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Westmeath handballer Robbie McCarthy returns to Croke Park on Saturday.
Westmeath handballer Robbie McCarthy returns to Croke Park on Saturday.

Westmeath's Robbie McCarthy eager to secure further glory

By Cian O’Connell

Westmeath’s Robbie McCarthy fondly recalls his teenage years. Handball was occupying a central role in his life and the weekends spent away learning about the game in the company of the totemic Michael ‘Ducksy’ Walsh proved to be time well spent.

Valuable lessons were learned, tips given, and it wasn’t long before McCarthy started delivering on the national and world stage.

That was always the intended destination, but the journey was never short on stories or interesting tales. So McCarthy is delighted to continue making an impact.

Saturday’s Croke Park 60x30 encounter with Eoin Kennedy is the latest addition to a rivalry that remains keenly contested. The respect between the pair is mutual with McCarthy acknowledging Kennedy’s influence.

“I think this is our 11th straight final, obviously we have battled over the years,” McCarthy says. “Before that I played a good bit with Eoin when I was younger. He was probably the only one that was there to play, he was the best of his generation.”

McCarthy vividly remembers why sport mattered so much. When I was growing up I was going around to the handball alleys with my dad watching. My dad used to play against Ducksy, Walter (O’Connor), and Tom (Sheridan). My dad would have been gone when Eoin came on the scene.

“I would have trained with the whole lot of them, every one of them. They are probably the best big alley players I have ever seen.”

Travelling to training never overly bothered McCarthy. The brief was to improve so McCarthy did what was necessary.

“I never trained inside the county really,” McCarthy remarks. “I always did my training outside the county, like in Kells in Meath.

“That was only 35 minutes away. I also did a good bit of training in Kingscourt. I always travelled for games. When I got to 15 my dad started sending me down to Ducksy. I used to go down to stay with Ducksy for a weekend, train for the weekend. Then come home.”

It was a memorable spell. How the handball community stays united is something that should be relevant according to McCarthy.

“Ducksy offered me help when I was younger,” McCarthy reveals. “Ducksy and Tom offered me help growing up. Tom (Sheridan), Brian (Carroll), and I were all growing up together.

“There was only a year in the age difference. We won the world title together, all that kind of stuff. They helped us out. Michael Finnegan helped me out a lot when I was younger, Dessie Keegan, the incoming President too.

It promises to be an interesting Saturday of GAA Handball action at Croke Park.
It promises to be an interesting Saturday of GAA Handball action at Croke Park.

“Dessie was very helpful, we are all still very close. We would always help as much as we can. They don't mind helping you, but when they are helping you they are nearly finished playing senior handball.

“The next few that I will probably help out will be the people coming up behind me. I will be finishing off when they are coming to the top the ladder.”

So the game passes through the generations. The skill, spirit, and stamina is critical with McCarthy adapting his training regime while trying to balance work and family commitments.

“I played football and hurling, I played them the whole way up through the years up to minor level with the county and club, then I just packed it in to concentrate on handball,” McCarthy admits.

“I've done a lot of travelling with it, I go to the States a lot. I still compete in the States, so I get to go to a lot of places, but I don't see much when I'm there.

“I'm playing, I try to get out of there straight after the tournament so that I can get home. I don't see much of it, especially if I'm getting to a final or winning. Whatever stage I get to you are almost getting to the airport after you finish.”

In the United States of America McCarthy acknowledges the passion which exists for handball. “It is fairly big with the WCH over in the States,” McCarthy adds.

“They are always asking you to come over. In fairness to them they look after your flights and accommodation. I'm lucky enough to be a sponsored athlete from the NYAC in New York so they cover all my costs to let me play. Basically it doesn't cost me to go to play, to compete over there.

“I try to get out there five or six times a year, but it depends on the work schedule and the family. I have to try to take a couple of months off to give my body a bit of a break every year.

“I do take a bit of downtime, but in the downtime I'd probably do a bit of running three days a week. Nothing hectic.”

Still there is always something to do. A competition, a test. It is both demanding and rewarding with McCarthy seeking to collect another national title this weekend against the highly regarded Kennedy.

Five All Ireland titles in a row would be accomplished if McCarthy prevails, but the Westmeath man merely laughs about that. “It is nice, I haven't even thought about it,” McCarthy responds. “I didn't even realise that being honest. There would be a respect between everybody, but once the door closes it is a rivalry.”

It continues on Saturday.

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