Kevin Niblock: Saying goodbye to Antrim is the hardest thing
While Kevin Niblock admits his latest injury setback could well spell the end of his inter-county career, the St Gall's man is refusing to totally rule out a return to the Antrim fold, as he told Brendan Crossan...
THE word ‘retirement’ doesn’t sit easily with Kevin Niblock. The 31-year-old won’t kick another ball for Antrim this year and knows the odds are stacked against him ever returning.
In the short term, his absence will be keenly felt when the Saffrons face Donegal in the Ulster Championship on May 21.
“Kevin would grace any county team in the country,” said former St Gall’s senior football manager and mentor Mickey Culbert.
“He’s a player you just love to have around you. He would give you whatever he had.
“There was never any drama with Kevin. I couldn’t tell you one thing he ever said in the dressing room before a game because he did his talking on the pitch.”
Since injuring his knee in a McKenna Cup game against Monaghan back in January, Niblock has educated himself in the whole realm of bone bruising and its debilitating impact.
He probably knew the writing was on the wall long before he told co-managers Frank Fitzsimons and Gearoid Adams that he couldn't continue.
The pain of back-to-back training sessions was proving too great and the more he spent in the PEC swimming pool, the more he knew that being match-fit for an Ulster Championship match was beyond him.
And there are only so many anti-inflammatory tablets you can take.
He still hopes to resume his club career with St Gall’s later in the year and is keeping his fingers crossed the injury settles down.
Niblock revealed he had a terrible flashback from when he was 17, the time he got his cartilage removed.
I got my meniscus out [in 2003],” he explains.
“I was back at the hospital recently and it was surreal because whenever I got the scan I sat down with Ian Corry [surgeon]. It was the same room as I had sat when I was 17.
“That day brought stuff back to me.
“Ian looked like he hadn’t aged a day. He told me when I was 17 that it might affect me when I’m over 30. I’m 31 now.”
Niblock adds: “We got to the Ulster Club final in ’03… I was playing with a lot of teams and different sports back then. The cartilage went but it was the way I managed it afterwards.
“I was taking anti-inflammatory tablets and I was bluffing to Mickey Culbert. I got through Ulster before I got it operated on and Ian took the cartilage out and I remember him saying that I was very young to be getting an operation like that.
“I remember thinking if he stitched it up I’d be out for three or four months, and I knew if he took it out I would be back playing in two weeks. And I thought this was great.
“If I had looked after it then and not played in Ulster and taken time out… but at the same time you could see what the club was about in those days and I was going to do anything to play.
“That Monaghan game earlier this year, it was innocuous. I jumped for a ball and when I landed I hyper-extended it and I suffered bone bruising.
“Funny, my wife’s brother [Dermot McBride] got the same injury and he couldn’t get it right and he had to drop off the Derry panel.”
Niblock managed to get himself back on the pitch for some of Antrim’s Division Three games this season and laments the fact that his last game for his county may well have resulted in the team's desperately unfortunate relegation.
Longford grabbed a last-gasp draw at Corrigan Park last month that saw Antrim return to Division Four.
“One of the massive disappointments, whether I’ve kicked my last ball for Antrim or not, was the Longford game,” he says.
“I wasn’t thinking of Donegal, I wasn’t thinking of the summer, I was thinking about young players like Peter Healy and Odhran Eastwood – guys I trained at St Malachy’s – to be travelling to the likes of Waterford and these places next year.
“I would loved to have seen those boys playing on a Saturday night against Derry or Armagh because that’s the teams they deserve to be playing against.
“I do feel genuinely sorry for Gearoid and Frank too. One or two very small things and we could have and should have stayed in Division Three.”
Still an upper sixth, Niblock made his Championship against Louth in a 2004 Qualifier under club-mate PJ O’Hare. Throughout his 15-year association with Antrim, Niblock was one of the best players of his generation.
“Back in the day, the people you never wanted to come up against was your Aidan Hamills and your Andy McCallins,” says Culbert. “They were powerful footballers. Niblock would be in that category. I never saw any other footballer like him. He was just a powerhouse.”
Memorably, Niblock won an All-Ireland Club with St Gall’s in 2010 and represented Ulster in recent years.
He also played soccer at a high standard and was on Cliftonville’s books a couple of seasons ago before he returned to the Antrim fold in 2016 after a year away.
“Over the last 13 or 14 years football has been a huge part of my life,” Niblock says.
“You look at other people doing different things, going on holidays, but I don’t regret it. I consider myself to have had a good innings. I wouldn’t rule out playing for Antrim next year.
“I don’t feel I’m completely finished. It’s going to be a slow process with the bone bruise.
“If you fast-forward 12 months and I was in a good position I don’t know if I have kicked my last ball for Antrim.
“I wouldn’t come out and say I’m retired because that’s very definitive. One thing about the injury is it’s not going to dramatically improve and I have to think about the bigger picture.”
He adds: “My dad [Hugh] and my brothers play basketball every Wednesday and my dad is 65-plus and he’s playing away, he’s still got a shot and I sometimes think: ‘I’ll not be doing that when I’m his age.’
“I would like to have the option of playing some form of sport in five or 10 years and I wasn’t helping my cause with the things I was doing over the last couple of months.”