Billy McCarthy is hoping to put two years of injury horror behind him when he resumes contact training very soon
Tipp star Billy McCarthy is hoping to resume contact training very soon
Tipperary and Thurles Sarsfields hurler Billy McCarthy had the hurling world at his feet after the Munster senior hurling championship of 2018.
It had been a horror summer for Tipp but the one bright light on a dark horizon was the performances of the tall, swashbuckling Billy who had settled into the side at centre forward/midfield following a string of impressive showings for his club.
But, just as the joy of sport and the wearing of the blue and gold jersey at senior level was beginning to sink in, the cruelty of the game hit him like a train. He had just buried the ball in the back of the JK Brackens net in Templetuohy as Thurles Sarsfields steamrolled the opposition, when a tackle from the side caught him late and he crumpled in a heap like a giant oak tree which had been chainsawed from the roots.
It took a few seconds to register the pain, but when it hit, the whole of Templetuohy knew that something was seriously wrong - a torn cruciate would have been a relief. No, Billy McCarthy had gone the whole hog. Soon, the word was that his hurling days were over - his knee required total reconstruction and after multiple surgeries, he was beginning to believe it himself.
“I saw the incident back afterwards on DVD and it was not how I remembered it all. I reclal it almost in slow motion and I can remember Michael Cahill coming in, shoving my head down and telling me not to look at it. Conor Stakelum came over and I saw him putting his hands over his eyes and walking away. I knew it was serious - I could see that it was dislocated,” Billy says.
That game was July 25 2018 and a few weeks after he had the first of his operations - it turned out to be an eight hour stint on the slab which was supposed to have solved everything. But, it didn't.
I had rehabed really well and I was hitting all my targets - even ahead with some of them. But, I had terrible pain after each training session. I even tried leaving off boots and just running in ordinary runners, but it was no use. I went to Santry and when they asked me how I was, I told them the truth. MRI's and scans were just not picking up the problem, so they just decided to go in again and see what was wrong. It was a big relief to know that the cruciate was gone again, because at least that could be sorted. It had torn for a second time and it could have happened for a multiplicity of reasons,” Billy said.
But positivity runs through his veins and Billy was in no mood to allow his career to disappear. He worked hard in the gym to keep himself some way right, and though he endured a torrid time in 4th year in UCC where he studied accountancy, he still kept his spirits up and was prepared to take each step at a time on his long long journey to the hurling field.
“I was on crutcthes a lot in college and that was tough. It was taking me 35 minutes to crutch to college - it would usually take me 10. But, I'm not one for dwelling on negatives and on the up side, I was able to concentrate on my studies. Something like this certainly helps to build your character,” says Billy who is due to commence work in PWC in Kilkenny in October, having completed his Masters.
CL right has gone far better than the first. Billy is back running, moving well, twisting and turning without having any major problems. His next challenge is to get into contact hurling and of course with the Covid-19 lockdown, there have been no club games to test the knee out.
“I suppose for me Covid has been a bit of a blessing because it has given me a bit longer to get right. I feel guilty even thinking that, but there you go. I'm not there yet and I don't want to rush things right now, but I am mad for hurling. I am sick of going to matches and watching them - I want to be playing and I want to do everything possible to try and get back to the level I was at. There is no point in doing all this work and going through so much and not get back to play,” Billy says.
Many of the Sarsfields players and indeed supporters would say that the injury to Billy McCarthy had a profound affect on the team that season - a season which proved fruitless for the club. Seeing one of your stars felled - especially a lad as popular as Billy - in such a manner with question marks over his future can have a very negative affect on the psyche of the team. His actual loss is hard enough to take, but the manner of his departure and the mental scars it leaves can be nigh on impossible to recover from. No matter how hard they tried, the overhead cloud wouldn't go away.
“Ah, I don't know about that. I mean, yeah, I suppose it was a blow to the lads alright, but they had to get on with things and I had to try and do my own bit to get right again,” Billy says.
Sarsfields kept him involved at all times and he is very grateful to the management, club officials and his team mates for their continuous efforts to keep up the contact and the spirits. But, it was those closest to him who knew exactly what he was going through, what he had endured and the huge efforts he had made to get back on his feet.
Billy pictured in his hospital bed after surgery with clubmates Conor Stakelum and Denis Maher who called in to wish him well
“My father (Liam) and mother (Sheila) were brilliant all through it. I mean, I couldn't get up off the bed for a long time and my leg was straight and in a brace for ages. Even just getting up for food was a big challenge. But, they were there all the time and the role played by Dr Paul Ryan and physios Dan Horan and Paddy O'Brien was huge as well. Not just in terms of the rehab, but also to keep you going and help you understand the process of the recovery and the different targets which have to be hit,” Billy says.
Heading off to work in Kilkenny in October will be an exciting time for Billy, but in a way he is half heading home - his father Liam is a Kilkenny man. And, Billy tells of a totally unexpected, out-of-the-blue phonecall from a Kilkenny man which left him stunned, but gave him a massive lift and boosted his morale no end.
“Yeah, I got loads of calls from people wishing me well including the likes of Eoin Kelly, James Woodlock, William Maher and then totally out of the blue, Henry Shefflin. I got a huge lift from talking to them and it was brilliant of them to take the time. Henry just blew me away. I mean, I didn't really know him at all and he just rang to see how I was doing and told me to keep the spirits up. I suppose that's what the whole thing is about really and it emphasises what the GAA is all about as well,” Billy says.
Thurles Sarsfields supporters will delight in seeing Billy McCarthy back in the blue and white jersey very soon, all going well. So too will all Gaels and if Billy continues to hit the right targets and get back to the kind of form which made him one of Tipperary's brightest prospects, Liam Sheedy could well come knocking on his door.
But, for now, it's just one more baby step after another and the art of practicising patience - surely Billy has worn down his supply of that particular virtue. He just needs to keep it going now and make sure not to over-do it as the end of the Covid lockdown comes into sight and the mist finally clears to reveal championship 2020 on the horizon.
“I'm looking forward to it and hopefully I can play a part but I can't afford to rush it at this stage. I don't think I'll be let anyway,” he smiles.
Bittersweet feelings watching the All-Ireland hurling final in McDonalds in San Diego
Billy McCarthy has played through the grades with Tipperary and when he made it to the senior squad for the 2018 season, it seemed as though his time had come.
He made a huge impact, not just on the field of play, but also off of it. And so, when Liam Sheedy arrived on the scene in 2018 and managed Tipperary to win the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 2019, Billy McCarthy could have been forgiven for feeling embittered about the whole thing - but for injury, he would surely have joined a long and dintinguished list of Thurles Sarsfields men to have won an All-Ireland senior hurling medal.
It had to have been mental torture for him to have watched his colleagues go on to win the silverware - the what-might-have-been's surely raced through his mind.
“Yeah, I actually went to San Diego and I watched the All-Ireland Final at 7:00am in McDonalds because that was the only place I could get wifi for the phone.
“It was certainly a bittersweet feeling because I was thrilled for the lads that I had played with all through the year before. To see them win the All-Ireland was special and I was delighted for them - especially my own clubmates and the lads I was close to.
“But, it was also hard and I was probably lucky enough to have been away in the US because the homecoming and the celebrations and all of that would have been hard if I had been at home.
“On the other hand, I got the opportunity to experience the US which I would not have had if I was hurling, so you have to take the positives too wherever you can,” he says.
Billy in action for Sarsfields against Ballygunner in the Munster club championship. How The Blues have missed his influence.
Billy is not entirely out of the minds of the Tipperary senior hurling management team either. Liam Sheedy was on the phone shortly after he had taken over the Tipp squad in 2018 and asking how the rehab was going. At that stage Billy had hopes of getting back earlier, but the set-backs meant that his hurling career would be put on hold for a while longer. Now that he is eyeing a return to club action, Billy is hoping that if his form returns, he might at some future stage get a chance again in the blue and gold jersey again.
“You work hard to get to that level and when you do get there, you just want more and more of it. I loved it. I loved the training and the buzz around the matches and all of that. It was what you always dream of as a kid and to have had a taste of it, just leaves you wanting more and more. I suppose I have lost out a bit, but if I can get back to that level, who knows?
“The goal now is to get back with the club, get some games under my belt and hopefully make the kind of progress that I want to make. It will be a very different season ahead because of all the Covid stuff, but I think at this stage everybody just wants a few games to go to and enjoy. I am no different, and it will be great to be togging out again for training and games. I'm really looking forward to that now and to taking it one step at a time,” Billy says.