By Arthur Sullivan, GAA.ie
The GAA Museum Legends Tour Series starts its sixth season this week, and on Thursday evening, recently retired Kildare midfielder Dermot Earley will revisit some of his experiences with the Lilywhites at the famous stadium.
Dermot played for the Kildare senior team from 1998 until earlier this season, when he announced his retirement from the game. In his time with Kildare, he won two Leinster Championship medals, as well as two All Stars, eleven years apart, in 1998 and 2009 respectively.
Ahead of his tour, Dermot gave an exclusive interview to GAA.ie, where he looks back on some of the memorable times of his career, such as the run to the 1998 All-Ireland final, and the county's renaissance over the last few seasons under Kieran McGeeney.
He also talks about the influence his late father, Roscommon legend Dermot Earley, had on him and how he inspired and helped his son's own outstanding GAA career.
Click here to make a booking for Dermot's tour.
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GAA.ie: Are you honoured to have been officially called a 'legend'?
DE: I remember hearing about these tours before and when you look at the calibre of player that was giving the tour, I never really thought that I would be held in that regard. So I'm honoured but very humbled at the same time. It's a huge honour and it's something that I hope people can enjoy, and maybe appreciate what I went through on match days, and with the various memories I had when I was playing.
In years to come, what do you think you will be most associated with in terms of your football career?
A lot of the games that stood out for me happened early on in my career, when Kildare were really a force, back in 1998 and 2000. To be part of that team and to have won two Leinster titles was something that not many Kildare people have done.
So to have two of them was huge and then to play in the All-Ireland final that year. To walk around with the band and to meet the president, and all the things that are associated with the All-Ireland final. You only dream of them really, and then to be there for that occasion, even though we didn't win it, but it was still a special occasion and to be associated and remembered as part of that team is good as well.
In terms of style of play, you'd like to think you had a good style of play and I'd like to think I will be remembered as a fielder of the ball. That was one of the things that I worked on when I was younger. I would spend a lot of time before training and a lot of time after training just fielding kickouts, and I think that stood to me when I played.
I suppose the fact that my father was a midfielder as well, when he played. He was able to help me develop certain styles, catching, flicking it down, breaking it and stuff like that. I'd hope that people would remember me as being one of the good midfielders that was known to field the ball, as opposed to breaking it and stuff like that.
The game changed a lot between the start of your career and the end. The role of the midfielder changed a lot especially, and players like yourself had to become supremely fit and athletic. How did you cope with that transition?
The game started to change for me in the mid 2000s. The influence that the northern teams had on the game, you had Armagh and Tyrone winning All-Irelands. You were copying their template, and naturally enough, managers were focusing on that. 2005 and 2007 were two bad years for me in that I spent most of the year injured so I didn't have a massive role at that time with Kildare and I think when Kieran McGeeney arrived, one of the things he did say that I needed to work on was my fitness, to be able to get up and down the field in that role.
Date of Birth: 7.7.1978
C'ship Debut: 1997 v Meath
C'ship Appearances: 55
While I would always contend to be able to field the ball as well, that was one of the most important things for me personally, but with him, and the training that he brought, Kildare's overall fitness improved and I was lucky to benefit from that, from the type of specific training we were doing.
Even when you go back to when Mick O'Dwyer first arrived, a hard training session could involve running 40 laps on the football field. Now it's so specifically worked on, I don't think I've ran a lap in about five or six years.
It's making that 40, 50 ,60 yard run over and over again. Even though it's just as tough, it's a totally different type of training, because you try to replicate what you learn in training and do it in matches. If you're able to make those 50 yard runs the whole time, getting from the backs up to the forwards, you are going to benefit your team.
It's an obvious question, but because your father was such a famous GAA figure, it probably meant you were being compared with him before you even played senior football. Overall, what was it like to develop your own name whilst having such a famous father?
The comparison was obvious because of, one, having the same name, and two, having the exact same career path (in the Irish Army). I was delighted to be compared with my father because he was such a huge figure in the GAA when he did play. There are similarities in our game, obviously he was a fielder as well.
But we had different make-ups I suppose. He was a physically very strong, imposing footballer, who used his strength just to play the game. I feel he was probably a little bit more skillful that I was. He had more to offer off both feet than I ever did. He was a scorer.
But I would have loved to have come up against him in the middle of the field and seen how we would have got on, but you can never do that. What I did get from having a man like him was the advice. Even before and after matches about how I played. He used to just say to me after a game, 'just a couple of things, or two or three things', and it was three points that he would make. And when you analysed them and sat back on them, you'd often say, 'that's right', and you'd go out the next day and try and improve on them.
His advice must have been hugely helpful to you?
I would have used his advice a lot when I was starting out playing football. Any of the early games that I had in Croke Park with Kildare, he was always at them. I always knew where he was sitting.
And I can remember specifically before the All-Ireland semi-final in 1998 against Kerry. Niall Buckley was injured for Kildare, I was playing wing-forward and Micko told me an hour and a half before the game, 'You're marking Darragh Ó Sé in midfield'. I wasn't expecting it to be honest, I was gearing myself up to mark Seamus Moynihan, which was a hard enough thing to get my head right for, and then to be told I was marking Darragh, who was the upcoming midfielder at the time.
I remember going up to my father, seeking him out in the Cusack Stand and saying 'Niall Buckley is out, I'm marking Darragh', and he just said 'You know how to play the game, keep it simple, and most important thing is win the catches, watch the breaks on the ground and make sure your lads come in.' Something along those lines, something very simple. I ended up marking Darragh that day and I got Man of the Match. That was one of the examples when he was able to give me that little bit of...sometimes it wasn't even advice, it was more reassurance.
I used to do that before those games, go up to him in the stand. It was kind of a last minute conference, nothing else. Just to see how I'm feeling, to see if everything was ok. Just a little thing that we kind of got into the habit of doing that year for some reason. And I always, always talked to him after games. A phonecall on the way home or whatever. But in 1998, I was always going up to him in the stand.
Were there any things that you encountered when you first started at inter-county level that you hadn't expected or prepared for, that he was able to guide you on?
I wanted to develop and become a scoring threat as a midfielder, and he would always talk about the timing of your run. How to time your run to get to where the ball is going to be at the right angle at the right time.
It's something that I suppose we kind of talked about, and if we saw it while watching a game, he would say, 'that's the way to do it' or 'that's not the way to do it'. I would have taken his advice a lot on that, and really improved and could kind of see where ball was going or going to end up and be able to kind of change your direction to take that ball at pace to be able to get a scoring opportunity and things like that.
Kildare's run to the 1998 All-Ireland Football Championship final was a romantic adventure for a county starved of success at the time. How vividly do you remember the experience?
I can remember every single game that year. I think the making of that team in 1998 was the three games that we had against Meath the year before in 1997. They instilled a belief in the players that, hold on, we are actually good enough to be able to compete with the best, because Meath at the time were All-Ireland champions. Apart from myself, that was a very settled team that had played in 1997. I broke in as wing forward in 1998 and was able to offer them something, a bit of high fielding around the middle like a third midfielder type and it worked very well for us during the year.
It really worked well when Christy Byrne in the 1998 Leinster final, Meath came back at us and it was a draw game, and Christy hit me at wing forward from the kickout. I knew the ball was coming my direction. I was able to win my own ball, then deliver a ball down to Martin Lynch, who gave an absolutely brilliant ball into Brian Murphy. That was the goal and that was what ultimately won it for us.
But because we got caught on a little bit of a wave, and we had beaten the last three All-Ireland champions that year - we'd beaten Dublin, Meath and Kerry - and we were in a final, we probably didn't do enough homework on Galway themselves.
We were aware of the scoring threat of Padraic Joyce and Ja Fallon, but we got caught a little bit, especially by the likes of Michael Donnellan. We knew who he was but we probably didn't know that he had such great pace and that he was able to run at that pace for so long. And we can see, he made three unbelievable runs in that game. He just broke through the middle and they got three scores from them.
Little things like that, we just hadn't done enough homework on them. And then, Galway had done a lot of homework on us. They worked a lot on short kickouts because they realised we were dominant around the middle. I think they did seven or eight short kick-outs in that game. That's possession that we would have hoped to get, but they had done their homework.
When I look back, I feel that maybe we got a little bit carried away as well. The county did go mad, but you expect that, because we hadn't been in an All-Ireland final since 1935 and we hadn't won one since 1928 so you have to expect that. If we could go back now, we probably would have done a little bit more work on the opposition.
Did you feel after that game that that group of Kildare players would eventually win an All-Ireland?
I did. I really thought the following year would be our year. But Offaly caught us in the first round. Maybe there was a little bit of a late start that year in that we did celebrate the Leinster, and the fact that we got to an All-Ireland. We ended up going on holiday to South Africa. And it was kind of a little bit later in the year when we started doing the hard training but we had a couple of injuries as well that didn't help. We didn't have the same settled team that we had the year before and Offaly caught us.
But we regrouped and the following year, we won Leinster, albeit after a replay. But it was Galway who beat us again in the All-Ireland semi-final. And it was an exceptional performance again from Galway I thought that day, because it was a really wet All-Ireland semi-final and we had worked so hard and had actually got back to level. The sending off of John Finn was a bit of a factor. And Pádraic Joyce was on fire again. In 2000 and 2001 he was exceptional.
And then you think, well the next year. But I think that team at that time was kind of coming to an end. Willie McCreery retired in 2001 and Niall Buckley went away to the States. A good chunk of that spine were gone or going. Davy Dalton had retired. There was a changing of the guard, and even though we got back to Leinster finals in 2002 and 2003, we never were able to make that breakthrough again and we haven't won a Leinster since.
It just goes to show you at the time, that team that we had really were exceptional and it goes back to the point that maybe we didn't win enough, and probably should have won a bit more.
Under Kieran McGeeney's management, Kildare became serious contenders again and were close in 2010 and 2011 in particular. How did you find that renaissance, of sorts?
I was lucky enough to play under great managers, like Mick O'Dwyer, Padraig Nolan and John Crofton, a clubmate of mine who was exceptional, with an excellent attention to detail. I learned an awful lot from him, and John was a selector back in 1998 and he would probably have been one who introduced me into the county team and backed me so I spent a lot of time injured for his time as manager.
But we were going through a transition. A lot of that early team were going and a new breed of players was coming in and it does take time. When Kieran arrived and brought his level of experience and drive as a person, the player he was, he was very driven. And what he did to maintain his fitness, to keep learning and trying to pass that on to us.
Initially it probably took us a while to buy into his way. And once we did buy into it, we started realising that there is merit in this, and we could see results. Players could see themselves developing, getting stronger and fitter and playing good football. I think that culminated that year in the 2010 semi-final against Down when we were a flick of a ball, mere fingertips away. A ball that hit the crossbar. I didn't play in the semi-final, I hurt my knee in the quarter-final and I didn't play all of 2011.
But 2011 was almost more painful. Because I felt we did push on from that defeat to Down, and the game against Donegal, which I watched as a spectator, was probably one of the most intense games of football I've ever watched. From a game that in the first half was so tight, and wasn't much of a spectacle, to open up in the second half to the game it became.
And then the extra-time, and the drama of that, and Kevin Cassidy's point from 50 yards with the outside of the boot. It just goes to show you, where Donegal moved on from there and we didn't. That's the little fine margins in Gaelic football. If we had have gotten through that, it would have given us a huge confidence boost to beat a provincial winner because we hadn't done that either. Look where they went on to, and I suppose we dropped a little bit back but hopefully we can pick it up again this year.
When you won the All Star in 2009, 11 years after your first, it must have been hugely satisfying for you on a personal level, given all that you had been through with injuries in the intervening years?
That was an element that I had a bad spell when I found myself that I was getting injuries every couple of months and I wasn't getting a full run at games and I had some good years with the club but I found when I went back to the county I would get injured again. So to get that run in 2009, and I think a lot of it was down to the conditioning work that was done to prevent these injuries. That I was able to get that run and I just really started to enjoy the football again.
When you're injured, it's always a hard bit of a trek and you question yourself coming back. Can you get back to that level? And I proved it to myself that I could do that. And to get an All Star 11 years after the first one, I don't know if there's anyone else has done that.
It really was something very special, and I did, I got a huge amount of satisfaction that year from the award. There was a separate GPA team then as well and in the GPA team, I was the only player that wasn't from Cork and Kerry on that team. So when you're competing with them on the podium, that is a huge thing and I did feel a huge sense of satisfaction.
I felt that I had brought my form with me from 2009 into 2010, and over the winter we had trained pretty well, and even in the first couple of games in 2010, I felt as strong if not stronger. Unfortunately then on a cold night in Ballykelly I jarred my knee and the problems just escalated from there. I managed to play that year, I took about six weeks off to try and rehab it, but what I actually did was I had torn my cruciate.
I hadn't torn it fully but I had torn it and I was able to go away and work really hard to build up my leg so that I could play without it. I did, and got back but each game, and we had a Qualifier run that summer, so we were playing every week, and every week I was doing a little bit more damage, a little bit more damage, and I was getting through the games. But then eventually, I was on my own once and went to kick the ball in that quarter-final with no one around me, when I came down after kicking it, it just kind of buckled and I did real damage then so that was the end of it.
That was the frustrating thing because even though I was injured, I still felt that I had brought a bit of form with me from 2009 as well. So the last couple of years for me personally, having played my best football at the age of 31, I do feel a little bit that I wasn't able to finish it out the way I would have liked to. The way every player wants to finish out their playing career is on the playing field with their county and unfortunately it didn't work out that way for me.
Earlier we talked about what things you might be remembered for. One thing that you will certainly be remembered for was the fact that you played a championship match for Kildare, against Antrim, on the day of your father's funeral on June 26, 2010. It's hard to find an appropriate word for what that experience must have been like, but it must have been very powerful?
It was. In a strange sort of way. It was a tough year that year, because we knew Dad was sick and it wasn't looking good. You can try and prepare for these things but when it happens, it's never easy. For me, at the time, because I knew he was not well, football was a bit of a release. You were able to get away for two hours training and because the game just takes over, your mind and your head is just focused on that and you can kind of get away from reality sometimes.
Then you come back to it. I kind of was doing that all year. His anniversary was Sunday, three years ago. I remember at the time, we didn't know how long he had but he wasn't well and I remember thinking when he did pass, I hadn't been thinking of the match up until that, but when he did pass away, I did kind of think, 'this match is on Saturday'. I don't know if people were expecting me to play or anything like that. But I had a chat with my Mum and my brothers and sisters and I said I think I'm going to play this game.
We talked about how he wouldn't have liked me to miss any game, or anything like that because he loved it so much and I loved it so much, and I just felt this was the best way to go out and honour him. I remember standing for the minute's silence, or applause rather, and there was a strong feeling. The atmosphere in Newbridge that day was sad but in a way, there was a little bit of electricity as well around the place.
I was able to, as soon as the ball was thrown in, to just concentrate for the next two hours and get away from it. Then, as soon as the final whistle goes, you're right back into reality then.
Once the game was over, and after expending so much physical energy, did the emotion of it all come down on you?
I kind of was emotional afterwards, and had my own bit of quiet time. To be honest, the funeral and the reaction was so big that I didn't really have any time beforehand to myself. But when the emotion of everything was finished, I had my own little time. The family had huge support that really helped us as well. I felt it as well, and had a lot of support behind me. And that helped as well, in being able to help me to play the game.
Ultimately it was my goal to mark the moment as best I could. I wanted to pay respect to him in the best possible way that he would have appreciated it and to me that was going out and playing the game and playing it to the best of my ability and the way he would have played it. That's why I played it.
You made the decision earlier this year to retire from the game, having struggled with the back injury you picked up during the league. Talk us through the process of reaching your decision.
I can remember that I didn't know what it was (the back injury). I had decided early on that year that I was going to give it everything I can, and that will be it. It was time to go and at the end of this year, it would be time to go. I was training hard and I was starting to feel a bit myself that I was getting better. Because in 2012, even though I did play matches, a lot of the time it was obviously substitute appearances. I felt that I had gotten over my knee injury, but it was still in the back of my head, just the whole process that a player with a knee injury goes through, especially the fact that I had done it twice.
Confidence, finding your rhythm and your knowing the instincts again. I felt that early on this year, and in training I felt I was getting back to a level that I was happy with. Then in the warm-up when we played Dublin in the league, I went to pick up a ball in the warm-up room and I felt my back getting tight and in spasm. I got a bit of a pain into my glute and I didn't think anything of it because I thought it was just in the spasm, which has happened in the past. Usually it would be gone within a week, after a bit of physio and a bit of rest, it goes again.
It was really only at the end of that week, and over that weekend that it started to get progressively worse. And over that weekend, an MRI showed that I had a bulging disc that was hitting a nerve. You go through the process of, what are the steps to do, and obviously rest wasn't helping me because it was just getting worse. There's a process of epidural injection, to kind of shrink the disc away from the nerve. That didn't work. Then I got a second one and it worked for about four hours and as soon as it wore off, I was in agony. Literally, a piece of disc had broken off and wedged itself in beside the nerve. It was agonising pain. I couldn't stand, I couldn't sit and I couldn't walk.
I had to go in for surgery. The first surgery didn't work, and I had to go in a week later and get a second surgery. Since then, I am pain-free. But I had a whole process to go through of rest and recuperation. And in that time resting, I just started thinking about coming back from that injury, and the level that you need and want to perform at in your own head. I just thought it was a little bit beyond me this year. Even though I love a challenge, and no-one loves more being able to prove people wrong if they tell me I can't do something.
The body was just telling me, 'Hold on a second'. There's a reason why these things are happening. Everything I went through with my knee especially and with this, there is a time to say hold on, enough is enough. It was a tough decision, and it's even tougher now because we're right in the middle of championship and I miss it awfully and hugely. But it is the right decision for me and I'm very happy with the decision I made.
Will you go back and play with your club now?
I'm hoping to go back and play with the club at some stage. The championship won't start until later on in the summer, and the better Kildare do, the longer I will have to recuperate. I'm able to rehab at my own pace and I don't have a deadline. I can train when I can, and when I'm up to it. I've done an awful lot of rehab and core work to strengthen up my back and I hope to start running in the next couple of weeks and I'll see how it feels from there. I'm not going to do anything that will jeopardise my back. If it feels good and I feel good, I will go back and play, towards the end of the summer, with the club.
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The Bord Gáis Energy Legends Tour with Dermot Earley is scheduled to take place on Thursday June 27 at 7:00pm. Admission includes a visit to the recently-refurbished GAA Museum, which is home to many exclusive exhibits, including the original Sam Maguire Cup, first presented to Kildare in 1928.
For further information and booking:
GAA Museum, Tel 01 819 2323
E: email@example.com or check out www.crokepark.ie/gaa-museum
Prices for the Legends Tours are as follows:
Adult €15, Child €8.50, Student (Under 16) and Senior €10.00, Family €40.00