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Starting out under Micko, 17 seasons with Kildare and the story behind the nickname of Leper

Eamonn Callaghan reflects on his long Kildare career after retiring this year.

Eamonn Callaghan and Andy Moran after June's qualifier in Newbridge.
Eamonn Callaghan and Andy Moran after June's qualifier in Newbridge.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

EARLY AUGUST IN Killarney and a championship Saturday night that had a defining feel to it.

Kerry won and Kildare lost but the twist of the Super 8s saw both teams troop out of Fitzgerald Stadium disconsolate that their 2018 season was over.

Individual storylines popped up on. The immediate exit of Eamonn the manager from the Kerry hotseat commanded the spotlight.

But Eamonn the player left the pitch as well knowing that his departure was imminent.

Kildare’s record championship appearance holder waited a week and then the following Saturday morning announced it.

Eamonn Callaghan Source: Twitter - @leperleper

After 17 seasons devoted to the Lilywhite cause, 35-year-old Eamonn Callaghan closed the book on a sizeable and significant chapter in his life.

“I remember coming on against Mayo in a qualifier in 2016 and thinking that was my last game and trying to play like that. Then after the match I was thinking that was it, I was probably finished.

“But then just in the off season, you get back into it and you miss it. I decided to go back and the following year (2017) we’d a great year in Division 2 getting promoted and then getting to a Leinster final.

“I was really enjoying it. I felt myself I was making an impact. Then when Armagh beat us, I was thinking, ‘Jesus I can’t leave it on that note’.

“So I kind of knew this year (2018) was my last. At the start of the year when I talked to Cian (O’Neill), I knew this was a case of let’s give it one more go. This year felt different. I knew that it was going to be my last game against Kerry so it was a strange feeling in the build up to it.

“Look it, I felt it was a good time to go. A good way to end it, getting to the Super 8s after what we’d done in the Leinster championship. I was kind of happy with that.”

A veteran campaigner, Callaghan began in a different GAA world. He was playing U21 football in 2002 when the word filtered through at the end of that spring that he was being recruited to senior life by a man well-versed in All-Ireland glories and Gaelic football royalty.

Mick O’Dwyer came calling and Callaghan found himself ushered into a dressing-room populated by men he had been accustomed to roaring on from the terraces.

Mick O'Dwyer and Glen Ryan 12/8/2000 Mick O'Dwyer and Glen Ryan celebrate Kildare's Leinster final victory in 2000. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“It was just very strange coming into that setup and looking at Mick O’Dwyer giving team talks. I just couldn’t believe I was there, actually in a training session with Mick O’Dwyer. It was mad.

“I was only 19 at the time but I’d been a supporter in 1998 when they got to the All-Ireland final and in 2000 when they won another Leinster. Two years later I was in training with them. I remember at the time being blown away by it.”

That was the launchpad for an unstinting run as a Kildare footballer. He served under six managers, saw team-mates come and go, all the while watching the complexion of the sport change. The longevity of his career is striking but the sacrifice never overwhelmed him to the extent he viewed it all as a chore.

Barry Brennan Eamonn Callaghan in action against Laois in the 2003 Leinster senior final. Source: INPHO

“The commitment levels for me aren’t any different to when I started really. I would spend a lot of time on my own doing a bit of training. If I was injured, I’d do some extra stuff. I always enjoyed going down to the pitch in Naas doing a bit of kicking and shooting.

“We trained fairly hard under Micko as well, it was fairly unforgiving. The time nowadays is more for analysis, meetings and injury prevention. The physical element of training was always there, it’s just gone a lot more professional now on the mental side.”

Callaghan has not moved on with a treasure chest of medals and the series of moments when they came agonisingly close are recalled with clarity.

“The ’09 Leinster final was definitely one that got away from us and 2011 the semi-final against Dublin, just the way the game finished with that free. You look back at moments in games and you feel we didn’t get any break at all.

“The square ball against Down in 2010, Benny Coulter’s goal. Then the following year 2011 they changed the rule and we got penalised when Tomas O’Connor scored a goal against Donegal.

“We were competing at the top level back then and that’s what happens in games, it comes down to a couple of key moments. They were the heartbreaking ones really.

“Back when I started, I didn’t realise it at the time but my first two years, we lost Leinster finals. You think we were so close to winning a Leinster and you didn’t even realise it at the time.

“I would have thought it’d be grand, we’d be competing at Leinster finals for the next 10 years but it turned out we only got to two more after 2003. That’s disappointing that we didn’t push on. That’s one of my biggest regrets.”

Away from Leinster, he was a central figure when Kildare pushed hard to reach the biggest day in the football calendar. That 2010 All-Ireland semi-final had a thrilling conclusion.

“It was just a crazy game, really exciting . I remember hitting the post, there could have been 15-20 minutes left. I was thinking if I’d got that one, we’d have got the gap back to three. When I did get the goal, it was late on.

“We’d a couple of goal chances after that, a scramble around the box and a free hit the crossbar at the end.but having lost a game like that then it takes a while to get over that then.

“I kind of felt that was one of the toughest losses I ever had and it took a good while to get over that.”

Eamonn Callaghan shoots past goalkeeper Brendan McVeigh Eamonn Callaghan fires to the net for Kildare in the 2010 All-Ireland senior football semi-final. Source: James Crombie

It was not all torment and hours spent stewing over the disappointments. From the introduction under Micko to the standards they operated at under McGeeney’s watch.

“We’re lucky in Kildare that we’ve had top managers over the years and I’m just very fortunate that I got to work underneath them.

“The qualifier run in 2010 and in 2011, I think those couple of years were the best we’ve had I think apart from this year. We beat Meath in the All-Ireland quarter-final in 2011, a couple of those qualifier games in 2010 and 2011 were pretty special.”

And a more recent qualifier night had prized status as well. The draw pitting Kildare and Mayo together in June sparked a week of rows and recriminations, chaos and controversy. When game day drew around, Kildare were on their home patch and made the local comforts count on a sun-splashed Newbridge evening in a riveting contest.

“It was huge,” recalls Callaghan.

“We’d lost every single league game. We’d lost the first round against Carlow. There was no kind of buzz around the place, we were just stuck in a rut really.

“Once we got out of that against Derry and got that win, I think it just took off then. The Mayo game came around, everybody thought it was going to be the end of the road for us.

“It was just a massive game for us against the second best team in the country. To finally get over the line and beat one of those top teams was just an unbelievable moment.

“It was mad after the game and the build-up to the game was fairly mad. All the eyes were on the game as well, it was a massive occasion and to get the win was fairly special.”

The 2018 season concluded with Kildare’s neighbours reigning once more. Callaghan’s early days was a different era for Leinster football but he has watched the province fall under the rule of Dublin.

Eamonn Callaghan and John Cooper Callaghan goes up against Dublin's Jonny Cooper in 2015. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I just feel they’re on a different level, even look at the subs they’re bringing on would make every other team in the country. Dublin have the numbers, from a coaching and underage development aspects, there’s funding going into that.

“This happened 10 years ago when big money started coming into the GAA. I just know from Kildare they’ve put on a huge push in the last 5 years but Dublin did that 10-15 years ago.

“They’re just so far ahead of everyone. It’s so hard to compete with them, I don’t see it changing any time soon either. I think a lot of it comes down to funding over the years. I think eventually teams will catch up to them but it’s going to take time and it’s going to take a lot of structures to be put in place in other counties.

“I just don’t think other counties have had the same opportunities that they would have had in Dublin over the last 10 years in a development phase. It’ll probably have to be something from Croke Park  level to try to offer the weaker teams a bit more money, a bit more incentive.

“It’s a hard one, it’s not the Dublin players fault. They’re just doing what they can, looking after themselves, getting themselves in the best shape possible.”

Eamonn Callaghan celebrates after the game Eamonn Callaghan celebrates after the 2010 All-Ireland quarter-final win over Meath. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

He considers the future for Kildare though and feels optimistic with the calibre of player that is there at present and the ones in the pipeline like the group that delivered an All-Ireland U20 success this year.

The Garda stationed in Lucan will look forward in 2019 to adjusting to returning to his previous position as a Kildare fan. He’ll be around his club Naas more. And there’s the chance to spend more time with his wife Katie, his young son Fionn and his wider family.

The tributes flowed in when he called it a day in August, a recognition of the rapport he had built up with the county’s football faithful since 2002.

To most he was more familiar as Leper, the nickname that has been attached to him since he was young.

He finishes with the back story to that.

“Everyone expects this mad kind of cool story behind this nickname,” laughs Callaghan.

“When I was in sixth class, I was about 12, I was the only lad in the group that didn’t have a nickname. One of the lads said he’d find a nickname for me in the dictionary. So I’d to open up a page in the dictionary and Leper was the first word on the top of the page.

“They were all just laughing and slagging and calling me Leper. I came back into school the next day and the whole school was calling me Leper.

“I don’t know how the hell it stuck over the years. When I was going to different places in Kildare, one fella would call me Leper and then sure everybody would.

“When I joined the Guards then in 2008, no one knew me as Leper but there was one lad I think who got wind of it, he started calling me and I can’t get away from it.

“I should have come up with a better story though. It’s stuck with me forever.”

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