In a weird way, Paul Galvin has to prove himself all over again

Ante has been upped as Kerry veteran returns to a very different dressingroom

Paul Galvin: realised he had called time on himself a few seasons too early and decided to return to the Kerry panel. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

Paul Galvin: realised he had called time on himself a few seasons too early and decided to return to the Kerry panel. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

 

The news from the Kingdom this week confirmed that Don Henley was right about Kerry football: you can check out any time you like but you can never leave.

Paul Galvin’s return to training was further evidence, if any was needed, that you can’t be up to them in Kerry. But it also reminded us that walking away from sport – calling time on yourself – is the toughest task in the game.

There is a terrific vignette towards the end of Galvin’s autobiography in which he recalls meeting an elderly man in a hardware shop a few weeks after Dublin had blitzed Kerry in the closing quarter of the 2011 All-Ireland final. No words were exchanged: the senior man just took hold of Galvin by the arms and looked at him until he was on the point of tears. Then he nodded and walked out. “The cashier had seen the moment happen. I put down whatever it was I was buying and left talking to myself,” Galvin writes.

“Football. What was it all for? Some poor old man distraught in a hardware store? It was enough to make you wonder. It shouldn’t be that serious but it is, I suppose. It reminded me just how much Kerry people care about football.”

Precisely. In the decade after he made his senior debut for Kerry, Galvin was refashioned from a blue-collar, hard-grafting forward into a wonderfully subtle if abrasive half forward with a license to roam. He became a totemic figure for Kerry.

Because of a few highly publicised on-field transgressions and because his image, with the ink and the beard, was radical compared to the deeply conservative appearance favoured by most GAA stars, his profile transcended the game.

The entertaining RTÉ documentary Galvinised, in which he wasn’t afraid to declare a fascination with haute couture fashion, added to the general interest. Within the confines of the GAA, he seemed radical and even a little eccentric.

Close attention

His decision to quit Kerry early last year, hot on the heels of Tomás Ó Sé, seemed like a de facto admission from the Kingdom that they were about to enter a rehabilitative period. The long-term injury to Colm Cooper and the departure of so many heavyweight senior figures left them firmly placed just beyond All-Ireland contention in the eyes of most people.

One of the most enjoyable working hours I spent last year was quizzing Eamon Fitzmaurice on a rainy lunchtime in the school in Dingle where he teaches history. It was around this time of year and Kerry were in what was becoming a customary early-league slump. Fitzmaurice couldn’t have known Kerry would win the All-Ireland that September but in retrospect, he must have been delighted by just how breezily their chances were being written off. Rarely has a Kerry team entered the All-Ireland with less pressure.

What they did between early August, when they played Galway in a staggeringly open quarter-final, and September amounts to one of the great All-Ireland raids. Even after they had signalled a warning by beating Cork in Munster, nobody saw them coming. In the weeks after that triumph, the rest of the football world must have felt like chess masters realising too slowly that they were just a few moves away from an inevitable check-mate.

Tommy Walsh is returning. Colm Cooper is back in action. Kerry’s All-Ireland-winning minor team was especially rich in promise. Just like that, Kerry football looks in rude health. The sound of contentment and optimism has been constant all winter.

Pat Spillane’s declaration yesterday that Galvin’s return to the mix gave him a “bad feeling” is in keeping with the grave reservations within the Kingdom of tampering with the remorseless push for continuity of the football tradition. Last year’s All-Ireland win was mostly about the emerging names – Fionn Fitzgerald, the Geaneys, Paul Murphy.

It was their first flight, when nobody expected them to. The win must have been slightly disconcerting to players like Ó Sé and Galvin: the kids could at least have pretended to struggle a bit without them.

The All-Ireland win means the dressing room now will be very different to the one Galvin left. Boys have grown up: new voices will be central. He may have that illustrious past but he has to make himself fit in again among a new generation of Kerry players. In a weird way, Paul Galvin has to prove himself all over again.

Midweek training

If there is a risk involved here it is confined to the player himself. When he retired, it was to a chorus of handsome tributes and garlands and a general consensus that he owed the game nothing.

If he returns and finds that he can’t tap into his best game or that he isn’t quite getting to the ball as often as he used to, then the verdict may be less forgiving. That Eamon Fitzmaurice is his brother-in- law won’t affect matters in the slightest; players know themselves if they are cutting it. If he gets picked in high summer, it will be on form and merit.

The point is not whether Galvin should or should not have come back. The point is that he clearly had to. The year away gave him enough space and time to realise nothing compares to the thrill of the game. It must be a genuinely disturbing moment to accept you will never play in front of 30,000 in Fitzgerald Stadium again being used to it over a decade.

Galvin is lucky he realised he had called time on himself a few seasons too early and that he has the independence of spirit to make the correction. The Irish way in these situations is never particularly gracious. He will be watched closely just to see if he falls on his face. But then, wasn’t it always that way for Paul Galvin?

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