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Carroll on song

by Denis Walsh was published in the The Sunday Times on Sunday the 21st of May 2006

Young, ambitious and disciplined, the gifted forward is a key talent for an improving Offaly. He’s determined not to suffer last year’s humiliations again

Under his baseball cap Brian Carroll’s head is full of figures. His four-year PE degree has come down to two maths exams. Maths was his elective subject. In other words, he could have picked something else. He went with his heart. His degree required a final-year thesis: the language and symbols of mathematics was the subject he nominated. You get the picture. All bluffed out we had no further questions. In the autumn he will begin a postgraduate course: sports psychology or maths. Either one would be a comfortable fit. All of his hurling life he has been in dialogue with his mind: pleading, negotiating, resolving. As a kid he was terrorised by nerves before matches. The side effects ranged from heavy legs to sudden fatigue to a sick feeling in his stomach. Each condition diminished his performance. In time he conquered them at source.

Over the years, though, the challenges got bigger. In the 2003 championship — his second — Carroll stood over a free in the last minute of a Leinster semi-final against Wexford, with Offaly trailing by a point. The team’s regular free-taker Damien Murray had been taken off and Carroll stepped up to the plate. From 45m out he was fancied to nail it but in those circumstances your mind is the empowering force. An altercation delayed the play and all of a sudden the process by which he addresses a free was hustled out of sequence. He should have taken control of the situation but instead he allowed the situation to control him.

“I stood over the ball too long. I kinda have an unorthodox style as it is but I stood over the ball way too long from what I usually do and I should have settled myself. I should have walked away and went back to it again.”

He cut the shot and it tailed wide.

He learned. Consciously, he learns. Over the years his curiosity has taken him in search of methods he could import and adapt. He alighted on rugby: “I would have watched a few videos of Johnny Wilkinson to watch his mental preparation. Just a few things like visualising a line from the ball to the goal. It’s an easy thing to say but you’ve obviously got to see where it’s going to go. You’ve got to visualise your lift and strike. It’s important those things are in a natural progression.

“Routine is a huge part of it (sports psychology). It can be so easy to upset players. You see Armagh (footballers) doing certain things. They don’t even take their own bags off the bus, they have someone to take the bags into the dressing room. Not saying that we should do that but it obviously works for some players with Armagh and that’s why they do it. Sports psychology is not for everyone and I don’t think it should be forced on everyone.”

During John McIntyre’s previous spell as Offaly manager he organised one session with a sports psychologist but that group of players weren’t buying; it was the wrong market. This year under McIntyre Offaly have done everything else: a training weekend in Portugal, a supervised weights programme, five training sessions a week for two months before Christmas, strict conditions for how training is conducted. Discipline.

Drive. The great Offaly team of the 1990s had an attitude and a way of winning that developed organically and was serviced in a way that was unique to them. For this Offaly team none of that was relevant. They had to find their own path.

“We’re not doing anything groundbreaking in training, we’re just trying to catch up really. When you fail to achieve anything you have to ask yourself, ‘Why aren’t we?’ It’s not good enough to be doing what the team of the ’90s did because obviously things have evolved and that won’t get us anywhere at this stage.

“Last year against Kilkenny was a disaster. We were after coming from a Leinster final performance the year before where we could have won — should have won, actually — went from there to a 31-point defeat. That shows you how quickly things can fall away from you when you’re not working hard. This year we said we weren’t going to have any regrets. If we were going to be beaten we were going to be beaten by a better hurling team but not a better prepared team.”

Against the prevailing trend Carroll’s form was outstanding last summer. His demeanour on the field was a loud rebuttal of the appalling circumstances in which Offaly found themselves. Against Kilkenny his performance was unimpeachable and when their season started to turn in the second half against Waterford six days later Carroll led the charge and headed the scoring.

He’s what you would wish for in a corner-forward: classy and spunky in equal measure.

He can feel the progress. He remembers a couple of years ago being switched on to Brian Whelahan in a club match for Coolderry against Birr.

He was so deferential that his own game voluntarily shut down and he was soon switched again, routed. Where was the sense in that? “You don’t make it on to a county panel if you don’t have some sort of belief in yourself. You have to be positive in everything you’re doing.

Things were starting to go well for me last year but a lot of that comes from experience. People mightn’t realise it this is my fifth year on the panel. I was thrown in at the deep end so it was sink or swim at the time. Gradually we’re starting to swim.” Carroll was only 18 when he made his senior debut. Offaly were waiting. His name and his bloodline preceded him. On a neck chain inside his hoodie is a silver hurley his girlfriend Aisling gave him to remember the 20th anniversary of his father’s death back in March. Pat Carroll played on the team that won Offaly’s first Leinster title in 1980 and their breakthrough All-Ireland a year later; both years he was an All Star, a cherished player on a dear team.

Pat was only 30 when he died and Brian wasn’t yet three. He has no memory of his father, only an acquired memory from the stories he’s been told and footage he’s seen. The bounty of Pat’s career is stored in Brian’s bedroom now: medals, awards, old hurleys, photos.

“The 1981 All-Ireland video is always the one I watched. The hair stands up on the back of my neck when I watch it. I nearly know most of it off by heart. He was number 13 that day and since then I have a fixation with number 13. That’s where I always wanted to hurl. You couldn’t tell me I was hurling anywhere else.”

Playing in the same position was inviting comparisons, but playing anywhere else would hardly have deflected them. “It’s a privilege that I love (being Pat Carroll’s son). I can’t deny that. It’s brought its own pressures, too, but I feel those pressures are starting to wane because I’m starting to find my feet at county level. People will always compare. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shackle off ‘Pat Carroll’s son’ until I do something myself.

“I was always conscious of who he was and I’ve always been so proud of everything he’s done. There’s a couple of his All Stars there at home and a couple of All-Ireland medals, but really I want my own ones.That’s being honest. I’m not training five or six times a week to continue to be a county hurler for the sake of being a county hurler and I know my teammates with Offaly are the same at this stage. We have to achieve something.”

With a transfusion of new blood they started to go somewhere again this spring. When Carroll started in 2002 a whole troop of young players were introduced together, too, but the dynamics of the team were wrong then. Some of the old guys couldn’t hack it and some of the young guys were promoted too soon and floundered. This team is on a sounder footing.

Carroll spent most of the League playing alongside two teenagers in the full-forward line but they clicked and the risk was buried in the process. Alan Egan is injured now but Joe Bergin delivered 4-11 from play with precocious ease. For the team they aspire to be Bergin’s attitude is the headline.

“The League was great for getting a bit of respect back for Offaly hurling but we’re only starting to close the gap. People have to stay focused on where we are in the overall scheme of things. When people look at the championship they look at the eight teams that made the quarter finals (last year) and then there’s Offaly, centre field, Dublin, Westmeath, Antrim.

We’re in that group at the moment and we have to try and show that we’re in the top eight. All we’ve done this year is put a bit of pride back in Offaly hurling. And what we want more than anything is to make sure that we’re not suffering those humiliating defeats any more.”

They learnt that wishing it alone is not enough. That’s a start.

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