The Miracle Man: From the end of days in Cavan to an All-Ireland semi-final with Nemo Rangers, Paddy Gumley's is a road less travelled
Thirteen years ago Paddy Gumley was playing junior football in Cavan. Nine years ago he was told it was all over as a result of a rare heart condition. Today he lines out for Munster champions Nemo Rangers in an All-Ireland semi-final at 35, one step away from the promised land. Neil Loughran hears his amazing story...
FROM the moment the sensation finds its familiar rhythm, the countdown begins. The heart is now beating faster, breaths have become shorter, the head feels lighter.
It wasn’t a regular occurrence by any means, but happened often enough for Paddy Gumley to know the drill.
Thirty five seconds, forty max – that’s all the time he had to get out of dodge. To find a safe place where he could pass out far from prying eyes.
“It used to happen to me from I was maybe 12 or 13. So if I was in school, standing at PE, I’d feel the dizziness coming on and the shortness of breath and I’d go to the toilet, close the door and flake out.
“I’d come through in maybe two or three minutes and nobody would ever cop it because I’d be out of there.”
And normally that worked a treat. Eventually the breathing would settle, the heart would calm and the head would clear.
But one night things didn’t go to plan, the gift of bad timing an unwelcome addition to an unfortunate series of events that threatened to end a football career just beginning to gather momentum.
AT 26, it was an opportunity he wasn’t sure would come. There was a time when he wouldn’t have cared whether he played for Cavan or not.
Paddy Gumley had fallen out of love with the game to such an extent that in 1998, aged 15, he knocked it on the head completely. Six years were spent pursuing other interests, during which time he temporarily relocated from the village of Redhills to Cork city to do an apprenticeship in fabricating.
He didn’t lace up his boots for Cork IT – that part of his life had been left behind. But upon his return home a few years later a friend cajoled Gumley, now 21, to come back down to Max McGrath Park for training.
“I had lost all interest, and when I did go back one night I thought it’d be like when I left, but I’d two years of a nightmare.
“I’d say I was 23 by the time I was playing decent football again. I missed probably all my development years as a footballer.”
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and this was especially true in Gumley’s case. After six years without kicking a ball in anger, barely even watching a game, he became – by his own admission – a complete GAA nerd.
“I’d say I nearly became OCD about it,” he laughs.
His return to the field coincided with the emergence of the great Tyrone team of the Noughties. Gumley studied their every move as they swept to All-Ireland titles in 2003, ’05 and ‘08.
Around the same time a club called Nemo Rangers had brought the Andy Merrigan Cup back to the Rebel County after losing the previous two finals.
Coached by the legendary Billy Morgan, Gumley watched in awe as men like Colin Corkery, Derek Kavanagh and Larry Kavanagh led Nemo back to the top of the tree.
Something was building in Redhills too. They won a junior championship in 2005, followed by an intermediate title three years later.
After the rustiness that followed his hiatus, Gumley was getting back to himself, scoring for fun and enjoying making up for lost time.
His form hadn’t gone unnoticed either. Ex-Dublin star Tommy Carr was in his first year in charge of Cavan when he called Gumley into the panel for the 2009 Dr McKenna Cup campaign.
At 26 he was a latecomer to the inter-county scene but training had gone well, he was growing in confidence and had more than held his own with the best the Breffni County had to offer.
A promising future in the famous blue jersey lay ahead - and then bang.
The heart was now beating faster, breaths had become shorter, the head felt lighter. Carr was in the middle of a team meeting and the 35 seconds were running down fast.
“This night we were training in Virginia I felt it coming on, and I thought ‘f**k it, I better get out of here’, but I didn’t want to walk out because Tommy was in the middle of chatting.
“Just as I was ready to say to him that I had to go, Eddie Reilly or Gerald Pierson came in to ask him something. I went to say ‘I have to go here’ but I couldn’t get the bloody words out.
“I got as far as ‘Tommy, I have to go to the...’ and that was it. That was the first time anyone had ever witnessed it.”
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM as it is better known, was the official diagnosis.
Commonly a hereditary disease, though not in Gumley’s case, it is caused by an enlarged muscle in the heart which makes it harder to pump blood out and around the body.
When the blood can’t get out quickly enough it can lead to all the symptoms Gumley suffered. Likelihood of such episodes is also heightened by physical exertion, and the winter training with the county was a level up from anything he had experienced before.
After collapsing in front of his team-mates, Gumley feared the end of his playing days. An appointment with Dr Joseph Galvin of the Mater Hospital in Dublin did little to assuage those concerns.
“Joe Galvin’s the top guy and he said ‘no, not a hope, you’re finished Paddy. There’s nothing you can do about it’. He told me to detrain, so I went away and did nothing for about six months, didn’t even jog, and then when I went back to him it was the same and he said ‘sorry Paddy, that’s it’.
“I kept asking... I was so gutted. I was only back playing football decently for three or four years, I was getting on well in the Cavan team, getting a place in the McKenna Cup, things were only starting to go well for me and then they were taking it all away.”
As a last roll of the dice Dr Galvin referred Gumley to London-based Professor Bill McKenna, one of the world's leading experts in inherited heart diseases, but warned that he could face a lengthy wait.
Then fate intervened.
“Joe said the chances of getting to see him in six months were slim, but I got a cancellation.
“I went over to London and did a load of tests. He confirmed I had it [HCM], but that I was at the low end and because I was young, if football meant as much to me as I told him it did, then go back but don’t abuse it.”
And here he is, preparing for the biggest game of his life this afternoon.
Nine years after being told it was all over Paddy Gumley, at the ripe old age of 35, stands on the cusp of a remarkable Cinderella story – one which could yet have a fairytale ending.
JUST short of four hours if you head up the M8 before coming off at Portlaoise, a bit longer if you take the scenic route. No matter what route you venture though, the journey from Cork to Redhills can be an unforgiving one.
Twice a week for 12 months Paddy Gumley packed up his training gear, got in the car and hit the road. Work, and a woman, had brought him back to the city he had called home a decade previous.
A sales rep for Lucozade, based in Wexford for a time before relocating to the Rebel County, long hours spent travelling Ireland’s highways and byways was familiar terrain.
“They wanted someone with a bit of experience in Cork city and I had three mates from my home village living and working down here.
“I had served my time in Cork in the past, I liked the city and ended up going back, met a lassie down here, and then was going up and down to Cavan.
“Your club’s your club, and I never really thought anything of it. My big regret was missing out on those years and I probably tried to get as much out of it as I could.”
The years he refers to are not just those from 15 to 21, but also the ones spent travelling after the health scare that spelled the end of his inter-county career before it had even begun.
Gumley headed to Australia in 2010, and a couple of summers later spent some time working at a friend’s timber yard in Brewton, Alabama. He strongly considered staying on too before finding the call of home impossible to resist.
After seeing out the 2015 season with Redhills, a 33-year-old Gumley walked away a satisfied man, the boots hung up for a final time. Or so he thought.
Little did he know there was still one remarkable, majestic chapter yet to be written.
“As far as I was concerned that was my lot at Gaelic football,” he says, “but then I only live down the road from Nemo…”
Nemo Rangers. Fifteen times Munster champions, with seven of those campaigns ending in All-Ireland glory. The club he had followed on its way to the 2003 title.
Their base just outside Douglas was but a stone’s throw away when compared with the motorway marathon to his native county, so why not?
“Normally they talk about the underage system but I came through the overage system, playing with the junior Cs, the Bs, the As and the intermediates, then was asked to give the seniors a go.
“It wasn’t something I expected.”
Gumley played “bits and pieces” in his first year before forcing his way into the starting 15 at the start of this campaign. Despite seven years without a provincial title, there was a growing feeling that Nemo was about to rise again.
They needed a replay to get past St Finbarr’s in the Cork final before Limerick champions Adare were swept aside at the last four stage in Munster.
Waiting in the final were Dr Croke’s, the Kerry aristocrats and reigning All-Ireland champions who counted the extravagant talents of former Kingdom star Colm Cooper among their number.
Even the great 'Gooch’ had to spend the day in the shade, though, as Gumley delivered a playmaking masterclass at Pairc Ui Rinn.
He popped up here, there and everywhere, having a hand in several scores and almost creating a goal when his sumptuous pass found Luke Connolly in space, only to be denied by an acrobatic Shane Murphy save.
Gumley bagged three points himself on the day, with one in particular setting social media alight as Nemo’s silver fox sold Croke’s corner-back John Payne the cutest of dummies before sending the ball over the black spot with the outside of his left boot.
It was a moment of beauty on a day when everything the men in black and green touched turned to gold.
“Everything just went right for us. We didn’t do a whole pile wrong, but that had been coming and it was well deserved. It’s not easy at my age, my powers have waned a right bit. It’s probably adrenaline and the games you’re in that keep you fresh.
“You can see with Slaughtneil they want to play the best and in Nemo, you can see it took the Croke’s game to get the best out of us.
“Our management has brought this group a long way from the U21s, they’re over the senior team four or five years. I couldn’t talk highly enough of Nemo Rangers, it’s an exceptional club.
“It’s not that big a club in terms of member numbers, but each one of them all give back. Billy Morgan treats every man the same. I’ve read that many articles on him I felt like I knew him already.
“But there’s no magic formula. Everybody wants to know Brian Cody’s secret, Slaughtneil’s secret, Nemo’s secret – a lot of those good clubs, the simplest things are done very, very well. Competition drives everybody on and Nemo are blessed with that.”
And while the young guns driving Nemo can look forward to creating years’ worth of memories, Paddy Gumley knows his race is almost run, the words of Professor Bill McKenna never too far from his thoughts.
“Go back but don’t abuse it”
There are more important things in life than football – he knows that now more than ever.
Happily settled with partner Eoileann, their baby son Sean turned one on February 15. Already he has visited some of Munster’s most sacred soil, blissfully unaware of, but still a huge participant in, some of the best days of his father’s life.
“He’s been at them all, he’s been in Pairc Ui Chaoimh, Pairc Ui Rinn, Portlaoise now... he’s done well for us.”
Throughout this remarkable run Gumley has played every game as though it were his last because that’s exactly what it could be.
If Nemo bow out to Slaughtneil today, he’ll clock in his card and call it a day.
Then there’s the alternative - the very idea of such a meandering, stop-start career finishing off with an All-Ireland final at Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day almost too much to ponder.
“If I even thought that far…” he says, his voice tailing off, “I think that would be more intimidating to walk out on that field in a pair of studs.
“I always say isn’t it terrible that U2 and all these people get to play there but most club footballers never get to.
“I’ve walked across it once or twice when you used to be allowed out on to the field but that’s as good as it got. If that was to happen, that one thing out of the whole journey, I’d probably be saying ‘I need to wake up here’.”
For now though, the dream lives on. The dream of proving the doubters wrong. The dream of fulfilling all the ambitions in a way the young Paddy Gumley could never have imagined.
And the dream of giving baby Sean one more day out on the biggest stage of all.