Galway's Conroy accentuating the positive as he recovers from bad break

Untimely injury against Kerry has robbed Tribesmen of one of their leading lights

Galway’s Damien Comer checks on the injured Paul Conroy as he is taken from the field following the horrific injury suffered against Kerry at Croke Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Galway’s Damien Comer checks on the injured Paul Conroy as he is taken from the field following the horrific injury suffered against Kerry at Croke Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Seasons can vanish on you. In the opening minutes of the Galway-Kerry game in Croke Park, Paul Conroy kicked his first point of the championship. By the time the second half started, his football year was categorically over and he was in a bed in the A&E department of the Mater hospital. The drugs were already starting to kick-in.

“I was actually able to watch the second half on my phone on RTÉ Player,” he recalls, at home in Galway now and resting after a morning check-up.

“That took my mind off what was happening for 30 minutes or so. It cheered me up. And I’m sure the medication they put me on helped too...”

It was clear to everyone in the stadium that afternoon that Conroy’s championship was almost certainly over even as he left the field by motorised stretcher. As the applause rang out and echoed throughout the stadium – easily the most forlorn sound of Galway’s summer – the decision was being taken to transfer him to hospital.

A quick scan confirmed the worst: his tibia and fibia bones were broken in his left leg. Later that week, he was told he had suffered a hairline fracture to his right leg for good measure. A steel rod was inserted into his fibia and rather than plaster of Paris, his leg was wrapped in soft plaster.

“So I’m lucky in the sense that I can hop around – at least as much as I can tolerate. The first few days, the pain was intense in that I was on a lot of morphine and pain killers. I’m still on a lot of strong pain killers but it’s not as bad as it was last week. It is settling down a bit.”

Until this summer, Conroy had always considered himself fairly blessed with injuries. He is only 29 but had somehow become the senior statesman on the Galway squad. He is the only one left from the All-Ireland-winning minor side of 2007. Ten years ago, an injury to Sean Armstrong brought about a starting position in the Galway side that played Kerry in that fabulous, rain-soaked quarter-final in Croke Park.

“I didn’t set the world on fire or anything,” he says lightly.

He didn’t have to. He was just 18 and the game was such a high-tech classic that it bode well for Galway’s future. But he would spend a full decade in maroon before Galway finally beat Kerry in a championship game for the first time in half a century. Conroy contributed to that even if he wasn’t there to see the end of it.

The occasion also marked Galway’s first win in Croke Park since that Sunday in 2001 when they were last All-Ireland champions. The day itself was an aberration in this sublime summer, cool, low cast and sodden. The big stadium felt like a canyon and the crowd was muted. But it was an auspicious day for Galway football, marred only by the sight of Conroy’s sad departure.

Greasy pitches

It was one of those collisions that happen on greasy pitches a thousand times and both players walk away with nothing more than a jolt. Conroy can remember it clearly, seeing the ball up for grabs and accelerating towards it.

“When the grass conditions are slippery like that, it enables you to really slide in and go for the ball. But obviously it didn’t help the way the two of us went in. I think I went into Sean O’Shea’s knee. But it very easily could have been my knee hitting him as well. It was just lucky for him and unlucky for me that it was those parts of our legs that hit each other.”

The impact with O’Shea, the Kerry player who had the same idea as Conroy, was bracing. He didn’t feel anything to cause immediate alarm.

“Then I looked down and saw a lump in my shin where there shouldn’t be. I knew then I was in trouble. . I dunno did I half-try and get up but there was no moving out of me and the pain just hit me and then the physios came on and what not.”

Members of the Galway squad and management team visiting Paul Conroy in hospital.
Members of the Galway squad and management team visiting Paul Conroy in hospital.

The physical injury was one thing. The turmoil in his mind was another. For ten years, Conroy has been one of those quietly effervescent presences in the elite tier of Gaelic games.

Captaining that 2007 minor team brought its own prescription of expectations and demands and the Renmore man has been steadfast in answering them by simply being there. For ten years, he has been an automatic first-choice player; sometimes at midfield, often at centre-forward and sometimes at the edge of the square.

When Galway teams fell short or disappointed, his name was a source of disgruntlement precisely because he was regarded a central player. Thick and thin, he just got on with it. He wasn’t ever a player you ever heard much out of and in his longevity, his name and face became much better known that his voice.

He works as a teacher in Coláaiste Iognóid, his alma mater. And even as he listened to the doctors explaining how long the recuperation would take, his mind began to turn to the new teaching year and work and what the next six months of his life will look like.

“The main thing for me was accepting where I am at,” he says.

“I am going to have to have my legs up for so many hours of the day for a fair number of weeks. I can’t be that active. After the first few days in Dublin I had to reach a stage where I could accept that. And all I can control is my rehab and stretching and making sure I am ready for physio appointments in the right way. . .eating healthy and keeping the mind positive.

“So as soon as I accepted it I began to move on. And being a teacher I suppose gives me a bit more freedom in that we still have a few weeks before we go back. And I will probably have to take another few weeks to let the bone heal. It is going to be a long road in that you can’t move that much or go too many places. But I am going to try and stay positive and keep on top of it and do as much as I can.”

Seven stitches

Conroy could have been forgiven for believing he had already shipped his fair share of punishment for the championship.

He was also forced out of the Mayo game early when Diarmuid O’Connor, breaking free from one tackle, swung wildly with his elbow catching Conroy square on the side of the head. It was a horrible, jolting blow. Conroy is a powerful athlete and listed as 6ft4in but he was completely vulnerable to the challenge.

When he left the field, dazed and bloody, the immediate fear was that his jaw was broken. But he got away with concussion and seven stitches to his mouth. O’Connor was issued a red card for his troubles. Afterwards, he sought the Galway man out for a few words.

What was said remains between them but Conroy accepted the exchange.

“I suppose that collision . . . I think it was a moment of madness for Diarmuid. I think straight away after it happened he regretted it. It was a nasty enough hit. But these things happen on the pitch. I wouldn’t be the type of player to hold grudges. You just get on with it. It is not nice to be on the receiving end of it but at this level of sport you will have knocks and collisions. That was probably the worst one I got anyway.”

Galway’s Paul Conroy in action against Kerry’s Paul Geaney at Croke Park. Photograph: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images
Galway’s Paul Conroy in action against Kerry’s Paul Geaney at Croke Park. Photograph: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

He was back after a fortnight with his mental approach the same as it ever was. The after-affects of that blow didn’t affect his courage or his willingness to do whatever was needed in the slightest.

“Players probably react differently. It wasn’t on my mind going into games afterwards. I just forgot about it really and moved on.”

It remains to be seen how badly his absence will affect Galway. Conroy is one of those invisible stars, capable of powerful surges forward and spectacular points but just as content doing the bread and butter stuff that is rarely noticed: breaking ball, lassoing high-profile midfielders, tackling ferociously, always being available for the ball, breaking tackles, tracking back, organising and talking.

Every so often, lip-service is paid to the ascetic dedication of elite GAA athletes. They fall under such an intense focus of public interest and scrutiny in the summer that every so often it literally has to be said; they are amateur. It’s only when one of them, like Conroy, suffers an injury that it becomes self-evident.

The show moves on. And while the sympathy nationwide for Conroy was sincere and heartfelt, it was fleeting. The games come thick and fast and the distractions are many.

Double-marked

At home in Renmore, though, he has had a procession of visitors and the letterbox has been hopping with cards. David Nolan, the former Connacht rugby player, got in touch. Nolan had experienced the same injury and it helped Conroy just to hear what is ahead of him.

On the evening of the Kerry game, Damien Comer landed into the hospital with Gary O’Donnell and Seán Armstrong. It was a nice gesture; a reassurance that he is still part of it.

Comer’s emergence as a unique full forward – a traditional ball-winning No 14 with the power and low-slung gait of an elite 100-metre sprinter, has given Galway’s always-attractive attacking unit an anchor and freed Conroy to a more permanent midfield role.

The Annaghdown player has been huge for Galway but sometimes Conroy sees up close the punishment his team-mate ships during games and feels he doesn’t get the protection required. His revelatory league performances have singled him out for close attention.

“Damien’s strength seems to be coming against him. I think he is finding it hard this weather to get the rub of the green. Fair enough, he is very strong but that doesn’t mean he should be double-marked and fouled a lot of the time. I feel he has been a bit of victim of his own strength and it’s disappointing. And I hope that it changes going forward.”

The shackling of Comer hasn’t stopped Galway from cruising into the All-Ireland semi-finals with a game to spare. And even as Conroy departs the scene, Galway’s visit to Kildare marked the return of Fiontán Ó Curraoin, back after a long absence having broken his leg last November.

“He’s been giving me advice,” Conroy says.

“Fiontán’s had some tough injuries and, you know, I’ve seen a lot of players around me doing cruciates and coming back and then doing the same thing again. I’ve been blessed. And it’s great to see Fiontán come back in. Because I am sure he had some dark days during rehab when he thought he never might get back to the level again.”

Warding off those demons has become Paul Conroy’s daily training regime. It’s all he can do. With his age and fitness, the bones should be knitted and healed in about four months. Barring setbacks, he might be back jogging by January. He might be back training in April. It’s not so far away that he can’t visualise it. Already, he has convinced himself that July wasn’t a bad time for it to happen– if it had to happen. He misses the high-point of the All-Ireland summer but he was there for most of it and can aim to be back for the next championship.

“Had this happened in January, say, I would have missed the entire season.”

Not that he is going to disappear in the meantime. As soon as he is able, he plans on being back at training sessions and team meetings.

“Just to be that vocal and drive fellas on. I think I’ve a lot to offer outside of playing. I am looking forward to just keeping positive and not feeling sorry for myself and doing as much as I can as early as I can.”

Try stopping him.

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