Monday 27 January 2020

One last stand for a Westmeath great

Dolan (40) feels ‘lucky’ to have lasted so long at an elite level

Dessie Dolan won his eighth Westmeath SFC medal last month
Dessie Dolan won his eighth Westmeath SFC medal last month

Tomorrow in TEG Cusack Park may be a significant milestone in the footballing life and times of Dessie Dolan - or it may not.

If Garrycastle overcome the freshly minted Meath champions from Ratoath, they will advance to an AIB Leinster club football semi-final a fortnight later. And if they lose? Game over, burst ball, for arguably Westmeath's greatest footballer.

One way or another, this day or maybe the next, Dolan will call time on a marathon club career that has yielded eight Westmeath SFC medals. He achieved that record number last month, eclipsing his own father, Dessie Snr.

Of course, Dessie the younger is not so young anymore: he turned 40 last July. And never mind the inter-county cauldron, elite club football is increasingly perceived as No Country For Old Men.

Even the non-smoking, non-drinking, football-obsessed Dolan can appreciate that the end is nigh. He'd love to delay it for a few more weeks, while acutely aware of the pacey Meath menace coming to Mullingar tomorrow.

"Whenever we lose, I'm finished playing. Oh, absolutely," he told The Herald.

He reminds you that he played international rules in Australia in 1999 - the same year he won an All-Ireland U21 medal with Westmeath. Two full decades ago.

"I'm happy in the fact that every team I could represent - all the years I could, my club in particular - I did. So, I wouldn't turn around and go 'Well, if only you did a little bit more' … I literally played for every team I could," he explains.

Dolan is also keen to stress that this retirement is definitive, unlike the previous one. Back in 2015, he was cajoled into playing an over 35s soccer match with his old club, St Coman's. He hadn't played 11-a-side since his Kennedy Cup days.

"It was kind of a reunion thing," he explains. "They were onto me for ages and ages. I said I'll turn up - just to meet up with them. I said 'I don't want to start, lads, I'll come on at some stage' ... and some lad just took me clean out of it.

"I came on; three minutes later I went off the pitch and two or three weeks later I was up getting an operation in Santry. Destroyed my ankle."

That made up his mind on the 'R' word. Until ... "I was at home for four or five months, on the couch. And I just got bored, couldn't handle the soaps. And I just said to Kelly, 'I have to go back playing football!'"

With Garrycastle facing a must-win game in September, 2016, he made his comeback off the bench. They didn't win a solitary group game the following year; it still wasn't the right time to walk away.

The landscape is far brighter now. The team has been invigorated by an injection of youth. His manager happens to be his younger brother Gary, aided by coach John Keane, Westmeath's only two-time All Star. In two years, they have transformed the club's previously fading fortunes.

Once this year's championship reached the knockout stages, Dolan has lived with the realisation that every game could be his last. "But you have to stop playing at some stage," he reasons. "Like, I'm 40 … there's not too many more playing (at this level). And there's a reason, because it's hard.

"I'm lucky that I like training, I really get a kick out of the Garrycastle lads … and then I'm lucky at home that Kelly understands, this is what I do and this is what I've always done. But at the same time I know myself, the reason I'm giving up is probably because I'm not able any more."

There are three more precious reasons: Nathan (soon to turn seven), Freya (two-and-a-half) and Elle (one in January). Real life carries on long after the final whistle.

Unless you're a devotee of Dermot Bannon, Dessie Dolan is best known today not for his appearance on 'Room To Improve' but rather for his work as a TV pundit with RTÉ. His usual summer gig recently extended into live co-commentary duties for the Dublin club SFC quarter-finals.

The next day he won his record-breaking eighth county medal. But not in the usual prolific fashion: along with his team, he struggled in the first half against St Loman's and was subbed at the break.

"I didn't play well at all," he admits. "And I don't know [why] … maybe it got in my head that it was my last game in Westmeath, but it was a very poor performance.

"But it's all about winning at the end of the day. It's nothing about Des Dolan plays well or plays badly. And, like, what's the expectation for me? I don't even know myself. I don't have any pace any more … I suppose I'm trying to use my experience to help out the lads as much as I can.

"It is hard," he adds, "because every time you don't play well it's 'What are you doing still playing?' And it's 100pc ageism, but there's nothing I can do about it."

Two weeks later, he was back on Saturday night RTÉ duty for the Dublin semi-finals - and the following day he shot the first five points as Garrycastle blitzed Emmet Óg Killoe of Longford.

"Sure everything is great," he muses, when the points are flowing. "If you're a county footballer and you've been involved for a long time, you have to have resilience. If you're going to listen to what people are saying about you, it's no way of living. You just have to shut it down."

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