Aidan Carr keeps driving on
By John Harrington
Regardless of how Sunday’s Final against Tyrone goes, Aidan Carr will always vividly remember the 2017 Ulster Football Championship.
It won’t be the goals and points that will remain in his mind’s eye, it’ll be the aftermath of both games, when he met his wife Mary and new baby daughter Aoibhe on the pitch to share the moment with them.
Aoibhe won’t recall it of course, but what may well be Aidan’s last year in a Down jersey has been made all the more special by his daughter’s presence at the games.
She’s something of a lucky charm now after two wins from two for Down in the Ulster Championship, so there was no debate as to whether or not she’d be going to Clones tomorrow.
Not that he’s complaining, but combining the demands of inter-county football with being a new father has been an eye-opener for Carr, and not just because of the sleep deprivation.
“It's been interesting!” he says. “You think times are tough until a baby comes along and starts teething and you're trying to figure out how to change a nappy and bath her.
"The six months have gone by so fast. I actually went for dinner last Thursday to celebrate the fact that she's six months and we've kept her alive this long! It's a great achievement!
“Coming out of the hospital I was thinking, 'What do I do here now?!'
“It's the first grandchild in the family so literally no experience of babies at all, but the two grannies and grand-dads are spoiling her. It's a real eye-opener.
“I remember hearing boys saying before they couldn't make training because they had a child, and I used to think that was a poor excuse. I've a new appreciation now though.”
Carr is 32 now and made his Championship debut back in 2006, so, with a first baby on the way, signing up the Down cause for another year was always going to be a decision to mull over.
Down team-mate Mark Poland also made his debut in ’06 and also had his first baby last year, and when the two of them chat down for a chat last November they managed to cajole one another to make the commitment again.
More importantly, when he talked it over with his Mary she also told him to go for it.
“Mary has been there from day dot, she's been great," says Carr. "Even after the Monaghan game I said to her I'm not going to be around an awful lot over the next three weeks and she understood.
“We had a chat last year about coming back last year and she said, ‘Listen, Aidan, I'm never going to tell you not to go back, I know how much you love it. But if you're going back I want you to do it full-out, don't go back and have regrets about it’."
Knowing Aoibhe was due just before Christmas, Carr returned to training earlier than usual to get a solid of foundation of fitness in place because he’d knew he’d miss out on a couple of weeks after her birth.
I was always slow. It was a blessing in disguise really.
He’s feeling in great shape now, but admits at his age it’s something he needs to constantly work on in order to be able to keep up with the young bucks in the team.
“My running ability has seriously diminished, but luckily I was never that quick so I didn't have to adapt to that!” laughs Carr.
“I was always slow. It was a blessing in disguise really. I used to curse it an awful lot, but I had to figure out a way to play without it so it's helped a lot.
“The physios here have been here for five years and they've gotten to know me a lot. I couldn't actually speak highly enough of them. And Ciaran Sloan, our strength and conditioning trainer, as well.
“They really know me as well as I do. They've kept me together in one piece and it's definitely helped. Even since the end of the League I do my own tailored warm-up before I join the other warm-up and it's more specific to me which helps a lot.
“Recovery is massive at this stage. You find yourself spending a lot of time doing the smaller things like stretching and foam-rollers. For tightness what I find very good is acupuncture. One of the physios takes great delight in giving it to me!
“At my age you try to do as much as you can, but there are times you have to sometimes realise that you can't, and Eamon (Burns) has been great in that regard.
“If you're really struggling he'll tell you to take it easy or step out of every other one. He's given me a bit of leeway, thankfully.”
Every so often Carr is reminded by younger team-mates that he belongs to a different generation.
At a training session in Clonduff last year the player jogging alongside remarked that he’d watched Carr training for the club’s senior team when he was U-12.
While some of his younger Down team-mates got a laugh from sending around a snap-chat of the match programme from the 2007 Ulster Championship match against Monaghan that featured Carr at centre-forward.
Many of them weren’t even born when Down last won an All-Ireland title in 1994, whereas Carr remembers watching his father Ross play in both it and the 1991 All-Ireland Final.
“Yeah, I can remember small bits of '91, very small bits. Things like being in the Burlington and stuff, I don't remember a lot about the game.
“I remember more about '94. The parties that went on after, which, fair dues!
“But, yeah, I'd be talking to some of the boys and you'd mention the names of players from that era and they'd be like, 'Who?'
“So you realise you're starting to show your age. A lot of people watching football now, a lot of teenagers, wouldn't even remember 2010.
“You're bringing a whole new generation into excitement about July football now. For four years we haven't had July football. Usually it's club season now and there's nothing to talk about in the county.
“I suppose this team has been difficult for people to associate with for the last wee while. A lot of people would associate Down football with the '60s and '90s and expect Down teams to play with that, I won't say ability because those teams were exceptional, but to play with a lot of pride in the Down jersey and never really let it down.
“Whereas we've fumbled and fallen along the way. 2010 came out of nowhere, then we had an Ulster Final in 2012, but that's five years ago and we haven't done anything since.”
The passage of time and the leans years that have come and gone since 2012 has given Carr a whole new appreciation of just how big a deal a match like Sunday’s Ulster Final is.
He grew up watching his father win two All-Irelands with Down and would have dreamed of achieving on the same scale himself.
It hasn’t quite worked out like that though, and he knows Sunday’s match could be his last chance to experience the high of winning major silverware in a Down jersey.
“Growing up, for me football meant big championship days in Clones, but I've only ever played in one Ulster Final,” he says.
“That's a nothing record. Even that day we were beaten by 11 points or something.
“You can look back and think you were part of a panel in 2010 and part of a panel in 2012 that got to two finals, but it's not an awful lot to show for 11 years.
“Especially in my family. It's not only my Dad, my two sisters have All-Ireland camogie medals and All-Stars. And there's me stuck in the middle.
“I have a Sigerson medal, and that's it. I've lost so many Finals.
Three Sigersons, an All-Ireland U-21, two club championships, a few club U-21s, and All-Ireland and an Ulster.”
All of those defeats would be quickly forgotten were Down to shock Tyrone on Sunday and Carr to get his hands on the Anglo-Celt Cup.
“It would be absolutely massive,” he says. “When you get a family and you get a wee bit older, things are put in perspective more, they are so much more enjoyable.
“Aoibhe is not going to remember this year, but she's been at two matches where we've beaten Armagh and Monaghan.
“The first person I want to see after a match now is her and Mary. Whereas before you were like, 'Where are we going? Get me out of here'.
“It's just a very nice feeling to have that and it would be really nice to cap it all off now with the win.”