GAA Football

Conor Meyler: flicking the switch and playing with 'sweat' and 'courage'

Tyrone's Conor Meyler being chased by Mayo's Paddy Durcan in the 2021 All-Ireland final Picture: Seamus Loughran

Conor Meyler remembers the hard days, flicking a switch and climbing the summit to become an All-Ireland champion. The Tyrone ace speaks to Brendan Crossan...

 

CONOR Meyler and Paddy Durcan were expecting one another. An eagerly awaited dalliance on the greatest stage of all.

With an out-stretched hand and a firm hand-shake, Meyler and Durcan smiled at each other before the ball was thrown up.

‘You're in bother today,’ smiled Meyler.

'We’ll see,' said Durcan. 'May the best man win. Let’s go.'

“Throughout the final there were wee moments where we were smiling at each other, both of us loving the battle,” says Meyler.

“We were talking during the game too - not anything personal… I would say to him: ‘Five minutes have passed and you haven’t touched the ball.’”

In the 22nd minute, Lee Keegan makes an outrageous charge down the left-hand side of the field.

Surrounded by Tyrone jerseys, the Mayo defender still manages to off-load the ball to Ryan O’Donoghue who switches the play with a fine kick pass to Oisin Mullen.

The ball is spirited to Durcan who has time and space to pop it over Tyrone’s bar at the Hill 16 end.

“I actually dispossessed Keegan,” Meyler says, “and he still managed to get it back and the ball was sent over to Paddy Durcan who hits a great point.

“Durcan turns to me and says: ‘That was your f***ing fault!’”

Amid the chaos of the All-Ireland final, Meyler smiles at the bits of passing conversation two great adversaries shared.

It was the only time Durcan didn’t have Meyler breathing down his neck or where the Mayo wing-back wasn't chasing down Tyrone’s number 10.

“After the game, Durcan said to me: ‘Credit to you, you played a very good game.’

“After games I try and shake every player’s hand, and thank them, almost to say: ‘Thank you for that battle’, because I love that, I love the battle. I went to Paudie Clifford of Kerry after the game and he said: ‘You’ve a big future…’”

At times during this interview, the whole year feels like an out-of-body experience for Meyler.

He looks genuinely surprised when he rhymes off the calibre of player he tamed – and more - this summer: Ryan McHugh (Donegal), Ryan McAnespie (Monaghan), Paudie Clifford (Kerry) and Paddy Durcan (Mayo).

Meyler was awesome every day he went out onto the field.

A GAA Allstar in waiting, and there won’t be a syllable of dissent should the affable and softly spoken 26-year-old land the Player of the Year gong too.

***********

WE’RE in the heart of Dungannon on a sunny Friday afternoon - just six days after Tyrone clinched their fourth All-Ireland title in Croke Park.

After a couple of failed forays, Meyler finally locates a quiet café. He settles for the Grind House on Thomas Street – a sufficient distance away from the busy hub of the town.

Situated at a glass-fronted window seat, he is roughly 20 minutes early for this interview that was loosely arranged - win, lose or draw - a week or so before the Kerry game.

Those spare 20 minutes alone in the café were probably the first time the Omagh man has been able to breathe out following some of the most tumultuous weeks of his life.

So, we press rewind and retrace some historic steps. The final whistle sounds. Tyrone have reached the Holy Grail.

Meyler becomes an All-Ireland senior champion for the first time.

He breaks free of the celebrations with his team-mates and races down to where his family are in the stand.

Bedlam and unbridled joy – just like it was when his father and him ran across the pitch in ’05.

Absolutely everything has paid off.

Those lonely runs to the gym and trying to beat his best times on the way home. Running up and down the hills beside his house. Training and learning little life lessons along the way from his father, Seanie.

The injuries. The comebacks. And more injuries. The damn injuries.

Feeling "completely broken" at different times during 2016 and '17 and wanting to cut off his hamstrings. Training and obsessing. Always obsessing.

Trying to find his "authentic" self. Beating himself up. Being too risk-averse on the field of play.

The elation of club championship glory with St Enda's, Omagh in 2014 and '17.

The U21 class of Tyrone in 2015. How Sigerson football moulded him - and climbing the mountain with St Mary's in 2017.

Meditating on the upstairs landing and family members stepping over him – ‘Ah, that’s Conor just being Conor’.

The cold baths every night to aid his sleep, taping his mouth for nasal breathing and working on ribcage movement.

Ah, and the 'f*** it' switch that liberated him. “Thank you, Drewe…”

The next memory he has is sitting on the famous turf with Peter Harte.

“I always said I’d take in these moments and enjoy it. Myself and Petey Harte would be close – we’d be pretty similar in mind-sets at times – and we had a moment down in front of the Hill.

“We sat on the grass with Petey’s child and people came and went; a lot of the other guys were parading around the pitch, then the crowd started chanting mine and Petey’s name and I thought this was so, so surreal.

“I never thought I’d hear people chanting my name…”

In the changing room on the bottom floor of the Hogan Stand, Meyler seeks out backroom team members whom he’s tortured for the last number of months. People who went the extra mile for him.

He wants to thank them individually. Marty McGirr, the performance analyst, physios Marty Loughran and Louis O’Connor, and masseuse Brian Sally.

In the mind's eye, which image will stay with him from the All-Ireland winning changing room?

“Standing in the corner on top of the seats and my arm around Petey Harte and the two of us just watching, just trying to take it all in.”

The engines of the team buses are beginning to stir.

Conor Meyler is one of the last players to emerge from the back of the changing room. He stops and chats to a couple of reporters about his journey – about ‘Sweat’ and ‘Courage’ and being true to himself.

Night has fallen on the capital. The team buses honk their horns for the small band of Tyrone supporters awaiting them on Jones’s Road.

On the way up the road to the Armagh City Hotel, Meyler decides to put the beers on hold and has a good chat with Richie Donnelly.

Hundreds of supporters greet them at the gates of the hotel.

“I went upstairs, got changed and down for food. You were eating a starter at one o’clock in the morning – and that was us,” he says.

“It was just family and girlfriends there. It was good to see the likes of Mickey Harte there who spoke really well and Peter Canavan as well – a lot of people who’d done a lot for Tyrone football over the years. After that the next four days merge into one.”

***********

THE homecoming at Healy Park was special. Meyler on holy ground. And Coalisland was rocking.

“You actual felt like a rock star or something,” he smiles. “Just red and white everywhere, people jumping up and down, the stage was shaking…

“My phone – I can’t even describe – I had not hundreds of messages but thousands between texts, WhatsApps, Instagram, Twitter… I deleted all my social media before the game because it was just a distraction, and people were talking about the Kerry game and how well I played.

“Now, I was dealing with expectation where people were expecting me to perform. That’s why I deleted all of it. No bullshit.

“Even before the final I was asked to wear new boots. I wear Mizuno boots. I think Michael O’Neill and me are the only two players in Ireland who wear Mizuno Boots [laughing]. The two of us just don’t care. I’m going to wear what’s comfortable. You get some slagging from the rest of the boys.

“Any ambassador work that I’m doing it’s because I believe in their brand. I’ve been asked to do some crazy things lately and I said ‘no’ because I didn’t believe in what they were doing and wasn’t going to share their stuff on social media.”

Even though Meyler had clocked up more than 30 Championship appearances – over 70 appearances in total – it was only this year that the GAA public began to sit up and take notice of him.

Whenever Meyler was fit, Mickey Harte invariably picked him.

In fact, he was the youngest player (aged 20) in the 2015 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kerry.

So, what changed in 2021? Was there a light-switch moment? In a manner of speaking, yes.

Let’s go back to those injury-ravaged years of 2016 and ’17.

“There was fear in my game for years,” he says. “It maybe was the imposter syndrome too. I wanted people to like me, I wanted to feel accepted but the injuries were the crux of it. I put everything into football, football was my identity at the time. It was a case of ‘If I don’t have this, who am I?’

“I was completely broken because the injuries were wrecking my head. I felt I had to keep doing more. I was relentless. I used to run from the house to the gym, do a gym session, and run home timing myself and trying to beat my best time. Late nights I’d run up and down the hill at my house.

“But this year there was no fear because I could accept losing, I could accept being the man who missed a shot, I could accept all that. It’s still just a game – it doesn’t define me.

“My identity isn’t ‘Conor Meyler – the footballer’. It used to be.”

Earlier in the year, he stumbled across an England-based coach on LinkedIn by the name of Drewe, an ex-professional footballer.

He signed up for his boot camp via zoom and it changed the way he looked at life and football. This guy was different, “authentic”.

“He’s very different to any coaches I’ve worked with, and I’ve worked with plenty in the past. He was all about finding yourself and you’ll end up playing better as a result of that, and playing without fear.

“We talked about the ‘F*** it’ switch – whatever happens, f*** it, just go for it. He was being himself all the time. The only thing you can do is be yourself and whatever happens, happens.

“We talked about me marking Paddy Durcan ahead of the All-Ireland final.

“He’s one of the best half-backs in Ireland. He’s had the most assists for Mayo this year, the most possessions. He wants to win the game as much as I do. I could go out and get roasted in the first five minutes; I could get sent off, the referee could make a mistake.

“How do I know what’s going to happen? I don’t. But what I’m going to do is I’m going to go out and play with ‘Sweat’ and ‘Courage’ [two words he began writing on his wrists before games].

“‘Sweat’ is to grit and grind and graft and I’m going to give absolutely everything; I’m going to be tenacious, do everything I can. That’s the sweat. And the ‘Courage’ is play with freedom. If there’s a ball to be played go for it. That’s why I was one of the highest kick passers, whereas people were saying Conor Meyler is a ‘hand passer’ or he’s a ‘runner’.

“Like, for Cathal’s goal in the final, I wouldn’t have tried that kick pass last year or two years ago. And it’s not Feargal [Logan] or Brian [Dooher] saying: ‘Have a go.’ That’s just me backing myself - flicking the f*** it switch and whatever happens here, happens.”

Shaking his head and with a bottle of water in his hands, Meyler says: “When I sit back and reflect on it, the players I’ve marked this year, it’s actually incredible.”

Not only did he nullify all comers in 2021, he outscored them in the possession stakes too.

Meyler was a ‘Jack of all trades’ and master of them all. He broke down opponents and broke out with the ball with sumptuous poise and precision.

“Sometimes it was me going to management and asking who they wanted me to mark before games because I wanted to know and they’d maybe give me a couple of options.

“By that stage I’ve watched clips on all of them. You’ve maybe 100 clips on each player. I’ll not sit and watch them all. But you’re watching for things they do when they get the ball, if they turn the same way.

“Some players will bring you into full-forward, so I would have played full-back in training at times and marked boys like Mark Bradley.”

He adds: “I was asked the other day who was the best player I marked all year and I said, Mark Bradley. That’s a fact. He toasted me in the week of the Kerry game. His movement is off the charts.”

***********

TWO hours have passed in the blink of an eye. The café is a little busier than when he arrived. Coffee pots clatter and angry steam shoots from behind the counter as the light Friday afternoon chatter rises.

Here he is, Conor Meyler, shooting the breeze on Thomas Street and enjoying the anonymity of the day.

Tyrone have reached the summit. What now? You can’t climb thin air.

“It’s a good question,” he replies.

He pauses for a good 10 seconds or more.

“When you reach the summit, where do you go from there? It’s been something I’ve been thinking about and something I spoke about to a previous All-Ireland winner. Somebody said to me: ‘You’re now being hunted…’

“There was a good podcast where Paul McGinley talked about it and being captain of the Ryder Cup team. Europe had won something like seven out of the last nine.

“He put up the list of the all-time winners and showed how many America had won and said: ‘We’re still the hunters’. Tyrone have only won four in the all-time All-Ireland list. We’re chasing Kerry. We’re chasing Dublin.

“We’re trying to close the gap. I find it fascinating.

“That’s why I have so much admiration for teams that do back-to-back. I reached out to Limerick hurler because I loved the way he played the game.

“In my very short conversation with him, he said Limerick still feels they’re hunting Kilkenny...

“It’s how you frame that mind-set. I think we’ve got good people in our backroom team who will keep us very grounded. We have players who aren’t happy because they’re not getting on the team, and that’s good.

“I think our toughest task next year will be getting out of Ulster and that’s where you can get caught.”

You ask him to gaze further down the road and what he hopes to achieve.

"Professionally, I’d love to be a lecturer one day and try to inspire others. But just to be a good person. I just want to be a good friend and have good people around me. I’ve an unbelievable girlfriend who is so understanding and I’m so thankful to her…

“I think it’s more important to be a good person and the football will come. I really believe that.

“If your life is good off the pitch and things are in place with your family, relationships, friends, work and you’re in a good place it takes all the pressure and stress away and you can go and enjoy your football.

“I realised this year that it’s not that football is not as important to me, but football is not who I am, it’s just part of what I do, and it’s a game. I mean, let’s strip it right back – it’s a just game.

“Sporting-wise, what do I want to achieve? You’ve young cubs in the club now and they want to play for Tyrone one day because they just see you as Conor who takes their training.”

Nobody has worked harder in reaching the summit.

Now that he's there and taking in huge gulps of air, you can be sure Conor Meyler will find other mountains to climb…

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