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A club GAA player on the pain of enforced retirement

This isn’t a retirement statement per se. Writing this started off as my way of coping with GAA retirement. It was my way of expressing my emotions to myself. But I realised pretty quickly that there were some pretty important messages worth sharing, says Michael Sheehan.

We hear about inter-county retirements all the time and, in the modern day game, the support network through many organisations such as the GPA is being built up to assist these individuals post-playing days.

This is only right, but, what about the majority who are not at that level and, through old age, or just falling out of love with the game, or, in my case, through injury, have to leave the world of playing GAA?

What are we going through and how do we cope with a significant change in our lifestyle? I’d like to share how my first week has gone since finding out I will no longer be able to play football.

A week is a long time in sport. This time last week I was after receiving news that I had to hang up my shiny, white football boots and fluorescent pink gloves after playing the game I love for the past 30-plus years (I’m told I did a lot of kicking in the womb, so that counts, right?). I have just turned 31 and had what I believed to be a few good years left in me as a nippy corner-forward.

Was it tough to take? Read on.

The reason? Well, in short, irreparable damage has been done to the cartilage around both my hips as a result of wear from playing football since day dot. Continuing to play could, and probably would, require me to have a hip replacement before my next birthday. As a result of this risk, and based on the surgeon’s (Dr Patrick Carton, Whitfield clinic, Waterford) strong recommendations, I have been left with little option but to retire with immediate effect.

This isn’t my retirement alone. It also spells the end of the line for my mother Ann and my aunt Mary, who, kicked every single ball with me over the years. People often forget the supporting cast, but I never will. You could be down in Castletownbere for a challenge game on a Saturday and there would be Mammy Sheehan and aunty Mary, after they’d found a Topaz for a takeaway tea to stay warm, cheering like it was an All-Ireland final.

I always thought I was playing firstly for myself, but the reality was that I was also playing for my family. Hearing them talk and reminisce about my career this week, albeit like I was after passing to the next life and not sitting at the other end of the kitchen table, was heartwarming. Knowing I made them proud was my greatest achievement.

While I have been down and a bit deflated of late, I have always been one to look at the bigger picture for perspective. I still have an ability to look after my own health, I have an amazing, supportive and beautiful fiancée, who I can’t wait to marry this year and I still have a chance to throw my hand at a new challenge before I become an old man.

This has also confirmed to me that it’s good to cry. I cried. I cried when I thought about what I was going to tell my family and my fiancée. I cried when I was writing down what I was going to tell my friends and team-mates. I cried when telling them. I cried an awful lot when I came home that night after telling them, but, I feel much better for doing so and letting my emotions spill out. I am not a robot. A big part of my life had been taken from me, for good, earlier than I hoped and I was glad to have people around me I could talk to.

I have had the pleasure of playing the beautiful game of football at underage, junior, intermediate, and senior level for the past 22 years with both Glanworth and Avondhu. I remember like yesterday that my grandfather Jim Quirke brought me to my first underage training session in Glanworth (aged nine), where I was met by three club legends in Ollie Ryan (RIP), Thomas Brennan (RIP) and Noel Sheehan. I remember every minor detail of that day, from the kit I wore to the boots I donned, to the weather and even to the drills we did. Even from that age, I knew all I ever wanted to do was play football.

The years flew until I broke into the big boy’s team. My career could have very easily taken a different direction, though. My uncle Pat dropped me for a North Cork quarter-final against Kildorrery in 2005.

I found out at training the Thursday night before the game on Saturday. I almost didn’t bother turning up for the game, I was so angry.

It was a good job it rained that evening and I was sent home early from my summer job, as I was planning on staying at work with McDonnell and drying the remaining grain.

I was (literally) prised off the bench at half-time, as I had no interest in the kick around. We won and I scored three points. That night, he rang me at 10pm, asking where I was, as the whole team was waiting for me to watch the DVD of the game in the local pub.

I was in bed and refused to go down, as I had minor training at 11am the next morning. I was still thick.

Glanworth won a county Junior A title in 2009, beating Ballygarvan 0-8 to 0-4 in the final. I have never in my life taken drugs, but the feeling that day after winning a title like that has to be worth more than any narcotic-fuelled high could ever give a person.

I am often reminded of this feeling by friend and mentor James Condon, who would sell his grandmother to win another title to bring back that feeling.

The lasting effects of that day were huge for my mental health. I spend hours in the car each week. Over the years, I have found myself on a regular basis switching off from the reality of ‘grown-up’ life and going back to that day in my mind.

I’d apply it to whatever team or set-up I was involved with. The memories are right there and the craving to get that hit one last time were a key factor in driving me on. It never materialised, unfortunately, but, in my daydreams, I was a county champion with my team-mates hundreds of times.

You should have seen the celebrations that followed.

As I got older, I used to get my buzz, my rush, not from going to the pub, but from coming up to the GAA field, meeting up with friends, playing a bit of ball and going home fitter, healthier and happier. This satisfied my social needs in a way that is hard to explain.

I would, however, like to take this opportunity to warn parents of younger players and kids that burnout, over-training, and playing is a very real risk. I couldn’t be taken away from a pitch when I was growing up, but this constant desire to be running around after a bag of air finally caught up with me.

What GAA has given me over all these years is unquantifiable, but it includes the values of hard work and dedication, the results to be gained from digging deep when in the trenches, the responsibility of captaincy, the meaning of friendship and teamwork, the unbridled joy of winning and the ability to cope with losing, the business-like assets of communication and confidence and the sheer adrenaline rush of doing something that puts a smile on the faces of all those who spent the time watching and supporting you.

Another satisfaction was being able to play with so many great players (admittedly, some dodgy ones too) and teams over the years at many different levels and age groups. I got to represent the club I love, my community and my family for so many years and those memories, those moments and even the odd medal or two can never be taken away from me.

The Glanworth lads and management will have my full support for the years ahead and I will be there to assist in whatever capacity I can. They have a fantastic management team, led by local lads who have a real passion and drive for success, and should they go on to lift silverware at the end of the season, you won’t find any happier person than me in this neck of the woods.

This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.