Through setbacks and injury, resilient Conor Meyler has prevailed
By Michael Devlin
Conor Meyler makes a point of going to summer camps and stressing to youngsters the importance of overcoming setbacks. He’s had more than a few in his football career.
“Talking to children at camps these days about setbacks and resilience, I don’t think they fully understand how important it is at a younger age to deal with these things. You can look and blame other people and make excuses, this ‘victim mentality’ that it’s everyone else’s fault, or you can do something about it yourself. I would be more that way inclined.”
Meyler’s story is that of the typical GAA late bloomer. Growing up in the Omagh St Enda’s club, he was resigned to playing on ‘B’ squads, when his father Seanie, a former Tyrone player in his day, managed the ‘A’ team. It wasn’t through tough love or to divert accusations of favouritism though that Meyler was kept in the second team. His father knew it would be more beneficial for young Conor to be getting regular game time.
“I was down in the ‘B’ team playing teams in Division Three and Four, getting tanked. He was winning the U16 Championship and stuff, which I wasn’t part of, but he knew himself it wasn’t going to get me football sitting on the bench, so it was better for me playing games.”
A prominent competitor at national level in cross-country and road running growing up, Meyler credits his hobby for athletics for giving him a good fitness base for football. His development as a player though didn’t kick into overdrive until after his late teens. He wasn’t part of any Tyrone youth squads and regularly missed out on school teams in his adolescent years. Omission from the Tyrone minor squad was a particularly tough pill to swallow.
The time came at age 17 to choose a path; running or football. “I chose the football, but I’d have to go 100 per cent at it. Not making those teams, not making the minor team was a big setback. You’d check the Tyrone website and your name wasn’t on a 35-man panel. That’s how you find out.
“The school MacRory Cup team, I played a lot of the league games then got dropped for the championship. Tyrone U-21s a year young, played the league games and got dropped for the championship against Cavan. First year of senior football, a couple of injuries and we’d a bad year, I actually played reserve championship that year. All those wee things, you probably take it personally and use it to motivate yourself.”
So how then did he go from not making a 35-man county minor panel to starting against Kerry in a senior All-Ireland semi-final within two years? What changed?
“You’re always just setting the next goal,” says Meyler. The road began with Omagh ending a 26-year wait to win the Tyrone County Championship in 2014. Meyler’s goal was to try and make the team, and while he didn’t start a couple of league games, he eventually nailed down a starting berth for the county final. In the subsequent Ulster campaign, he was man-of-the-match in a memorable win over Crossmaglen.
“Then when that’s over, you sit back down and think, ‘What’s the next goal?’ To make the Tyrone U21 team, the team you couldn’t make at minor.
“Every single session, you were taking nothing for granted, you wanted to win every run, be the first man at each drill. That’s probably where the whole small percentages thing came from. I was very lucky I got to work with Feargal [Logan], Brian [Dooher] and Peter [Canavan], and we had a great back room team there. We were using all the video analysis and that, you were asking every questions and trying to find every wee edge you could get from those boys to improve.”
Success followed success. Tyrone U-21s went on to win the All-Ireland, with Meyler playing a key role. Despite tearing his hamstring the week before the final with Tipperary, he drew on that steely determination, that word ‘resilience’ again, and played the game heavily strapped up.
After taking some time after that campaign to let the injury mend, the call then came from Mickey Harte to come onto the Tyrone senior panel. His progression continued, seizing the opportunity with both hands to make his debut against Tipperary in a qualifier game. It was something he says helped temper the pain of all the setbacks up to that point.
The starting place against Kerry for the 2015 semi-final was the pinnacle of the remarkable 24-month rise. Captaining St Mary’s Belfast to a Sigerson Cup two years later was further gratification for Meyler, something he says he can now throw back at his dad Seanie, a Sigerson winner himself. The close bond between father and son is something he holds in high regard.
“We’d be very, very close and it’s good to know we are on a similar wavelength with a lot of things. He would push me and challenge me. It’s good to know that he understands the football background as well, which is always great.
“He always used to slag me about having a Sigerson medal, it was one I managed to get back over him. I have to thank all those people who would have taken you to those games and sessions, at times when you didn’t want to go, and pushed you that wee bit harder and were there to not mother-cuddle in a sense, but to push you in the right direction.
“You are thankful of that, where you are now. You’re no finished article at this stage, you’re still really building and I think there is a lot more to come. So again, it’s about keeping those things that I’ve been doing well and consistently working on them, and the things that I’m maybe not as good at, working on them too. There’s no point neglecting the things that you’re good at, you want to be best at them, and things you can work on you want to be able to be good at as well.”
The aptitude for improvement, the desire to gain an advantage or an edge over opponents, is another thing that stemmed from Meyler’s time in the U-21s. He talks about how he would analyse games of his own accord, looking in fine detail at the behaviour of direct opponents and identifying what they are likely to do out on the pitch that weekend.
“That was one of the things about my game personally, I mightn't be as talented as some boys but my attention to detail was a lot better. A lot of hours studying the opposition players and that, you're pre-empting what's going to happen and you transition that into your set-up.
“That's always been an aspect of my game that's been strong and I suppose with the roles that have been coming now, marking top quality players, you can't leave it to chance. If you can get any sort of edge on a fella and know what he's going to do before he gets his hands on the ball, it makes a big difference.
“Maybe I don't enjoy doing it all the time but you know it's going to be beneficial because once you step onto that pitch there's no going back then. The hours can be tough, studying game footage on a laptop, but when you go out onto the pitch when you know the fella you'll be marking, it makes a big difference.
“Whatever small percentage I can get during the week, your rest, your recovery, your sleep, a bit of video work, all those small edges. Talking to ones at camps here, I tell them that it's the small things that add up. They don't always believe it. It's those small percentages, you soon realise they stand to you a lot better over time.”
The small percentages are what helped the Omagh man shorten a 12-week injury to just four in order to be fit for last year’s All-Ireland final. He fractured his leg in the final quarter-final group stage win over Donegal on August 5th, and spent a considerable amount of time in the interim hobbling about on crutches. But remarkably by September 2nd he was running out onto the Croke Park sod to detail Dublin’s Brian Fenton.
Meyler went to extreme lengths to get back for a game he was determined not to sit out. The first thing to go were the camps, “not a priority” he says. Then there was the sleeping in an oxygen tent, the tweaking of his diet to specifically aid bone repair, the regular consultation with medical staff, the constant icing of the leg. He took every conceivable measure.
“My ones were sick of running down to the shop to get ice. Once you were back walking, it was the rehabilitation two or three times a day. You were in the pool, you were up seeing medical staff, whatever inch you could get you were doing.
“Thankfully things progressed to a level where it was viable to be running after three weeks and give yourself a full week of running and training that you were fit for selection.”
“To get the chance to walk out, it’s always the vision I had in my head to be able to walk out in Croke Park on All-Ireland Final day. That was that ticked, I didn’t regret it.”
It’s now four years since Conor Meyler started his Tyrone senior career in earnest against Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final. He runs out against the Kingdom at the same stage on Sunday with a lot of water under the bridge, both personally and collectively with Tyrone. You can be sure he has not forgotten what has got him to this point.
“I'm looking forward to it, both teams have probably improved since 2015. We've been building, I was 20 when I started that game in 2015, I'm 24 now. I'm a bit older and a bit wiser.
"We've been building collectively this last number of years, we've been in four of the last five semi-finals so it's what we're getting used to. I think we're maybe a bit further on in our development now and we're looking forward to the challenge.”