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Prominent GAA figures discuss the realities of retirement - The Irish News
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GAA Football

Prominent GAA figures discuss the realities of retirement

What do I do now? This is the question so many from the world of Gaelic Games have been left asking themselves when their sporting careers come to an end. Brendan Crossan talks to some prominent football and hurling figures about life after they hung up their boots...

Former Armagh manager Joe Kernan admits he suffered from a type of depression after ending his management career

Joe Kernan (former Armagh player and All-Ireland winning manager in 2002)

JOE KERNAN was afforded the luxury of his playing days reaching their natural conclusion. The 1977 All-Ireland finalist had his day, retiring after the 1987 season, and was happy to move into management.

But it was when his managerial days ended that Kernan hit a wall.

Nothing prepared the Crossmaglen man for the aftermath. He had experienced so many successes as Armagh and Crossmaglen manager.

Now 61, Armagh’s 2002 All-Ireland winning manager freely admits to taking anti-depressant tablets, prescribed by his doctor, for a couple of weeks before weaning himself off them.

“Whenever I quit managing after 16 or 17 years I was hyped because of the job I was doing,” Kernan explains.

“My mind was flying, so nothing really had changed between playing and managing.

“One morning I said to Patricia [his wife]: ‘Patricia, I’m not well here, I can’t get up or anything, there’s something wrong with me.’

“So I went to my doctor and he said: ‘Joe, do you not understand that you’ve been going 100 miles an hour for the last 16 or 17 years as a manager? And you’re still thinking of going at 100 mile an hour but your body is telling you something different.’

Kernan adds: “Everybody gets a small bit of depression. If you look at some of the soccer players in England – God rest him, people like Gary Speed – they couldn’t cope without doing what they were doing.

“My doctor put me on a month’s course of tablets. I was lucky because I realised the wee problems that I had and weaned myself off the tablets after two weeks. Those tablets are still in the box.

“It was obviously a type of depression that I had. I just hit a wall.

“I was able to cope but there are load of people that don’t get any help or don’t seek help.

Asked why he was so candid about his own experiences, Kernan said: “If it helps somebody else… If somebody has a problem there could be a simple answer to it. I was able to understand it, cope with and move on.”

Although Kernan has enjoyed roles with the International Rules and Inter-pros, he will never manage at inter-county level again.

“The jobs I’ve done since – the Railway Cup or the International Rules were for short periods of time.

“I was enthused for that but after doing county managing it’s a seven days per week job, it was all or nothing, and that’s the way you had to approach it. After it, there’s a vacuum there that you better be prepared for because it can hit you like a hammer on the head.”


Enda McGinley (ex-Tyrone and three-time All-Ireland winner)

WHEN it’s taken from you, it’s probably harder to accept. An old neck injury ended Enda McGinley’s playing career in 2013.

McGinley was 32. He still had aspirations of playing for Tyrone again. His retirement was ruthless as it was swift.

Since finishing, the three-time All-Ireland winner finds it exceptionally difficult to stay in shape and hasn’t yet found a substitute for playing football.

“I miss playing, terribly,” says McGinley.

“I was still pushing for club honours when my career just stopped. I was just building up for Championship in 2013 and I hurt my neck again, which was an old injury.

“And doctors told me to stop playing. I know it was the right decision but the fact I feel I’m still young and able enough to do something… So I’ve found it really, really tough.

“For me, there is a complete lack of interest in exercising. I loved training, I loved playing for so many years of my life. I was 12, 13 or 14-years-old when I really started pushing myself.”

He adds: “Every reason for exercising was football, and suddenly when you remove that… When I go out for a run there is no voice pushing me. That voice has just switched off, and it’s really annoyed me because I want to exercise, I want to be fit but my motivation has just gone.”

A physiotherapist and GAA analyst with BBC, McGinley is envious of those county players who wind down their playing days with their clubs. That way, the end seems natural.

“Most players I’ve talked to usually have two or three years with their club [after playing for their county] and they’re able to wind down.

“So you know when it is definitely the end, and they go through that process. They’ll take off the jersey for the last time, whereas for me there was more for me to achieve and I’m gutted about that.
“That’s been my experience and it makes it that bit more difficult.

“It’s learning how to cope with retirement. Some people take up cycling and there are great cycling clubs. But to go into a cycling club where people would be a lot better jars with me a wee bit because I’m used to competing at a reasonably high level.”

More recently, McGinley signed up to compete in a War Adventure Race and feels a slight spring in his step in training for the Donegal event.

“I would still have expectations of myself to at least be respectable in that race. Suddenly I’ve got a motivation to go and train again.”


Brendan Devenney (ex-Donegal and Gaelic football analyst)

THE end for Brendan Devenney was brutish. In 2008, the former Donegal ace kept breaking down after an unsuccessful hip operation.

Frustrated, the St Eunan’s, Letterkenny clubman decided to go for a second opinion and was told that he had to stop playing football immediately.

And yet, here was Devenney, a ball of energy, who used to play for Finn Harps on a Saturday and Donegal on a Sunday, being told that his career is over.

“After I got hip surgery I thought I would play another five or six years – and I never played again,” says Devenney.

“I tried to rehab and kept breaking down and then I went to see a doctor and he looked at the x-rays and he said: ‘You’ve to stop now.’”

Devenney remembers driving down the M1 and bursting into tears after digesting the news.

“I’d be driving a lot with my job and I’d hop straight out to training, pull on the shorts and tear out onto the pitch,” he says.

“I was always energetic and I thought that would always stand to me. I thought I was unbreakable at the time. The next thing I got the news that I couldn’t play again. So there was a short period of mourning but I was able to put it behind me because I’d so much to live for.”

He doesn’t miss the inter-county scene because on the “pivotal days” Donegal came unstuck.

“County football sickened me - I mean sickened me to the teeth because we’d come up against the likes of Armagh. They got organised, got stronger, got bigger and got ruthless at winning matches…
“But I’m quite real about stuff too because I feel I’ve been incredibly lucky. If I have to deal with something, I’ll deal with it.

“There are so many people out there who are worse off – that’s always in my mind. If that’s the time I had to retire, then that’s the time. Move on.”


Terence McNaughton (ex-Antrim hurler and Allstar)

“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 was afraid that Eastenders would be all that was left for me when I finished playing. I don’t think I have got over it or come to terms with not hurling any more. There is part of me that always wanted that buzz.

“That’s why I’ve always been jealous of golfers because you can play until they put you in the grave.

God gives me a talent and he only gives me it for 12 or 13 years!

“If you’re good at golf and are passionate about it, the same way I was passionate about hurling, you can still compete.

“I really enjoyed working with Cushendall teams and minor teams with Antrim over the years but there is no substitute for the smell of Deep Heat, the buzz you get the morning of a game and putting on ACDC… all those emotions, you really know you’re alive.

“I still miss it. I look at the Cushendall players [who have qualified for the All-Ireland series] and I’m thinking: ‘They’re lucky b******s.’ I’d still love to be playing in a county final. Give me a half an hour again.

“You’re sitting in the stand and you’re thinking: ‘I’d love to be involved in this.’ You might be a coach, you might be manager or a selector, but it’s not the same.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy with what I did. I’ve no regrets. I was the best I could have been. I don’t want this to sound big-headed.

“The era that I was born in I don’t think I could have been any better. Therefore I class myself as being successful. I didn’t win an All-Ireland and I’m not bitter about that.

“Time stands still for no man and I’m trying to pass on whatever knowledge I have to kids. If I can help my club or my county then that’s what I’ll do.

“But nothing will ever replace sitting in Croke Park for a game to start or sitting in Dunloy waiting for a county final. Feeling the butterflies in the pit of your stomach.

“You know that feeling when you’re thinking about something the last thing at night and the first thing in the morning? Outside of your family, there are very few things in life now that has you thinking that way. I mean, nobody thinks about their job last thing at night and the first thing in the morning. That feeling of excitement.

“But I’m not bitter, it doesn’t keep me awake at night. It doesn’t affect my life. It’s gone.

“A couple of Friday nights ago I was out with the Cushendall hurling team in the snow. Freezing, we were. But when you sit back in the car and you’re trying to get the heater going you know you’re 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 screw-driver.

“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 (ex-Derry footballer and 1993 All-Ireland winner)

“AT 25 or 26 I had a flourishing legal career, and that would’ve been typical of all the Derry boys; they had their own work careers going on.

“Back then, there would have been no question of putting your career on hold or not being able to work. For instance, the Downeys [Henry and Seamus] were building an empire of nightclubs and public houses.

“We trained hard of course, but we’d a normal life outside of football. When I reached the age of 28 or 29 I just had enough of driving up and down from Belfast to Owenbeg.

“I just got bored. You were playing the same teams. My playing career was ending on the cusp of when the demands were becoming too much: long team meetings and weekends… To me, it sucked the fun out of Gaelic football.

“Now, there were boys with a different attitude. You had another wing of the group personified by big Anthony [Tohill] who was blazing into a fantastic career. He had a highly professionalised attitude to the game and every aspect around it. But that wouldn’t have been for me. I just loved the football, playing the game, loved the boys and all that.

“Football, for me, was fun. I mean, I gave it everything that I had, to my mind.

“So at 29 I was glad to get out of it. And then Eamonn Coleman coaxed me back for another year and I regretted it. For me, it was over. It had all fizzled out. I loved Derry and I still love Derry – but enough was enough.

“As my county career was ending I was completely committed to the club [Kevin Lynch’s, Dungiven], I was really enjoying my football.

“I was getting such a kick out of the club. I played until I was 36. At that stage I had a bundle of youngsters and then St Brigid’s in Belfast had just been formed.

“I bumped into a fella called Conor McSherry from Gortin; he was taking St Brigid’s juniors. He asked me: ‘How do you fancy playing a bit of football again?’

I said: ‘Great.’

“And I really threw myself into it. At that stage I became very professional in my attitude to Gaelic football. I started doing lots of core work and I got a personal trainer for about nine months. That’s absolutely true! I ended up having a body like Bruce Lee! Seriously.

“My body shape totally changed. I wasn’t doing 120-mile round trips to training. Living in Belfast, our training was a mile away and you had time then, time to rest as well. But I also loved it, I loved this new adventure.

“We went from Division Four to Division One and it was great, playing against St Gall’s and giving them a good go. I was 38 or 39 and the rest of the boys were young.

“So, anyway, my career ended courtesy of a hospital pass by James Loughrey. James ran with the ball at break-neck speed and at that stage he had very little composure – certainly not the fine player he is today. Just look at his master-class against James O’Donoghue this year.

“I said to him three or four times: ‘Do not shovel those passes blind to me because you’re going to get me seriously hurt.’

“I’d be poised on his shoulder, ready to break through the defence, and needed the ball at the right time. But James was careless with this particular pass.

“It was against St John’s. I was playing centre half-forward. I was understanding the game a lot better. When I was playing for Derry, I just turned up and played.

“I was totally loving my football… So James put the pass slightly behind me and I thought I would get it and I was absolutely crunched. It was like a YouTube spectacular.

“My shoulder socket was damaged, I broke my collarbone and I damaged my cartilage. While I was holding the ball on the ground, James came over to me and I said: ‘I told you not to give me those passes.’ (laughing)

“I was very sorely vexed because that was the end for me. 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. I wasn’t depending on athleticism.

“I was vexed but it was a temporary thing. I don’t look back with regret at my career. I remember Kieran McGeeney telling me – at Eamonn Coleman’s funeral, God rest him – Kieran said: ‘You know, Joe, your career was an awful waste of talent.’

“I burst out laughing. But I didn’t have any regrets about it.”


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