‘I won’t be able to do what I’m doing for much longer, so if we can win that medal I’d happily stop playing’

AN ENFORCED RETIREMENT in March, injury cutting down a Gaelic football career at the age of 26.

Paul Whyte in action for Waterford against Cork in the Munster championship last year.

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

A sudden comeback in September after the frustration of standing idle and watching on games during the summer months had proved too much.

And now the surreal prospect of playing in a county senior final, stepping onto the Fraher Field tomorrow for Kilrossanty in the Waterford decider, 18 years after their last final appearance and 29 years after last title win..

“It is a bit surreal alright,” reflects Paul Whyte, wrapping his head around a 2018 season of varying emotions.

“It’s just nice to be there and it’s absolutely huge for the club. It’s been a long time coming. We’ve been knocking on the door but just couldn’t get over that semi-final hurdle. Thankfully this year we did it.”

Good to see the colour going up around the parish. pic.twitter.com/7blxpoo3Pf

— Kilrossanty GAA (@KilrossantyGAA) October 16, 2018

Source: Kilrossanty GAA/Twitter

That was a thought scrubbed from his mind last spring when the country was enveloped in a blanket of snow and retirement came calling. His Waterford football role, a constant in his life since he joined the senior panel at 17, ground to a halt. His days of kicking ball for Kilrossanty seemed over as well.

His hips have been at him for a long time. He’s had groin and hamstring troubles since he was a teenager. Going under the knife at 19 gave him some initial relief but the difficulties returned.

“It worked perfectly for probably two or three years and then the problems started coming back again. My mobility was cut down and it progressively got worse.”

In late February he produced a customary scoring show in a league game against Carlow, 1-1 under the floodlights in Carriganore. Then came a lull in Waterford’s schedule as frozen pitches rendered the staging of training and games impossible.

When they returned to action, Whyte smacked against a roadblock. He felt a searing pain shooting across his hip when he tried to run. Physios and surgeons inspected the damage. The advice was clear and stark.

Time to quit.

Paul Whyte in action for Waterford against Galway in 2013 in Salthill.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“It was a big shock to the system when it happened. It probably didn’t hit me for a while until I was going to the inter-county games and not being involved. I’ve been doing it in the county setup since I was 17 so I don’t really know anything else.

“All the surgeons and specialists say there’s no one thing that they can pinpoint. A lot of it is just bad luck or over-training.

“It’s not restricting me in my day to day. It’s a different feeling in my right hip to my left hip. I wouldn’t class it as pain but I know there’s something there. It’s discomfort.

“As the surgeon said, it’s only going to get worse over time. It’s just trying to get as long as I can with the hip I have before I have to get a hip replacement.

“They said if I stopped playing, I should hopefully get a lot longer out of the other one because the cartilage is still there and it should last longer not doing the impact training.”

The news robbed Waterford of a key component. Their captain and a long-serving operator. A sharpshooter who had always been lethal in front of goal. Soccer competed for his attention when he was young, Ireland caps at U15 and U17 level offered proof of his talent.

Paul Whyte before an U17 international friendly with Ireland in 2009.

Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Once Gaelic football commanded his focus, he showed his worth. On his championship debut in 2011 he posted 0-7 against London.

Rewards were not plentiful for Waterford teams on big summer days but Whyte plugged away – 0-8 when they nearly toppled Waterford in a 2013 qualifier, 1-15 over the course of three ties in 2014, then 1-5 in a Munster loss to Tipperary in 2016 and a brace of points when they came close to a famous victory over Cork in 2017.

Paul Whyte fires home a goal against Tipperary in the 2016 Munster quarter-final.

And then the plug was pulled on that way of life.

Whyte stayed in the team environment, rejoiced with them when they stunned Wexford for the county’s first championship win in seven years and watched them go toe to toe with the likes of Conor McManus and Rory Beggan in June.

“If I just walked away, I’m not really sure what I would have done with all the time that I had. It probably just made the switch easier still being in the scene with the lads.

“To still be in that team setting, probably made stopping that little bit easier.”

When Waterford’s season ended, the teacher in St Augustine’s in Dungarvan fell into a similar observer role with Kilrossanty. A constant presence at their pitch in Lemybrien to watch training sessions.

As the magnitude of their games grew, he found it increasingly uncomfortable to just be looking on as a quarter-final date loomed against Stradbally.

“When it happened first, I just stopped everything. I couldn’t really get used to it and that’s why the itch to play came back. As the Stradbally game was coming up, it was just very hard standing on the sideline. Two weeks before I just said I’d see what I could do in a training session and I felt okay. I didn’t feel brilliant but I felt okay after it.

“I said to the management there could be 10 or 15 minutes in me if they wanted to use me against Stradbally. We just came up with a plan, what best way to work it and we went from there.”

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The move was rooted in a desperation for the club to succeed. Kilrossanty football is embedded in the fabric of Whyte’s family. His grandfather Jimmy won seven county senior medals in the 50s and 60s. His father Pierce was part of five triumphant teams in the 80s during a golden era for the club.

Since the last of those wins in 1989, they have been starved of success. In recent times the knockout stages have presented a code they could not crack. For the Whytes – Paul and his three cousins Patrick, James and Jack – there was a regular reminder of those past glories.

“You’d be always hearing stories how good they were and how useless we are,” he laughs.

“It kind of comes with the territory. There’s massive tradition, it’s always been a football club. A lot of the players, their fathers or uncles would have been on the teams in the 80s that won.”

Waterford footballer Stephen Prendergast is part of the Kilrossanty side.

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

It hasn’t been helped that during that barren spell, they were casting envious glances over at their neighbours Stradbally accumulating 10 titles since 2000 and stringing together five-in-a-row during that time frame.

A chance to play against the reigning champions was not one Whyte wanted to pass on. On 9 September he lined out corner-forward, struck 1-3 and helped them win by seven points.

Three weeks later at the Dungarvan venue, he matched that scoring tally in the semi-final against An Rinn. Midway through the second-half he came off with his job done and by the end Kilrossanty had 13 points to spare. That coveted spot in a final was secured.

His playing style is uncomplicated and his training regime is straightforward.

“I don’t really go outside the ’21 now, I’m more of a focal point up there. All the boys do all the hard work out the field, I’m just there to distract defenders and make space and pull lads out of the way.

“The two goals I’ve got have been inside the six-yard box. It’s nothing special or crazy, just being in the right place at the right time. A lot of lads in the club are joking that I’ve played the best football I’ve ever played now because I’m standing so close to goal.

“I don’t really train to be honest. I do little bits and pieces here and there to sharpen up my skills but I don’t do any running, any physical work whatsoever. Just inside in the gym cycling and stretching on my own.

“I can do a session, then take a few nights off and then come back to do another bit. It’s very sporadic what I’ve been doing. It’s just really minding myself.”

This Sunday at 6pm in Fraher Field we will play in our first senior football final since 2000. We will be in search of our 16th @WaterfordGAA SFC. Our first since 1989. pic.twitter.com/JLl02sRL94

— Kilrossanty GAA (@KilrossantyGAA) October 22, 2018

Source: Kilrossanty GAA/Twitter

All around him is a support network that appreciates the significance of this.

“My fiancée and my daughter have been brilliant. When (the retirement) happened first, all the shock was with them as well. Roisin has been absolutely brilliant, she’s still let me be involved and she’s given me the support to play again when I shouldn’t be playing.

“The same way with my family at home, my sister and my Mam and Dad. Everyone around has just backed me, whatever I’ve wanted to do.”

In Waterford football circles, the senior crown has been the property of three clubs since 2000. Stradbally (10), Ballinacourty (3) and tomorrow’s opponents The Nire (5) have carved it up between them. Tomorrow is the first time the final will not be contested by a pair from that trio since 2007.

Kilrossanty have fed off the confidence of recent wins, been fueled by a desire to break that stranglehold and benefited from the addition of ex-Tipperary player Martin Dunne, who has moved to their parish.

“I think it always goes back to pure confidence with us,” says Whyte.

“If we’re going well, we’re very hard to stop but if there’s doubts in our minds, teams can come back. The Stradbally win gave us a huge lift, the whole club. Lads are a bit older and got sick of getting to the semi-final stage, they wanted to get some success after all the hard work.

“Martin Dunne has come in and has been a huge addition at midfield with Tommy Prendergast. I think Tommy’s playing the best football he’s ever played and has the freedom to attack more and kick great scores. Martin has been pivotal to that, he’s the anchor behind him.”

Martin Dunne and Tommy Prendergast in action during the 2016 Munster football championship.

Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

There is no long-term strategy at the heart of this comeback for Whyte. But the risk involved is balanced by the great sense of opportunity at getting to feature in a county final.

“Realistically I probably shouldn’t be playing but it’s very hard to sit on the sideline when I know I can contribute something.

“There’s something special about the group this year. The four week break has really helped us. There was loads of celebrations going on the week after the semi-final, but since then it’s been just tunnel vision for the game.

“Getting to a county final now, I don’t think any pain is going to stop me getting out there on Sunday. I know I won’t be able to do what I’m doing for much longer so if we can win that medal, I’d happily stop playing after that.”

One last time then to fight through the pain barrier for the club cause.

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