INHIBITIONS went out the window a long time ago for Michelle Downes.
The Doonaha woman has grown accustomed to invading the privacy of a male-dominated dressing room. Now she doesn’t bat an eyelid, it’s a simple case of getting on with the job and her job is that of sports rehabilitator.
But during that time, she has been exposed to several pranks. She takes the banter in her stride and isn’t slow to hit back. It helps break the ice and build up a rapport with the players.
“When I was studying in Carlow Institute of Technology, part of our education involved placement with boys’ teams. The course was sports-related and being in a team setting was a big part of it. Working in a dressing room full of males was hard at the beginning but I’ve got used to that scene now,” Michelle admits.
“I’m with the Kilmurry teams for the past two years but at the start, I got a bit of ribbing from them and they weren’t slow to take advantage of my situation. There are plenty of pranksters in the squad but I’ve learned to put up with them and get on with the job.
“I suppose the longer you are with a group of players and their season invariably is longer than most Clare clubs, the more you get to know them. I know what to expect at this stage. There’s good comraderie and banter within the set-up and there have been a few funny incidents during that time but none that can appear in print,” she laughs.
Indeed, for the past three seasons Michelle, who runs the Cois Farraige Injury Clinic in Kilkee, has been juggling her sporting passion with West Clare Gaels with her professional commitments to a plethora of club teams and, more recently, the Clare senior footballers.
“It can be a difficulty juggling things but it’s a case of having to. The weekends can be hectic but so far, it has worked out – there haven’t been too many clashes,” she acknowledges.
Michelle could be considered something of a lucky omen because in the three years since she graduated from Carlow IT, she has been involved with the county champions each of those years.
First there was Lissycasey, followed by back-to-back titles for Kilmurry-Ibrickane. Shannon Gaels, Kilmihil, Naomh Eoin and O’Curry’s are others and there have been occasions when her loyalties have been stretched to breaking point.
Michelle would be known for wearing her heart on her sleeve and this year, her own club, O’Curry’s met Kilmurry-Ibrickane in the quarter-final. She was between a rock and a hard place and ended up in the Kilmurry dug-out.
Manager Micheál McDermott recalls a funny incident during that game. There was a collision and two players hit the deck. Michelle raced onto the field but forgot herself. Her natural instinct was to attend the O’Curry’s player, who just happened to be her brother, Tom. It showed that in the heat of the moment, blood is thicker than water.
Broaching that subject, Michelle admits that it was one of those difficult days.
“I was committed to Kilmurry-Ibrickane. I just had to try and keep my mouth shut and not get too engrossed in the actual game. It was hard sitting on the sideline and trying to not let my emotions get in the way,” she recalls.
Michelle, however, was quickly forgiven for that aberration and is very much an accepted figure in the Kilmurry camp. She doesn’t feel out of place because her role, which can never be understated, is crucial. She has also become privy to the innermost secrets of a team that’s on the cusp of football history.
“The mood is brilliant, the buzz is surreal. It’s just great to be a part of it,” she concedes.
But of her primary role, Michelle says the squad has been fortunate that aside from Noel Downes, they’ve been relatively injury-free.
“These days, ground conditions are changing and players are liable to pick up hip flexor strains. That’s just from running on heavy ground.
“But the players have been competing at a high level and are very conscious of what is required in the prevention of injury. The beach is also brilliant for rehabilitation. A lot of the players go to Seafield and run in the water. The cold water also contains nutrients from seaweed. It’s an elevated form of hydrotherapy,” Michelle explains.
Crucial also to the wellbeing of the players, she says, is the attitude of management.
“Management is also very clued in and insist on warm-up and cool-down sessions. That is most important because every effort is taken to prevent injury. They are also very good with players on rehabilitation, players coming back from injuries. I suppose the temptation is to grow impatient and rush things. Bringing players back ahead of time is a recipe for trouble.
“With Micheál, he takes the advice on board and is prepared to see the rehabilitation programmes through. He will ease them back off the injured list, allowing them to do certain drills and not others. With a lot of injuries, people think they are healed and I suppose their desire to get back playing colours their judgement and they end up making matters worse.
“Unfortunately, Noel Downes has been plagued all season. He has suffered from three or four unrelated injuries. First it was a groin tear which kept him sidelined for three months. Then it was a knee injury and now it’s a strain of his acromioclavicular joint. I wouldn’t mind but they aren’t compensation injuries, they are all unrelated. He has been most injury-prone this year and has had the worst run of luck,” she adds.
A fit Noel Downes is crucial to the cause. It’s all in Michelle’s hands.