Kevin Niblock can look back with pride on his Antrim days
I SPENT roughly 45 minutes on the phone with Kevin Niblock last Thursday afternoon.
A schoolteacher at St Malachy’s College, Kevin was on his lunch hour and was explaining the reasons why he was stepping away from the Antrim panel.
The story had broken in The Irish News that morning of his decision.
I've got to know Kevin over the years.
He took my call out of courtesy, not for attention.
Given the nature of his injury – bone bruising around the knee – the odds are stacked against him ever playing for his county again.
Kevin’s generally a quiet fella but when he starts talking, you'll find he's actually hard to stop.
You could tell he was really vexed by having to step down from the Antrim team and was reluctant to say that his county career was over.
But over the last few weeks, he realised he was spending too much time in the PEC swimming pool aqua-jogging and too little time on the training pitch.
When you still feel in your prime, retirement is an awful word because it’s so compellingly definitive.
I recall interviewing Diarmaid Marsden after he’d told Joe Kernan he was stepping away from the Armagh panel.
“I’m not retiring,” Marsden stressed. “I’m still playing for my club.”
Players are naturally sensitive to acknowledging that their time is over.
After all, playing sport is what defined them.
Of course, it very much depends on when a player retires.
For instance, Peter Canavan seemed at ease with his decision to retire from Tyrone in 2005.
“Whilst playing was great and I was getting a great buzz out of it, it was frustrating the amount of time I was having to put into it,” he told me.
“I felt I was never off the treatment table. From that point of view, it was a relief that it was coming to an end. I’d a great sense of satisfaction going out on such a high note [against Kerry in the 2005 All-Ireland final].”
Retiring from Errigal Ciaran was more difficult because that was the end.
“I could have played on with Errigal, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to contribute. That was very hard to take. When you’re bigger and stronger you can hang on and play longer. But when your strengths have been speed, agility and mobility, when they’re not there, it’s harder,” he said.
Canavan’s last game was a county championship replay defeat to Donaghmore in 2007. To fill the void he ran the Dublin marathon the following year.
“There was a sense of achievement when completing it, but to hobble around the streets of Dublin didn’t give me the same buzz as winning a Championship match.”
In 2015, I researched the whole issue of retirement with a number of top GAA figures.
Brendan Devenney revealed how he burst into tears after several failed attempts to recover from hip surgery.
Enda McGinley was forced to quit at 32 because of a neck injury.
“It’s harder when it’s taken away from you,” he said. “I found it really, really tough.”
Mattie McGleenan felt blessed to be playing for Tyrone up until 1999, eight years after having a disc removed from his back.
He felt on bonus territory and therefore retirement wasn’t such a wrench.
Terence McNaughton, to this day, misses hurling desperately.
“Retiring from hurling was deeply personal. I found it hard. Hurling gave you a purpose. Playing the game I loved, you knew you were alive...
“I don’t want to sit in the car-park waiting for B&Q to open on a Sunday afternoon at one o’clock to buy the latest screwdriver.
“I’m not the guy who washes his Volkswagen Golf on a Sunday morning ‘til it’s absolutely spotless. I was never that person. I miss playing hurling. I just miss playing the game I’m passionate about.”
Joe Brolly was equally devastated when a bad shoulder injury in a club game ended his playing days.
“I was very sorely vexed because that was the end for me,” Joe recalls. “I knew it was over then.
“I was 41. Before it happened I was thinking that there was no reason why I couldn’t play until I’m 50 because my game was skills-based, not power-based.”
With a bit of rest, it is possible Kevin Niblock will be able to play sporadically for St Gall’s over the coming seasons – which will provide some succour.
But stepping away from Antrim on the eve of the Ulster Championship must be gut-wrenching for the player.
Normally you bid farewell at the end of a campaign - not before it starts.
If it is the last we see of Niblock in the saffron jersey, he leaves behind a rich legacy whose association with the seniors stretches back to 2004.
To Antrim, he was worth his weight in gold. When he was fit for Championship, you felt Antrim always had a better chance.
He was the kind of player who left everything on the field.
As former St Gall’s manager Mickey Culbert said earlier this week, Niblock was the ideal team-mate.
“He’s a player you just love to have around you,” said Culbert. “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.”
There wasn’t always a lot of light playing for Antrim.
Their summers were characterised by early Championship exits and managerial changes.
But Niblock was a constant.
A rare breed of a man and a footballer, Niblock played with the same verve and determination regardless of what the scoreboard read.
Over the last 15 years, two performances stand out above all others.
One was Shane McNaughton’s inspirational display in last year’s All-Ireland Club final for Cushendall against Na Piarsaigh.
The Limerick side annihilated the Antrim champions but McNaughton was pure class from start to finish.
Likewise, Niblock produced a display of similar grace and inspiration against Tyrone in an Ulster Championship match at Casement Park in 2010.
The Red Hands cruised to a comfortable victory. But the best player on the pitch was Niblock. Not even Tyrone could argue with his man-of-the-match award.
In the following morning’s Irish News, his rating read: ‘It’s not often the best player emerges from the losing team, but the St Gall’s man was absolutely sublime from start to finish. Caught some great balls, set up a few scores and hit 1-1. Guts and skill in equal abundance.’
That neatly sums up Kevin Niblock's character and talent.
When he stops wrestling with the deep disappointment of a truncated county career, he should find some solace in how he played the game.
On his day, he was simply untouchable.