Just about keeping all the balls in the air
HANDBALL:As he enters his last world championships, Paul Brady is that bit more relaxed while still in search of perfection
THIS WASN’T supposed to happen. It wasn’t part of the plan. By now, Paul Brady was meant to be tapering down and zoning in. Nobody has ever won four world 40x20 handball titles in a row before – indeed, only Brady himself has ever won three – and this one, starting next weekend in Citywest, will be his attempt at a final curtain.
It’s a chance to walk off the world stage as the greatest player the sport has ever seen and, crucially, to do so in Ireland, rounding out the circle that started with his first title in Croke Park back in 2003.
His schedule this week should be ticking off nothing more than training, eating and rest.
But life gets in the way. With time just about up in last Sunday’s Cavan county final and a point between the teams, referee Joe McQuillan pinged the Kingscourt goalkeeper for time-wasting on the game’s last kick-out.
He hopped the ball on the 14-metre line and although Brady came up with the break, he was mystified when he heard a whistle and saw McQuillan give his side Mullahoran a free-in to draw the game.
“I didn’t know until after that somebody came in and punched the hop ball, even though they weren’t one of the two boys that it was thrown up between. So we got a free and now we have the replay on Sunday. It’s probably a bit of a distraction.
“But it’s a very emotional thing. People who don’t play GAA probably wouldn’t understand it and would be asking, ‘well, why are you playing at all’? And actually, if I was younger, I probably would have left it. But, realistically, it’s probably my last chance at a county title.
“I’m 33, just turned 33 a couple of weeks ago. I’m not going to play any more after this. If we win I’ll play another year, but that will be it. It’s just not worth it.”
Mullahoran haven’t won a county title since 2006. Go further back and their 1998 title is the only one they’ve won since the early 1960s. A replay in Breffni Park tomorrow after they pulled it out of the fire the last day is a Kavanagh-style epic, gods making their own importance.
In other years, Brady has put so much of himself into the pursuit of perfection on a handball court that he’s been able to detach a little. Not this time though. He’s lived in Dublin for most of the last decade, but moved home earlier this year to be about the house as his mother overcame illness.
On top of that, Mullahoran has had to deal with two tragic deaths over the summer and everything is still pretty raw in the club.
Piece by piece, he’s allowed more of himself to be more of home this time.
“I’m more attached to the place this year than ever. At the early stages of the championship, that made it more enjoyable. But as it comes to the conclusion, it’s a bit more stressful. I was so focussed on handball over the years that I would have kept people at a certain distance even when I went back to the club.
“In recent years, I’ve become a bit more relaxed and I’ve been able look at it in the sense of having to incorporate more things into my life.
“So I’m probably a bit more involved with the area now and I guess team-mates who maybe would have seen me as a distant character before aren’t as put off now. All in all, I think I have been a bit more drained because the way this year has gone, we have all had to reach out a bit more as a community.”
Once it’s done, he’ll head for the city and get down to business.
It’s not ideal but it can’t be helped. Handball has owned him for as far back as he can remember, but its grip on him is starting to loosen.
He says these will be his last world championships and then, if he can follow up with his 10th All-Ireland title next year, he’ll leave it at that. He has to.
“It’s the sacrifices. It’s just not a normal life. Other people can integrate their lives into playing, but I find it’s all or nothing. I suppose it just depends on personalities.
“And while I have done a decent job over the past couple of years of incorporating other areas of life – teaching and things like that – unless I can be fully focussed on it I don’t really get the same out of it.
“When I’m playing handball, I just don’t have time to do other things. Maybe I should try to make time, but then I wouldn’t get the same feeling out of the handball. Even if I won, I would still feel that I didn’t put everything into it.”
There’s a restlessness about Brady, a discontent with what is and a drive for what could be.
His intercounty career with Cavan stretched out over a decade, but brought mostly sadness and hurt that he knew wasn’t shared by everyone around him or above him.
His last dance in a Cavan shirt was a demolition by Cork in a 2010 qualifier in Páirc Uí Chaoimh when he came on at half-time with Cavan already 11 points down.
Afterwards, some local kids looked for his autograph.
“They were obviously handball players,” he says. “It was just so humiliating.
“I would think a lot. I analyse a lot. I read a lot of books and try to work out the deeper side of life. I read a lot of psychology books. I made peace a long time ago that this was the course my life was going to take and I was very happy and content at the decisions that I made.
“I wasn’t always like that and in my early 20s I would have done a lot of worrying over whether this was the right thing to do. Was it right to put so much of myself into this sport?
“But that’s just my nature. I wanted to do something different. I was always like that, even when
I was younger. The road less- travelled, you know? It might be a rockier road, but it’s more rewarding in the end. But now I see handball as just one chapter.
“I really do believe there’s better things ahead. I totally believe that. I go to Croke Park and watch the All-Ireland final and I think to myself that maybe some day Cavan can be there.
“I totally believe that can happen. And maybe I can be involved.”
That’s for another day though. For now, he has a title to defend. He clipped a Jim McGuinness quote out of the paper the day after the All-Ireland, the one where the Donegal manager said he didn’t once think about losing in the fortnight before the game.
It rang a loud bell with him.
“Look, I appreciate that anything can happen. Every tournament is so different. But, of course, doubts do creep in and they’re the fuel that drive you on. McGuinness would have had those, of course he would.
“But I would be very much at his way of thinking – I cannot contemplate losing. I cannot entertain the thought of losing.
I just can’t go there.”