Ross King doesn’t spare words.
They coil up inside him like a spring and, before long, he’s firing them hither and yon. It’s the end of a long working week, and the Glanbia sales manager pulls in at the side of the road to talk about life, sports, and everything in between.
Sometimes serious, at times sentimental, occasionally agitated, often funny, and always sincere. The Laois hurler has only just turned 26, but he’s been through the mill. Perhaps it’s for that reason that he is so forthright on his views. Only once or twice does he check himself (“hmm, that could get me into trouble”), but most everything else is on the table.
Take, if you will, the manner in which this precocious soccer star had his scholarship at University College Dublin taken away early during second year. “I used to play both soccer and hurling up until I was 17, and went up to UCD on a soccer scholarship,” King says. “I never really gave up hurling and went home for the summer in 2012 after first year. We ended up winning a county title with Rathdowney-Errill and got to a Leinster semi-final, so that season ran into the first term of second year in college. So during that time, I was just lying to UCD soccer saying I was sick or injured on a certain weekend, but then I’d go home and hurl. But my name was seen in the papers because I was on the frees. This was going on for a few months until maybe October or November when we got knocked out. Then I got back into soccer and was training with the first team again. I noticed my fees weren’t paid and I said to myself, ‘What? I’m supposed to be on a scholarship, that two and a half grand should be covered’.“
“So I plucked up the courage to say it to our soccer manager after one of the trainings. Diarmuid McNally was his name, ‘Macker’ they called him, a mad man, and I asked him ‘what’s the story with my fees?’
“He goes ‘Ross, you must be joking, we’re after seeing you hurling for the past three months and we’re not paying them…’ He basically said you’re gone from the scholarship, but you’re welcome to play with the college and you can try to play with the first team. He said ‘you’re gone down the pecking order as well’. I literally didn’t kick a ball for about four months there.”
“Long story short, though, Nicky English and Dave Billings (RIP) got me on a hurling scholarship after that, so I was only the man who went from a soccer to a hurling scholarship. There can’t be too many lads who were on FIFA [the video game] and won a Laois county title the same year!” he says with a booming laugh. “There’s a line that’s never been said before!”
King certainly had a measure of talent and played for Ireland underage alongside Seani Maguire (who scored his first senior goal against New Zealand in November) and Mikey Drennan — the latter who was once seen as the next big thing after signing for Aston Villa a number of years ago. For so many young people, the dream of being a professional footballer is there at an early age, but reality sets in overtime as most aren’t quite at that level.
“I realised I wasn’t going to be the next Ronaldo,” says King, who goes by ‘Roddy’. “I saw lots of lads going over to England and they didn’t even have a leaving cert. It doesn’t work out for most people and Mikey (who now plays for St Patrick’s Athletic) found it tough moving over there. The biggest thing for me is that I never stopped hurling and, even if I did throw it all in with the soccer, maybe I could have been League One or something. I don’t think I was good enough to make big money.”
“When I first went up to UCD, I was about 17 or 18, this simple country lad with a farming background, living in UCD with these Dublin lads with their chinos and their mullets and all this craic. I came into training with my Laois shorts and gear and I couldn’t talk properly [his strong Laois accent] or nothing. I was so naive to it all. The soccer lads were all dressed to the nines and asking me about my ‘Gah’ (slang pronunciation of GAA) gearbag, and I was thinking ‘what’s Gah? Who the hell was ‘Gah’?’ They’re just a different breed to who I am and what I’m from. They’re lovely people but I didn’t feel comfortable in that environment. I wasn’t at home in a soccer dressing room up there, whereas at home I was — even playing soccer at home with Clover United (in Laois) and Evergreen (in Kilkenny). “
“When I was in UCD, it was the D4, and like… Roddy Collins’ son kicked soccer with us one year, and asked me something really stupid like ‘was Laois in Louth? Or Wicklow?’. I was thick with this and said ‘are you serious? Did you even do geography in school?’. I thought they were slagging Laois and I hated it. I just didn’t think the environment was great for me. Maybe if I went to college in Waterford or something, who were looking for me on a scholarship, and Seani went there, maybe I might have been more in my own environment. Probably made the best decision.”
The GAA feels more like family to King, and nothing summed that up better than how former Laois manager (2013-16) Seamus ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett dealt with the youngster during his college days. It made an impression that remains to this day, and it’s why “a smile nearly comes to my face when I think about him”.
“Only the 40 or 50 lads who played under him know what he did,” says King. “I was about to finish my college exams on a Thursday before Christmas, and we were supposed to go down for a fitness test that evening. The exam was finishing at 5 and I thought I was never getting down for the test at 8 — I was going on it with the lads. Now this was before I knew who he really was, but I was on the phone telling Cheddar I’d never make it down and he said ‘Roddy, where do you live? My niece, Denise, will collect you; see you later.’ The boys couldn’t believe it, but I couldn’t say no when he was making this effort. I was in the car with Denise and I told her, and I was saying sorry for the hassle. She said ‘it was the least I could do, I owe Cheddar about 200 favours.’”
King goes on to outline how Cheddar gave players money out of his own pocket and paid for their overseas training camp in La Manga, Spain. When asked if he would have come back from Laois exile in early 2019 for any manager other than Eddie Brennan, King says he would have done so for Plunkett too. “That’s not even the half of it, he’s the proudest Laois person I’ve ever met.”
When Cheddar left, Tipp native Eamonn Kelly took over and King explains that it didn’t work out, concluding “it was as if you got a new girlfriend, but you were still thinking about your old girlfriend!” His way with words persists throughout an entertaining half hour, and as we weave through the different stages of his life, eventually that brief Laois exile comes up.
October 5, 2019, King ran into a melee in the county final against Camross and left it with teeth falling out, saddling him with hefty dental expenses. In the aftermath, social media images circulated of what appeared to be Camross players joking about the incident, involving the man who had delivered the strike. He opted off the county panel over it.
“The player in question never apologised for doing that, and that’s what you’re up against,” says King. “Making fun of it. I thought he would apologise but then Monday passed and nothing, then Tuesday, and Wednesday.”
“Eddie was announced as manager and had the team back training, and the first time I spoke with him was when I was down at O’Malley’s Pub. It was maybe ten days after the county final, and I just went down for the sake of my own sanity, just sucking 7-Up through a straw. I absolutely hate controversy and I didn’t want to tell him, but I had to leave the panel.
“I was bitter for months and mentally drained. Every conversation was about it and I was mentally drained from it. I deleted all my (social media) apps because of it, because anything about Ross King was to do with this incident. It’s still referred to the whole time and I’m wondering if this is my legacy. I went to a restaurant about a month ago and this lad looked at me, and says ‘well, how are you?’ He had his wife with him and he didn’t think of saying ‘this lad has played with Laois for seven years’. Instead, he says to her, ‘that’s the lad who got the belt.’
“It would sadden and madden you. I once Googled my name and it was nothing but negative articles and photos, so it lingered on. Sometimes I couldn’t sleep and I’d be thinking ‘why was I the one in that position?’ Time is a good healer though.”
King was soon lured back and Laois won the Joe McDonagh Cup in 2019, sensationally beat Dublin in a preliminary All-Ireland quarter-final, and went on to perform manfully in defeat to Tipperary. They will play in the Leinster championship in 2020, where few will expect them to make a dent. When silverware at the top level seems like such a far-fetched dream, it makes you wonder what he wants to get out of the game.
“It’s a great question,” says King. “I want to win things but a lot of it comes back to being the best you can be. I don’t know where that is but nothing gives me greater satisfaction in life than playing as good as you can, and performing on the big day. That’s why I was disappointed with how I played against St Mullin’s when we lost the Leinster club semi-final. I love putting in the work. I don’t have a whole pile of interests outside hurling and my whole week is oriented around it. I might go to the cinema or walk the dog but 50 weeks of the year could be dedicated to hurling. Nothing in life gets me as high as hurling, and nothing in my life can get me as low.”
“I want to win county titles with my club and get far with Laois, maybe get to a Leinster final or an All-Ireland semi-final. Am I happy with how the year went? I am. I got to play at Croke Park and we won a county title. I just want to achieve my potential.”
The people closest to him will be the ones that help him get there. There will always be noise from the outside (some good, some bad), but those who got him this far will stay the course.
“A generic enough answer with parents and family,” King says of his influences. “My mother and father are always there to congratulate me in good times, and more importantly bad times or when you get a knock, they’re there again. In the past few weeks, I must have got 100 texts before (club) matches when we were winning. But when we lost and I’d say if my dog licked me, that was all the attention I got. My family, my brother, Cheddar, they’re there for the good times and the bad. You do it for them.”