Danny Hughes: Club football brings out the best in retired county veterans

Old-timer Patsy Bradley has been instrumental in Slaughtneil's recent domination of Derry and Ulster club football Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

‘REGRETS, I’ve had a few, but then again too few to mention’, was the line sung by the truly marvellous Frank Sinatra.

As a retired player, I can say without a doubt that I too have regrets. However, quite the opposite from Ol’ Blue Eyes, I have too many to mention.

Today, when I watch a match, I still feel I probably quit football too soon.

When I did finish playing a few years ago, I thought I was doing the right thing.

In hindsight though, I probably just needed time out, but then again it was always all or nothing with me.

At the time, I wasn’t prepared to adapt to the modern game. Rules were changing – having to wear a gumshield for one, which was alien to me.

I had already lost at least four teeth over the years and, after a while, you start to think to yourself sure it’s only a tooth or another broken nose.

I was losing a half-a-yard of pace and no matter what you tried to arrest the slide, this pace wasn’t coming back.

Don’t get me wrong, I could still hold my own, but not winning the race to the ball or not being at the front in training was a particularly difficult pill to swallow.

I was generally just angry. Angry with myself, with time, with football, with age.

The soft landing of club football only became an avenue of immense frustration. The standards were slipping and it just seemed that not enough players cared.

Lads taking holidays during key periods of the season, heading stateside and generally putting everything else in front of football only served to further antagonise me.

When I talked through my concerns with my brother Jonny, who faithfully served Saval for many years, he dutifully highlighted that this slide had started many years ago and, the bubble that county football is, inter-county players are just completely blinded from the realities of club football.

Meanwhile, in the real world for Jonny and 98 per cent of the playing population, this was what it felt like to play senior football.

The years of limited success and total commitment had taken their toll on Jonny’s enthusiasm for the game.

We would always joke that he was the most retired player in Saval in his last three years; he had retired three times in pre-season only to turn up a week before the league started.

However, when I watch the club championships currently, I can’t help but think, could I still do it?

My fellow columnist Enda McGinley alluded to the fact that to be a manager you were certain to fit into a number of categories.

I suspect I know where I sit, that being, of course, the recently retired player who still thinks he is a player.

Enda listed all the challenges which that brings and I could certainly add to that.

Whether I watch the Dublin Club Championships on Eir Sport (which is great, by the way) or the many finals from around the country on TG4, you see many so-called veterans still performing brilliantly into their 30s and beyond.

Aaron Kernan, Conor Laverty and Patsy Bradley, to name but a few, have all enjoyed successful county careers.

However, it is their own clubs of Crossmaglen, Kilcoo and Slaughtneil respectively who are benefiting the most from their last remaining years in the game.

Conor Laverty continues to be the ‘go-to’ man and, against Burren in last Sunday’s Down senior club championship final, he showed no signs of premature ageing as he continued to pull the strings with intelligent play.

When Burren had raced into a four-point lead, the veteran dragged the Magpies back into the game.

As a result, players such as Darragh O’Hanlon, Paul Devlin and a young Dylan Ward took the game to the opposition in a relentless second half from Kilcoo.

What many people don’t realise about teams such as Slaughtneil, Kilcoo and an emerging and uncredited Maghery team (who knocked Crossmaglen out of the Armagh Championship), is the sheer amount of resources and time being given to ensure this success continues.

They all have a manager, a coach, a strength and conditioning expert (full-time), two physios and a sports psychologist.

Might I add that this is just the management team who are ‘expensed’ for their time.

This doesn’t include a kit man, a couple of selectors and, possibly, a statistician who are all usually voluntary members of the backroom team.

Don’t believe me?

Teams now have to declare if they are videoing matches, as permission has to be granted from both parties involved in the game.

Kilcoo recently recorded a league fixture from not one, but two drones.

This is in addition to the actual video footage.

To a certain extent, it can be argued that the best club teams have better set-ups than their equivalent county teams. With this level of preparation, it appears that the strong are getting stronger.

How does a rural club like Saval compete at this level? Does throwing money at a set-up solve this? I am not sure that it does.

It has taken Slaughtneil and Kilcoo years of baby steps to sustain these levels of professionalism (and that’s what it is) and, in both Down and Derry, both sets of clubs appear to be well ahead of a chasing pack.

In Tyrone, most clubs seem to be operating at a similar levels to the best clubs in Down and Derry, however, this has not translated into success at Ulster club level for some reason.

Yet most important of all is the sheer collective strength of mentality shown by senior players such as those mentioned and how they are influencing the younger guys, the next generation coming through in their respective clubs.

Where senior players like Patsy Bradley, Aaron Kernan and Conor Laverty have found success is in positively influencing young players’ careers and, as a result, these young players have tasted success early as a result.

This balance of influence, though, has to be consistent. It doesn’t come before or after the ex-county representative starts or finishes county football.

It best influences the younger generation during the inter-county career of the county footballer.

It means giving total commitment to both club and county, not one or the other.

In that regard, my regret is that I didn’t always get this balance right.

I may have influenced short-term results as a player, however, over the long-term I am not sure if I was present enough in Saval to inspire a younger generation to success.

As a result, I perhaps lost touch and influence with a younger generation who could have brought success at club level.

For that, I carry another regret.

For that, you need to go to Kilcoo or Slaughtneil.

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