THREE weeks ago today Colin Moran marked his birthday by hobbling out of Mount Carmel Hospital on crutches. It was only days after he'd had a Birmingham hip resurfacing system implanted into his left hip, a procedure more refined but not a lot different than the traditional hip replacement. There were five in his ward that week who had a hip go under the knife of Dr Kieran O'Rourke, brother of Colm. The guy in the bed next to Moran was 85. The second-youngest patient in the ward was 65. The day Moran checked out he'd just turned 30.
Instead of any sense of victimhood, Moran felt more a sense of empowerment. For the previous 18 months he'd felt things were spiralling downward, out of control. Now it was as if he was climbing back up towards the light.
Three weeks on and his pleasant, upbeat disposition is still evident. He's back in his parents' home for some TLC and he's back even doing some work from there for his employers, Bank of Ireland corporate finance. He's taking all the medication and doing all the exercises and rehab the medics recommended; from being an inter-county footballer for so long, it hasn't been hard to adhere to such a regimen.
The hardest thing actually has been accepting he's no longer one of the boys in blue. Even last season when he had retired from playing, he was co-opted onto the management team as maor foirne. From the age of 18 Moran was a fixture in the Dublin dressing room – until this year. But is the fact he was playing with Dublin at 18 part of the reason why he's no longer still playing with them now? Is all that football when he was that young part of the reason he's had to undergo hip surgery at just 30?
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How good was Collie Moran starting out with Dublin? He was so good he was playing with the Dublin seniors before he was playing with Ballyboden's. A month after Dublin were knocked out of the 1998 championship by Kildare, Tommy Carr assembled a preliminary panel for the 1999 season in the Phoenix Park, having cut some heroes from the team of '95 and brought in a few youngsters like Moran, that year's stand-out performer with the county minors. The morning of the 1998 All Ireland final, a starstruck Moran played his first challenge game for the seniors, against Mayo. He was only a panellist for the 1999 season proper but by 2000 he was on the Irish International Rules team after playing some sensational football in the Dublin half forward line in the drawn and replayed Leinster final.
Everyone wanted a part of him – Ireland, UCD, the club, the county seniors, the under-21s – and the dutiful Moran was only too willing to oblige them. One Saturday in the spring of 2001 he captained the Dublin under-21s to a Leinster semi-final win in Mullingar before catching a lift to Heuston Station to make the train to Mallow to then take him to Killarney for the seniors' league game the following day. "That Saturday night I was in a team meeting and thinking 'Can I please just go to bed?'" The following day against Kerry he inevitably pulled his hamstring, meaning he missed the Leinster under-21 final and the Sigerson final with UCD. When he tried to get back for the club for their first-round game against Na Fianna, he pulled the hamstring again the Thursday night before the game. It was this constant big squeeze to get ready for the next team's next big game. "If the physio said I could do 10 reps of some exercise when I was coming back, I was the type of fella that would then do 15. And I suppose looking back some of the training in the early days was crazy. But the fashion was the more miserable training was, the better it was.
"In the middle of the noughties then the whole craze was weights, led by Armagh. In Dublin we put a big emphasis on them but then around 2007 I had a look at myself and said, 'Actually, I'm losing mobility here' so I had to wind down. We've since learned we had fellas putting on all that bulk but they didn't have enough core stability to be doing those weights and it was affecting their functionality and mobility. The thing keeps evolving but there was a lot of stuff we did that probably wasn't best practice."
Yet whenever he was any bit fit, Dublin wanted him and most of the time he was fit to play, be it at half-forward, half-back, even full-back. By 2008 he was picking up his fifth senior provincial championship medal as Dublin demolished Wexford.
"It's funny," he says, "Armagh were actually a better team in '03, '04 and '05 than they were when they won in '02. It was like that for us with Pillar [Caffrey]. The semi-final against Kerry in 2007 was the highest quality game I ever played in but I have no doubt we were a better team in 2008 than we were in 2007 when people feel we were at our closest. Every year under Pillar we improved. It's a shame a year can be reduced to one day."
The poignancy of that one day will never leave him. It was his last game with Dublin. They went into that All Ireland quarter-final against Tyrone as favourites and ended up suffering Dublin's heaviest championship in 30 years. In the game's dying moments Moran found himself playing at full-back, marking Enda McGinley, and as every Tyrone pass was greeted with a chant of 'Olé!' he could hear the Hill behind him, drenched from the torrential rain, loyally mustering another rendition of 'Come on ye Boys in Blue'. In the dream it was meant to end with them invading the pitch after he'd won his All Ireland. That 2008 season had been one of Moran's finest but the hip was giving him constant bother. At times he was walking with a limp. He needed a special contraption with a strap and a hook just to put his shoes and socks on. Lunacy. Torture.
The following February he underwent an arthroscopic procedure in February which he hoped would clean out his hip joint. But hours after the operation the surgeon drew the curtain and told him that where there should be some cartilage acting as a buffer between the ball and socket in his hip joint, instead there were large areas where it was just bone on bone. The inference was clear and two months later after giving it one last shot by studiously following an intensive rehab programme, Moran hobbled up to his old bedroom in his parents' house after a club game against St Jude's. He looked at his phone for an hour and then dialled Pat Gilroy's number to say his playing career was over.
"It was actually a big relief. My parents were in the house at the time and I could tell they were relieved too because they'd seen how I was struggling and wasn't happy in myself."
There was no relief from the pain though so last winter he went to London to meet the renowned hip surgeon Dr Richard Villar who had helped prolong Roy Keane's career. Villar recommended that Moran undergo the hip resurfacing implant. "It was a case of what do you do? Struggle on for 10 years and do nothing active in your life and then get it done at 40, or bite the bullet now?"
He's looked up what he can and can't do. He can cycle and swim and even playing tennis and squash are fine within reason too. He knows he'll need another implant at some stage but the Birmingham system's so new, they don't know when. He could get 20 years out of it. Overdo it and he could wear it out within 10. So he'll be sensible but he'll be active.
He'll still be involved in football too. Last January the Dublin County Board appointed him Director of Juvenile Football for the county. He co-ordinates development squads at under-13, under-14 and under-15 level, one for each side of the river at each grade. From his own experience, he's mindful of guarding them from burnout. There'll be no physical training and no emphasis on winning until they're minors. By then he'll expect them to all be able to kick with both feet. "If they can't then I'll feel we've failed."
But he's no longer involved with the boys in blue and it's taking some getting used to. "It's a totally different lifestyle for me not to be playing football. I've never known any other life. There was no J1, no Australia. It's nice alright to be able to go weddings at weekends but you really miss that buzz."
Of course the buzz involved its trials and tribulations. He never won that coveted All Ireland ("That's the big regret, though at least I can have no regrets regarding the effort I put in"). Going through the whole GAA disciplinary process in 2008 was the most bizarre month of his career when a yellow card for a tackle on Westmeath's Dermot Bannon was upgraded to a red card before the DRA cited the case of the Stardust Tribunal and ruled his suspension had been "unreasonable and perverse".
He also sometimes wonders at the player he became and how different that player was to the daring one he was at 20. "Did you ever read Eamon Dunphy's Only A Game? For years I never took him seriously, I just knew him for all his socialising and sensationalism, but then I read that book and it was probably the best insight into the thoughts and fears a sportsman can have. He wrote about how as he got older his game was less about flair and taking risks and instead to stay in the game he made a decision to be a grafter. He also wrote about the pro's pro – a player who'll never hide, who'll keep showing and tackling for the ball regardless of the circumstances. I tried to be that player but maybe at the cost of sacrificing my creativity. Like that famous miss from five yards out against Kerry in Thurles. I got that ball out by the sideline on our own 45-metre line and just took off. Would I have tried that in the last few years? Maybe sometimes I overthought the game, constantly reviewing my game and stats."
It was probably because he was such a cerebral player though that Gilroy identified him as the ideal maor foirne. On the first Monday of last August, however, he was ridiculously busy as Kerry blitzed Dublin. In the dressing room afterwards he knew the team Pillar had built was finished. Moran was going to say goodbye anyhow – with aspirations of getting into management he needed some time away from former colleagues – but the hardest and most necessary change of all was Gilroy letting go of some of those former colleagues. "There was just too much mental damage done to Pillar's team," says Moran. "Now, if you go through one by one some of the players that have been demoted or let go altogether, yes, they are still good enough to be among the top 30 or 15 players in Dublin. But when you look at the group and Dublin football as a whole, Pat had to freshen it all up."
He doesn't think he'll go to Croke Park today and negotiate all the crowds and seats with his crutches. But he'll be at home, cheering them on. One of the great kicks of being involved last year was helping bring the likes of Rory O'Carroll along. Yet a part of Moran can't help but wish he was playing alongside O'Carroll.
"This last week I'd be a lot more relaxed than I would have been if I was still a player. Say last Tuesday. If I was a player I might have played badly in the A versus B training game the previous Saturday morning and I'd have been in bad form at home until I'd get out training again. I don't miss the mental pressure that way. But at the same time I'm thinking of the lads playing Meath on Sunday. The last time we played them was in 2007. It went to a replay before we took them in the last few minutes. That's what you live for. You put up with everything else for that kind of high, of coming through a game like that and then getting ready for he next day. It's just a drug so there's a kind of sadness there, that suddenly that serious pressure is no longer on you."
Football has clearly been more than a game to Moran. At least he has the solace of knowing he was a pro's pro.