Life’s a bench in twilight zone

They are the benchwarmers. The twilight-zoners. The panel-fillers. The cliche we hear on the Hogan steps: Everybody from one to 35 played their part. Is there truth in it? Or even comfort?

Most reliable sign you’ve just done a good interview?

The text lands an hour later.

“Hey Larry. Sorry didn’t mean to waste your time, but was thinking I’d rather that stuff didn’t appear in the paper. The whole experience was great but still a bit sore about it.”

Plan B. This phone call is a little awkward. “Ah, I’m not sure. It didn’t end too well and I wouldn’t like to come across as bitter.”

I’m going off the idea already. The idea is this: Recently, Kerry footballer Darran O’Sullivan spoke about life confined to the periphery of the team. Not even an All-Ireland medal could apply a shine to an injury-spoiled season, when he played less than a hour of championship football.

“It’s very hard. The hardest thing about sport is having to watch on… it’s just football means so much to everyone. You put in so much effort, and when you’re not getting the rewards out of it personally, it’s hard to take.”

Maybe the shadows are darker when you were lately a luminous star. But what of the lads who never leave the shade? For one, two, maybe three years, they make the county. Everything we hear about. The sacrifices. The demands. Theirs too.

They get a taste, a tantalising taste, in the league or further off Broadway. But trust isn’t earned or given. They are the benchwarmers. The twilight-zoners. The panel-fillers.

The cliche we hear on the Hogan steps: Everybody from one to 35 played their part.

Is their truth in it? Or even comfort? The first guy, whose route to an All-Ireland final didn’t feature a minute’s playing time, nailed the honour, excitement, frustration, longing and despair of the benchwarmer in a few amusing and poignant stories.

But you’ll have to take my word for that.

Plan C.

A little self-conscious now, and guilty, about ringing lads and essentially asking them to talk about their heart-breaking failure, I played safer.

Alan Murphy should have been pretty bullet-proof. A goal off becoming Galway United’s record scorer when the club folded, he had an impressive League of Ireland career behind him when the call eventually came from Mayo.

He was 31. A year on the periphery wouldn’t define him. Or torture him. Would it?

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

In his book ‘All In My Head’, Lar Corbett recalls the first Tipp shirt he was handed, before a Southeast League game in Ennis. About 20 minutes in, his marker Brian Quinn seemed to have read a high ball smarter. “But I made a dart from behind and gathered above Brian’s head. I stuck it over the bar for good measure.”

At half-time, a team-mate overheard Nicky English convene with his selectors.

“Larry, they have great time for you. They were raving about that high catch.”

With nothing done underage, with no pedigree, he now had a foothold on a career.

“If I were to look back now and recount everything I did in hurling at the top level, I would have to admit that catch and score were what made me. No matter what I did later in the season, Nicky never lost faith in me.”

That wasn’t how it went for Alan Murphy.

Off eye-catching Ballinrobe club form, he was a late summer addition to James Horan’s panel in 2012. Too late for a realistic chance of action.

But in 2013, he was there on the ground floor. Horan handed over his first Mayo shirt in Ballyhaunis before a January FBD League tie with Roscommon. Afterwards, the papers would credit the debutant for landing the two late frees that drew it. But Murphy agonised over his first mistake.

“I had just got married and been on honeymoon to Vegas and Mexico. I had tonsillitis for a week. I was home two days. Like a dead man walking really. Way off the pace.

“It didn’t do me any favours for the next few months. You’re only as good as your first impression and that impression wouldn’t have nailed down much hope for me.

“But you feel you have to take the chance when it comes, don’t you?”

THE MIND GAMES

“I was ticking the boxes. Playing very well in the A v B games. Out of 34 players in there, I was second in the fitness tests, top in some of the skills tests.

“You’re always trying to identify the weakest link in the team. I would have been in the ear of the manager, not being negative towards the players playing but putting myself forward. Not an arrogant kind of thing. More, I haven’t got a lot of time here, what do I need to do?

“You’re always trying to read the signals, or lack of signals.

“The day the manager stops talking to you is the day you have to watch out. Because the opinion is probably already formed. You know he thinks you’re not going to do it.”

TORTURE CHAMBER

This is what it does to you. Almost two years later, the moment that could have given you a foothold spools vivid as yesterday.

“My first and only league game was when the Dubs had us beaten and I got 20 minutes. Whether we were beaten or not, it was for myself. I’m proud to be playing in Croke Park. I’m proud to be pulling on a Mayo jersey. Just do something to nail down another opportunity.

“A ball came in low. I nudged the defender, slid under the ball and caught it above my chest. I turned. As I was in on goal, one-on-one with Cluxton, I heard the whistle go. Blown for picking it off the ground.

“I look back on it now, and it was so far off the ground.”

There’s more. You can peel regret like an onion.

“I didn’t even finish it. I kicked it about 15 yards wide in anger. In hindsight, I should have finished it anyway. There was no point in missing. It was a double negative. There are lots of disallowed goals you remember. It might have triggered something in the manager’s head. This guy, because of his soccer background, might be a goal threat.Even at 31, you learn...”

CHANCE WOULD BE A FINE THING

You’ll remember Andy Moran’s joyous return from cruciate damage in May 2013. A goal, an exuberant celebration, and a nail in another man’s dreams.

“Before the first round in Connacht, I scored 3-1 in the A v B the Sunday before. Galway in Pearse Stadium. Living in the city so long, having played for Galway United, it would have been massive.

“I spoke to James. I was flying. He was saying I’ll get my chance, I’ll get my chance.

“I thought probably I deserved my chance. It didn’t work out. Andy Moran came back from injury and was the one to get his chance. The game was kind of over. Andy came on for his crowd-pleasing moment, rather than give the other guy his chance.”

THE CLICHE

So, do 1 to 35, or 34 in this case, play their part?

“If a guy’s coming in and he’s aceing skills tests and he hasn’t been playing the sport for 15 years, and he’s up there at the fitness level as well, the other guys are probably going to say, ‘we have to up our game here’.

“Do I get some satisfaction out of that? Definitely I do. I do see my worth on that side of it.

“Possibly Gavin Duffy was also brought in for the same kind of reason. I don’t know. Looking back, he came in after me. There are mirrors. What was the motive behind it? Was it for Gavin to play or for me to play? Or was it for us to keep AN Other on their toes?

RUNNING TO STAND STILL

The chance didn’t come in the Connacht semi-final win over Roscommon either.

“You definitely don’t feel part of it on matchday if you’re not involved. You feel involved in training, in the heat of it. You’re the same as everyone else and you have the same chance as everyone else. But on the day of a game, you definitely don’t feel part of it. You feel worthless really.

“A lot of days, when I didn’t get a game, coming back that night from places, I remember going out 11, 12 o’clock at night running the roads. Mentally, I had to do something.

“I had prepared for that weekend to put my body through the mill. Eating so well, eating, eating eating, getting the fuel in. And then I’d done nothing. So I’d feel guilty, feel I had to burn this off. That energy has to go somewhere.”

THE END

“James told me I’d get time in the Connacht final. Two Tuesdays beforehand, I turned my ankle in Castlebar. Completely innocuous. Jogging out to do the warm-up. Tore the outside, which is nothing, but ripped the ligament clean off the bone on the inside.”

“It was probably over-training. I was pushing that hard. I wasn’t giving the body the chance to recover because I was doing so much.”

You can tell he’s stepped inside the sliding doors many times.

“Cillian O’Connor came on at half-time and scored 3-3. Top scorer ever in a Connacht final. Could that have been me? Why not? 1-3 were frees. He was coming back from injury. The game was won anyway. Would they have risked him if I was there? Bring on the guy biting at the bit.”

Two years, two operations, countless hours of physio on, he hasn’t played anything since. He transferred to St James’ in Galway city but is confined to a coaching role. “I’m struggling to walk around really.”

The first guy, who changed his mind about talking, could recite the call that told him he’d been cut. He got answers, compassion, but carries the regret that he couldn’t, somehow, have found more to give.

Alan Murphy knows he couldn’t have given much more. But maybe he could do with reminding.

“I know you just have to move on. But in terms of contact after the injury, it would be nice to have the human element. Not even the sporting element. Not just when will you be back? But are you ok? Is this affecting your life? Is this keeping you from everyday activities?”

The shadows, from this vantage point, actually look pretty inviting.


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