Dunloy, Ballymena

© 2018 by Unit Updates.

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Watching from the sideline can be excruciating.

“It has to hurt.” Conor ‘Baby’ McConville, January 2011.

January is a testing time for any GAA player. In years gone by it meant freezing rain whipping at your face, driven by an Artic wind as you ran endless laps of the pitch or up and down a steep incline. It meant icy rainwater seeping through your fingers as you forced your body up and down in the press-up position.

In more recent times it has meant closing your grip around an iron bar and pushing it repeatedly into the air. It has meant racing up and down an unforgiving sports hall floor, competing against an ever-increasing rhythmic bleep until it’s deemed socially acceptable to bow out.

It can indeed hurt, especially if the excess of the Christmas period has taken its toll. Those bleeps follow each other much too fast for your liking, the iron is hard to raise and the turf feels that little bit more sodden and miserable. Maybe I’m just getting old.

You go through it though, season after season, in the knowledge, perceived or otherwise, that in August you are going to peak to play a starring role in your team’s glorious championship run. McConville's throwaway remark at the beginning of that title-winning season struck a chord that reverberated throughout the year.

The pre-season mantra exults that if you put the work in, the rest will follow. It doesn’t always.

August arrives. You’ve had a steady league, not spectacular but then you’re not that sort of player. You’re the dependable sort, the clingy corner back. You haven’t conceded too many scores and are already turning your attention to the county website, awaiting the moment the details drop for the opening round.

The team weekend comes and goes and brings with it the inimitable feeling of briefly behaving like a professional. Well, the associated rip apart of course. You are ferried from place to place, there is a zip about the team sessions, a camaraderie rising like the tide and lifting all players with it.

The week of the match comes and you channel every championship season you’ve experienced since you were an underage player. Little routines are built on, boots left in a certain place, diet and water intake adjusted accordingly. Some even go for a haircut.

The arrangements are made and everyone is on time, for a change. The sound of nervous laughter rings around the dressing room. The clatter of studs sounds the backdrop as your mind provides the drama, analysing your man, delving into your personal archive to remember games gone by against him, on this pitch, in you position.

The manager calls for order and closes the door to the inner sanctum. The players gradually halt the idle chatter and there is focus in the room as he delivers his initial salvo. The team is named.

You’re not on it.

The remainder of the manager’s advice fades into the background as you apply your best poker face to the situation. The warm-up is spent critically appraising your team-mates’ every touch.

Every dropped ball is begrudgingly noted as you reluctantly play the role of cheerleader, sharing encouragement through gritted teeth as you make your way off the pitch. Past your position.

To the bench.

I never saw a minute of action during Lámh Dhearg's 2011 Antrim IHC championship campaign. I have the medal of course, a reward for the effort expended but also a painful reminder of what can happen when you take your eye off the ball.

To one not accustomed to life as a substitute, looking on from the bench at a winning championship campaign is excruciating. The conflict between hoping your team is successful and wilfully hoping for disaster is a tussle between your most primitive impulses.

On one hand you are hoping for the win to see you through to the next round, or take home the trophy, but a large part of you is destructive, willing injury or misfortune on the man in your position. Hoping and praying that his direct opponent takes him to the cleaners, or that he rolls an ankle. Nothing serious, just enough to put him out of action to get your foot back in the door.

When his man turns him for a score, your Gar Public goes through the motions of cursing and fixing the action on the pitch with your best look of concern, while all the while your Gar Private dances a jig of anticipation of the next catastrophe.

Your acting skills sky-rocket, outwardly a picture of delight when your team wins, or your replacement makes a stirring block to deny a goalbound opportunity, while inwardly you are apoplectic with rage and jealousy.

Eamon Dunphy articulated the emotional conflict involved in being dropped in his frank memoir of life as a professional footballer Only a Game? as he recalled being cast aside seven games into the season with Millwall.

“I’m sitting in the stand, wanting them to lose, but unable to show it. Because there are people around, I’ve got to pretend I want them to win. I can’t jump in the air when Sheffield score. Which I want to do. And when Millwall score I’m sick, but I have to jump up in the air. And there is this terrible conflict the whole time. It is the same for everybody who has been dropped.”

It has to hurt.

And it did.

If it doesn’t, you may as well forget all about it.