herald

Thursday 14 December 2017

It leaves a huge void in your life ... but I was clear in my own head my time was up

After more than a decade as the lynchpin of the Dublin midfield, Ciaran Whelan tells Ger Gilroy he's relishing life on the sidelines and looking forward to a role as a Herald sports columnist

It'll be an odd summer for Dublin fans. For the first time in almost a decade and a half Ciaran Whelan won't be soaring into the Croke Park sky and tearing teams apart.

He won't be parting Hill 16 with points kicked off either foot. He won't be terrorising opposition midfields with perpetual motion.

If the imagery is big and biblical that's because the role that Whelan played for Dublin over the past decade has been superhero, best player and totem pole all in one.

He'll be remembered as a great player. Maybe time will remove the caveat that his team didn't deliver Sam, but then only one Dublin team in the past quarter century has managed that.

Now he's Ciaran Whelan, former Dub, club footballer and dad. It'll be an odd summer for him too.



Emotional

"It leaves a huge void in your life -- for 14 years it's been eat, drink and sleep football," he said.

"That's what controls your whole thought process for 24 hours a day.

"That's gone, so it's emotional, strange to be on the outside.

"But the other side of that is for a change you're able to say yes to people -- 'yeah, I can be there' or 'yeah I will do it' and to some degree you get your life back."

Every elite athlete has a decision to make at the end of a career, a moment to pick to leave the big games behind. Why now?

"I've two young kids, the second was born the weekend of the Kerry game and I was clear in my own head that my time was up."

What made it so clear when many experts felt that there would be room on Pat Gilroy's bench?

"It was the time (required), it's a serious commitment and every year it was moving up a level and it was controlling your life.

"It's not a family man's game anymore and with two young kids you can't find the time to do it. My eldest fella is getting to that age where he wants to spend time with me on Saturday mornings and it wasn't easy."

To help ease the passage from Dublin star to former Dublin star, there are the comforts of home.

"I'm going to play a lot of club football, I think that the club is where you're from and I'll enjoy that, the freedom of just playing club football. You're under scrutiny coming back from the county scene when you're playing with Dublin and going back to the club, and there are pressures in that.

"It's not just a social hobby. We've a few good young lads in Raheny coming through and we haven't had that for a while so I'm really looking forward to it."

He's also going to be keeping a close eye on the inter-county scene as a Herald columnist. You get the impression he won't have any problems becoming a pundit. In fact he's going to fit right in.

"I can fully understand why players are revolting in some counties, because it's not a professional game and if they feel collectively that this manager is not going to bring them over the line to success, I can see why they're standing up for themselves. It's a huge, huge commitment, fellas' careers are over like that." He snaps his fingers.

This is the outlook of a man who understands the bitter hours of training to be endured over long winter nights, the family sacrifices and ultimately, the disappointment suffered as recently as last August.

It separates him from the vast majority of the pundits out there who retired before Tyrone revolutionised the game and Kerry refined it.

"I think that we've a couple of over-the-top pundits who've crossed the line with regards to personal stuff with players, there's no doubt about it," he said.

"Some of the scrutiny has been over the top and people are just doing it from a PR perspective to cause controversy and there's an air of selfishness in that."

Do the players get angry about it?

"As much as fellas try to ignore it they hear about it."

So what about his own style of punditry?

"I'd have the height of respect for every player who plays the game at the top level. Sometimes the scrutiny on players who are devoting their lives to the game can be over the top. There's constructive criticism and there's a way of putting that across."

The Dublin footballer's experience is also largely unique in Irish sport, which should also provide a different outlook when it comes to offering analysis of the game.

There are stages each season where it feels like you can access immediate reports on most Dublin training sessions. Whelan could be the first to properly chronicle life from both sides of the goldfish bowl.

"It's like that all year, Dublin are big news throughout the season, if something happens in the next league game it'll be front page news and it doesn't happen in other counties.

"That's why I think recently you've seen John O'Mahony and Mickey Harte feeling what it's like sometimes to be in that position that unfortunately you do get inconsistencies and half of you has to just accept that's part and parcel of it."

Has this been something holding Dublin back?

"I'd say the hype sometimes can get to the Dublin team, and as much as they try and avoid it, put it to one side, it's nearly unavoidable because Dublin is a small place.

"Throughout my career, I've always said that when Dublin do good things there's an over reaction, and when Dublin do bad things there's an over reaction."

What about as an individual dealing with it?

"I think you get over that eventually, I think you get to a stage within your career where you just couldn't care less.

"It's water off a duck's back. It's not easy to get there but you do eventually, it's a learning curve and like experience in any form of life.

"You get used to the media scrutiny and you just ignore it."

One thing he's never ignored, though, is the lessons from the big defeats. Talking about the video sessions analysing the previous season's exit from the championship Whelan describes it like a bereavement.

"They're horrible, just horrible, it sickens you. It's difficult to do and I wouldn't hide behind anything when it comes to this.

"To a certain degree, you may have healed yourself and it's just digging it up again but it has to be done. It has to be done collectively to air any thoughts on it too."

From now on he'll be on the outside of those video sessions.

Another period of change awaits.

"When I started, it was training two nights a week and a game at the weekend and maybe even a few pints after the Thursday session -- now it's gym two days, training two days and a game."

His career has seen the explosion in popularity of the GAA, each game is fodder for debate across platforms that hadn't been imagined when he first pulled on the Dubs shirt.

Frequently he was at the heart of the debate, sometimes with controversy, sometimes because he was clearly the best player on show, always because he was worth paying attention to.

It'll be an odd summer for Ciaran Whelan -- but GAA folk will still be paying attention.

hnews@herald.ie

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