself whole-heartedly into his new gym, which opens in Donabate in spring. At the moment he works out of a converted church in Balrothery which doubles as a heritage centre. He and Helena, a nutritionist, have teamed up with ex-Sheffield United player Adrian Harper, a personal trainer. "We call it Healthier Ireland. It's not just gym work, but nutrition, and online programmes.

"The commitment you have to give is 100 per cent. You can't be getting up at 5.0 to train people, then go to work as an athlete for the next five hours, then a bit of family life and back to work in the evenings. There was no way I could continue that."

Doors are opening for Mooney in other areas, with some TV work coming up and his prototype helmet guard, the Gorget, back in development. He has great hopes the gym could turn into a franchise operation but his first love won't be far away.

"When I'm all set up and I have my coaching badges I'm going to be back, without a shadow of a doubt."

He spoke with Cricket Ireland about getting back in some role down the line. He is conscious that he's emptying long stretches of time and the dangers that brings.

"I'm pretty much off the medication now. I made that decision along with my doctors, but it was mainly me saying 'give it a try' and focusing elsewhere. I still drink, if I have an occasion like a wedding I can build myself up for it. I'll have to prepare for having all the free time, but I'm looking forward to it and I have loads of ideas for the business. I'm happy. My time is done."

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