Conor Phelan - You can't keep a good man down
By John Harrington
Conor Phelan is the embodiment of the truism, ‘You can’t keep a good man down’.
The former Kilkenny star played his first competitive hurling match in two years when he came on as a substitute for Clara against Ballyhale Shamrocks in the Kilkenny SHC Semi-Final.
That’s a significant milestone in his sporting life, because two years ago he underwent surgery to repair a defective valve in his heart and was told he would never hurl again.
Clara were beaten by Ballyhale, but simply getting on the pitch made Phelan a winner.
“It was good to be involved, but I would've liked another couple of weeks to get back up to speed,” says Phelan.
“I was involved in the backroom there the last two years when I was out sick, they've been very successful the last couple of years, and it's just been brilliant to be around in the backroom, carrying hurls or whatever.
“To still have that bond with the players so it's nice to be able to tog out for a change and do the warm up and stuff.”
Phelan first found out he had an issue with a leaky valve in his heart in 2005 when he and the rest of the Kilkenny senior squad underwent a routine check.
Its discovery forced him to retire from inter-county hurling and take a year out from hurling altogether, but he eventually returned to the game, played for the All-Ireland winning Kilkenny intermediates in 2008, and helped Clara win a county title in 2013.
As a result of the leaking valve in his heart though, an aneurism steadily grew on his aorta, and two years ago decision was made to replace both the valve and the aorta.
A return to hurling seemed very unlikely at that stage, but Phelan is glad to be back and confident he’s not putting himself at any risk.
“It's good, everything's good, just trying to get back to normality again, I took six months out of work in November '14 so nearly two years to the day next week so it's great to be back doing something,” he says.
“I'll probably have to go for the surgery again in about 12-13 year’s time to replace the valve again. The surgeon said try and use it if you can.
“You went through all this hardship to be able to be active and fit and be able to work on a farm so yeah it's great to be able to have an opportunity to do that.
“I suppose I'm 33 now, I've a twin brother and he's still playing away so you don't want him to win medals when you're not there either.
“I joined Gowran Golf Club, the tennis club in Kilkenny trying to get back doing non-contact stuff, but then I went to the surgeon three or four months ago and he said 'Listen the story is that you can get involved in some level of physical activity', so it's nice to be able to be involved and do something again.”
Phelan won All-Ireland senior and U-21 hurling medals as a 19-year-old in 2003 and was just 21 when first diagnosis of the leaking valve in his heart ended his inter-county career.
He subsequently missed out on the most successful era ever in the history of Kilkenny senior hurling teams, but he still counts himself as a very lucky man.
His heart issue might never have been diagnosed had his Kilkenny team-mate Noel Hickey not suffered a heart score of his own in 2005, and continuing to play inter-county hurling with it would have been a health-risk.
“Yeah I suppose Cormac McAnallen would have passed away the year before as well, Noel Hickey had a virus and then we all went in for a screening session in Kilkenny and it just showed up that that leaky valve is there, there's an irregularity,” says Phelan.
“I'd probably still be playing away irrelevant, I wouldn't know what it is, but if it split then I was in trouble so it puts things in perspective.
“I feel very fortunate. You look at Anthony Foley there, may he rest in peace, it puts thing in perspective. A double-edged sword. Very fortunate I knew about it.
“I suppose at the time I was 21, on the crest of a wave, thought the world was my oyster. My generation, the Tommys (Tommy Walsh), the JJs (JJ Delaney), the Taggies (Aidan Fogarty) went on to win multiple All-Irelands after it. That’s probably the regret on my side.
“But I had a great three years when I was involved and I'm lucky that the Kilkenny county board took the initiative to get us all in and get screened. Only for that, I wouldn’t know where I’d be now.”
He might have missed out on a few medals with the Kilkenny senior hurlers, but Phelan never strayed far from the game. Not only has he had a successful club hurling career, he’s also making a name for himself as a coach and administrator.
He’s doing great work as the GAA Games Development Officer at Waterford IT, and was a selector with the Kilkenny camogie team this year that won the county’s first All-Ireland senior title since 1994.
This weekend he’ll be joint-manager of the Ireland U-21 team along with Tipperary’s Willie Maher for the annual Hurling-Shinty international. Last year the Ireland U-21s won their match comprehensively, and Phelan believes that’s because they managed to build up such a good team spirit.
“It's very good yeah, trying to get everyone together. It's a great opportunity for the lads from different counties to represent Ireland and our first year involved we were trying to create a little bit of nostalgia about it as well.
“We got the players to bring their own club jerseys and county jerseys and then the night before they put on the Irish jersey and it is a great chance for them to represent Ireland and we were lucky enough last year, we got a good result and the lads performed but it's kind of having a combination, the Kerrys, the Antrims, the Mayos to the Tipperarys and Kilkennys, we'd a good mix.
“This year I think we've 12 counties represented so I'm looking forward to it and it's a great weekend for the lads to travel over and get to know each other.
“It's a different style of hurling, you'd definitely want your shin guards, it was a rude awakening straight away. You're either up for it or you're not, there's no point being half way because you will get hurt, you're either in or out and I suppose what we tried to do, myself and Willie, was identify players that are able to hurl and move the ball quick and have a bit of intelligence.
“Any of the trials we had we tried to identify those players and it stood to us last year and we've a good mix of players and hopefully that'll stand to us.”
Phelan seems to have a knack for management, and he surely picked up a tip or two during his time playing under Brian Cody with Kilkenny.
The Cats manager seems certain to return for a 19th season in charge of the team next year, and Phelan is predicting he’ll use this year’s All-Ireland defeat to Tipperary as a major source of motivation for him and his players.
“He has been there so long, everyone asks “how does he keep things so fresh?”
“That kind of personality, influence, when he walks into a room he has that presence. You have strong personalities within the group and he has been able to manage them, keep them on track.
“I think that’s his key attribute. And he builds a good team around him. The last few years he has switched selectors, trainers, physios – everything has changed.
“Brian will bring them together now and they'll have that (loss) in their background all the time. I remember when I got involved in 2003 first, the year before, or two years before, Galway beat them and he always harped on about that, that intensity, that they'd never be bullied again.
“All the time and he always brought that into training and into matches. That intensity, I know that word intensity has been thrown around, but he always harped on about that. I suppose Tipperary, the All-Ireland final, he'll probably hold that as well as a little nugget there.
“He loves it, he lives and breathes it and I think...you know, he can't really leave on that note. But then when can he leave? It's like an Alex Ferguson (situation) isn't it? Whoever takes over is like the poisoned chalice.
“I wouldn't like taking the role after him anyway because it's a hard role to fill. You're always trying to keep up to those standards.”