Donegal's blend of youth and experience the key to success
IT appears last week’s column ruffled a few feathers within my native county and while I took no pleasure in voicing my concerns about what is happening to Down football, it appears, from the feedback I received, that many were thinking along the same lines.
Some may think it a cheap shot. However, I believe former players, at whatever level, are entitled to voice their opinion on things, especially when they’ve given so much of their life to the game at club and county.
The same applies to former managers, who I had the pleasure of working under over the years and who wanted nothing more than to lead their county to All-Ireland success.
Anyone who knows me will testify that straight-talking and honesty are a big part of who I am and, like everyone else, I do get it wrong sometimes.
Last week, however, I do not believe I got it wrong.
Down have been guilty of living on past glories and assuming that we can reach the football summit, which seems more like Everest at this stage than Slieve Donard.
From as early as I can remember, my goal was to play for Down, and the vast majority of players I played alongside felt the same.
I managed to pull on the county jersey regularly through the years, but I retired feeling somewhat unfulfilled because my ultimate ambition was to emulate the achievements of the great men of the 1960s and ’90s who claimed All-Ireland medals.
I look back now and sometimes think mine was a wasted youth because I gave up the chance to travel, play football in America and generally broaden my horizons and mind as an individual.
Yet, in all honesty, I still wouldn’t change a thing. I lived the dream – well, my dream anyway.
Unfortunately, like a lot of other counties, Down have suffered from a considerable change in youth culture, which has arisen because of the challenges which come with an increasingly affluent society.
Travelling, part-time jobs and studies all take precedence over football now.
Thankfully, there was always enough to do around our house to keep my brothers and I busy, and my parents accepted early on that football took precedence over everything else.
Young people want more from life now.
As Kevin Madden pointed out in his column last Sunday, he would never have considered the USA an option while Antrim were still in Championship.
Nowawdays, you have players boarding planes before the Championship gear has barely had one wash.
It is a problem in most counties, aside from the top four or five in the country.
Real or not, the perception from within a lot of counties is a lack of access to inter-county action.
Little has changed over the years and managers will always come in for criticism of one form or another.
If younger, promising players do not realistically feel they have access to a county trial, or there is a lack of patience to persevere with them, their dream of playing for their county will generally be lost, especially given how the age demographics of panels have changed in the last few years.
The best of example of this in recent times is Donegal.
They have developed and encouraged younger members of underage squads into a culture of commitment and, as a result, promoted them to the senior ranks.
In the last few years, a number of new and exciting faces have contributed heavily towards their dominance of Ulster.
Allied to this is the retention of experience. What better learning is available for these players than to have access to Michael Murphy in a changing room or team meeting?
And therein lies the problem for many managers.
They open the trapdoor far too quickly and have their experienced men carted off to the knacker’s yard when the alternative seems, in the long-term, to be of far greater benefit to the county.
A life less ordinary as a Gaelic footballer is a frustrating one. It is one of discipline, frustration and immense suffering, but is also very fulfilling, especially when you win.
Unfortunately, when you walk away from that life, you have a hole which will never be fully filled, no matter what adrenaline-fuelled pastime you take up.
Possibly only sky-diving could compare, especially when your dream was to play at Croke Park in a match of significance.
The acclaimed RTE series Love/Hate would best describe football for me. It is hateful at times, especially in the dark winter nights of pre-season slog, or the wet and windy evenings getting your behind kicked in a match.
But then there is a winning point, a crucial block or a high catch which draws a cheer from the crowd and acclaim from your footballing heroes.
It is the pat on the back from a parent, a mentor, or a supporter which makes the commitment worthwhile and, in that second, you feel a purpose in what you do.
I heard a quote from Mark Twain quite which made me think: “The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you figure out why.”
Maybe I was born to play football, or give out about the county board. I just haven’t figured that out yet.
One thing I do know is this. There remains a rebel in a Cork man, especially when it comes to playing Kerry. Game of the season thus far.
Fermanagh continue to improve and another crushing defeat asks more questions of Antrim than provides answers.
And finally, our games, football and hurling, continue to provide fantastic entertainment.
Sure what else would we be doing if it weren’t for them?