With an injury that disrupted his season finally diagnosed, Roscommon senior footballer Ultan Harney tells Kevin Egan about the pain on missing out on the team’s famous provincial championship success, but that he can’t wait to return to competitive action for the Primrose and Blue next February…
For the vast majority of Roscommon Herald readers, with the possible exception of a select handful in border territories round Williamstown, Ballygar and Ballymoe, the 2017 Connacht final on July 9th will live long in the memory as a truly joyous afternoon, an historic occasion where neither the Galway footballers nor the Salthill weather could do anything to impede the Roscommon’s free-flowing play.
The players did their stuff, the supporters were giddy with excitement, but trapped in the middle ground between these two worlds was one man who spent the summer on the sidelines —not by choice, like several other colleagues who chose career, study or retirement as their preferred option for 2017, but instead because of injury.
For Ultan Harney, the only place he wanted to be was in the thick of the action, and yet he was cast into an unfamiliar role on the periphery. He was part of the set-up, and delighted to see his fellow stars lap up the adulation of the crowd for a job well done. Yet he remained afflicted by a deep-seated yearning to be out there in the heart of the action and the drama.
Ask any actor what they think when they fall ill, and their understudy steps up and fills the role with aplomb, earning rave reviews. Of course they’ll say they’re delighted for everyone involved. Deep down, however, human nature is never far away.
In fairness to Harney, his off-field approach to conversation matches his on-field style — honest, direct, and without any great regard for public perception.
“You always think the team are not going to do as well without me, and then when you see them playing like that (in the provincial championship), it’s bittersweet. You are delighted to see them win a Connacht final and it’s not often it happens that Roscommon wins a provincial title. But when you see them doing so well, it’s awful hard to see it. They are moving on without you, leaving you thinking: what’s going to happen now?”, he admitted.
At the start of the year, when seasoned players like Cathal Cregg and Niall Daly opted out of the panel, the Clann na nGael man was an obvious candidate to fill a key berth along the spine of the team. Yet injuries continued to niggle, and while the prospect of missing the whole year was never on the agenda, the weeks and months ticked by without any real resolution.
Even after the Leitrim game, featuring in the Connacht final was still a possibility — until it suddenly wasn’t, and that was when the real anguish started to set in.
“I played throughout December and January, did alright against Tyrone (in the opening league game), and felt in good shape. Between Tyrone and Donegal we had a Sigerson quarter-final on the Wednesday. The hamstring went. I was out for a bit of the league with that, and then I came back for Monaghan, Dublin and Cavan.
“I had to go off against Dublin with my back, but still against Cavan it was okay. We had an 11-week break to Leitrim, and I thought three or four weeks and I would be time enough for Leitrim.
“It started well and got to the tail end of the league. I got a decent run of it but then it came crashing down around me as the injury just wasn’t responding to treatment. It wasn’t getting better, before eventually the real scale of the problem became clear.
“You would wake up the morning of the Connacht final and there would be a bit in your head that you didn’t want to watch it,” he recalled. “You were part of it, but in my head I wasn’t. You want to be out there playing or at least contributing. You think what if, and I should be playing out there. It was a tough year,” he summarised.
Against Mayo in the replay, the pain of missing out was no less acute, but very different. As Mayo exploited their maturity and experience, physically bossing a young and light Roscommon side, Harney knew where he belonged, and where he wanted to be — but his body didn’t allow it.
“Kevin (McStay) would look at me and few others as lads who would throw their weight around. You are thinking ‘I’m needed out there’ and that I could help, if I was out there throwing myself around a bit and lifting lads. They were both hard days in different ways. The way the Mayo result turned out, it would be easier to miss that, but it broke my heart watching the lads out there,” he reflected.
Summer turned to autumn, and as Clann fell into trouble in their championship quarter-final against Western Gaels, the itch of sitting on the sideline became almost unbearable, to the point that he considered throwing the recovery plan out the window in a bid to salvage the season for the Johnstown-based side.
“The club was always very patient. If I wasn’t able to play, they wouldn’t put pressure on me. They knew I wasn’t one to put it on. Then, sitting in the dugout with ten or 15 minutes to go (against Western Gaels) I was thinking ‘this is tight, I might throw on the togs and shorts and see how it goes’.”
Patience prevailed, and with a proper diagnosis under his belt, the road to a return, via a lengthy rehabilitation process, was mapped out.
“I had a pelvic tilt that was going forward,” he explained. “There was an arch in my back and the hamstring was being pulled. My back went eventually because there was constant hyper-extension, and it eventually gave away.
“My programme at the moment is to take that curve out of it. If the rehab works, I will stay on a maintenance programme to keep it topped up. If I can do that there won’t be a re-occurrence, hopefully!
“When you see lads doing cruciate ligaments there is always a doubt of things going again, but this is in my own hands. I’ve seen lads train with hamstring injuries over the years. You could be back two months fully but mentally you’re not right. You’re tense, thinking it could happen tonight, today or this morning. That’s not good for you. Hopefully if I get the green light, it should stay green,” he said.
Harney himself is the first to admit that he’s not wired to gradually feel his way back into action — and while he’s currently still working with his movement before re-introducing contact, his target is to be available for selection by the middle of February, and to be able to play his normal game from the minute he’s called upon.
“It’s not my plan to go back and ease into things,” he smiled. “I will go hell for leather in every game, throw myself at everything. That has got me to where I am and I wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s my game and that’s why I enjoy it. If I was pulling out of hits, I wouldn’t be happy.
“Even if I hit ten points, if I pulled out of one tackle I wouldn’t be happy. That’s the way it is and I just have to manage that. In ten years I will count the scars, if I can get to that stage”.
For those that have watched Ultan Harney play football up along the age grades in Roscommon, that response will be exactly what might have been expected. And for many who watched him on television in the Connacht club championship a couple of years ago, that won’t be a surprise either – particularly after one Irish website chose to highlight an altercation between Harney and Castlebar’s Barry Moran.
The more eagle-eyed TG4 male viewers that afternoon would have winced along with Moran in response to Harney’s off the ball strike, but rather than shying away from the incident, Harney’s happy to embrace it, in the figurative sense at least.
“Look, it’s not ideal and not what you want seen. But you look at the top teams, they all do it in their own way. If that little bit helps the team, then great. I can lose the head a bit and lose control and do things but a lot of the time I am in control. If it takes a bit of that and a bit of a late elbow or a late knee dragging somewhere, so be it. I have been on the receiving end enough and you have to learn.
“You’re on the edge in several ways — sometimes you get caught, and I would have got away with it other times. In Roscommon lads would know me. From being in DCU they would have all seen it in their team. They would go back to their own counties and the word of mouth goes around.
“In Connacht it was there from underage. With Galway and Mayo I would play them year in year out. Even playing against another county, you would know the one or two lads capable of things, you would have that in the back of your mind. If the lads have that perception about me, I think of it as an advantage going in, and that’s fine by me,” he concluded.
Happy to live on the edge, itching for action and like a coiled spring after ten months out of action — it won’t just be the players coming back from outside the panel that will be worth watching when the league starts back in the New Year.