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Is playing the game you love really such a drag for some players?

Armagh's Rory Grugan says he enjoys the rigours of the inter-county game and hasn't met too many players who don't want to be involved

STANDING in a small car park last Saturday morning I felt overwhelming pangs for my playing days. If I'm honest I don't miss them too much, modest days though they were.

But there are occasions I do.

For those fleeting few moments, standing in the car park, I wished I was 25 again.

This particular car park reminded me of a ground where we played a few times.

For me, car parks were funny places before games. Pulling into a ground, nerves would kick in.

I couldn't wait to get into the changing room and out onto the pitch.

I'd pull away from the team's warm-up and pour roughly a half litre of freezing cold water over my head.

I'd eventually join the group where the usual suspects roared and shouted encouragement to one another.

Looking back, they were trying to motivate themselves more anything else.

Most of it was just noise but each to their own.

In those few moments before games, I probably never felt more alive.

Standing in the car park, I realised that's what I missed.

It was not necessarily the game itself, more the nerves, the adrenaline and not knowing exactly what lay ahead of you for the next couple of hours...

My four-year-old daughter climbed out of the car and bounded towards her drama class, oblivious to the fact her father led a very different life many moons ago.

I haven't kicked a ball in anger for over 10 years. Life marches on.

When you're 25, you're invincible.

You live in a bubble.

You will never grow old.

You think life will stand still for you and your career will never end.

Last week, I read Paddy O'Rourke's blog where he explained his reasons for stepping away from the inter-county game.

The ex-Meath goalkeeper simply had his fill of the regimented lifestyle.

“So I finally came to a decision: this is not worth it,” O'Rourke explained. “Because when you think of the consequences of the incredible commitment levels required, you're losing so much of your life. Never mind the amount of evenings you're spending training and at the gym, it means you end up isolated from your family, your friends and your club. And for what?

“How can you justify training five or six nights per week for eight or nine months of the year, without a realistic chance of winning anything? I just can't do it any more.”

O'Rourke is 28. He may or may not regret his decision to walk away from his county through time.

And, in any case, he's obviously not finished with football as he's still playing for his club Skryne.

Still, it didn't stop Offaly manager Stephen Wallace aiming a broadside at those players who complained about the commitment required.

“If you want to go away, go away,” said Wallace. “But don't beat the guys who want to stay. Don't stick your two fingers up to your team-mates.”

“What about the guy that's number 24 or number 25 within Offaly or Carlow who is training every bit as hard and he's coming every single night of the week? For these guys to throw stones at these players I don't think is fair.”

Wallace's point was well made. There is no doubt the time commitments placed on inter-county players are huge.

I met a former Ulster inter-county manager recently who questioned the amount of strength and conditioning work players have to do.

“I wish,” he said, “someone like Jim Gavin would come out and say that there is no need for all of this strength and conditioning work because people would listen to the Dublin manager. It's gone too far.”

You look at the likes of Colm Cooper, Jamie Clarke, Kevin McLoughlin, Ryan McHugh and Mark Bradley and you wonder is there any point for those lighter, smaller players lifting weights.

I remember Antrim hurler Shane McNaughton asking his manager – Dinny Cahill at the time – about stopping his weights programme because he felt sluggish during games.

When a player criticises the demands of the inter-county scene, it courts more attention.

Paddy O'Rourke's interview will always get more traction than Rory Grugan's interview with The Irish News in December where he explained how much he enjoyed the disciplined lifestyle of a county footballer.

“There seems to be this narrative that there is so much commitment required and people don't want to do it.

“But I haven't been talking to too many county players who don't want to be there… Boys are so driven in our county and in other counties and they're so determined to win for their county, they're willing to push themselves and they enjoy being part of it, that camaraderie with your team.”

Hard training wasn't invented in the same era as click bait.

In the 1980s, Lenny Harbinson remembers running up and down the hills in Barnett's Park carrying team-mates on his back.

“It was damn bloody hard work,” said the Antrim manager. “I'm an old boy at 54-years-of-age and I'd love to be playing football in this era. What a life.”

All problems, Harbinson insists, could be overcome through a flexible attitude from managers.

The picture, by design or not, painted by Paddy O'Rourke was that his team-mates and the players of lesser counties were all mugs and that he was the only smart one in the room.

The whole issue of the demands placed on inter-county players is a bit more layered than O'Rourke's emphatic reasoning.

It can't be black and white when so many young players aspire to play for their county at the highest level, and so many current players enjoy the disciplined nature of the inter-county game. We can't write them all off as serfs.

But one thing is true: playing careers rush by in five minutes. You'll miss them when they're over.

Who knows, you might be standing in a car park one day reminiscing to yourself and wondering where the time goes...

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