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From Galway All-Ireland win to life without hurling in Amsterdam

Galway All-Ireland winner John Hanbury reflects on his playing career and reasons for stepping away from the game.

A REBUKE FROM a referee was the last act in John Hanbury’s career. Neither of them knew it at the time. The officials gathered and eventually settled on a decision. The Galway defender accepted the red card verdict without a word of complaint.

He departed Nowlan Park’s pitch early and never hurled for his county again.

The official reason for the sending off was “behaving in a way which is dangerous to an opponent”. The tackle didn’t interfere with the Kilkenny player’s helmet and it wasn’t quite head-high but the optics were bad, he admits that still.

Eventually, a reverse camera angle was sourced and grounds for an appeal uncovered. The ball had been flicked over his head and belatedly he tried to pull his arm back.

john-hanbury-is-shown-a-red-card-by-referee-colm-lyons Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Up to Croke Park for a date with the Central Hearings Committee. As he walked the corridor above a dark Hogan Stand awaiting the ruling one thing went through his head: no chance.

“I came out of that meeting saying, ‘we’re not getting out of this,’ he recalls. The 29-year-old is speaking from Amsterdam, where he works as a software engineer.

“We lost to Dublin then a week later. A disaster. Turns out, my last game was that red card.

“I knew then really. I had already taken a break before that year, I actually started back running on my own instead. Already chatted to Micheál about getting away from it.

“I was just so wiped after 2018. I had this stupid niggling ankle injury all year. Then the replays, I was exhausted. I didn’t want to look at a hurling or football pitch. I didn’t want to go back in 2019 but, I spoke to Micheál and felt better about it.

“I don’t know was I fully back and if that is the case, you are actually doing more of a disservice. If you don’t have 35 guys 100% committed. That was the key to 2017. An entire panel zoned in.

“Micheál left and there was a search for a new manager. I wasn’t clued into it too much. I did speak with Shane subsequently to tell him I was leaving the panel. 

“We heard great things about the work he did with Na Piarsaigh but at the same time, I was like what sort of service can I give him? If I am struggling for motivation, it’s not fair.”

Hanbury broke onto the Galway senior squad in 2014. A year later, he had seized a starting spot. Against Tipperary in that year’s All-Ireland semi-final, the man marker came of age, topping Galway’s tackle count.

He was a tigerish defender, his jersey infused with defiance every time he stepped foot on the field. Their battler who made up for a perceived lack of pace thanks to mental strength and hardiness.

john-hanbury-with-seamus-harnedy Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

And he was an outlier. A Galway hurler who hailed from the west of the county. The only one in the 2017 All-Ireland winning outfit. He grew up hurling for intermediate club Rahoon-Newcastle, where he encountered a template and a role model.

Before he minded the house there was Tony Óg Regan. Someone who showed a generation what was possible. Hanbury still recalls trekking to Thurles with pride as a nine-year-old to watch his club-mate play in a U21 All-Ireland final.

Locally Regan was a hero. Still is. When he married recently, neighbours swamped the road in a maroon and white guard of honour. Flames rose high in the same spot bonfires were lit for prior club and county success. A carnival for their champion. 

‘Oggie’ was instrumental in Hanbury’s change of course. He was headed down the stereotypical route after leaving secondary school, stumbling towards an unhappy vocation. A sports scholarship in NUIG. Studying arts with one eye on teaching.

One of the subjects he selected was IT. In later years, he’d pivot to software development. All thanks to Tony.   

“I remember clearly, I went to him about something else and he gave me one piece of advice: do not pick your career for your hobby. Hurling will end. In 2017 I couldn’t have asked for more. After that, the career side was suffering. The pull was bigger and bigger.

“We are all ambitious. In sport and career. By 2019 I was so fatigued. I just needed a new opportunity. It was a mix of things, but the seeds were there. Working in software, you can travel the world. With hurling, you park seeing the world, willingly. I was happy to do that. I wanted to do it.

“Then you win the All-Ireland and the curtain is pulled away. There is no mystery. There is no next peak. I’ve seen behind the curtain, what’s next? You get ambitious with your career. I want to go do this and this, but I can’t.”

In the closing stages of the 2018 semi-final against Clare, Hanbury was visibly limping due to a long-standing ankle injury. Before the final former captain David Collins took to the airwaves to declare it would be ‘a major loss’ if the corner-back was ruled out for the decider against Limerick.

Hanbury Source: @CianoGAA

Another thing was noticeable that day. With his ankle ballooning, he stayed out on the field to sign autographs after the final whistle.

 Full disclosure, every interview has context. Hanbury went to primary school with this writer. His story has always been significant in our parish. After Galway won their much-coveted All-Ireland in 2017, he brought Liam MacCarthy across town to delight local students. That particular day he visited eight different Gaeltacht schools with the cup.

The inter-county hurler always seemed conscious of the importance and inspiration associated with his position. When quizzed on it, he admits observing how much it meant when Tony Óg went out of his way to spend time with the next generation or his football club-mates Eddie Hoare and Eamonn Brannigan did so.

“You feel for some fellas. I’ve seen what happened to Joe after games. Just mobbed. Thankfully, corner-backs don’t get that! It is only a small bit of time. The way I saw it, what possible reason wouldn’t you give it? That team in particular seemed popular with kids.

“Even still, I just wanted to play hurling. I suppose I struggled with all the other stuff a bit. I’d be private enough. You don’t really sign up for the limelight. I’ll be honest, if it wasn’t you asking to do an interview, I’d have said no. You don’t play for that stuff.” 

john-hanbury-with-fans-after-the-game Source: Emily Harney/INPHO

He left the country in early 2021 to take up a job in the Netherlands. At the time, the county was still in the grips of Covid and only essential travel was allowed. At the airport, he was due to be interrogated on his destination and reason for travel. First he handed over his passport.

“Hanbury?” repeated the intrigued guard. “Are you the hurler?”

He nodded a response.

“Jesus. Ye broke my heart in 2017! if you want to leave, I won’t be the one stopping you. Off you go.”

No getting away from it.

He feels done now. At 29, he speaks of his hurling days only in the past tense. It is unlikely there will be a Rocky 4 training camp where he suddenly emerges ready for an unlikely return. That chapter is closed. Nothing but fondness underscores his recollections. No complaints, no regrets. 

“I got a chance to play with those two current corner-backs and I could’ve told you then, they were the future. There is a heap of young guys there. They are coming.

“You don’t want to be in the way of that either. I think when I was playing corner backs were judged based on one or two performances. It is key to give them time. As a back, you learn way more from a bad performance than a good one. ”

Stand-out moments? Canonised in the association’s online highlights reel titled ‘Great GAA plays’ is his hook on Colin Fennelly during a steadfast firefighting showing in the 2015 All-Ireland final.   

“I just remember going, feck. He is fast,” he laughs.

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“We were a very young team and thinking back, it showed. I remember I made one stupid play in the corner. Dispossessed Fennelly and drove it. I turned to fist bump the crowd while the ball goes out for a line ball.

“It is youth. It just takes over. Eventually, you learn you can’t really enjoy the event, or at least I couldn’t. As a player, you need to dial back.

“That play happens and my reaction was, ‘Hey! Cop on here now.’ He just turned you like a turnstile and only for a lucky hook you were finished.

“Those things are so fine. I slipped in 2016 for McGrath’s goal which was a big momentum swing. I remember in a minor semi-final Clare hit the post. 65 yards out Tony Kelly, you could clearly tell at then he was going to be what he is now. There is a sliver of a post between us winning an All-Ireland and them. How many times did Colm Callanan make a crazy save?

“Little things. In the moment you think, ‘Jesus. I got away with that.’ That play could easily have been batted in and it is talk about how easily he went past me.”

Towards the end of the club championship last year, Hanbury flew home from the Netherlands to play for Rahoon. It left him with a newfound appreciation for the emigrants who do so annually. The toll was too taxing.  

“At the end of 2019, I felt so downbeat about hurling in general. Not the stuff about the way the game is going, every week it seems like there is a new topic there. I was just so fatigued by it. Sick of it.

“2019 ended early and I got a good break, back with the club, a change of scenery. Just a downshift.

“Even still, by 2020 I just stepped away from everything. No inter-county. No club hurling or club football. I just couldn’t muster a single… what is the point if you hate your hobby? I just didn’t think I’d be any use. Hurling is tied to your identity but I was just empty. Straight up mental burn out.”

john-hanbury-dejected-after-the-game Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Growing up he played dual. The U21 football team the defender was part of included Liam Silke, Damien Comer and Ian Burke. Simultaneously, he was trying to break onto the senior hurling team and playing Fitzgibbon Cup with NUIG.

It was too much. Way too much. In hindsight it was stupid. Not for a second does he blame managers. U21 football boss Alan Flynn, for example, went out of his way to be as accommodating as possible. The plan was all ball work. He could do his running elsewhere.

Yet within there was an irreconcilable refusal to take a backwards step. He’d drive from one training to the other and downplay his load so they wouldn’t limit his involvement. Beating his own body to a pulp.

To a certain extent, that attitude persists. Last year he went down to a local American football team to watch and meet some Irish emigrants. Within weeks he found himself buying pads and a helmet. He is at his most animated when discussing their no-huddle offence and the Xs and Os of the sport.

Playing as a H-back, absolutely astonished at the soreness encountered after game day. They are the best team in the country. In Germany, the sport is even bigger. Above that is college ball and then there are the pros. If those are the aches he endures, what do those hits feel like?

One final question and interview ordeal will be over. Before the 2018 All-Ireland final, Henry Shefflin assigned each Galway and Limerick player a rating in his column. His assessment of Hanbury was ‘7/10. Resourceful.’  

So, how does he want to be remembered as a hurler?

“I don’t,” he responds immediately. “Genuinely.

“I remember reading a piece about when you identify as a hurler. I totally resonated with it. But I have to admit, my mentality was the total opposite. I did not want hurling to be my identity. I did not ever want to be known as the hurler.

“I grew up in a place where hurling wasn’t the be-all and end-all. There was rugby, soccer, Gaelic football. None of my friends are big into hurling. I’ve IT mates around the world who call it the stick and ball thing. Now I play American football and they call hurling Quidditch.

“It is nice. I am no longer a hurler. I am Joe Soap and I really like that.” 

About the author:

Maurice Brosnan

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