Enda McGinley: Coping with the toxic label of 'County Man'
FOLLOWING the conclusion of the National Leagues, county players return to their clubs.
It may be away from the limelight and pressure but it does bring with it a few unique challenges.
I was reminded of these recently when attending the wedding of one of my club’s legendary players, John Kelly, who many will not remember, unless you have been talking to him, scored a crucial point in Tyrone’s All-Ireland minor win against Kerry in 2004.
Weddings of club mates are great occasions.
As the day progresses the chat inevitably turns to football and as the celebratory drinks get to work the chat becomes even more earnest with the line “I’ll tell you the truth now and it’s not just because I’ve drink in me” often a definite sign you’ve reached the point of no return and are about to hear a few ‘home truths’.
In conversation with a good friend and ex-team-mate he let it slip that he remembered thinking of me as a ‘county man’.
There are various labels one can gain over the course of a GAA career but few are as toxic as ‘the county man’.
Simply put, being ‘a county man’ essentially means you think you are a big fella.
Obviously, whilst the fella in question, being a good deal younger, had not played with me at any underage levels and so had no previous to go on, I still took the news with a bit of surprise and it got me thinking.
If you make a county panel you are essentially guilty of the crime until you prove yourself innocent.
If you manage to carve out an extended time on the panel and/or have prolonged seasons with the county team the situation gets even tougher given that you may miss 75 per cent of the clubs training/matches over a season.
Nothing beats the unity created within a team who are all putting in the hard yards in training together and those that miss this inevitably face a tough challenge to get back into that circle.
One of the worst aspects is being an outsider when it comes to the ‘banter’.
Everyone knows the ‘craic’ within a team is one of the key components of team environment and the creation of team spirit.
Only being there a tiny amount of the time means you are out of the loop.
You can of course choose to join straight in to the slagging but this brings with it the obvious risk of looking like the big fella that wants to be centre of attention and not knowing enough anyway to make any sort of decent contribution.
This approach may only confirm your ‘county man’ credentials.
The other option, and my chosen route, was to keep the head down, chat a bit but keep a low profile and concentrate on putting in a good effort in training.
As it turns out, this then appeared that I was odd (possibly true) and aloof and prevented the lads from getting to know me properly other than the lad who takes his football a bit too seriously and is above having the craic i.e. ‘big county man’.
Essentially you are in a no-win situation – you cannot expect to be one of the gang when you are hardly ever one of the gang!
Come match day things don’t get any more straight forward.
It often is expected for you to be a ‘leader’ both in terms of performance but also in speaking, be it on the pitch or in the dressing room.
Talking with some sort of authority in a team environment that you are only rarely a part of is not a great place to be.
Depending on your personality, you can never feel quite worthy of the leadership tag nor have confidence that you have the respect of the teammates whom you are supposed to lead.
The county man paradox is proving that you do not see yourself as any better than anyone else and at the same stage, be the leading player you are supposed to be.
The common mistake is to place an expectation of a big performance on yourself. This can lead to mediocre performances as I experienced too often to count.
The key, for me anyway, was realising that having a good game had little to do with your intention of having just that. Good individual performances come from doing lots of simple things well - work-rate, first touch, making yourself available, good decision making and competing hard with your direct opponent.
Nail these basics and the skills should look after themselves.
Occasionally, the game will fall your way and you will have a great game but setting yourself that expectation at the start is only setting yourself up for mediocre or downright poor performances.
Like everything else, this all will differ by personality type and certainly we all will know of fellas are who very much the stereotypical county man.
For me, it was only when I stepped away from the county scene that I really began to feel at home around the club team. Being around the set-up all the time meant I was much more at ease.
Being one of the boys again and being able to commit fully to the single cause of the team’s success with no distractions, led to probably one of the most fulfilling years of my career. It also thankfully, allowed my team mates to get to know me better.
Cue, the full version as put to me by my friend: ‘I always thought you were just a County Man, actually, you’re not a bad lad at all’!
It’s not an All-Ireland medal or an All-Star but within our culture, respect of the lads you grew up with and play with is a hard earned and precious thing.
Whilst it was hardly a ringing endorsement, as many a bride knows, sometimes you have to settle for what you get.