Great players are never measured by what they’ve won but by the image they leave behind.
Although he might be destined to join that mythical club of footballers known as the greatest never to win an All-Ireland, Dermot Earley junior deserves to be remembered for something much greater than a prize he never won. He leaves Kildare football on the eve of a championship but the championship will not be the same without him. Much like his father before him, he has left an indelible mark on the game and all who had the pleasure of watching him play.
What saddens me about his retirement is not so much the fact that he leaves the game without that Celtic Cross but the thought that we won’t get to see him play for Kildare again. What’s more, there are many more young supporters out there who will never get to witness him in full flight with Kildare. At his best, Earley played football everyone could appreciate it, which is why his departure reverberates around the country. He will be missed by those who he played with but also by those who he played against. It is because of men like Dermot Earley that others were inspired to play the game of Gaelic football. Most of us can only imagine a game of such elegance it turns into a form of art but Earley made it real for us.
For that football supporters far and wide can never thank him enough.
Given his physical gifts and the ease with which he could fetch ball in the middle, he could have settled for something much less than he ultimately achieved. He won two Leinster titles and an all-star in his first three full seasons with Kildare. In the 13 years since he last won a championship medal, he has had to endure one setback after another. It has been a long road to this point and the man has come close to breaking himself many times in the pursuit of his dreams. Think about all the injuries he has suffered in his career besides the endless list of disappointments that is the lot of a Kildare footballer. There are too many broken bones to mention. As a very young man, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Just as he scaled new heights in 2009 and earned a second all-star, his body betrayed him the following year when he suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury which kept him out of an All-Ireland semi-final against Down. His presence would surely have propelled Kildare into a final that was there for the taking. And yet that was far from his biggest loss that year.
That summer his father, one of the most loved and revered GAA-men of all time, died all-too suddenly when he was stricken by a debilitating illness. On a sunny Saturday in Newbridge, the GAA-world decamped to Kildare for the day. In the morning they bid farewell to Dermot Earley and in the evening they watched his son play a game of football that transcended the sport. Not for the first time an Earley had elevated the game of Gaelic football beyond mere pigskin and leather.
If he had only continued a proud family tradition, playing football with Kildare would have been a huge achievement for Dermot Earley that day but he did much more than that. He gave hope and inspiration to people from all walks of life. Through football, he touched the hearts and minds of a public who came to adore him that day. He was merely playing a football match but just like he has done over the course of an amazing career, he was striving for something greater than the winning score.
Dermot Earley pursued his dreams and he never compromised them. He wasn’t flawless. He was a raw, young footballer who had to learn how to kick accurately and cool his temper. He was the standout footballer in a county that experienced one harrowing defeat after another in the middle of the last decade yet he never stopped looking inward. He got better with age, he kept fighting back when others would have quit.
As a Kildare supporter, it was a privilege to say that he was one of our own. I’ve no doubt that his teammates felt the same way over the years. To stand on a football field and serve beside him must have been something else because merely watching him play was one hell of an experience.
In the span of his inter-county career, following Kildare has been like a roller-coaster ride. Other men like Glenn Ryan and Willie McCreery drove us along but Earley took us over the edge, us supporters trying to catch our breath as he caught the ball in mid-air and took off on another surge.
For this Kildare fan, watching Dermot Earley was one of life’s greatest thrills.