Paul Galvin sometimes took it all too far . . . but boy could he play


Paul Galvin was right to point out in his radio interview with Matt Cooper a few days after his retirement that sometimes you can make too big a deal of these things. Not for the first time, the Lixnaw man seemed uneasy with the attention generated by his latest – and last – act as a Kerry footballer.

Exiting the stage is a tricky business when you are a Kerry footballer because it generally takes at least a decade of earnest winter debate before the citizens of the Kingdom reach any kind of consensus as to where you might rank in the pantheon of great Kerry players.

No wonder so many of them slip away in December and January, when nobody is really looking, trying not to adhere to Dara Ó Cinnéide’s immortal line about what happens next – “And sure, like Jake LaMotta, we’ll be getting fat.”

But it has been a winter of tolling bells in the Kingdom: first Tomás Ó Sé and now Galvin. There is no question Galvin’s name fits easily in the rarefied company of Kerry greats and because he was such an incandescent figure on the field of play, it is impossible not to feel slightly robbed over the fact that just like that, we won’t ever see him play in Croke Park again.

That’s the thing about the retirement of any sports person the public has come to know and form an opinion on: it is like a small death. Most know Galvin only as the sallow, marauding cavalier in green and gold and in a flash, that figure is no more.

Kerry fans adored Galvin while opposition fans were caught somewhere between admiration, amusement, annoyance and outright loathing. When you can generate that range of emotion, you have to be doing something right.

Memorable pyrotechnics
Galvin’s former team-mates have spoken over the past few days about the qualities that set him apart. All of the memorable pyrotechnics down the years – the scraps with various Corkonians, the moment of daftness which led to his swinging an Armagh substitute with 10 minutes to go in a quarter-final and those petulant seconds when he slapped a note book out of the hands of referee Paddy Russell – made it easy to overlook the fact his game was based on subtlety.

Galvin was a facilitator: one of those players who made those around him shine. The hunch here is he got a much bigger kick out of delivering a killer pass than actually scoring.

It is significant that within Kerry, he was from outside the football establishment, from a stubborn hurling enclave.

When he came on the scene, there was some vague perception Jack O’Connor was attempting to transform a hurler into a Kerry footballer. O’Connor gave Galvin the belief he needed to thrive but it was actually Páidí Ó Sé, one of the gilded names of Kerry’s aristocracy, who brought Galvin on to the panel and his talent had hardly been ignored as he represented Kerry at minor and Under-21.

But as he told PM O’Sullivan in a rare interview with Sliotar magazine, hurling was his first mode of sporting expression.

“I suppose it’s the same reason that the bit of Irish hangs on in west Kerry and in Connemara. People don’t want to give in,” he said in explanation for why some Kerry men prefer to hurl on in the land where Gaelic football is the first language.

As it was, his talent with the big ball meant his Kerry senior hurling career was limited to a single senior game, a robust tussle against Wicklow in Nenagh which, Galvin conceded, was “tough stuff”.

He knew what was what after the very first exchange with his marker, who announced himself with an enthusiastic swing in which contact with the ball would be purely incidental.

“I says to your man: ‘Sure you pulled on no ball there!’ Your man turns around and goes: ‘Know that’ . . . ‘Here we go’, I said.”

It was hardly an accident either he wandered into the cradle of hurling during the darkest period of his football life, visiting Nowlan Park when he was, in effect, cast as renegade after the notebook controversy. He bumped into Kilkenny chairman Ned Quinn who promptly gave him a tour of the ground. A few days in the Marble City restored his equilibrium and he never looked back, claiming an All-Ireland and the Footballer of the Year award a season later, hard-earned garlands that acknowledged he had expanded the role of wing forward play, tattoos and all.

Galvin’s influence on the last decade of football speaks for itself but he was never an easy fit and perhaps because of that, was instrumental in changing the perception of what it is to be a GAA player.

Galvin’s fascination with fashion and pop culture ran parallel with his football career. Within the GAA, any form of self-expression or self-awareness was for decades viewed with suspicion.

For decades, daring to wear white football boots drew derisive laughter. If you were going to wear then, then you’d better be as good as Gerry McInerney, the Kinvara man who added a touch of Saturday Night Fever to the Galway hurling teams of the late 1980s.

Quirks of footballing genius
Every so often someone unusual came along. Ciarán McDonald was given a pass for the tattoos and braided hair because they were regarded as unfortunate quirks of football genius. And the Mayo man kept a resolutely low profile off the pitch.

Galvin decided life as a school teacher wasn’t for him and began to pursue his interest in fashion and didn’t care that it set him up for easy jokes and a wealth of comment online comment. When he started writing a fashion column in the Irish Independent, it soon became clear he saw no contradiction in regarding Eoin the Bomber Liston and Junya Watanabe as geniuses both, only in slightly different ways. Galvin was deadly earnest about it without being po-faced. He understood there was something . . . unlikely about a genuine Kerry hard man debating the intricacies of the cuff link and the ideal length of the stocking. And played on it.

Because he decided to roll with where his interests took him, he came to the attention of the coolers and hipsters who regard the GAA as the last bastion of De Valerean Ireland. The documentary about his football and public life occurred in the middle of his officiating rows, when his sense of persecution was acute and probably overstated; Edward Snowden wears his troubles more lightly. But Galvin had the sand to dare and try and create a brand generated by his profile as a footballer and the image he cultivated.

Galvin made it okay to be individual. They don’t retire numbers in Kerry and they don’t hang jerseys on the wall in Fitzgerald stadium. You do your shift and then leave. Galvin was “of” Kerry but he was like nothing that came before.

As one GAA delegate was heard to remark after Galvin appeared in a particularly tense disciplinary hearing: he took it all too far but boy, could he play guitar ...

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