06 Oct 2022

BIG INTERVIEW: New ambitions, new perspective but Niall McNamee's footballing journey still has road to run

New ambitions, new perspective but McNamee's footballing journey still has road to run

Niall McNamee in action in last year's final against Tullamore.

WHEN Niall McNamee announced his retirement from inter-county football at the end of 2017, it very much looked like he was beginning to wind down his footballing clock.

At the very least, it looked certain that his inter-county involvement was over and most expected that the brilliant forward would have drawn the curtain on his club career by now. Instead McNamee is enjoying a remarkable Indian summer, playing some of the best football of his long career and judging by his words and body language in an interview ahead of Sunday's Senior Football Championship final against Tullamore, he may still have a bit of road to run.

The best, most gifted Offaly footballer of his generation, McNamee is now 36 years of age and his goals in life far transcend football. He has ambitious plans for his sports wear firm, Twelves; he is getting married to Laura McCormack on New Year's Eve; he is in the process of getting planning permission for a new house in Rhode and plans to move back there from Moynally, where he is now living, in the next couple of years. Parenthood may loom into the horizon after he gets married - “Jaysus you are being hard on me”, he smiled before saying: “I'd say some day. I never really thought about it or thought too deeply about it but obviously the last couple of years with getting married and that, the conversations are starting.”

Life is good for Niall McNamee but football still plays a very central part in it. He loves training, even more so than the games and there is a desire to keep going for as long as he can. His county retirement proved to be a brief one – he didn't play in the 2018 season but returned for 2019 and has played some of the best football of his county career in the past few years.

With another manager coming on board in Kerry man, Liam Kearns, McNamee's future will be in his own hands – the severity and commitment of county training exerts a significant toll and he will see what his hunger is like in November before making a decision about next year. Part of him wants to opt out, to have a few years of just being a club footballer without the ferocious training demands from November through the Winter and Spring. Another part of him knows that Fr Time will eventually arrive at his door, that he will hopefully have a long number of years left to live and that he should stay going while he is still good enough, his body allows him to and he is wanted.

Football has been good to Niall McNamee and Niall McNamee has been good to football. He has enhanced the lives of supporters in his native club and county, thrilling them with his sheer brilliance. He made his debut as a 17 year old back in 2003 and since then, he has played 160 competitive league and championship games for Offaly – Martin Furlong holds the record with 176 appearances and that is within touching distance for McNamee, though he would probably have to play every game for the next two seasons to surpass it, and that may be just beyond him.

Two of his Offaly managers have played a central role in his life and his current well-being. Gerry Cooney got him into the Rutland Centre, where he worked, for treatment for a well publicised gambling addiction back in 2011 and without getting that dreadful affliction in hand, he would be in a very different place now. Tom Cribben gave him a job as the manager of a meat plant and this gave him the experience as well as the desire to run his own firm.

As 40 comes into the horizon for him, the work required to play at the highest level has got a bit harder for McNamee, “A savage amount of effort goes in,” he said, speaking about the personnel coming back year after year at club level “as hungry as ever, to try and keep the show on the road”.

“It does take its toll”, he said, pointing out that they have often had five-six players on the county panel in most of those years. As he went into his 30s, he learnt when to take a break, allow his body to recover. Take a holiday instead of “ploughing on” regardless as he did when he was younger. Once the championship starts, the hunger kicks in and everything rolls on from there. He has regularly had chats with himself about continuing on at the end of a season but when the new one started, he was back in the field.

He loves training. “For me the most enjoyable part is going training. If I was told in the morning that there was no matches ever again, I would miss the training more than the matches. I absolutely love going to the field, kicking around with the boys, having the craic. Working hard and training hard. Seeing lads getting better and improving. Obviously the games are a by-product of it but just the comraderie and friendship of that. I love that side of it.”

The joy and feeling after winning does add to the mix but he is quick to point out that this feeling only lasts for a day or two and it is back to getting ready for the next game then.

He was asked about his county retirement in 2017 and his form since coming back. The year out was instrumental in this. “It had become a bid of a trudge for a couple of years, the same routine and then the game changed a lot in terms of teams becoming more defensive. It wasn't that enjoyable for an inside forward when you are being marked and sometimes there are two guys sitting in front of you and you are trying to find space. A lot of those years, we had long years with Rhode as well where we were going into December. Then you were straight back in with Offaly for the O'Byrne Cup and league. It was just non stop.”

The year out rekindled the fire in him and he came back feeling “really hungry”, keen to provide experience to the younger lads coming through – he had no expectations about playing, which took “the pressure off mentally an emotionally” and he was just able to enjoy it all. That has continued since.

He doesn't know when the end will come but at intercounty level, it is very much one year at a time and the demands outside of the mere training fields do get difficult. When Offaly are training, he has to be home in Moynally at 3pm in the day to get the right food in to be in his car for training in Faithful Fields at 5pm – and maybe not home until 11.30pm or after. Gym sessions, thinking about the game add to the load. “That is the hard part. It is everything that goes on around it that is the draining stuff. Football wise, it is not an issue and physically I feel great.”

He did enjoy playing club only in 2018 and he would like to have a few years to give like that to Rhode – where he could recharge his batteries without the early season Offaly pressure and then concentrate on club.

He will talk to Liam Kearns about Offaly after the club season and if he is able to and feels motivated enough, he will go again but if not, he will pull away. “I won't know until the time comes,” he said.

He also knows, however, that he will, hopefully, have a long number of years left after football to do other things and maybe that he should continue for as long as he can. “That is it. I have spoken to a lot of people over the years and anyone I have spoken to has said, stay going as long as you can. That is grand in saying but it can get a bit overwhelming at times. It is taxing on the mind and body. I wouldn't mind stopping but when you do speak to someone like that, you realise that a certain age will come and you won't be able to do this any more so try and get as much out of it as you can.”

He has also been lucky with injuries, which is a help as well. He is also focusing on life goals outside of football: Marriage and business.

Ambitious plans for Twelves

Niall McNamee developed his own sportswear company, Twelves, with most of the sales done online but he is now opening a warehouse and shop in Fahy, Rhode – that should be open in the next three weeks and will be a full on sports shop with team wear etc stocked as well as a cafe-smoothie bar with healthy take away type food.

From small beginnings, Twelves has really grown and they launched a new state of the art football boot a couple of months ago. The Viper Blanca retails at €150 after a long design process. McNamee speaks with infectious enthusiasm about that whole process, the people involved in it and what it took to get to market. They have modified the original boot, changing some small details and sales have been excellent since it went on the market.

They are now in the process of speaking to high profile sports people across different sports to try and get them to wear the new boot. The new boot is aimed at the elite type market – intercounty footballers, decent club players, international soccer players, rugby players but he believes they are also ideal for anyone trying to be the best that they can be at whatever level. He is confident that the boot is a match for anything on the market at the moment and hopes to enhance this down the road – with a mid level one coming on board and then one for children, who wouldn't be paying big money for boots that they will grow out of in a couple of years time.

It took two and a half years to develop the boots but they are designed to last for over two years. He has found himself watching boots with a new level of interest, observing little tears just months after being bought. “It is very exciting, it is something I can really get my teeth into. It is so much fun.”

They are also designing a new runner. He started Twelves in 2015 when he was still working for Tom Cribben and initially, he supplied football socks. He found a designer in China, brought in 5,000 pairs of socks in ten different colours – he put them up on a website and they sold out in three weeks, telling him that there was a future in this business.

As time went on, they started adding on different products – baseball caps, gym wear, tops etc – and now, it has gone to a new level with the football boots. The new shop will require staff and the Rhode one will be a testing ground, a concept store, for future ones in big urban centres such as Tullamore and Mullingar. “It will be a nice place to spend an afternoon,” he said, stating that it is almost ready to go.

The discussion on football boots brought us around to the spate of injuries suffered by young GAA players recently. A number of the Offaly side that won the All-Ireland U-20 Football Championship in 2021 have had lengthy lay offs after getting injured and a popular opinion is that football boots with blades are a factor in this. Could this be the case?

“I'd say it could be,” he said, adding that it depends on the make up of the player as well. He has worn everything from a hard stud to a steel stud to a hybrid stud to a blade over the years and never had a cruciate-muscle injury. Then you have Paraic Sullivan who did his cruciate three times, Niall Darby twice.

“Is it boot related or just impact,” he asked, stating that his boots have been tested by sports science and outlining the technological of them. The way some boots can turn in but he also pointed out the role ground conditions and strength and conditioning, technique play as well. He also stated that the mind gets overlooked as well, that people get tired, the body shuts down and they then start to pick up niggles. “A lot of times, a muscle injury comes down to wear and tear but sometimes it is being emotionally and physically drained. When you are picking up niggles, you are not operating fully at 100%. There is a lot to take into it. Hopefully all those lads will clear up.”

He also spoke about the positives of being injured and the hunger it gives you to come back. He used Niall Darby as an example. “He was obviously devastated. He lives and breathes football but this could actually end up prolonging his career. Now he has a year of going on a few holidays, switching his mind off from it, going to games and not having the stress and build up of it. He will probably be raring to go next year and might get another four or five years out of it.”

He doesn't fully rule out Darby's chances of coming back for Offaly, though he knows this is unlikely but he is certain he will get back very well for Rhode.

Malachy McNulty and gambling

Niall McNamee's own battle with gambling has been well documented and he has done a lot of work throughout the country with talking to clubs and individuals about its perils.

It all came very close to home again this year when Rhode's manager Malachy McNulty was jailed for theft at the school where he was principal. The court was told he had stolen the money to feed a gambling addiction. Portlaoise man McNulty had managed Rhode in the last two county finals and was back in charge this year when he was sentenced – local man, Declan Gorman, who was a coach with him, took over as manager.

McNamee was surprised that he was jailed. He pointed out that when Rhode knew about the impending case when he was appointed in 2020. “In fairness, it would make you very proud of the lads in the club for giving him a second chance,” he said, revealing that he got to know McNulty well over the last few years.

“He is a good fellow, a nice character and a good lad. His heart is in the right place for the team and everyone that comes in contact with him. He has had his own bit of a struggle over the last few years. It was and it wasn't a shock. What he did wasn't right and he will be the first man to admit that. The one thing he would say is he was in the process of trying to make things right and he was paying back the money in terms of making amends which is all part of the programme.

“When the sentence came through, it was a shock around here and a bit of a low for a few days. We were lucky this year that Deccy (Declan Gorman) had come on board as a coach-selector. He was manager back in 2018 which made the transition a bit easier once we got our heads around it. I wouldn't say it was seamless but we did move on from it fairly okay. Jack Cooney came back and we were lucky to have so many around. It hasn't had that much of an impact other than the fact that we would still love to have Malachy around. He has been a great part of the club over the last couple of years. It is obviously very tough on him and his family and hopefully he will come out of it okay. He is doing his thing and he is getting through it.”

He knew Malachy's brother Peter very well, having gone to college with him in UCD and playing against him for Offaly minors and Rhode seniors – Peter McNulty died tragically some years ago. He also played against Malachy and got a phone call from the manager after his gambling addiction came to light.

“I could be wrong on this but I think I was one of the first people he rang when the thing kicked off in the school. I wouldn't have been overly friendly with him as such up to then. I would have spoken to him over different things and about Peter and that. And obviously, we developed a friendship over the years. We had gone through the same thing and you know what the other person is going through from the gambling side of it. The steps you have to take in terms of trying to get help. He really embraced it very early.

“He reminded me a lot of myself at the time. Pure relief when people find out. You go on for so long hiding it and then when someone does find out, you realise this is what you wanted all along. He got his treatment, came back, was working in another school and was going grand when the court case hit. It was obviously not the ideal situation for him but in fairness he has accepted it. He knew it could happen and it did happen. He will be fine when he gets out in the next few months and gets back into every day living.”

He still looks back on his own spell in treatment in 2011 as the best thing that happened him.

“It was one of the hardest times in my life but one of the best things that ever happened. Just putting up your hand, asking for help and support. Getting it and grasping the help when you did get it. The big thing for me was I tried to do everything on my own. Before recovery, I tried to look after myself on my way and my terms. Not look for help. Do everything and plough on. Not show weakness. It was a massive turning point.

“I have a totally different perspective. I was 26 and for the first few years it felt like I was 17-18 again. I was really enjoying work and in a really good place.”

Like everyone, he still has normal bad days – days when he is in bad form as he deals with normal stuff, work not going well, occasional bereavements etc. “I deal with those in a safe environment as opposed to the way it used to be before when I would head into the bookies for a couple of hours.”

Were you ever tempted to have a bet over the last couple of years?

“Ah there would be times but you never act on it. It is just a thought and then it is the process of wondering why am I thinking this way. That is the key thing with gambling, or drugs or alcohol. People understand it with drink or drugs. They understand it alters how you feel and they don't put gambling in the same bracket but it is the very same. You disappear into the bookies or onto your phone or online for a couple of hours. Now if I get the urge, I know there is something in my life not right. There is always something underneath and then it is the process of going to ring someone, a friend of mine who is in recovery and going through it.

“It is hard. Sometimes you have to pay attention to something you don't want to pay attention to. It could be a difficulty in a relationship, a falling out with someone, a financial problem. You might want to hide away and deal with it. For me, it is ring someone who is in recovery, have a chat, we go through the things in life that are important: family, relationship, work, sport. It mightn't be that day but over a period of time, you figure out what it was. The key is not to act on it.”

Football played a role in his recovery. There were times when it was an ordeal but he pointed out that it was more so when he was gambling.

“At the same time, it was a great release from the turmoil of losing money and the lies and everything that goes with it. I often remember going to the field on a Friday after losing a week's wages that day. Coming home, getting food in my mother's, going up to the field to train and pretending you were happy. Going into the dressing room and the lads were all laughing and joking.

“If I walk into a room in bad form, you would know about it. I often think back and I would go to training and wouldn't talk to anyone but once I put the boots on and out on the field, I would forget about it for an hour, hour and a half but as soon as I went back in, it would all come straight back. It was a torturous time and football from that point of view was brilliant. It gave you that release of not having to think about it for a couple of hours.”

He recently did a talk for a club where someone suggested that if someone was struggling with drugs, they should get him out of the club.

“I said, this might be the only hour of peace this lad gets all week and you should put an arm around him, ask him is he okay and what can you do to help.”

Since stopping gambling, football has become a sport again. It is a very important part of his life but it is in its proper place. He doesn't need to win to feel good about himself or lift his mood.

“That was the only way I could allow myself to be happy. Now it is the opposite. Sport is fine but I am happy 85-90% of the time all the time now and sport is just an add on to that.”

It all means that accepting defeat is now easier.

“It is the perspective you get from it as well. Even if you win the county final, you know that the draw for the championship is only around the corner and you will be back training for next year in a few months. One year rolls into another. That only comes with experience and that was a problem for me when I was younger. You put all your effort into winning a championship and then two or three days go by and it is over. You are going back to work and life returns to normal. And I was in the bookies because I didn't like what normal was like. I wanted the buzz all the time. Now you have the perspective to know there are other things in life. If you win or lose, it is what it is and you take it on the chin. It will pass in a few days and life continues as normal. You see it with Brian Darby and Kenny Garry. They have kids now. You just notice it in them. It's not nice when you lose and it's great when you win but the baby has to be in bed.”

Like all Rhode people, he has a great infectious love for his own club. This is his fifth time to captain them to a Senior Football Championship final – he lifted the Dowling Cup in 2010, 2012 and 2017 while he was the losing captain in 2013, when Sunday's opponents Tullamore got the better of him.

He doesn't remember much of that game. “It was just one of those days where we never got going, one of those things. Some days, things click and others they don't. We didn't click on the day and we had a lot of mileage on the clock in terms of year in, year out. They were very hungry that day and deserved to beat us.”

McNamee and Rhode are in new territory for this final – it is the first time he has been interviewed as captain with Rhode cast in the role of underdogs. “Every year, finals are hard won. Finals can take on a life of their own, whether you are favourites or not. Then you have the history of the game and the clubs. All those things get taken into account and stuff can go back a number of years. It is not unusual but it is a different place than we have been used to. Having said that, any years we were favourites for a final, I have always been very realistic around the opposition and it being a tough game. This is no different.”

Rhode's form has been good this year without being brilliant but they have done what has been asked of them. They achieved their aim of topping the group and then winning the semi-final. “I wouldn't say we have been spectacular but we have been solid in terms of getting through games and doing what we have to.”

They beat Ferbane in the semi-final, showing great character to win on penalties after extra time couldn't separate them. “It was a strange game. There was no kind of flow to it. I felt no team was really in control. We would go well for five minutes and then Ferbane would go well for five minutes. No one really grabbed the thing by the scruff of the neck but it was a great one to win.”

Rhode were a point down in injury time and McNamee recalled some crucial blockdowns near the end of extra time that were crucial. In extra time, they made “peace” with the fact that the result could go either way. In the penalty shootout, the first four penalties were missed before McNamee converted the first one.

There has been plenty of adverse comment about having a penalty shootout since but he sees the logic in them. He likes the format, the quick season, the conclusion in better weather and the fact that a replay would have had to be pushed out two weeks with Belmont in the hurling semi-final. “It's no harm in one sense getting the game finished in the one day because it is a long year. It does make thing a lot easier for the County Board who do a brilliant job in terms of getting games played.”

He often wondered how he would feel if tasked with a kick in a penalty shootout but when the moment arrived, pressure was absent. “Before we took them, we all made peace with the fact that if we win, we win, if we don't we don't. We had put ourselves in a position to win.” In a way, the pressure was off after the first four were missed, he just picked his spot and was glad to see the net bulging.

Now it is a third consecutive final meeting between Rhode and Tullamore and the only certainty is that Niall McNamee will be shadowed again by Declan Hogan. So will you be taking a sneaky look at his boots to see if there are any tears in them?

“No! Ah look it, they are a very organised team. Defensively they are very well put together. They all know their job. It won't be easy. We are very aware of what is going on. We just have to plan our own game, try and figure it out and work out ways to get through.

“It's one of those things. I am used to it now. You get the same treatment every year. You just have to prepare for it and the other boys have to do their thing as well. I am happy we are there and we will see what happens.”

He also knows that he can be tightly marked and all it takes is one moment to turn a game – that happened in last year's drawn final when McNamee was generally kept out of it by Hogan but struck at the death for a sensational equalising goal. “You have to stay at it, to keep the head and stay focused on the game. Hopefully the chance will come at some stage. As well as that, you are creating space for other people. You are thinking, am I going to take two guys out of the play if I stand over here on the sideline. Do you leave space for some of the other lads that they can exploit and kick a few scores. You have all those things to take into account.

“The game has changed, that is the thing. It is not like when I started years ago, man on man and you made your runs. Now there is a lot of people behind the ball and people trying to slow you down on the pitch. The ball is slower coming in so it is not as easy as it was when you just tried to get out in front and get the ball. At the moment, you have too many players around you so you have to try and think your way around it more. You have to tell yourself that you might get your chance eventually and when it comes, you have to take it.”

His brother Alan is now 40 while other players such as Brian Darby, Paraic Sullivan and Ciaran Heavey are very much in the veteran category. It was suggested that Rhode's run of success could grind to a halt when this generation is gone.

“Yeah but the big thing is we are all enjoying it. It wouldn't surprise me if the boys stay going for another 3-4 years and we are integrating younger lads in as well. Keith Murphy there, Aaron Kellaghan played great the last day. I know what you mean and you could be right but then you go training every year and lads are as hungry as everything, nothing has changed. Lads are still sharp, in good form. We know from the GPS that the speed and endurance isn't dropping. Lads are still up to a good level.

“The biggest thing is hunger and lads have started to have families, a few have got married. You have all that type of thing to take into account but for time time being we are happy with where we are. A few younger guys are stepping up to get to that level.”

He also spoke about the likes of Anton Sullivan, Conor and Ruari McNamee, Jake Kavanagh, Eoin Rigney, once back from injury, who have years ahead of them. “There is still a bit of stuff around.”

McNamee knows that their success at underage level has dried up but he referred to the huge work going on. The minors are going well this year, as are the U-15s. “It is going okay. I know it is not on a par with when we were young, we won six U-21s in a row (he has five). We are very aware of it but we are also very aware of the tradition in the club. None of us would walk away or stop playing if we felt we would leave the club in a precarious place. Lads will stay playing here until they know what is coming behind is ready. I know that. If ever there was a feeling Rhode might be under pressure or not able to keep the thing going, there is no way any lad will stop playing. Lads will soldier on for two or three years, whatever they need to do and keep the level.

“Take Cian (McNamee, his brother), he is 14 now. Take Cian in six years, Ruari (McNamee) will be 31-32. That is the way you have to look at the senior team. When I started out, I was in the full forward line with Paschal (Kellaghan). Now I am in the full forward line with Aaron (Paschal's son). That is the way the thing goes. We will stay going as long as we need to and keep the thing going as well as we can.”

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