Deep in the winter of early 2015, the natives in the stands at Newport County were getting mighty restless and they wanted answers. Kevin Feely, their young Irish centre-half, had been missing from the side now for the guts of two months with a broken finger. In League Two, putting it politely, a broken finger doesn't quite cut it as far as injuries go. Strap it up there, lad, and grab a shovel, will you?
It wasn't that simple. In reality, Feely's hand injury was genuinely serious, bordering on catastrophic. An accident with a weights machine at the club had resulted in him needing surgery. Somehow, somewhere along the way, the club had listed his injury as a mere broken finger but it was far more critical than that – as he was keen to explain in an interview with the local Argus on the eve of his return.
“It’s been a lot more complicated than reported, because to say it is a broken finger is putting it mildly,” Feely said. “I nearly cut off the whole finger when it happened. I severed the tendon, I tore the bone clean off and they had to knit my finger back together with wires and do a tendon graft. It was quite a rough operation.
“I promise you, if it had just been a broken finger it wouldn’t have been an issue. I have probably broken every finger over the years playing Gaelic football so that would be nothing new.”
Chasing the dream
From this vantage point, three years on, his choice of words fairly rings out. By January 2015, Feely had more or less made up his mind to return home to Kildare at the end of the season. Newport County was definitely the happiest stop of his four seasons chasing the dream across the water but even so, he had come to accept it wasn't for him. Not the way Gaelic football was.
“You wouldn’t believe how hard it was to watch Kildare for the three years I was over there. The team that won a Leinster under-21 title, that was my own age group. I had played for two years on supposedly superstar under-21 teams for Kildare and we’d got knocked out in the first round of Leinster both years so I was a little bit bitter watching them win it out in what would have been my last year underage.
“But then, that was a big draw factor in coming home – the fact that so many of those lads had gone on to play senior for Kildare. You could see there was an opportunity there. So I wasn’t bitter about what had happened in England – I was totally energised by the possibilities in Kildare.”
Don't mistake him. This isn't a story of the glorious purity of the GAA proving too strong a magnet against the grotty hardships of pro soccer. That's not the way it is at all. Feely would give anything to be a professional sportsman. He is a naturally gifted athlete, a beautifully balanced runner, an obviously intelligent tactician. The Venn diagram of people who have played professional soccer, inter-county football and International Rules contains him and him alone (at least, as far as The Irish Times can make out – do correct us if necessary).
But you only get one life. And though Feely was loving the day-to-day of it all, Saturdays were a problem. That’s when you get distilled. For six days a week, you’re a professional sportsman; on Saturday, you’re a pro footballer. And you better want that day more than you want anything. Otherwise, it’s time to do something else.
So he did.
“Every game I played in was an absolute mental challenge just to play okay. For me to come off the field feeling okay with myself was a struggle. It was always a relief coming off the field if I hadn’t done terribly, rather than feeling happy that I had done well.
“It was so taxing mentally. I was so drained after matches. I would get home at six o’clock on a Saturday after a three o’clock game and I’d just be fit for the bed. And that was purely from being drained mentally after trying to get through 90 minutes without making a mistake. That’s where I was in my head, rather than playing for the enjoyment of it.
“I was getting by from game to game, doing okay. But I just couldn’t believe how much harder that was coming to me compared to any Gaelic environment that I had ever been in. I felt an awful lot more confident when I was playing Gaelic because I was going into games wanting to win and feeling that I was going to have an impact on whether our team won or lost. Whereas, I never felt like that in soccer.
“I would be looking at other players and seeing how easy they were finding the game and above all, how little mistakes affected them. I was going, ‘Jesus, I would love to be like that.’ Whereas I was obsessing over every mistake, feeling it was like the end of the world.
“But what really hit me was that I was looking at those guys and being jealous of their attitude and of how easily the game was coming to them mentally, and I was recognising myself as a Gaelic player. It was when I got that awareness that it really dawned on me that I was in the wrong environment. That’s when I started to prepare for coming home.”
In the summer of 2014, he spoke to then Kildare manager Jason Ryan about it. He was still under contract to Newport but there was no harm in talking. He even went to a few training sessions and played in a challenge match. Just enough for the rumour machine to clank into gear, not enough for it to mean anything.
Come home satisfied
In the end, he went back to Newport for the new season, reasoning that he may as well try and get a run of games and see how he felt then. By Christmas, much and all as he liked the club and the people and the life, he knew he was done. Happy to be, too.
“It meant that I was able to come home satisfied. I wasn’t coming back to Ireland broken by the game or anything. Even for a couple of years afterwards, people would ask me, ‘Do you often think about it? Would you like to be still over there? Do you regret it?’ And it’s great to be able to honestly say to them, ‘No, it never crosses my mind.’
“I know I’m lucky that way. I know there are lads who come home and they’re embarrassed to walk to down the street nearly. They find it very hard to deal with the dream dying on them or whatever. I can completely understand their reasons and I can see why it is so tough. That’s why I feel very lucky. I had that year to prepare myself and to confirm my own thoughts on the matter, which is that I was ready to come home and start a brand new life.”
He already had a couple of years banked in a course in athletic therapy and training in DCU so he went back and finished that off. He could have parlayed that into life as a physio – and he may well do so yet – but for now he has decided to long-finger it. He does some coaching in schools for the Leinster Council three days a week and goes to college in Carlow IT the other two.
Brass tacks. He’s 25, he’s been in inter-county football for just over two years and he knows the clock doesn’t go backwards. At best, he probably has another five seasons in him after this one. He has adapted his life accordingly.
“I suppose that shows where your priority lies. My priority is football. Everything else can kind of come behind it for now. That’s how I’m looking at it. The year I came back, 2016, that was the year that really brought it home to me how you should live if you want to play intercounty football. When I was in England, I was always kind of rolling my eyes at GAA players saying the commitment was ridiculous and whatever else.
“I’d hear lads saying you can’t have a drink and you can’t eat bad food and you can’t enjoy yourself and in my head I’d be going, ‘Ah, I bet you can, like.’ But I don’t think you can, in all honesty. That year confirmed to me what commitment is needed, what it takes to be at the top level. It takes ultra, ultra-commitment. There’s nobody I’ve spoken to who has achieved a lot who doesn’t have it as their absolute number one priority.
“When you ask yourself what, deep down, you want to happen by the end of the year and when you include all the things in your life in that, if you really ask yourself the question, then you have to go with the answer. And for me, the answer was and is success on the GAA field. It’s that rather than have a full-time job or whatever else it might be. When that is your number one goal, you have to put everything towards it.”
In the end, that’s what coming home was about. Digging to unearth the best of himself. How happy for Kildare that this was the Kevin Feely he found.