In-focus: Quinn happy to close the door on footballing career

FORMER Tyrone defender PJ Quinn underwent the second of two hip replacements back in August, but there’s not even the slightest chance that you’ll see him back on the field of play.

His club Moortown recently won the Tyrone Intermediate Championship, and in an alternate universe, Quinn could well have been part of that success (he’s still only 35 years old, half the age of the average recipient of a hip replacement).

A fortnight ago, he dislocated one of his new hips after slipping – a “real handling” and a reminder, as if he needed it, that returning to the killing fields of Tyrone, even as a reserve footballer, wouldn’t be the most prudent decision in the world.

Quinn isn’t bitter that his Tyrone career was rail-roaded by a set of arthritic hips, however. Instead he’s thankful. Thankful that he has a Celtic Cross. Thankful that Mickey Harte took a chance on him in the first place. Thankful for the GPA’s assistance in funding his hip replacements. And ultimately thankful that he has a decent quality of life.

While injuries have cast a cloud over his career, he still enjoyed plenty of success down the years, starting with Tyrone’s All-Ireland Minor Championship success in 2004.

“In my youth days with Moortown I was in their top three players, but I couldn’t make the team at Holy Trinity when I was a fifth year. I was a sub and when I came on I’d play in corner forward.

“Peter Canavan was actually involved in the selection and I remember at a later event my dad giving him stick about never playing me at all, and Peter said I never learnt to play football until I was 17.”

“I was on the minor team in 2004, we won the Ulster Championship and All-Ireland. The likes of Colly Cavanagh, Johnny Curran, god rest him, Brendan Boggs, Stephen McNulty, Martin McCreesh and Paul Marlow were on that team. Niall McGinn as well but he caught sense, went overseas and made big money.”

Trillick legend Liam Donnelly and Martin Coyle were in their sixth year in charge of the minors when they won that All-Ireland in 2004, the second of their tenure. Quinn would later play alongside Liam’s son Mattie on the Tyrone senior team.

“I’d a great catch up with Mattie and Richie the other week. When I was a county minor those lads were kicking the balls out to us, they were only two wee lads at that stage. I’ve a great relationship with the Donnellys and hold Liam in very high regard. I’d always have given my right arm to have Liam in managing Moortown, he seems to be successful wherever he goes.

“I was delighted for the likes of Mattie and Peter Harte this year, it would’ve been criminal for those lads to finish their careers without an All-Ireland.

“The work those lads have put in is unbelievable. I remember Mattie leaving the panel shortly after he was called in by Mickey Harte, and everyone was saying ‘what has Mattie done here’ – he left a boy and came back a man.”

Quinn’s major asset as a player was his searing pace, but he says he was destined to play in defence for Tyrone.

“I started as a half-forward for Moortown. As you get older, you realise the skills maybe aren’t there and I was pushed back a bit. I wasn’t exactly known for racking up big scores.

“If you want to be part of a team and can’t make it as a forward, you have to learn to adapt, to find a position and become good at it. I was blessed with good speed, and my man-marking skills got me that role in the full-back line for Tyrone.”

Losing to Mayo after extra-time in an All-Ireland U-21 semi-final stung, but he’d caught the eye of senior boss Mickey Harte, and he was called into the Tyrone team midway through the 2007 season.

“Tyrone were going well at that stage and playing a lot of in-house games. Lads from the U-21 team were called in to help fulfil in-house games for Mickey.

“I remember the club putting me under a bit of pressure. We ended up reaching the Intermediate final in 2007, that’s the one were we beaten by Killyman, who hadn’t won a league game that year. They wanted me at the club rather than going to training in places like Clogher for in-house games. I remember ringing Jim Curran on a Friday night and telling him I couldn’t make it the next day. He had a bit of inside information and said ‘I’d really recommend you coming up because I think Mickey is going to ask you onto the panel’. I played that in-house game and lo and behold, Mickey asked me in. That was near the end of the national league.”

Quinn wasn’t daunted by the prospect of entering a changing room stacked with All-Ireland winners at senior level, or marking some of the best forwards in the country.

“When I got to a certain point in my career, I was disappointed if I wasn’t asked to mark the opposition’s best players.

“In those in-house games I was marking high-calibre players like Mugsy, Stephen O’Neill and Martin Penrose all the time, and that probably stood to me throughout my Tyrone career. Every night in training you were going to mark incredible forwards. Later on, I remember marking Darren McCurry, he was lightning fast, and Mickey took me off after 30 minutes, up in Garvaghey. I just thanked Mickey and he said ‘PJ, I just knew it wasn’t going for you.’”

Quinn made his debut in a McKenna Cup match against Donegal in January 2008. It wasn’t exactly a glamour tie, but he didn’t look out of place on a fine Tyrone team.

“I always said the All-Stars should’ve been given out after the McKenna Cup because I’d have got All-Stars every year.

“Moortown were always there or thereabouts at the end of the season. We seemed to be either in a relegation or promotion battle, so I was always fit at the start of the pre-season with Tyrone.”

While he didn’t get the nod for Tyrone’s Ulster Championship opener against Down, he took his place in the starting line-up for the replay (that memorable Down victory in the Marshes which saw Tyrone subsequently written off right, left and centre). However, he picked up an injury in a third round qualifier against Westmeath.

“We drew in the first round against Down and I took Dee McCaul’s place for the replay. I was going well that year but I hurt my back in the last five minutes of the game against Westmeath and had to go off.

“We played Mayo in the next game, and Mickey gave me until an hour before throw-in to see if I was going to be fit enough to play. I had to declare myself unfit for the benefit of the team. I couldn’t actually bend over. In fairness Mickey was pretty good to me, when I was pain-free and available for selection he always put his trust in me.”

Quinn watched on from the subs bench as Tyrone reached their third All-Ireland final in six years. By that stage, he’d recovered from injury, but he says he was never going to make the starting line-up against Kerry due to a tactical shake-up – Joe and Justin McMahon were tasked with marking Kerry’s ‘twin towers’, Kieran Donaghy and Tommy Walsh.

“Ciaran Gourley came in when I got injured and played well against Dublin and Wexford. But even if I’d played those games, I know for a fact I’d have been dropped for the final. I wasn’t 6’4” and Ciaran wasn’t either.

“Joe and Justin were awesome that day and I’m sure it was tough for Ciaran. Like myself, you take it on the chin for the benefit of the team.”

Tyrone claimed a 1-15 to 0-14 victory over the Kingdom, so Quinn became only the second Moortown man with an All-Ireland SFC medal (Chris Lawn, another defender, is the other one). He mightn’t have played in the final, but it was still a gratifying experience nonetheless.

“Chris has two medals and I have one. I’m a firm believer that having lads going to Garvaghey every week only serves to benefit their club. We’ve a good new crop coming through in Moortown. Tarlach Quinn is with the Tyrone U-20s, he’s a natural leader and I’d like to think he’ll become part of Feargal and Brian’s senior team at some stage. The thing is, when you have a lad as dedicated as Tarlach, it rubs off on the four or five lads he knocks around with.”

Quinn’s best year in a Tyrone shirt was in 2009. He started every championship match, but the season ended on a downer with a surprise defeat to Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final.

“I had a good year in 2009, I had a totally injury-free season that year. The Cork game is the one that got away though, and it’s probably the game that’s given me the most regrets.

“Everyone seemed to raise their game to play Tyrone those days, we were up there to be knocked down, so it was a tough task nearly every day we went out.

“Cork were very hard to break down in fairness. They had five or six monsters of men around that middle eight, lads like big Noel O’Leary and Pearse O’Neill.

“I was marking Colm O’Neill, he was only a young lad that year and he kicked three points off me. I do have regrets. I remember Colm hitting a shot for a point and I blocked it down. The ball fell to Daniel Goulding and I ran across to try to block it. It actually hit my finger tips and went into the top corner for the only goal of the game. I can still feel that ball hitting my finger tips – another hald an inch could’ve made all the difference.”

It was one of those days for Tyrone. Sean Cavanagh didn’t start as he had the flu and it was evident from fairly early on that Cork had their number. Quinn could scarcely believe what was unfolding, and the five-point margin of victory at the final whistle didn’t flatter the rebels.

“At that stage I was young and driven and felt that Tyrone never lose. I remember in the last ten minutes, we were maybe six points down, saying to Conor Gormley, ‘what can we do here?’

“Gormley was a seasoned campaigner, he was realistic and said ‘what can we do?’. Cork were coming in droves at us. We’re told to fight to the bitter end but Conor knew the game was up. Sometimes you have to be realistic and know it’s not coming your way, and Conor was experienced enough to know we weren’t coming back.”

Establishing himself in that Tyrone rearguard was no mean feat, but the following years were very much a stop-start affair due to a succession of injury problems. By 2013 he felt he had no choice but to step away from the panel as he was feeling jaded and burnt out.

“My back started to give me bother again in 2010. Then I got a bad ankle injury and had to get it reconstructed. It was never short-term injuries of a week or two, I always seemed to have a lay-off of two or three months. I remember my hips started to give me bother in 2013 and I got a couple of injections to help the pain.

“We were beaten by Donegal in the Ulster Championship and I was snowed under at the time as I was running my own business. I had a pile of masters to serve and I was serving none of them well.

“I spoke to Mickey about it and came back to the club. Mickey never closed the door on me, he was totally open and honest and I came back in 2014.”

Quinn was mentally refreshed when he returned, but his hips were in a terrible state. Before his last ever match playing for Tyrone – a bitterly disappointing qualifier defeat to Armagh in the summer of 2014 – he had to do a 15-minute warm-up before the actual warm-up even started.

Then in the game proper, his hips went after he was side-stepped early on by Orchard star Jamie Clarke.

He was subsequently sent for an MRI scan and underwent two operations in an effort to salvage his playing career. He stayed on the panel for another year, but he knew deep down that his playing days were behind him.

“I remember at that stage getting more injections to get me through things. They usually last months, but after two months I’d be back to square one.

“I got scans and lo and behold the hips were gone. I got hip scopes in an effort to clean things up, it’s a common enough operation for footballers. The surgeon said he was going to try to clean them up, but that I’d be lucky enough to get another five or ten years out of my hips, and that it just depended on how rapidly they were going to deteriorate.

“I’m a working man and he was using lots of new words I didn’t understand, so I said ‘look, just break it down for me’, and he said that if I continued to play through it, that I could possibly break my hips as it was just bone-on-bone.”

“That made the decision to pull the plug quite easy for me. The Tyrone medical team was great in my last year, but I knew in my back of my head that it was time to retire. My ace card was my speed but I couldn’t get my turning right, so I knew my time was up.”

Quinn isn’t entirely sure why his hips gave up on him at such at early stage. He was a tiler by trade in those days (he later switched to a sales role to alleviate the stress on his hips), so between that and lifting weights in training, he was overloading his body, but there may already have been a weakness in his hips that lay undetected. Whatever the truth of the matter, he said he should’ve been more mindful of his physical health during his playing days.

“I know technology progresses, but it’s players’ mindsets that have changed more than anything else since I retired. If something isn’t right, they want to get it sorted, whereas back then my attitude was ‘give me something so I can play.’

“It was tough, but to be honest, the deterioration really kicked in after I retired. I was out tiling all day and there were mornings I wasn’t putting on my work boots until 10 or 11am as I was spending that much time getting my joints mobilised.

“I never lay down much anyway, I’m always doing something, but when I got home from work, once I sat down, that was me down for the evening. I physically hadn’t the energy to get up again because it was too sore and exhausting.”

Life is a lot better now after undergoing two hip replacements earlier this year. He lauds the role of the Gaelic Players Association in fast-tracking and helping to fund the procedures.

“The GPA has been awesome for me. Even when we got to the All-Ireland final, Tom Parsons sorted out my tickets. I was on crutches and they got me a pass in the GPA box to watch the game.

“They’ve shied away form nothing in getting me sorted. I went to them and things escalated pretty quickly. There’s a lot of paperwork that needs to be done but then I got a phone call and I was getting a hip replacement within four or five weeks. I’m not the most well-known county player but I also had lads like Peter Canavan and Chris Lawn involved in talking to the guys at the top of the GPA. They’re high profile players who are in things for the right reasons, and they got doors opened for me quicker than I could get them opened.”

While his playing days are long over, he hopes that next year he could help out with coaching an underage team in Moortown.

“My surgeon says he fully expects me back at some stage. He says that ‘you’re a young, fit man and we don’t want you to pause your life, we want you to live it.’ But dislocating them the other week was a reality check, I’m not as young and fit as I used to be.

“You have to be thankful and there’s no point in me being selfish and getting a hip broken or dislocated unnecessarily. I didn’t have any involvement with the club this year, to get myself right, but hopefully I can roll up the sleeves next year and do a bit of youth coaching. I can’t go back playing – the surgeon says he knows I’ll watch myself and be careful, but you can’t predict what some other player might do.”

If it’s not already obviously apparent, PJ also has a lot of time for his former Tyrone manager Mickey Harte.

“I can’t speak highly enough of Mickey. Everyone has their own opinions and plenty of people said he stayed on too long, but I think he played a blinder. He took the team as far as it good and stepped away knowing it was in a good place. Feargal and Brian were the first to acknowledge that, the platform was already built even though they made a few adjustments.

“Whenever I wasn’t starting, I never questioned Mickey. I knew it was never personal, it was always performance based.

“I think players need to look at themselves if they’re not playing, and have the attitude of doing something about it. I never moaned or complained.

“Mickey put a lot of trust in me. I remember when I came into the panel after the league in 2007, I’d already booked a two-week holiday in Turkey in the middle of the Ulster Championship for me and Paula, my wife.

“Mickey said we’d cross that bridge when we came to it, but we got to the Ulster Championship fial and Mickey needed another man as defensive cover. Mickey flew me home on a Friday evening for the Monaghan game and flew me back out on the Sunday, I left Paula in Turkey!

“I never even got on but he trusted me to come home and do a job if needs be. He helped develop me as a person as well, I was 21 when I started my Tyrone career and retired when I was 30, that’s a brave bit of development.”

He also recalls the influence of their innovative trainer Fergal McCann, who passed away earlier this year after a battle with cancer.

“I remember Joe McMahon creating a Whatsapp group to break the news to us, a group for the ‘Tyrone over 40s’. I felt like saying ‘**** off, Joe, I’m 35’ and I’m glad I bit my lip because then the message came through about what had happened Fergal.

“None of us were aware of it, it was a serious shock. He was a complete gentleman and massive to our success.

“He was away ahead of his time, some of the things he had us doing made us think we were completely bonkers, but now you see these up-and-coming coaches doing the same things.

“We’d do drills with tennis balls, reaction drills with decks of cards, and you were thinking ‘is this for real, we’re intercounty players for Tyrone’, but if you look back on it now, it was all for agility and those extra little things made a big difference.”

On a less serious note, we also asked Quinn to name the best player he’s ever marked. Former Derry star Eoin Bradley stands out, though the Tyrone-Derry rivalry never played on his mind even though he lives only a mile from Ballinderry.

“Eoin had it all, strength and speed and power with both feet. I remember accidentally tackling him one day with a closed fist and I thought I’d hit the side of a house. He’s a real good lad too – I never got caught up in rivalries, even with the club. If we were playing a ‘rival’ I never got any more psyched up than in any other game.

“My biggest competition was on the Tyrone training field. Mulligan, O’Neill, McCurry, even Connor McAliskey when he came on the scene, those were the lads who gave me the most headaches.”

While he’s had plenty of dark days, he has fond memories of lining out for Tyrone, and is happy enough to be a ‘former footballer.’

“It’s probably only now I appreciate the All-Ireland medal. We’d a bit of a drought for more than ten years and I realise ‘I was lucky to get that’. People say to me at matches ‘I bet you wish you were out there’, but the honest answer is ‘no, I’m glad I’m not. That’s punishment out there’. I’m glad I got my operations done at a young ages and I can focus on my wife and kids. I’ve been going out with Paula since I was 15 so she has put her life on hold for me, we’ve missed weddings and holidays. Girlfriends and wives of footballers, they’re caught in the headlights with us – but I suppose it gets them an odd day out too!”

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