So long, DJ, it's been good to behold you

 

Keith Duggan Sideline CutQuitting sport is a small and piercing death. Few sports allow their heroes to become champion of the simple act of walking away. Muhammad Ali stayed in the ring long after he was advised it was foolhardy to do so and now lives a whispered and sadly compromised version of what ought to have been a later life as America's most articulate and popular sporting statesman.

Michael Jordan, who came as close as any human being to truly mastering and "owning" his sport between 1996 and 1998 was persuaded by a combination of vanity, public pressure, pride and the devastating boredom that can afflict only the truly rich to make his comeback to basketball in the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Towers attack. Over the next two years, he had a few glimmering nights in a twilight period painful and demoralising for the player and his legion of worshippers.

He finished playing as a frustrated man on a frustrated team, struggling to understand team-mates not born when he set Reagan's America alight. The last goodbye was hurried and there was the sense that relief was mutual.

Bjorn Borg walked away from tennis at the tender age of 26. George Best effectively quit soccer at the same age and for the rest of his life never looked fully at ease or as complete as he did in the footage of his Manchester United days.

All of these men were global sporting icons, with fame and earnings light years away from those of the Kilkenny hurler DJ Carey, whose decision to retire from the game has rightly been followed by a chorus of high praise.

Carey never invited comparisons with the giant hurling figures whose radio deeds filled many Irish living-rooms in the middle part of the 20th century. But almost from the time of Carey's graduation from St Kieran's College, there seemed to be a mood to bestow a special title on him.

In the early 1990s, Diarmuid Healy gave the opinion that the emerging young forward had the capacity to be as good as Christy Ring, the ultimate compliment and one that was not splashed about carelessly.

A few years later, Liam Griffin went one better, declaring that Carey was surely as good as there had ever been. That claim was in keeping with the Wexford man's beatific insistence that Ireland was enjoying a golden age for hurling. During the unexpected blossoming of hurling between 1994 and 1999, Griffin's sermons delighted some and infuriated others but succeeded in their basic aim of freeing hurling from the tedious lionising of the past.

Carey happened to come to prominence during a period when the GAA copped on to the benefits of live television and when an evocative advertising campaign by Guinness coincided with four years of riveting hurling summers that made Gaelic football look tired and predictable in comparison.

Carey was articulate and courteous to the burgeoning GAA media, and on the field he did things that were so extravagantly skilful they wowed even those with no special interest in the game. All sports need their talisman and Carey quickly became the anointed maestro of hurling in the 1990s.

This did not please everybody and there ran a contrary body of opinion that while conceding the Kilkenny man was indeed a fine player argued he was certainly not the greatest of all time and probably not even the greatest of his contemporaries. The 1990s was a rich period and in such as Brian Whelahan, Ciarán Carey, Brian Lohan, John Leahy, James O'Connor, Willie O'Connor, Martin Storey, Liam Dunne, Anthony Daly and Brian Corcoran, hurling had its share of formidable, charismatic figures.

It also had naturals capable of conjuring outrageous scores: Lusmagh's John Troy, the young Eugene Cloonan, Charlie Carter.

That Carey was placed as the leader among a pack like that annoyed many of the game's academics, particularly those with vivid memories of Ring or Tipperary's Jimmy Doyle in their untouchable years.

Carey was a contrary figure in a turbulent 10 years of GAA development, selflessly giving his time to the association through medal presentations and functions while also lending his presence to whatever radical movement of the day sprang up to advance player welfare.

He was modest, perceived as saintly. He didn't take a drink, he excelled at golf, he worked hard at his business and never seemed to say a bad word about anybody. Because of that, there were plenty of bad words said about him and it is fair to say that more than most public figures, Carey was a victim of that favourite Irish pastime malicious gossip.

That he was left off the An Post Hurling Team of the Millennium probably pleased those who believed the sum of his skills was overstated. And maybe it was. It is true Carey never truly held Croke Park spellbound for 70 minutes on any of his All-Ireland appearances. He never made an All-Ireland final a mere backdrop for his own performance. But against that, he made a mockery of the argument that he couldn't "do it" on the big day, particularly in the last, rich phase of his career under Brian Cody, with his early goals against Offaly (2000) and Clare (2002).

That strike against the Banner was pure opportunism, the gloved hand lifting his stick into the grey sky to deflect a high ball-to-anyone past Davy Fitzgerald. Afterwards, Henry Shefflin shook his head when the score was mentioned and muttered that people would never understand how good it was, that they thought Carey had just stuck his hurl in the flight path of the ball, but that the angle of the stick was everything.

And who will forget his coup de grâce late in that game, when he found a burst of that youthful speed and wheeled away from Ollie Baker? Carey left Baker - and the entire field, really - helpless in his wake as he raced away, then pausing in front of the Hogan Stand for a deathless second to size up the Canal End posts, delivered the point with a flourish.

Men will grow old arguing and debating the pros and cons of DJ Carey. That is part of the reason of sport. But the difference between Carey and the giants of yesteryear is that all his great moments - the goal against Antrim in the 1993 All-Ireland semi-final, the 2-8 against Galway in 1997, the eight-steps goal against Wexford in the early 1990s - are there.

The deeds of Ring, Mackey and Rackard have become folklore, retold brilliantly and loyally by men who witnessed them and probably associate the memories of those hurling days with the richest times of their own lives. Most of Carey's triumphs and failures are there on film, to be played and replayed. We should wish him well in the sporting afterlife.

He graced the game well and as the years pass and he becomes grey-flecked and distinguished, a popular face in the crowd on Kilkenny All-Ireland final days, it will surely be said they don't make them like Carey anymore.