Comerford - he thrilled, he dared and he always played with a smile

THE opening exchanges were typical. There was serious reluctance, a jovial sort of “will you go away and don’t be bothering me” sort of attitude.

THE opening exchanges were typical. There was serious reluctance, a jovial sort of “will you go away and don’t be bothering me” sort of attitude.

It was vintage Martin Comerford, the reluctant hero, yet grateful and appreciative champion; the absolute team player who never sought to be any more than one of the lads.

“Look, it is not D.J. Carey you are talking about,” he protested when it was suggested I would like to have a chat about his retirement from the inter-county game, to write something to commemorate his achievements as the ’People is wont to do with those who served the colours.

The idea didn’t appeal.

One outlined a few facts – six senior All-Ireland winners’ medals; five National Leagues; three All-Star awards; nine Leinster championships, etcetera. He was no ordinary achiever as a player!

Comerford had a neater, more evasive side-step with the press during his glittering career than the one that left many an opponent on his posterior on the field. He gave unselfishly of himself, enjoyed the good times, accepted the bad times and left others to do the talking.

Leaving wasn’t easy. Emotion in the voice suggested a degree of pain. The weight of a serious, life changing decision wasn’t easily articulated.

“It is tough, of course it is,” Martin said of his decision to step off the inter-county stage.

Kilkenny manager, Brian Cody and selectors, Michael Dempsey and Martin Fogarty had left the door open.

“Life moves on,” added the 32-year-old. “I kind of made my decision after the All-Ireland last year, even coming up to it. All the pressure and so on. I said to myself it wasn’t worth it.”

Decision was knife edge

The decision to leave or to stay was knife edge. He enjoyed a terrific championship with O’Loughlin’s last year, perhaps one of his best ever. He was a powerful captain and attack leader; the one who made things happen when they needed to be made happen.

He dug the team out of a bit of a hole in the Leinster club final against Oulart-the-Ballagh (Wexford) by shooting two mighty second half points back-to-back when the team was spluttering, under pressure and searching for the winning post. His critical intervention gave everyone a lift, brought the ultimate target into focus.

He enjoyed that day. He delivered a rousing and amusing post match address, and he sang to the press. Duty called. Martin answered.

The fun loving inner man revealed. Comerford, who gave the impression he played the game with a smile on his face, had plenty to smile about that day.

O’Loughlin’s galloped all the way to Croke Park and the AIB club final. Then there was a big crash against Clarinbridge (Galway). O’Loughlin’s didn’t perform. That hurt.

The defeat didn’t do much for Comerford’s appetite. He has been part of the Kilkenny panel since 2001. He had missed the pre-season work. Swotting for another championship suddenly lost its appeal.

If that game had gone differently, who knows!

“I have had a good innings,” Martin suggested when he moved on. “I can’t complain. I don’t feel the appetite is there right now. I had a great time. I played with and against some of the greats. I couldn’t but be happy with what I won.”

He has always loved sport, any sport. To be involved with Kilkenny was like a dream for him.

Now at the finish he can look back on being part of an All-Ireland four in-a-row team, a first for the county, plus more, much more.

Before he knew it he was in finals

“I could never have imagined I would win what I did,” he went on. “I was playing with O’Loughlin’s when I got my chance. Almost before I knew it I was playing in League and All-Ireland finals.

“I was young. Hurling in Kilkenny was on the crest of a wave. Everything was grand. You don’t think about things too much then. You go with the flow. As you get older things change. You start to think about the consequences of the results, if this or that goes wrong.”

One of his best days arrived in 2002, his first season of full involvement with Kilkenny. The county won the All-Ireland. Martin joined his brother, Andy on the team. The latter was the captain.

“That was a big day for the family, O’Loughlin’s and so on,” he insisted. “That was one of the highlights.

“In that 2002 All-Ireland final we beat Clare,” Martin continued. “I was playing alongside D.J. Carey, with Andy as captain, and the likes of Henry Shefflin, Peter Barry, J.J. Delaney and so on around. They were great players.

“It was a privilege to be playing in such company. I was marking Brian Lohan, one of the greatest full-backs of all time. I look back on it and wonder how the heck I managed that.

“I suppose that match would be my fondest memory. Going back to the O’Loughlin’s club with the McCarthy Cup was unreal. At that time we thought life would go on forever.”

When Kilkenny were beaten in the championship in 2004 and 2005 Martin was thinking during the Winters that followed that he might have to be satisfied with two All-Ireland wins. So be it, he felt.

“Then we went on a run again and we won four more,” he recalled with enthusiasm. “That was amazing. In sport you just never know.”

In the 2004 season he got to captain Kilkenny. Fate didn’t allow him follow in Andy’s footsteps.

“That was a great honour,” Martin assured. “At the time I was probably a bit too young. That probably came a bit too early for me, but it was an honour.”

Sparks flew, but there was respect

His first major final was in the National League of 2002. He pinched 1-3 off the mighty Diarmuid O’Sullivan as Cork were put to the sword. That latter wasn’t expecting the storm. Apparently he suggested of Comerford afterwards: “Where the f… did he come from.”

The pair were to become very familiar opponents in an era when the Kilkenny/Cork rivalry attained a new intensity. Sparks flew, but respect abounded.

“I arrived at a great time in Kilkenny hurling,” Martin said. “It was a privilege to be part of everything that went on, everything we achieved. We had great times, the best of times.”

The management team of Brian Cody, Johnny Walsh, Noel Skehan and then Martin Fogarty, Michael Dempsey, Noel Richardson and so on were absolute professionals, he insisted.

“I loved the craic with the lads,” said the man who often livened up the banter in the dressing-room. “The friends you make are a big part of it all.”

He was inundated with texts and messages of goodwill from former colleagues, friends and well wishers after the news of his decision became public.

“That was very heart warming,” he assured. “I have made friends for life. I can look back on it all with great fondness.

“That is the way life unfolds. I got nine years out of it. It was a heavy commitment, but it was enjoyable. I will now move on to the next stage of my life.”

Personal memory

A personal memory was the first time Martin Comerford caught my eye as a hurler. Of course, there was a bit of a story attached.

The match in question was against James Stephens in Nowlan Park. Comerford had come from playing a McCalmont Cup soccer game with Freebooters. The hurling was timed for 6pm.

An accommodation had been reached between Freebooters and O’Loughlin’s that Comerford would play one half of the soccer and then dash to the ’Park. He was able to make the journey early….he was sent off in the soccer.

Comerford destroyed the ’Stephens full-back line that evening, leaping into the sky to win ball like a man with rocket fuel in his boots. He just couldn’t be contained.

“That was a long time ago,” he laughed when the story was recalled.

By the way, the soccer manager, Tony Scanlon, later admitted he had no intention of allowing his star player dash away at half-time. Martin laughed.

“I leave with a hatful of great memories,” he assured. “The club, Kilkenny and the fans were all great to me as well. I would like to thank everyone for their decency. It was much appreciated.”

His mother and father (Kathleen and Tim), his wife, Paula, brothers, Andy and Jimmy were always there for him too, sharing the highs, there to console and support in other times.

And so for his final memory?

“There is nothing like playing in a full Croke Park,” Martin said without hesitation. “The greatest atmosphere I ever experienced was in last year’s final. I could feel the ground shaking when I came on. It was unbelievable.

“It was like playing in a coliseum with people hanging out over the upper tier and so on. I step off the stage appreciating what it was all about, losing being part of the game, but appreciating what it all meant.”