GAA Football

Kicking Out: The difficulty adjusting to semi-retirement

"You can only think to paraphrase the old line that it’s better to have played and lost than never to have played at all." Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

YOU look in the rear view mirror and she's fast asleep. Almost all that's visible through her hood is the rosy, teething cheeks.

She's been up since 5am. And there are zombie moments but you don't mind because in that instant, she looks so peaceful and content. Like a baby should.

Our daughter Anna was born on St Stephen's Day, 2016, just after 2am. We were sure she'd be a Christmas baby when we headed to the Royal on Christmas Eve but, like her Daddy, she needed a day of her own to be the centre of attention.

The last 14 months have been the best 14 months.

I remember the night our club won the Derry junior championship in 2012. Long before the actual drink kicked in, I was drunk on adrenaline. I thought it was the most euphoric feeling you could have in life, those few hours after winning something.

If you're lucky enough to have children, you get to experience that feeling every day.

You hear other people talk about the sense of perspective parenthood gives you but you can't really imagine it.

For all of the first 28 years of my life, football came first. I was lucky to have a job where I got to watch it every day but playing still came before that for a long time.

I once left a job because it clashed with playing, and turned down others because of the fear that they would do the same. Turned away freelance work because it would have interfered with the playing schedule.

It's not to be a martyr or for credit. You only do those things if you want to because the reality is nobody else notices or cares anyway. Everybody makes sacrifices, most of them a lot more significant than yours.

I've never been any shape of a footballer. For someone 5'9" and barely 11 stone, the most remarkable things about me were my absolute lack of pace and fitness.

As Kevin O’Reilly likes to tell me at training, “If you get any slower you’ll be going backwards”.

I always imagined that, like him, I’d still be standing out on the cold, hard pitches in February when you’re closer to 40 than 30.

So this has been a sobering spring. The first night, January 5, I was wrapped up and ready go on the 3G at the local community centre.

But in the eight weeks since, I’ve made just two further training sessions.

My second appearance was a full month after the first, a month of eating too well and doing too little.

A light head after managing a new record of six consecutive press-ups meant a trip outside into the fresh air with a wee bottle of uisce was required.

A wee uisce beatha might have been more useful.

Work, life and commuting have finally conspired against me after 13 years (11 standing beneath the crossbar, the other two standing at corner-forward waiting for the curly finger from the sideline).

I’ve lived in Bellaghy and worked in Belfast since the tail end of 2015, both of which are in the wrong direction for Drum.

The commute itself, even it meant not getting home at all until long after everyone else was in bed, was manageable, although the ongoing roadworks at Moneynick would test the patience of a saint.

But the combination of Anna needing looked after, my wife now back working every Saturday, me needing to work either Saturday or Sunday every weekend and football matches generally happening on one of those two days has left me searching in vain for a solution.

And as hard as it’s been to get my head around accepting that, really it’s been a miracle I’ve been able to play for so long.

Managing to squeeze in 13 years of football when working pretty much every weekend for the last decade has been a good return for someone who couldn’t get on a poor under-14 team with 16 players in his last year.

I stayed at it in blind hope and a week after the seniors were knocked out of the championship in 2005 and our then-goalkeeper James ‘Biddy’ McCormack wasn’t available, our coach Mervyn McAleese, the man who introduced me to the horrors of running, ventured to then-manager Rossa McManus that I’d done nets for the minors.

To play in every championship game, and all but a handful of league games, since then despite not ever really improving is a return to be very happy with.

And as much as nerves consumed me most days, and even that I lost on more big days than I won, it’s still great to look back on it all and know there’s nothing you’d rather have been doing, and that the club offered you that outlet for your passion.

Playing at home on summer days was like nothing else. The pitch has got a haircut, the lines are sparkling white, the Altahullion wind is soothed. Maybe 100 people in the world care but to those 100 people it is everything for a few hours.

You can only think to paraphrase the old line that it’s better to have played and lost than never to have played at all.

Ernest Hemingway said retirement is the ugliest word in the language. If you love what you do then you surely hope it never comes your way.

It hasn’t quite come mine yet because I’m not ready to let go just yet.

So this is semi-retirement instead.

Train when I can. Take a seat on the bench when I can. Offer moral support. Pray that maybe some day I’m available and our other ‘keeper Eunan – who should have been starting years ago and is the definition of a dedicated footballer – suffers some very, very minor ailment that would rule him out of football for an hour.

It’s taking a bit of adjusting to. But when you see that smile the second you step in the door every evening, you wouldn’t change it for the world.

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