When Michael Hennessy took up the role of Gusserane O'Rahilly's junior manager nearly ten years ago he thought people would be walking on eggshells while around him - he was wrong.
"From the word go, you’re just back as one of the lads. You’re open for abuse and criticism," says Hennessy. The reason for his suspicion, one which made him think that people might be tiptoeing around him, afraid of saying something offensive is that he has been in a wheelchair since a 2005 car accident.
At a recent club AGM, he announced that he would not be putting himself forward as junior manager for 2018 - he was a bit too much going on next year. There was no stealthiness to one response from the crowd.
"Our AGM was only on there a few weeks ago. I told them, ‘Look, lads, I got what I wanted out of the junior this year. I’m going to take a few years away from it. I’m not standing.’ One smart alec in the background says ‘Sure we know you’re not standing, but are you going to do it?’
You have to leave the feelings outside the door, they won’t treat you any different."
Very much aware of that Irish tendency to show affection through good-natured abuse, he wouldn't have it any other way. "When they’re not slagging, that’s when you should be worried - when you’re not getting the guff."
It was August 2005 when a 19-year-old Hennessy was driving along a sweeping road in Wexford with three friends also in the car. They reached a section of road which had just been tarred and chipped. Though, there no signs warning of the instability of the surface.
The back of the car slid out. There was no ditch, it was just a clay bank and the field below was lower than the road.
My seatbelt snapped and I went out through the windscreen and ended up in the field. Surprisingly enough, I had no bad cuts on me, it was just a bruise on my back. I had a couple of scratches on my hands but nothing major.
Just like any driver who has been in a car accident while carrying passengers, Hennessy is thankful that everyone else lived to tell the tale. There were a few bad cuts and a broken thumb but he came off the worst. "At least I’m not looking at some of my friends in a wheelchair," he says.
Though he had no obvious signs of serious injury, they were there below the surface. He went to Wexford Hospital for a few hours and then straight up to the Mater in Dublin where he had surgery to insert rods into his back. After just five days in the Mater, he moved to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dun Laoghaire where he would reside for six months.
In hope of keeping Hennessy's mood buoyant, some familiar faces visited him in rehab. Dublin All-Ireland winners Fran Ryder and Brian Mullins called in, as did the Wexford football team who were in the capital for the 2005 Tommy Murphy Cup final. Former Dublin footballer Paul Griffin was one of his physios.
"There was a year-and-a-half where I was going, ‘Why me?’" he says.
The hardest part was being so big into the football and soccer as well. The last game I played before the accident was on a Sunday - I had the accident on a Wednesday - it was an under-21 practice game we had. Feck it, I loved it that I was playing really well, thinking, ‘You never know, I might be pushing for the senior team there maybe.’ I was playing cornerback with the junior team and starting to play a couple of league games with the seniors. I thought that I had a chance.
After my accident, the boys were playing under-21 and they got to the semi-final three months after my accident. I was coming home at weekends. The semi-final was on and they were like, ‘Come on over, come over.’ That was the hardest moment that I had: watching the lads playing. You’re just wishing that you were out there.
It was a good year before Hennessy was around the club again. When he did get involved, he was dropped in at the deep end. Turning up at the 2007 club AGM - his first ever - at the behest of another member, he ended up with two jobs: joint manager of the junior team and club treasurer.
"I never went to that AGM thinking, ‘I’ll come out of here with a job.’ I was never at an adult AGM in my life. At that age, you just don’t go to them. I wasn’t expecting anything out of it. You wouldn’t be long getting a job.
I did three or four years of treasurer. I wouldn't recommend anyone starting at that level."
Two years before Hennessy's accident, two families in the parish suffered their own tragedy: Ivan Duffin and David Browne were both killed in a car accident. In 2004, their families donated the Duffin-Browne Memorial Cup, now the prize for winning the Wexford Junior A Championship.
12 months after taking his first foray into GAA management, Hennessy took sole control of the Gusserane junior team. That was also the year they dropped down to Junior A level with the ambition of honouring their deceased friends by winning the cup named in their memory.
His own situation gave Hennessy added empathy with the Browne and Duffin families. There was also David Browne's brother Reggie egging him on, "we have to win this, we have to win this."
While managing the junior side, Hennessy was operating as a selector for the Gusserane senior team. Last year, they won their first Wexford SFC title in 41 years.
It was a bit daunting because you’re managing players that you’ve been watching since you were ten that were ex-senior players now playing junior. Talking to them was a bit daunting but they helped you.
I was always involved with the seniors as well. Even though I was junior manager, I was also a selector with the seniors. I’d always have been in and around the senior environment, just picking up on the senior management style: what they’re thinking and saying and doing in training. I got a good education looking at how the senior lads operated.
Hennessy has never seen being restricted to a wheelchair as a barrier to GAA management. The toughest aspect is negotiating the sideline in the winter months. "Some of those pitches are fairly mucky. In the summer it's fine."
Just as he was not treated with kid gloves at the recent club AGM, neither has he been so by referees.
"If you were talking to some lads around here, they’d say I’m well able to give it. A couple of referees around the county wouldn’t be too fond of me. I’d have plenty of run-ins, the lads get a good kick out of that.
You get caught up in a game and you wonder, ‘Did I really say that?’"
Initially, he thought that he might get away with a bit more on the sideline than the average manager - that has not been the case.
"Probably in a way, you do think that. I got reprimanded there in the county final. The referee came over and said, ‘Anymore now and you’re behind the barrier.’ The referees are well used to me, they tell me to shut up too.
Even opposition managers, there’s plenty of guff given but it’s all in good nature. At the end of the game, it’s all forgotten about."
Reintegrating back into club life was a new road on Hennessy's journey to recovery; it gave him purpose once again.
There was also more tangible help in adapting to his new situation. Gusserane O'Rahillys and St. Leonard's, the soccer club with which Hennessy had played, came together while he was in rehab in a joint fundraising effort to buy him a car. While in Dun Laoghaire, he had taken driving lessons in an adapted vehicle. Two months after leaving hospital, he was on the road again. Without their efforts, re-establishment of his independence would have been delayed.
Another mark of his independence is that he works on his father's farm near New Ross.
"It’s a tillage farm, nothing that’s going to break the bank but it keeps in the mind occupied.
It’s spring time that you’d be busy with the ploughing and the sowing. I can plough and harrow myself. The tractor has a electric clutch anyway the gears are electric. There wasn’t much to do, I just put a bar on the brake. I whoosh myself up the steps. My brother, Brian, helps me with the spraying and cutting. It’s a team job."
In 2010, there came another recovery landmark: he started playing sport again. While in rehab, he had played a little bit of wheelchair basketball. At the time, he kept comparing it to football, believing it could never replicate the same buzz he had on a GAA pitch.
"I got into a few sports up there but it was too early for me to accept that I wasn’t going to play football or hurling again."
That has changed.
During the summer, he was part of the Irish Wheelchair Basketball team which travelled to the Czech Republic for the European Championships. They won bronze, the first ever Irish team to win a European medal. He also plays with the South Easts Swifts - made up of players from Kilkenny, Carlow and Wexford - in the Irish League.
He's not a one-sport man either. Hennessy plays wheelchair rugby sevens. He was part of the Irish team which played in a Four Nations tournament in Liverpool in 2013, finishing second.
"That’s the best sport of all but there’s heavy impact on the chair, you’d break your chair into bits."
His ten years in charge of the Gusserane junior side saw plenty of heartbreak. In his first year, they made the final. That feat was not replicated until this year. The intervening years saw six semi-final defeats.
We got beat for years in semi-final after semi-final. I was like, ‘I’m not going up to the local pub tonight because I’ll get lambasted with abuse.’ ‘What were you doing making that change?’
Once you’re involved in the GAA, you’re open for criticism. You don’t get treated one bit differently. Maybe you get a bit more abuse, I don’t know.
Their crusade finally reached the Holy Land this year when they defeated Halfway House Bunclody in late September. It was a team which featured David Browne's older brother Robert, 50-year-old former Wexford inter-county player John Roche playing 60 minutes at midfield and another former inter-county star, Phillip Wallace, at centre-forward.
Celebrations immediately after the final were truncated. There was another final to come: the Wexford Junior Hurling Championship decider. That silverware was also claimed, further adding to what has been golden period for the club.
One his reasons for stepping down as junior manager - the main reason that he will be so busy this year - is that Hennessy is getting married.
After the 2011 Leinster final defeat for Wexford against Dublin, he was in Quinn's Pub in Drumcondra when he met Leona. It was a day of heartbreak on the pitch - Wexford lost by just a goal - but also one which would add long-term meaning to his life.
"I wasn’t going to stay up in Dublin that night but all the lads got pissed so I said we’d stay up in Coppers another night. The usual story."
A good choice in the end - Michael and Leona got engaged on Christmas Eve two years ago. "I think she was getting itchy feet. She gave me a few hints."
One role gone from his GAA life, he recently picked up another. In addition to being the club's vice-chairman, he is also now the county board rep.
The more he tries to step back, the more the GAA draws him back in.