National Football League
Some 32 counties take part in the National League and every one of them could put down, when asked about their relationship status with the competition: ‘It’s complicated’.
For different counties it means different things. Look at Monaghan right now. They will have Conor McManus, Darren Hughes, Karl O’Connell and Colin Walshe all raring for action as a precursor to the huge season they feel the deserve.
And then you have Derry. With their ambitious manager Rory Gallagher, there are no end of forceful characters such as Chrissy and Karl McKaigue who might believe they have wasted the greater part of their senior career. Anything less than winning promotion to Division One this year will be seen as a disaster.
In some counties, they cast the net right across the pool for players. Take a county like Leitrim, Louth or Fermanagh. Because there are so few clubs, there’s a good chance that most of the senior footballers among the clubs will have worn the county jersey at some point throughout underage and senior and feel an attachment.
The majority of club players can spin a yarn about the time they played for the county.
That’s not the case in other counties. This week, we checked in with Paul Feeney, a former masseur with the Tyrone team. At the age of 28, he got a phonecall out of the blue from Art McRory in 2000 to come to Tyrone training.
He stayed through that season and even had an Ulster medal at the end of 2001. But he played one, and one game only against Dublin in the league opener, back when games started in October.
“The day we played Dublin, we left Paudge Quinn’s and Big Art had received a phone call from another player saying he wasn’t going to make it,” Feeney explained.
“He was down to play left-half forward and Big Art walked down the bus and he stopped at me and said, ‘The very man. You’ll do.’
“We had the challenge matches and in-house matches, but at Parnell Park that day it was a different story, you could tell.”
“I was to blame for the Dublin goal. I moved it back from a scoreable free to one where they had to throw it in and they got their goal.
“I missed a goal chance that day too and then I was taken off for Joe Campbell. He glided around the pitch for the last 20 minutes and we won the game.”
“A Dublin player caught him in a tender part of the anatomy. Afterwards he was in the bathroom and his pee was red.
“Eugene (McKenna, co-manager) walked in and said, ‘You know what kid, you done alright for your first big one.’
“I just turned round to him and said, ‘I didn’t think I would get this opportunity, thanks a million’.
“Other players might have been asking why they weren’t on, but I was wondering why I was even on the panel.”
And that’s what it is for mere mortals on county panels, really. It’s a life of tedium and sacrifices.
A couple of weeks ago, a former county selector attended the Armagh-Monaghan Dr McKenna Cup game. He estimates that teams now in pre-season are at Championship pace from around five years back. Things have gone to that level and players are adapting themselves to fit in.
In Sean Cavanagh’s – in some places somewhat disturbing – autobiography ‘The Obsession’, he tells a story of his daughter asking if they could be brought to a park for a go on the swings and a bit of fun in 2017. This was at the end of a long week when he was barely in the door between work and training.
He refused, saying he had to keep himself right for a game the following day.
It was a league game.
That’s why come this weekend, teams will be just mere inches – not the miles of yore – off Championship pace.
Tonight, Dublin’s opening game against Armagh will be worth watching.
This is a Dublin team still smarting from August’s loss to Mayo, against an Armagh team who know that everything they have been building towards for the last seven years with Kieran McGeeney is on the line over this league campaign.
They will have to be streetfighters, tooled up and ready for battle. The trick for them. of course, is to temper that with their infuriating tendency to concede scoreable frees.
“There’s chat about a 55,000 attendance, which is brilliant, as I’m afraid, it’s been too long for the people of Armagh,” said Oisín McConville.
“If I was to hazard a guess — and I take no pride in saying this — it’s the guts of 15 years since we had such excitement building up to a game of football here.”
And it’s not just in Armagh and their circumstances.
Jack O’Connor will be heading back to Kildare just months after jilting them for his native Kerry. The reception will be ‘spicy’ according to former Kerry and Kildare player Karl O’Dwyer.
We shouldn’t and won’t tolerate any ‘it’s only the league’ statements just yet. There’s loads of time for that. For now, let’s sit back and be grateful for something that has been out of our reach for the last two dreadful, terrible years.