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Ger Egan: ‘My biggest hope ahead of a game was to try go in pain-free instead of trying to enjoy it’

Tyrrellspass clubman didn’t quite go out fully on his own terms, but the small print could have been worse

He remembers the tears. At the final whistle, it all just came out. Ger Egan’s gut telling him this was his last stop as a senior intercounty footballer.

Still, as last stops go, lifting a trophy at Croke Park is about as decent a swansong as you are likely to get.

They brought Mullingar to a standstill that evening, the team arriving home to the call of red flares lighting up the sky and the strains of Freddie Mercury singing about champions drifting across Pearse Street.

They walked out on the back of a makeshift lorry stage just across from the Greville Arms Hotel to a scene of unbridled joy. Maroon and white everywhere. Thousands stuffing the streets. Rock stars for just a moment. But memories forever.


Egan didn’t quite go out fully on his own terms, but the small print could have been worse.

That was last July, following Westmeath’s Tailteann Cup final victory over Cavan. The sides meet again on Sunday at the outset of the 2023 league season. Egan’s last game for Westmeath was against Cavan and his first as a supporter will be against them as well.

“I knew when the final whistle went in the Tailteann Cup, I knew that was my last day out,” recalls Egan. “I had my mind made up, I had been chatting with my partner and my family. I suppose I had been preparing myself for it for a couple of years, really.”

In their statement announcing his retirement last December, the Westmeath County Board said Egan would “be forever remembered as one of our county’s most gifted forwards”.

He made his first senior appearance in 2010 when only a teenager, going on to captain the team to Leinster final appearances in 2015 and 2016 – and remains the only Westmeath footballer to have led his team to two provincial deciders.

But Egan is still only 31.

In 2019, during one of his best ever seasons, he suffered a cruciate knee ligament tear during Westmeath’s All-Ireland SFC qualifier against Clare. Egan had been the top scorer across all divisions in the league that season. He had no way of knowing, but that injury was the beginning of the end of his intercounty career.

“I haven’t been pain-free since,” he says.

Egan spent much of the 2020 Covid year building his body back up following surgery, but he wasn’t able to train. He played for Tyrrellspass that year as they got to the Westmeath SFC final, along the way adding an ankle injury to his collection.

And he played in Westmeath’s league game against Kildare that October. But his body wasn’t right. The pain was constant.

He couldn’t straighten his knee properly. So after getting it checked out at Santry Sports Clinic, he required another operation. In trying to sustain an intercounty career, he had to initiate a daily battle between ice packs and aching joints. Eventually, something would have to give.

“I wasn’t really able to enjoy it because I couldn’t do what I wanted to do,” he recalls. “My biggest hope ahead of a game was to try go in pain-free instead of trying to enjoy it.”

Muscle injuries were never an issue. Always joints. Throbbing knees. Pounding ankles.

“I was probably my own worst enemy,” he adds. “I maybe came back too quickly but nobody made me go out to play, those decisions were all in my own hands.”

He didn’t play in last year’s league but returned to the squad ahead of the championship. He started against Longford and Kildare in the Leinster Championship. And also in Westmeath’s Tailteann Cup opener against Laois. But before their quarter-final against Carlow, Egan stood at a crossroads and took the road less travelled. He asked then Westmeath manager Jack Cooney for a word.

“I wasn’t playing well, so I just said to Jack, ‘Look, I can’t do the training that is required and it’s not fair on everybody else that I’m getting a starting position, so I’ll take a step back and come on.’

“I wasn’t doing the training that others in the squad were doing. I’m not built like that, I’m either all in or all out. That probably helped my decision to retire.”

During the warm-up for that match against Carlow, Egan’s body let him know he had made the right call, as shards of pain went shooting through his body.

“It was the first time ever I said to myself, ‘thank God I’m not playing today’, because I wasn’t able,” he recalls. “I was in absolute agony.”

Egan didn’t feature that day against Carlow. But he came off the bench against Offaly in the semi-final and was then introduced during the second half of Westmeath’s 2-14 to 1-13 Tailteann Cup final win over Cavan at Croke Park.

Kevin Maguire scored the decisive 67th-minute goal that day. Kieran Martin captained the team.

“I started my career with Kevin and Kieran, so even the way we won it, for Kieran to score the goal and Kevin to walk up the steps, it’s hard to describe, but for me personally those things kind of topped it off.

“After the game, I broke down crying, I couldn’t control myself. I suppose it was just everything. Some of the lads were nearly laughing at me. It’s hard to put in words, but I knew it was likely to be my last day and I was just happy to be part of it. What happened afterwards with the crowds back home, it was unbelievable.”

Of all his achievements, for many Westmeath folk nothing will top him captaining the first Lake County team to beat Meath in the championship. In the greater scheme of things, it’s a penny in a fountain. But for Westmeath, you couldn’t put a price on it. It quietened the neighbours.

“That was surreal,” says Egan of that 2015 Leinster SFC win over Meath.

“I probably didn’t realise how much that meant to people until we got back to Westmeath that night.”

Dessie Dolan gave Egan as much time as he needed to fully decide on whether to return. But deep down he knew it was probably not going to be a runner. He couldn’t do the training required. If he wasn’t able to go all in, then he would have to be all out. Just before Christmas, he stepped away.

But when Westmeath run out at Cusack Park on Sunday for the start of their 2023 league campaign, their former captain will be watching on from the terraces. He won’t be spending the day avoiding the reality. He’ll be there, shouting them on.

“I’m at peace with my decision and that makes it easier as well,” he says.

“Somebody said to me, ‘you will find it hard stepping away because it is your identity’. But I wouldn’t like to think I’m only a Westmeath football player.

“I had been two years getting ready for the decision and going through the process. I had time to get ready and you realise there are other things in life more important.”

Before he takes the short spin over to Mullingar for the game against Cavan, on Sunday morning Egan will pull out his winter gear as the club begin training for their 2023 season. The show goes on. Only the stage changes.

“That’s the plan, we are going back on Sunday morning, I haven’t decided if I’m happy or sad about that,” he smiles.

Sports people often talk about leaving the jersey in a better place than you find it. In Egan’s maiden season of 2010, Westmeath lost all seven of their league games. They were beaten by Louth and Derry in the championship, their only win that summer being a one-point victory over Wicklow.

If that’s how it started, well it ended in Mullingar with the town at a standstill. He returns there on Sunday, moving onwards now. Content to be a face in the crowd, shouting on Westmeath.

“I wish nothing but good fortune for the lads,” adds Egan. “If they won a Leinster this year I’d be delighted for them, I wouldn’t have any regrets because I know I wouldn’t have been able to give what is needed.

“I loved it all, the highs and lows. I’d do it all again.”

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning is a sports journalist, specialising in Gaelic games, with The Irish Times