NINE DAYS AGO, Ciaran Sheehan made his comeback in Melbourne.
Ciaran Sheehan in action for Northern Blues. (file photo)
It was the first pre-season run out for the Northern Blues, the Victorian Football League team that are an affiliate of his AFL club Carlton.
They defeated Sandringham and then on Friday claimed another win over Box Hill Hawks.
For Sheehan those pre-season success represented more personal victories. There had been apprehension beforehand about whether his body would hold up to the rigours of a match.
But he emerged unscathed from both. It felt good to be back playing.
And for the 26-year-old from Cork, the fervent hope now is that 2017 will see him kickstart his Aussie Rules career in Melbourne and start to shine.
Four goals to one sees us take a 17-point half-time lead. #WeMarchNorth pic.twitter.com/q2msy3VYvR
— Northern Bullants FC (@NBullantsFC) March 10, 2017
Source: Northern Blues FC/Twitter
“Relief is a good way to describe it after the last couple of years.
“I was just happy to get out the right side of it. It’s been a long time coming.”
Great news. The sort of update that makes us smile @C_Filippo23 @CarltonFC @Gussyman90 @NBluesFC
— Murray Brust (@MurrayBrust) March 4, 2017
Source: Murray Brust/Twitter
In January 2014 Sheehan made the switch Down Under, having put pen to paper with Carlton the previous November.
By August 2014, had broken through to make a winning AFL debut in front of the masses at the Etihad Stadium that included his mother Liz, who had flown across the world to witness her son reach that milestone.
Three more AFL appearances quickly followed and 2014 finished in a mood of optimism. Life was good.
What happened then? Injuries hit him hard and they kept coming, putting up roadblocks in his career. The problems started in early 2015 and there was no sign of solutions.
“I did the first half of pre-season for 2015, got to early March and ended up having both hips operated on. That ruled me out for the rest of 2015.
“Then last year I had to have another hip surgery. So I missed a lot of last year then but got back in around mid July for Northern Blues.
“Then the fourth game I played, I did my lateral ligament in my knee, had surgery on that and that ruled me out for the rest of the year.
“That was just one of those freakish things, I was just jumping for a ball and got a knee into the side of it and it just popped out.
“I’ve never had a soft tissue injury, it’s all been structural ones, freak accidents and you end up being out for four to five months at a time.”
Sheehan is not unaccustomed to long layoffs. He tore the cruciate in his right knee back in 2011, his role in Cork’s All-Ireland defence crashing to a halt in a Munster final in Killarney.
He understands the challenge that rehabilitation entails yet the lost years of 2015 and 2016 were difficult to absorb.
Consider the start of his sporting career. At 16 he was kicking 0-4 in Fitzgerald Stadium as the Cork minors were crowned Munster football champions. By the following summer he had added a Munster minor hurling medal to accompany it in the trophy cabinet.
Munster minor hurling final 2008 #TBT #stickandball pic.twitter.com/JLI2T3plpe
— Ciaran Sheehan (@Gussyman90) January 31, 2017
Source: Ciaran Sheehan/Twitter
He was an All-Ireland U21 winner at 18 and two months short of his 20th birthday, was lifting Sam Maguire in Croke Park. It was a glorious unblemished run, constantly reaching new peaks.
The contrast was stark with the grind of seasons in Melbourne dominated by the treatment table and the operating room, rather than kicking ball on a pitch.
“You find out an awful lot about yourself and how much you depend on people around you as well. With Amy (his girlfriend) out here with me in particular, she was a massive help in getting me back on track and keeping focus.
“You rely on your team-mates as well. Guys that are out there playing, can very easily be selfish and worry about themselves but they enquire about you. You might go out for coffee or breakfast with them.
“It’s a realisation of the importance of the support network. That’s what I fell back on. I had some dark days there’s no doubt about it, but I’m very lucky to have those people around me.”
The pressure of being injured as a professional sportsperson can be intense. He points to his experience playing with Cork when he had torn his cruciate, the goal then as a student was just to get back fit to play sport.
In Australia, there were a livelihood to protect. When he first joined Carlton, he signed a two-year contract but with that elapsing at the end of 2016, he wasn’t in a position to audition properly for a new one with his luckless injury run.
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“You’re rehabbing for your career to be honest because you’re trying to impress the coaches, you’re trying to impress the club.
“You can’t do that when you’re on the sideline so it was a challenge. It can get frustrating at times. You have to hope it works out. Definitely it’s been a very tough couple of years.
“But what I would say is the thought of getting back out there and playing, was the one thing I was always telling myself it was going to happen again. That bit of belief got me through.”
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He sought to demonstrate to Carlton that he wanted to stick around. Last November during the AFL draft, he was rewarded. It was announced that he would be re-rookied listed but significantly was going to be staying around for 2017.
“It was quite an intense couple of months but it was great news the club still had interest and still had faith in me. I’m privileged to have that.
“Luck can go your way as well and I am very lucky that the club have decided to give me another year.”
He came home to Cork for Christmas and returned with a determination to attack the demands of pre-season in January. Sheehan sketches out a typical day in that gruelling period.
“In the morning, it’d be an early start, in for half six. I live pretty close, it’s only ten minutes up the road.
“We have meetings before just to outline what we’re going to do in training. Then we have our hour and a half to two hour session. It’d be about half 11 by the time we’re off the training ground, in for lunch then for an hour.
“That’s followed by rotation (50 minute periods), of weights, pilates, physio treatment and then maybe a conditioning session. Then you might get more treatment and ice baths for recovery.
“When it gets into in-season, it’s more about managing loads. You can run up between 12 and 14 kilometres in a game. If you play Saturday, you’d have recovery Sunday, a very light session Monday, building you up again Tuesday, day off Wednesday, on Thursday you start to ramp it up cover about 6km out on the deck and then back into the captain’s run Friday and a game again on Saturday.
“So it’s very much recovery-based in season. It’s very well structured and very much specific to an individual.”
His desire to succeed has never wavered. There’s plenty other GAA players in the same boat. Louth’s Ciaran Byrne is with him in Carlton, currently on the mend from a snapped cruciate.
Zach Tuohy moved on to Geelong last year but they stay in touch. Sheehan first trialled for Aussie Rules as a teenager alongside Tuohy a decade ago.
“Zach’s guidance for myself and Ciaran when we both got out here first was massive for. We became very close.
“He’s definitely a loss to us this year, as a friend as well. We still keep in touch and meet up to play a bit of golf.”
They are at the epicentre of the Aussie Rules world in Melbourne. Tyrone’s Conor McKenna, Meath’s Conor Nash, Kilkenny’s Darragh Joyce, Westmeath’s Ray Connellan, Kerry’s Mark O’Connor and Derry’s Conor Glass have all made the jump to clubs in the area in the past couple of years. The Irish players band together.
“People are making inroads fairly quickly. The AFL are starting to see how quickly we can transition.
“It’s unbelievable to see fellas getting the opportunity to come out and live their dream of being a professional athlete. You couldn’t begrudge a fella coming out and giving it a good go.
“I’d be in contact with most lads, we have a What’s App group so we keep in touch. Tadhg Kennelly and Kevin Sheedy, they’ve got a good international group together. We went for dinner last year and I’m sure we’ll do so at some stage again this year.”
If his schedule the next day permits, he’ll often stay up late to take in GAA games back at home. The days playing football for Cork seem more distant now. The latest wave of retirements over the winter of All-Ireland winners struck a chord.
Cork’s Daniel Goulding, Fintan Goold and Patrick Kelly.
“It’s kind of strange. I’ve played with a lot of lads that are still there but that would have been at minor or U21 level.
“Obviously Goulding and Paddy and Fintan going as well, it was another three massive parts of that team that won the All-Ireland. It’s strange seeing all those faces going now and that memory goes further and further away from you.
“It’s something I definitely miss every day. It was obviously a big part of my life when I was at home in Ireland. I think there’s plenty talent in Cork. I’d be hoping as a county we can move forward in hurling and football, and start getting some success again.”
Well done @OfficialCorkGAA u21 footballers brilliant result,special mention for the @eireogcork lads,doing the club proud👍 #bbmf16
— Ciaran Sheehan (@Gussyman90) April 7, 2016
Source: Ciaran Sheehan/Twitter
This week Sheehan has been glad to be getting messages of support from home after seeing game time rather than giving fitness updates to family and friends.
His fourth season as a professional stretches ahead of him full of promise.
And even despite all the shattering recent setbacks, there isn’t any regrets harboured at making the move.
“My mother and grandparents would regularly be enquiring. It was frustrating but completely natural for them to be worried.
“Unfortunately I wasn’t out there and that’s what people at home would be looking for. But to be honest I’m one of those people that’s quite good at leaving what’s happened in the past and not dwelling on it.
“I’m at a stage now where I’m looking forward. Hopefully I’ll break into the AFL squad at some stage this year but I have to be patient as well.
“It’s been a tough couple of years. I’m just trying to build up a bit more game experience now. I’ve definitely grown as a player and as a person. It’s all been positive the whole experience. I’m happy where I am at the moment.”
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