It’s September 2017. Niall Kane has just climbed the steps of the main stand in Pairc Tailteann to lift the Keegan Cup for the second year in a row. He’s playing the football of his life and has forged a reputation as one of the top wing-backs in the county. He is banging on the door of Andy McEntee’s Meath squad, but the call doesn’t come.
“I was waiting for the call, I always had the goal of playing for Meath on my mind. I saw lads I played with at minor, Padraic Harnan, James McEntee, and Cillian O’Sullivan all getting their chance. I had hoped I would make a natural progression to the first team after playing U21 but it didn’t happen straight away. At the time I was busy with college work so it would have been tough to balance things if I had been involved”
The following summer, his club Simonstown is knocked out of the Meath Senior Championship by eventual winners, Dunboyne. However, when one door closes, another one opens. The disappointment of bowing out at the semi-final stage is softened by the chance to join up with the Meath team for next season. A huge personal achievement, but no less than he deserves.
Without hesitation, Niall jumped at the chance. For the last number of years, he had been one of the standout performers in Meath club football. He was ready.
“That summer we were knocked out of the club championship by Dunboyne, so I had a few weeks to rest up before pre-season began. We were expected to do our own work in November before the hard training and O’Byrne Cup began. The workload was intense but I am the kind of player that loves it. I have always approached my football with the attitude of I choose to do this and that helps me to stay motivated”.
A strong mindset would be needed for Niall to hit the ground running in the league. He began practicing visualisation to help him deal with the external pressure of playing in front of bigger crowds. He started against Tipperary and kicked his first scores against Donegal. Another good performance against Armagh followed. But his breakthrough season was about to be cut short.
“I dived on a ball in the last few minutes of the Kildare game and dislocated my elbow – I tore ligaments around the elbow and ruptured a tendon. I had to get surgery on it and to this day I can’t properly do push-ups or chin-ups. That was pretty much my season over”.
[Niall takes aim in Meath’s victory over Kildare in the Allianz League] Credit: brianmulligan.me
However, Niall began his rehab and worked his way back into the squad for the Super 8s. His reward was an appearance against Kerry in the last group match. The final whistle of that game marked the end of his first season for the Royal County but Niall was determined to progress. His sights were firmly set on a starting jersey for next year.
“Pre-season training had started and I was going well. The physio told me to rest the hip during December and unfortunately when I went back out onto the pitch I got a small cut on my ankle. It developed into cellulitis and it spread up along my calf muscle so I couldn’t run for four weeks. This meant I was out of contention until just before the Dublin game. I had hoped to get a run before the end of the league but then obviously, the coronavirus”.
The uncertainty regarding the inter-county season has left players in limbo, but Niall is remaining positive. He won’t be found wanting when it comes to training at home. Taking a rest day is the toughest challenge he faces.
“We’re six weeks into the lockdown now. I spent the first two weeks training as normal by myself trying to replicate our training sessions with hard running and skills work. Since then I’ve had to vary the training slightly to keep things interesting. My equipment at home is limited; I have a pull-up bar, one dumbell, and a swiss ball but there’s still plenty I can do. I’m actually five days into a complete rest week and I feel myself itching to go for a run but it’s important to let the body recover”.
While also keeping in shape, Niall is putting this spare time to good use. His room at home is covered in the lines from an Irish essay he’s trying to learn. It’s about a Meath minor hurler and the sacrifices he makes to succeed. He is not decorating his walls with Irish literature for fun though! He was planning to re-sit the subject in this year’s Leaving Cert as part of his entry requirements for a teaching course.
“I was studying like mad for the few weeks before the Irish Oral, so I was delighted when full marks were awarded to every student! It’s definitely hard to stay motivated when you don’t know when the exams are going to take place. I feel for the students who are taking seven, eight subjects, it must be very stressful”.
Despite the inconvenience of quarantine restrictions, Niall can see the positive effects the measures are having. The coronavirus has impacted our lives in so many ways, but one positive of the lockdown is the much-needed respite for the environment, and it’s something Niall is acutely aware of.
“I always let the grass and wildflowers grow in my garden; the best way to regenerate the eco-system is by starting with the insects. With the lockdown, there are fewer cars on the roads, I’ve only driven mine once in the last three weeks! I just try my best to do my bit for the planet”.
[Niall Kane in action against Dublin in the O’Byrne Cup] Credit: brianmulligan.me
As for the future, Niall is still only 24 and has plenty of years left in a Meath jersey. One thing is for sure – he’ll have no regrets.