Paul Galvin: A polarising figure who guarded the keys to the kingdom

‘The satisfaction for me comes from the medals. That’s what it’s all about’

Paul Galvin: an embodiment of Kerry football. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Paul Galvin: an embodiment of Kerry football. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

The retirement of Paul Galvin wasn’t so much a shock as a surprise. Years of playing a physical game and never being shy of attrition had taken their toll and although there had been hopes that he could become the county’s latest centre back conversion the decision to call time is understandable.

It was in a way typical of the player. Both private and impatient of media engagement - a friend was once told by a common acquaintance with Galvin that there’d be “as much chance of interviewing the Pope” - he equally could hardly be described as publicity shy.

So he went with a brief statement on his website but also on the night of the biggest match on the AFL’s opening weekend, a fixture for which he had been originally chosen.

It wouldn’t have been a decision taken easily, as Kerry manager Eamon Fitzmaurice is his brother-in-law and someone with whom he’d soldiered for a long time at club, county and college - 14 years ago this month they were both in the half-back line for UCC in an All-Ireland semi-final against Crossmaglen.

Dublin manager Jim Gavin said on Saturday night that he believed Galvin’s technical ability was often overlooked and in the sundry controversies of his career that’s probably accurate.

He was the epitome of a modern wing forward, tracking back, tackling ferociously and acting as a linkman between defence and attack. His taste for physical confrontation was too an extent exaggerated, as for most of his career his willingness to take knocks was simply the price of doing what he had to do for the team.

Complaints that he was the victim of a bad name wrongly ascribed to him were tenuous and although he was at times more sinned against than sinning the controversies that followed him around were generally the result of a lack of discipline regardless of the provocations.

His rise under Jack O’Connor’s management showcased his commitment and hard work and was recognised in All Stars and a Footballer of the Year citation but there were also the elements of classical tragedy in his fall from grace in 2008.

Galvin took the appointment as captain so seriously that he consulted previous holders of the honour in order to prepare for what he clearly regarded as the ultimate honour. Yet in a moment of hubristic madness, failure to control his anger led to knocking referee Paddy Russell’s book from his hand. The consequent suspension wiped out his championship captaincy and reduced him to a cameo appearance in the tightly balanced All-Ireland final against Tyrone in which his full involvement might have helped to swing the outcome.

Redemption did come a year later when his remarkable talent at his most focused to combine physicality with the ability to influence matches and to inspire others was the key element in Kerry’s recovery to win the All-Ireland and he was a consensus choice as Footballer of the Year.

If one moment stands out though it was his 2007 articulation of what it meant to represent Kerry in an All-Ireland. The final was the first time that ancient rivals Cork were the opponents. It was a great opportunity for Cork to re-write the traditional narrative of relations between the counties but instead, it was Kerry who responded more strongly.

“I felt myself that everything Kerry football stood for was on the line,” said Galvin after his team’s emphatic win. “Everything we’d achieved in the last four or five years, and everything we’d achieved in the last 100 years, was riding on that 70 minutes of football. It was that fear of losing to Cork that was driving us.

“The satisfaction for me comes from the medals. That’s what it’s all about. I just want to win as many medals as I can while I’m playing. But the fact that it was Cork out there meant defeat was not an option.

“I also knew there was no way I could leave the people of Kerry down. That was very serious for us. We wouldn’t have been left back into the county if we’d lost that game.”

For all the hair-trigger raging and messy indiscipline, that’s how he will be remembered particularly in the county: an embodiment of Kerry football, one who stood sentinel on the frontier of football’s greatest tradition.