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Rory O'Carroll: Kilmacud's defensive pillar with a healthy outlook on football and life

The two-time All-Star left for New Zealand at the peak of his powers and is enjoying his best run of form since returning.

HE’S LAID BACK off the pitch and a fiery competitor on it.

rory-ocarroll-inspects-the-pitch-before-the-game Kilmacud Crokes leader Rory O'Carroll. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

There are a few yarns about Rory O’Carroll that sum up his healthy outlook on football and, by extension, life.

He was called up to the Dublin senior panel for the first time in 2009, not long after Kilmacud’s last All-Ireland club victory. A teenage O’Carroll had played just three senior championship games for his club at that stage, having only broken onto the team for the provincial final.

After making his Sky Blues debut in the Leinster semi-final against Westmeath the following summer, he informed Pat Gilroy that he wouldn’t be around for the final. 

Six weeks travelling around Thailand with his mates was calling. Gilroy was surprised, to put it mildly. He asked coach Collie Moran to persuade him to stick around, but he wasn’t for turning. 

In 2011, he missed the league campaign for an eight-month sojourn to the small town of Gien in France, situated 150km away from Paris, where the UCD student combined teaching English with learning French.

Such was the high regard Gilroy held him in, O’Carroll was back in the starting team for the championship opener against Laois. He subsequently manned the full-back position as Dublin won the All-Ireland that September, ending a 16-year famine in the capital.  

Another story goes that before that All-Ireland final, each of the Dublin players sat down with the team’s sport psychologist Caroline Currid.

O’Carroll’s main concern was that he wasn’t all that worried about the game, unlike some of his team-mates who’d endured restless nights as it loomed. Currid smiled and told him not to change a thing. 

The Stillorgan native has always been his own man. Even when All-Irelands and All-Stars  came his way, he knew football wasn’t the be-all and end-all. Perhaps it was that perspective that helped him reach the heights he did on the field.

He was never afraid to leave it all behind. 

In 2015 he admitted that should he suffer another concussion on the field of play, he would retire. Two years earlier, he was famously left on the field in a daze for the final 10 minutes of the All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo after being concussed. 

He recalled another concussion going undiagnosed while he was a minor.

“I would rather consider my future life, to be honest,” he said. 

He won his third All-Ireland medal in 2015 and his second All-Star that winter. 

He was 26, the best full-back in the game, in his prime and a defensive rock in the team poised to dominate Gaelic football. 

rory-ocarroll-and-philly-mcmahon-celebrate O'Carroll and Philly McMahon celebrate at the end of the 2015 All-Ireland final. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Then he decided to pack his bags and head off travelling before relocating to New Zealand. 

“I admire Rory for what he did,” his former team-mate and manager Johnny Magee tells The42

“I would have been the opposite. I wouldn’t have went away. He went away and experienced that. I admire lads who are brave and can say, ‘Okay, I need to go and try something else out here. I need to go and experience a different country and get different life experience’.

“I admire the lads that take time out to go and show that football isn’t the be-all and end-all of everything.”

O’Carroll toyed with the idea for a few months and informed Jim Gavin of his decision in early 2016. In an interview shortly before his departure, he said he had made peace with the fact he might never kick a ball for Dublin again. 

Away from football, O’Carroll has an altruistic side to him. He regularly volunteered in a Smithfield day centre that provided hot meals for the homeless in his early 20s. 

His day job was as a social worker Tulsa, the agency responsibly for the wellbeing and protection of vulnerable children in Ireland. These days he works with an organisation in Dublin that provide support services for marginalised Travellers.  

After moving to New Zealand, O’Carroll took on a role in addiction services with the Salvation Army that involved taking group therapy sessions at a women’s prison in Auckland. 

He joined local GAA club Marist Rangers, helping them win the local championship. He also coached the men’s and ladies teams and is fondly remembered from his time there. 

He flew home for a wedding in September 2018 and after it sparked hopes of a return, Paul Mannion ruled that out, saying: “I don’t think football is at the front of his mind now.”

But he moved back to Dublin the following March. Three days later he was back training with Kilmacud. After a couple of strong performances in the club championship that April, he invited onto the Dublin panel in May. 

“It was going very hard for Rory after not playing football on a high level for a few years and then expecting to shift somebody (off the team), it just doesn’t happen like that,” says Magee. 

johnny-magee-and-pat-burke Johnny Magee and Pat Burke lift the All-Ireland club title in 2009. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

His two years back on the panel came on the tail-end of Dublin’s dominance of the All-Ireland. He struggled for game-time and battled injury as his body re-adjusted to the rigours of top level football.

“When he first came back and played a few games ourselves in the championship he’d played well and then was parachuted into Dublin squad. It’s very hard to go from not playing football at a high level, even to senior 1 standard and then into the county. It does take a bit of time.

“The fact that he was put in then, obviously he wasn’t gonna be where he wanted to me in terms of fitness. He picked up a couple of knocks and niggles so he didn’t have that kind of clear run of games.

“What Rory needed at that stage was continuous game-time. When he was in with Dublin you’re not going to shift lads like Philly (McMahon), Davy Byrne, (Mick) Fitzsimons or Jonny Cooper who were in the full-back line.”

Following the 2020 behind-closed-doors final win against Mayo and before the bus took off from Croke Park, O’Carroll enjoyed a pint with Michael Darragh Macauley, Paddy Andrews and Cian O’Sullivan.

Macauley said recently it had the feeling of a ‘this is it’ moment for the four long-serving comrades.

All four would walk away from the game before the next season began. 

O’Carroll was the only one not to put out a retirement statement. It isn’t his style. He quietly slipped away without any fuss. 

O’Sullivan had to retire from club football too, such was the extent of his recurring injures.

O’Carroll, however, looks revitalised since giving Kilmacud his full focus, shining in the centre-back position after spending most of his career on the edge of the square where there were less opportunities to show his footballing ability.  

“Rory is a top footballer,” says Kilmacud forward Dara Mullin. “There’s no real need to list out his accolades. But even aside from what you guys see on the pitch, off the pitch Rory is a real leader in our dressing room. He’s been through it all. He’s a great role model for any young player coming through the club.

“Playing centre back he’s a great footballer. He knows the game very, very well from his experience. It seems to be suiting him quite well this year.”

Magee believes the 32-year-old is enjoying his best form since returning from New Zealand. 

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“The way the game is gone at the moment, there’s teams dropping bodies back so that allows Rory impose his game and to push forward.

rory-ocarroll O'Carroll sprays a pass. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“He’s an experienced footballer, he’s obviously played full-back for majority of his career. So it’s probably given them another lease of football life in terms of what he can do.

“The one thing I’ve noticed is he’s enjoying his football. There’s a lot to be said about that. When you’re enjoying it, things seem to fall in place for you. It makes things more enjoyable going to training.

“When you’re released into the half-back line there’s a bit more freedom when you haven’t played there in a while and you look forward to it.

“Would he be in the form he is now if he had continued playing for Dublin? I’d say it would be unlikely because of the toll that inter-county football takes.

“It takes its toll on the body, but also the mental side of it is just as important to physical side. So definitely those few years have helped Rory allow him perform at the high level he’s performing to at the moment and it’s to the club’s benefit. I’m delighted for him.”

Aside from his talent, his influence in the dressing room cannot be understated. Ahead of the semi-final Craig Dias spoke about his ability to have a laugh in the dressing room, but put on his game face on when required. 

Mullin concurs. “I don’t think anybody could have a bad word to say about Rory really,” he says. “He’s a really great guy to be around, very friendly, very approachable for any kind of coaching tips or advice, whether it be on or off the pitch.

“Then his leadership capabilities have been seen throughout the whole year for us really, getting man of the match the last day with some crucial interceptions at crucial times. He’s a really great person to have in our changing room.”

In the Leinster final win against Naas, he gave one of his finest displays in the Kilmacud jersey. What made it even more remarkable was that his pregnant wife was due to have the baby the day before the game. 

One of his team-mates starting winding him up after the final whistle by telling him the baby was born and he’d missed the birth.

“It was a lot for him to be going through as getting prepared for a match of that quality,” smiles Mullin. “I think the baby was safely delivered anyway on the Tuesday night.” 

This afternoon, O’Carroll will put the game face on again as Kilcoo come into view.

It’s been 12 years since he last graced Croke Park on All-Ireland club final day.

The once skinny teenager is now a grizzled veteran. He’s seen a bit of the world, started a family and reached enormous heights in the game. 

He’ll be relaxed in the build-up, but once he crosses that white line he’ll blot out everything else and have a steely focus on delivering for his team.

Just like he’s always done. 

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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