GAA Football

You take the setbacks personally: Conor Meyler on rebounding to meet his goals

Conor Meyler suffered a broken fibia last summer in Ballybofey but got himself fit to play in an All-Ireland final four weeks later. Picture by Seamus Loughran
Conor Meyler struggled to make underage and school teams until he was 17, and continued to suffer setbacks until his breakthrough with Omagh and Tyrone U21s in 2014. Now he's one of Mickey Harte's most trusted lieutenants. Cahair O'Kane spoke to him…

WHEN Conor Meyler hobbled out of MacCumhaill Park last August, that looked like it for the year.

The Omagh man had broken the fibia in his right leg. Twelve weeks was the prognosis. The All-Ireland final was just a month away, if Tyrone even got there. Too soon.

But his circuit board chewed on the diagnosis and spat it back out. Some men are just wired differently.

Conor Meyler would start the All-Ireland final. He would keep incoming Footballer of the Year, Brian Fenton, to just seven touches, and only two of them of any consequence.

He pulled the pin on work. Slept in an oxygen tent. Turned his brain to mush reading what nutrition would help bone repair. Rehab work three and four times a day. In the pool.

“Different machines, different things, the icing, whatever. My ones were sick of running down to the shop to get ice,” he recalls.

Anything. Everything.

He concedes now he wasn’t 100 per cent. It wasn’t the injury itself that hampered him, but the lack of game time and ball handling between the win over Donegal and the final, where he was taken off at half-time.

The way he tailed Fenton like a homing pigeon was masked by being turned over a couple of times on the ball himself, particularly towards the end of the half. The sharpness in the mind just wasn’t quite there for a game of that magnitude.

“Fitness wasn't an issue, it's that thing that you can do all the training in the world but if you're not playing matches it's a completely different game.

“You’re going into an All-Ireland final like that, it can be tough. You have split-seconds to make decisions on the ball, that’s what probably let me down more so.

“But to be there, to get the chance to walk out, it’s always the vision I had in my head to be able to walk out in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day. That was that ticked, I didn’t regret it.”

If that sounds a tad selfish, then so be it. It hadn’t been an easy road to the number 12 shirt on All-Ireland final day.

His father, Seanie, was a former county star himself, a Sigerson Cup winner – as Conor now is too – and a big man in terms of sport in Omagh.

Between the local GAA and athletics clubs, Seanie’s hatchling didn’t lick his athleticism off the grass.

It was largely cross-country and road-running for Conor until he was 17, competing at national level. Building the base of personal motivation and resilience that an individual athlete has is something he would highly recommend.

“It gives you a great base for the football. When you're out running on your own, some days it's hard to go out and pull on the shoes or the spikes, and it's gruelling, especially cross country.

“You'll never feel as tired as after a race like that.”

Only for the fact that Omagh St Enda’s had a ‘B’ team at U14, he might well have been lost to the game.

Seanie Meyler was in with the ‘A’ team that won an U16 championship in Conor’s year, but he wasn’t near it.

“I was down in the ‘B’ team, playing teams in Division Three and Four, getting tanked.”

He didn’t make any Tyrone underage panels, didn’t make many school teams. When he was 17, he decided to have a proper cut at football and tried to get on the county minor panel.

“You checked the Tyrone website and your name wasn’t on a 35-man panel. That’s how you find out. It’s a setback.

“The school MacRory team, I played a lot of the league games then got dropped for the championship.

“Tyrone U21s a year young, played the league games and got dropped for the championship against Cavan.

“First year of senior football, a couple of injuries and we’d a bad year, I actually played reserve championship that year.

“All those wee things, you probably take it personally and use it to motivate yourself. It’s probably stood to me well, because at 18 when you’re not on a 35-man panel, two years later only myself and Mark Bradly started against Kerry in an All-Ireland semi-final.”

Different eyes see different things. Laurence Strain gave him a chance in the Omagh senior side in 2014. They would win Tyrone and end up in the Ulster final.

Meyler was man-of-the-match against Crossmaglen in the semi-final, and put the clampers on Slaughtneil’s driving force, Chrissy McKaigue, in a final that was only stripped away from Omagh in stoppage time.

He’d been in the Tyrone U21 setup in 2014, and he would play a key role in their unexpected All-Ireland success in 2015.

Mickey Harte liked what he saw and threw Meyler in and for a championship debut in a qualifier against Tipperary. That Meyler had evolved so quickly from failing to make club underage and school teams was simply down to one thing: attitude.

“I think dealing with these setbacks has helped over the years. Talking to children at camps these days about setbacks and resilience, I don’t think they fully understand how important it is at a younger age to deal with these things.

“You can look and blame other people and make excuses, this ‘victim mentality’ that it’s everyone else’s fault, or you can do something about it yourself. I would be more that way inclined.”

* * * * * * * *

IT was with the under-21s for those two years that Conor Meyler really felt the step-up came.

“You wanted to win every run, be the first man at each drill,” he says now, sitting in what has been Peter Donnelly’s office in Garvaghey.

He first properly encountered Donnelly when they were on opposing sides. The Coalisland man was still with Cavan when they met at U21 level in 2014.

“I came on as a sub. The fella I was marking, Pete was shouting to him: ‘Conor Meyler, left foot, solo dummy, bounce’. He knew us as well as anyone.

“That was the big thing with Peter, his preparation and knowledge and that finer detail.”

Donnelly returned home, Meyler came under his wing and with his own background in athletics, set about priming his body. He could cover the ground alright at 21, but it was taking the hits.

The Tyrone strength and conditioning coach is now an employee of Ulster Rugby and while he’s sticking with Tyrone until the end of this season, there is an understandable degree of angst that this might be the last they see of him.

“I’m selfish in a sense, in that we’re not thinking right now of the loss he’ll be to the minors and U20s. We’re thinking of ourselves and we’re happy that he’s there every night and there at every single game.

“When Peter speaks, you listen, because whatever he says is gold. Your ears perk up. He’s a fantastic motivator.

“Hopefully for 2020, they can work something, the county board and Peter can find a way he can work both things.

“Because he will be a serious loss if he was to leave totally. I don’t think there’s anybody at the minute who’s capable of filling those boots.”

It was under Feargal Logan, Peter Canavan and Donnelly that this generation really began to blossom.

They had been Ulster minor champions in 2012, and within two years, eight of them were playing U21 football a year early.

In total, Tyrone have brought through a 14 players from the U21s of 2014 and ’15 that have gone on to form a regular part of their senior squad. That’s a massive number to get from any team, but Meyler believes it’s down to the lessons they learned at that age.

“That was the benchmark left at U21 level, this is where you’re expected to be at and this is what we expect of you as county players.

“Learning that at that age meant the transition to senior level was so easy that you’re coming into it expecting the standard.

The more of us came through, it lifted that standard and brought some of the older fellas along, they maybe realised this was the next generation and if I want to keep with them, I’ll have to up things a bit.

“That was the standard set for the U21 teams of the last couple of years as well, we probably weren’t tipped to win an All-Ireland at that level and exceeded expectation because we took care of such small things really well.

“We had a lot of those fellas were underage the following year, and to have fellas in a year young, for their physical development it’s a big thing.

“A lot of them came through the following year again, Frank [Burns], Cathal [McShane], then Michael McKernan’s a couple of years younger, and Lee Brennan.

“You’re setting the benchmark each year of what you want your U20s to be doing each year, setting an example for the next level in terms of the standard of football they’re leaving.

“We’re very lucky in Tyrone, we’ve fantastic academies and great coaches who are pulling players through. I was down with U14s, U15s, U16s last week and there’s some cracking players there.

“The conveyor belt has to keep coming, and you can’t afford to lose some of these players at that age as well. Hopefully things are bright for the future.”

If they all took the same attitude to life as Conor Meyler, Tyrone football will be grand.

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