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Johnny Martyn: "I want to finish on my own terms"

Posted on 9 March, 2017 at 10:55

“OH FOR fuck’s sake. Not again.”


When you are a 34-year-old inter-county footballer recognising the symptoms of a stroke, having suffered another 18 months previously and had heart surgery on a small hole in your heart to prevent a recurrence, you are bound to be a tad peeved.


Annoyed is the word Johnny Martyn uses now, with delicious understatement.


The Sligo defender is matter-of-fact about the chain of events looking back but in the hours after that second stroke, he wondered what the future might hold for him. Was he a busted flush?


What is fascinating, as much as anything else though, is that the adjective ‘former’ cannot be employed to describe him as a player. Not yet. This is despite the fact that while is isn’t noticeable, he says he is aware that his speech can still slur at times.


He has friends that think he is certifiable but if the medics give him the all-clear, he will have no qualms about putting on the boots again and pushing himself to the brink of physical exhaustion, pressuring the major organs once more.


Two strokes and a stint in his heart be damned. If Professor Peter Kelly says he can go, he won’t think twice. That might even be with Sligo again. It might not but choosing the terms and conditions of retirement would be nice.


It isn’t always possible of course. So if he’s kicked his last ball in anger, and in joy, he won’t curl up in a ball. He will move on with his life. There is plenty to do.


And sure isn’t he lucky enough to be walking around at all?


 

****


 

MARTYN was feeling good. He had missed the guts of the past two seasons with Sligo due to the stroke that buckled him like a bolder to the back of the head one night in training before a qualifier against Cork in July 2014, the subsequent operation and the ankle ligaments that ruptured the following year.


He looked on as his teammates stunned Roscommon to reach the Connacht final and if Mayo and the occasion proved too much in the decider, he was delighted that they showed their true mettle by asking serious questions of Tyrone in the last round of qualifiers.


There was no way he was going to be forced out of the game if he could help it and having inspired St Mary’s to their first county championship in 14 years, wasn’t about to turn down Sligo manager, Niall Carew’s invitation to return.


Carew and his backroom staff stepped up the level of training in what was their second year of management and he loved it. It was the fittest he had ever been, despite being at an age when most players had packed in the county scene. Having seen it all since getting his first call-up in 2003, he was excited about what the next 12 months held for him and Sligo.


So when Carew gave him the nod to start warming up during an FBD League game against Leitrim last January, he bounced out of the dugout. The enthusiasm quickly waned when after a couple of gentle jogs up and down the sideline in Ballinamore, lightning struck once more.


“Oh for fuck’s sake. Not again.”


Horrified, he knew he was in trouble but in a strange way, suspecting what was occuring helped. Initially anyway.


“I had the same symptoms” recalls Martyn. “I couldn’t believe it was happening again. I dunno did I start bringing myself around? I sat back in the dugout and the doctor came over and I came around a lot quicker. I don’t know if me knowing what was going on made any difference or not. Just that it was a smaller one really.


“I think at the time, the fact I knew what was happening calmed me a bit more. But later on that night and down the line it worried me a lot more. ‘How is this happening again?’ ‘Why?’


“It was over quick and there wasn’t time to think about it but when I was being brought to the hospital things were going through my head. ‘Would I have to have another operation?’ ‘Would I be able to play football again?’”


He speaks of feeling embarrassed as the disorientation set in and his mouth began to droop. There weren’t many people around but he didn’t want them to see his discomfort, which is why he made his way to the dugout. Having been down this road, he was expecting the symptoms to deteriorate and was desperate to find some cover.


“It’s kind of hard to explain. Even the doctors were asking me. It’s a weird feeling and hard to describe. It’s like a rush through your body and face. You know something’s not right. It gradually gets worse and worse.


“The first time, one of the lads came up to me to ask me about a drill we were doing and I couldn’t get the words out. I started panicking then. One of the lads came with me and took me to the side. All the lads were looking at me and that nearly made it worse. I got pins and needles then.


“The second time, my whole jaw got pins and needles, like you were at the dentist but I could still talk to the doctor. The first time the speech was gone completely.”


No cause has been unearthed as yet for the latest event. The stint inserted in his heart is in perfect working order and that has been ruled out as a problem.


MRIs taken after each stroke revealed a huge difference in their severity. The first one left a large scarring on the brain. The latest, was minimal and that tallies with how Martyn felt at the time. But, it still happened.


“The doctor said the procedure I got to get it fixed the last time, there was a one per cent chance of it happening again through that. So obviously it’s not because of the hole in the heart. It’s a different reason why it happened.


“In one way it’s good to know that that’s not the problem and it’s grand. But the annoying thing now is why? Why did it happen again?

“I thought it was meant to be fixed, you know?”


Professor Kelly is one of leading consultants in the country, who has worked with rugby and NFL players, but so far he hasn’t been able to find an answer to the conundrum.


“He hasn’t seen a case like this so he’s eager to find out.”


As Johnny is himself but he places his trust firmly in the hands of the medical people.


Meanwhile, he has recently returned to work as an advertising salesman with The Sligo Champion and was glad to get back into the routine. The minute glitch in his speech bothers him but other than that, it represents another step on the road back to normality.


 

****


 

WHEN Carew called him up a couple of weeks later to come back in, he was delighted. The Kildare native had been close by when Martyn began feeling unwell and was shaken by it. Once he knew the full-back was okay, he wanted to keep him involved. It would go down well with the panel, of course, and the supporters. But ultimately, it was the right thing to do and it has proven a far more meaningful involvement than any charitable gesture.


Martyn appreciates it and the arrangement has worked out wonderfully. He had always anticipated moving into coaching/management once his playing days were over, at whatever level possible, and is emboldened by his involvement of the past month or so.


“It was huge” he acknowledges. “I hadn’t chatted to (Carew) since it happened. He was actually the first person to see me the second time it happened. He got an awful shock; he told me he thought I was having a heart attack. I could see it in his face, he was worried.


“So I met him and he said he’d love to see me getting involved. I thought it would be great because I didn’t want to step away. I got on well with the lads and Niall, Roli (Ronan Sweeney) and the rest of the management are great fellas.


“To be fair, I didn’t know what to expect, what they wanted me to do. I thought it would be to do the water or something like that but he’s got me hands-on, watching videos of teams. I’d be giving the defenders advice, telling them about the opposition forwards.


“For the Clare game I was up in the stand with the earpiece. Then I was down on the sideline with Roli and Niall was up in the stand. It’s good. It’s a real, proper involvement.”


The players have responded to last year’s progress and flourished under an even more testing regime. The League is difficult though, with the enforced absences of the likes of Adrian Marren, Mark Breheny and of course himself, while David Kelly and Ross Donovan have stepped away due to personal commitments.


With one win from three, relegation is an unwanted spectre. It is a fate they are desperate to avoid but it might have been an even worse prospect if the GAA’s central council had somehow managed to get the B Championship on the calendar.


Martyn, like most players, wasn’t in favour of the proposal. He was around when the Tommy Murphy Cup was introduced. In that inaugural campaign of 2004, the response was lukewarm at best.


Sligo reached the final under the stewardship of midfielder Paul Durcan despite the manager James Kerins and a number of players, including Martyn, making themselves unavailable. He argues that it would have been more of the same had central council not heeded the warnings.


“I’d be in favour of keeping provincial structure in place and I’d be selfish in a way. For Sligo to win a Connacht title is like winning the All-Ireland and we’ve more chance of winning that. To take that away…”


He pauses.


“I know it’s hard at the moment with Mayo so strong but we’re still only one game away from playing in a Connacht final. That’s selfish as a man from Sligo. If you look at the likes of Antrim, or a team in Leinster, it’s different but that’s my view on things.”


A Connacht championship winner in 2007, Martyn’s views neatly encapsulate the inequitable nature of the system of course, and why it should be dispensed with as a qualification process to an All-Ireland series. He doesn’t hide from the fact that geography makes it easier for some counties than others but as he benefits, he wants the status quo to remain.


That’s the problem in solving the problem.


“Exactly.”


Would the provincial championships be devalued if they were retained as separate entities, with no connection to the All-Ireland series? Again, Martyn doesn’t pretend to have a solution.


“I don’t know, it’s hard to tell. My view on it is that the more games you play the better, however they’re going to do that. When you’re playing for Sligo, you’ve only three or four home games a year. You could have three home games in the League and one in the Championship and that’s it. That’s not enough.”


Whatever about the structure, Sligo are doing a lot to help themselves now. Last year was good but it is coming as a result of investment and good structures at county, club and schools levels. The development squads are competing well, the minors only lost last year’s Connacht final to Galway after a replay, while Summerhill College and St Attracta’s will become the first team from the county to win the Connacht senior A schools’ title in 31 years when they compete in the colleges’ championship final at Markievicz Park today.


Added to that, the centre of excellence at Scarden is a facility that screams high performance and ambition.


“They’ve just gotten a new gym in there as well and it’s top of the range. It’s just a pity is coming around now and not three or four years ago! But it’s great to see and it’s only going to bring on Sligo football.”


 

****


 

BEING single probably makes it easier to consider playing again. Some friends are telling him to cop on, while his parents are keeping their opinions to themselves. Ironically, his mother was visiting his granny in Sligo General Hospital when he arrived in. At one stage, his aunt was also in a ward and it was like a reunion.


“I’d have friends outside football and friends in football. The friends not involved in football would say it’s time to hang up the boots but to be fair, my mum and dad would be big GAA people so they’re kind of on the fence. Mum goes to every game. She’d prefer to see me not playing but at the same time, she knows how involved I am. She gets it. She hasn’t said much on it.”


He is not going to be foolish though. He will only do it if given a clean bill of health. It’s in the hands of the experts.


“It’s a tough one. I suppose it all depends on what the doctor says. I was in Dublin there a couple of weeks ago just to chat to him. He said that that the moment I couldn’t do anything because of the medication I was on and that he wanted to get to the bottom of it. He didn’t rule out that I would ever play again so that gave me hope. I was going up to Dublin thinking ‘If he says I can’t play again, that’s it, I’ll have to deal with it.’


“But I’d missed most of last year through injury, which was a bit annoying. So I said I’d go back and give it one last year. Niall was keen to get me back in so I said I’d give it a go. I was flying. I was fitter than I ever was at this time of the year.


“If the doctor said, ‘You’ll have to take it easy for a while’ and I can’t play for Sligo, so be it. But if I could play for the club that would be great. You can play with the club ‘til you’re 38 or 39.”


He will stay in the game regardless but if that thumbs up comes, there will be no hesitation. No second-guessing.


“Not one bit. I’d be mad to go back playing.”


This article was commissioned by and appeared in the Irish Examiner in June 2016

 

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