The evening of the 2004 All-Ireland hurling final, we trained in Killarney, two weeks out from our own big day. 

Earlier that afternoon Cork had beaten Kilkenny by eight points in the Liam MacCarthy decider. Coming from the hurling area of Kerry, I would always have watched the hurling final – in fact I was at a couple of hurling finals with my Dad before I eventually made a football final.

However, knowing that I was going to be involved a fortnight later I always studied the hurling final forensically, taking in all the details that went with an All-Ireland final in Croke Park. In particular to the formalities beforehand. I visualised myself there and going through the unusual routines only there for the biggest day. I liked to have this thought out beforehand, to embrace it but under no circumstances to be distracted by it. Thankfully in the finals I was involved in that was always the way it played out. However, unbeknownst to me at the time there was a twist ahead that would mean this meeting with President McAleese would be slightly different.

Back to a dull and wet Killarney that Sunday evening. Early in the session Pat Flanagan was putting us through our paces and we were starting to go up through the gears. We were lined up, along the end line, between the post and the sideline, at the terrace side and the dressing room end of Fitzgerald Stadium, doing stride outs. 

On one of the runs out towards the 45m line, I got a dart of pain into my right hamstring as if I had been stabbed. Jesus wept. I couldn’t believe it. I had missed one game all year in the league, as a result of suspension having been sent off against Tyrone. I was as fit as I had ever been, playing well and full of confidence. I was really enjoying my football. I couldn’t wait for the final. We had been through a tough few years but we were a tight and resilient bunch and we knew we were where we needed to be again. As I walked off the pitch, I was careful not to limp as I didn’t want to be ruled out there and then, with every kind of thought going through my head. 

Top of the list? Am I seriously going to miss the biggest game of the year because of a bloody hamstring?

Aoife Ni Mhuirí was one of our physios at the time. She had been involved going back as far as 1997 and was gifted at her craft. I trusted her totally and knew if there was a way for me to be back in time she would find it. This was in a time before an injury like that would be scanned, providing vital information such as the grade of the tear. Aoife looked at it, confirmed I had done a nice bit of damage and advised me that I needed to ice it for 20 minutes every hour on the hour for the first 12 hours. She told me she couldn’t do much else for me until the hammer settled. 

I sat into my car and headed for home in Tralee. As I was leaving Aoife said to me that to make the final the first 24 hours were going to be vital. That kept going around my head as I drove north. Even the logistics of it were going to be awkward – where would I get all the ice for example? 

I rang Tina and told her the story and we immediately parked the disappointment and worry and went straight into practicality mode. First off I had to talk to my boss at work, Pádraig Firtéar. I needed to take Monday off to give myself the best possible chance of being back. I explained my story and implored him to keep the information to himself. The last thing I needed on top of the injury was injury rumours flying around. To his credit he delivered on both counts. 

One of Kerry’s original associate sponsors and a great supporter of Kerry football is the Meadowlands Hotel in Tralee run by the O’Mahony family from the west Kerry Gaeltacht. I rang there to ask them could I book into a room for the Sunday and Monday night. I wanted access to a constant supply of ice and a big bath to allow me to fully lie in to the bath. Obviously the hamstring was the issue but I wasn’t taking any chances. Again they obliged without a question being asked. 

I drove straight to the Meadowlands and began my icing journey. Aoife had warned me not to ice the hamstring for more than the 20 minutes as I could burn the skin and complicate matters. She knew I would overkill it in my efforts to get back. She understood the stakes, the lengths any player would go to and, most importantly, she knew me. 

Where I did double up and where I figured there was a bit of wriggle room was I decided to ice it for 24 hours rather than 12 hours. So I began at 8pm on Sunday and every hour on the hour, I jumped into a bath filled with ice for 20 minutes. We used the ice baths after training at the time and even though I embraced them, I wasn’t a huge fan. For this spell though I didn’t care. 

The poor porter in the hotel used to come back to me hourly with a black refuse bag full of ice to empty into the bath. I stuck to the routine and did my 20 minutes on the hour for 24 hours until the Monday evening. Tina called with food on a couple of occasions and Pat Flanagan also called in to see how I was doing, something I really appreciated. Other than that I was left to my thoughts, which suited me fine. In my solitude I developed an all-consuming determination to make it back and defy everyone and everything to make sure I played. 

And played well.

MEETING THE PREZ: Mary McAleese in the company of GAA President Sean Kelly before the final 18 years ago.  
MEETING THE PREZ: Mary McAleese in the company of GAA President Sean Kelly before the final 18 years ago.  

For the following two weeks under Aoife’s care, I took baby steps towards recovery. I met her daily, sometimes twice a day, after work every evening or before I headed west early in the morning. I was fortunate that the IT in Tralee had recently installed an isometric machine that could measure hamstring and quad strength. Martin McIntyre, the expert in the college, put me through my paces evening in, evening out and he was a huge help also. 

This allowed Aoife to measure where my hamstring strength was at and it allowed me to build it slowly. It was tough work but it was reassuring to see the improvements in strength starting to show up on the readings. Every exercise she gave me to do I did it to perfection. Would I have had the same application in February? Probably not, but for an All-Ireland final, nothing seemed too much. 

Bit by bit I was getting there, but it was slow. I got back training the Thursday night before the final and felt good. I wasn’t out of the woods but Aoife reckoned the extra few days would get me there. All of this time Jack O’Connor was remarkably relaxed about my situation. It was his first All-Ireland final as manager and he was in no way flustered that his centre back was struggling with a hamstring injury. 

Even though I only trained on the Thursday night, Jack named me at centre back. Not alone that but I was to be given the task of marking Mayo’s main man, Ciarán McDonald. He was in player-of-the-year form and this wasn’t my normal role. I wasn’t to worry about minding the centre or protecting the full back line which would normally have been the case. My sole job was to blot McDonald out of the match. 

That vote of confidence from Jack and the management team meant a lot and set me up for the weekend. Aoife, ever the perfectionist, gave me specific orders for the train journey to Dublin on the Saturday. Walk around, stretch a lot and sit very little. I obeyed. We had our customary kick around in Dublin that evening and I was buzzing. I felt great. Strong. I was ready. 

On the Sunday before the game after we had met the president and before we went into the parade, I lay down on the ground behind the lads and Aoife came in to rotate my pelvis one last time to make sure I was ready for battle. My parents later told me that their hearts were in their mouths as they watched on in the Hogan Stand. They thought there was a problem when I went down like that, but it was all planned. 

As it happened I played the full match, did my job and we won the All-Ireland. In the final few minutes as I chased back through the middle, I pulled the hamstring again, but I didn’t care. I was so thankful and grateful to have made it, to have played and for us to have won.

This week there are big doubts over Gavin White’s availability for Kerry. Without even calculating his loss to Kerry it will obviously be a huge personal disappointment for Gavin if he does end up missing out. The fact that he will get to play in more finals will be of little consolation. 

I hope for him, like me, that miracles do happen.

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