WE HEAR so much about football being a panel game, it has not entered the realm of cliché. But, as with most cases, it’s a cliche born from truth.
On the biggest days in Croke Park, substitutions are key. The timing and quality of replacements can often be the difference between winning and losing. In the modern game, the management has to consider the 15 that’ll finish as carefully as the 15 that start.
Late on, as the game fractures and becomes more about holding possession and picking a pass at the right time, a player composed on the ball is invaluable. In the recent National League final, the Cork management team were shrewder and made much better changes than Dublin and won. They introduced players like Nicholas Murphy to win vital possession (he had a hand in both the equalising and winning points) and close out the game for them.
In the 2009 All-Ireland final, Kerry introduced Donnacha Walsh with 20 minutes to go. Tadhg Kennelly was called ashore even though he was still going well. He was annoyed and felt he still had plenty of gas in the tank. However the management wanted a player to not only maintain levels but to drive them through the roof.
Donnacha was desperately unlucky not to start. We knew he’d give us something extra to close out the game. He had assists for two of our final three scores. Case closed.
It is obvious the importance of subs contributing on match day, but there is much more to it than that. A basic ingredient for any successful team is that every training session has to be ruthlessly competitive. The dreaded comfort zone has to be avoided. The subs have to feel like they have a chance of make the starting 15. A player content with being a sub is no good. A culture of excellence has to prevail where every player is driving the next player to new levels of performance. This was Brian Cody’s secret to success for years. He created an environment where nobody was sure of their place and as a result competed ferociously in Nowlan Park. When Kilkenny hit Croke Park, they were ready for anything. They steam-rolled teams because at their peak their second 15 was as good as the first of most other counties because of the Cody standard demanded in training.
However the life of a sub can be tough. I have seen it from all sides and that helped me as a Kerry selector — I understand the emotions involved for players left out. When I was starting big games year after year, I did not fully understand or appreciate how difficult it can be for subs. When starting, everything just rolls and disappointments are few and far between. In my last championship campaign in 2006, I started five of the seven games from the bench. Mentally it’s very challenging. Every time the team is called out before a big match, there’s a gut-wrenching disappointment. It took a day to get over this disappointment, especially if you felt you should have been included. The next stage was to regain a positive attitude. I usually went to Banna Beach outside Ardfert for a couple of hours on my own to get my head around it. The easiest way was to look forward and to imagine being introduced early in the game and making a contribution. I felt it was very important to show no outward signs of disappointment, only be ready to help and support team-mates in any way. It was critical to encourage the player in “my” spot. Even though I only got seven or eight minutes against Armagh in the quarter-final, I got a point at an important stage. I felt part of the win. Sometimes as a sub it is easy to feel detached from the victory and not to experience the euphoria of your team-mates. A case in point for me was the All-Ireland final in 2006. I was introduced late and was racing around trying to get on the ball. The ball kept going where I wasn’t and my frustration levels were increasing with every passing second. I was so frustrated that I put a reckless tackle in on one of the Mayo lads. By right I should have got the bóthar. Thankfully I only got yellow. I would have been the first man to get a red card in an All-Ireland final before touching the ball.
I decided that night I could not face another summer of frustration and if I was not going to be in the starting team, I was as well off to move on. And so it came to pass. I was not nailing down a starting spot during the league in 2007 so I retired.
I have no regrets and understand why players such as John Hayes and Kieran O’Connor pulled the plug on Cork recently. The quest for an All-Ireland medal can keep a player coming back but once that need is satisfied it becomes much more difficult to embrace the role of a panel player. A lot of effort and sacrifice goes into being an inter-county footballer. When you are playing on the big days it is worth it and more.
When you are on the periphery it becomes much more of a challenge, a challenge that was beyond me.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved