Darragh Ó Sé: The ball-robbing referee, 300-mile drives and club v county

Footballers all over cannot wait for championship to start and club headache to end

David Moran lording it in the league final. ‘Apparently now he’s going badly. Clubs have no patience for any county player at this time of year.’ Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

David Moran lording it in the league final. ‘Apparently now he’s going badly. Clubs have no patience for any county player at this time of year.’ Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

How great a club man are you? Would you go to any lengths for the glory of the club? Well, I’m here to tell you that you’re nothing compared to an intercounty referee I was talking to a couple of years ago. I won’t name him, for reasons that will become clear. But this man is a hero for his club.

I fell in with him one time talking away about everything and nothing and I asked him what his club was. And he told me with a sort of a haunted look about him. “Ah Christ Darragh, the thing has my heart broken. We’re only a small club so everything is a struggle. It’s gone that bad that I’m stealing footballs for them.”

What do you mean, stealing footballs? Who are you stealing them from?

“The counties. Kerry, Dublin, whoever I’m reffing.”

And he went on to fill me in on how easy it was to get away with. Apparently, the trick is to do it at half-time. At full-time, the teams have kitmen who come looking for the match ball but at half-time, the ref takes the ball away with him down the tunnel. So as you’re about to blow the whistle, you go over to whoever has the ball and take it from them.

Then you head down into the referee’s dressing room and stick it in your bag. You come back out then for the second half and stand out in midfield waiting for the teams and when it comes to the time, you look around and go, “Christ lads, has nobody a ball? Are we going to play this game or not?” So one of the teams kicks you out a new ball and you’re away in a hack.

I thought I’d heard every stroke going in the GAA but this was a new one. You have to love it. I have visions of going down there for training and seeing a dozen different balls with Kerry and Cork and Tyrone and all the rest of them written across them. And kitmen across the county getting it in the ear from their county boards over missing footballs. And nobody suspecting the fine, upstanding referee of being the culprit.

What a man. What a club man. Willing to commit pure, unapologetic robbery for the cause of the lads back home. Don’t talk to me about selling lottery tickets or putting up nets or any of that carry-on. This man is thieving gear in full view of tens of thousands of witnesses. Now that’s commitment.

Disaster

There’s a lot of talk these days about what makes a good clubman and where the line is between club and county. I always think this time of the year is the absolute worst for county players. These six or seven weeks between the end of the league and the start of the championship are a disaster. For the rest of the year, you are either one thing or the other. This is the one spell in the year where you have a foot in both camps. And it’s a killer.

People haven’t a clue about the level of stress that involves. All I ever hear when people are talking about this is the poor unfortunate club player. But who stands up for the county player? Who defends him? Nobody, that’s who. Instead, he gets it from all angles.

I was at championship games in Kerry over the weekend and all the talk I heard was how eight of the Kerry panel missed matches with one injury or another. To listen to people talk, you’d swear these fellas were faking the whole thing. And the lads that did play got no sympathy. They were expected to win matches on their own, most of them.

A couple of different people said to me that David Moran was going badly. This man was the best player in the national league, man of the match in the league final. That’s five weeks ago. And apparently now he’s going badly.

All that tells you is that there is no patience for any county player at this time of year. The clubs have been waiting on them since January and they want the version they saw in the league to turn up ready for work. It doesn’t matter to them that Moran has been working on kick-outs with a different goalkeeper for four months. It doesn’t matter that he’s been going bald-headed for everything and could do with a bit of a lighter load ahead of the championship. They want their man to be their man. Theirs, not the county’s.

But for the player, it’s a nightmare. You know you owe a debt of loyalty to the club, just like you know you owe a debt of loyalty to the county. You know that if there’s any small bit of a niggle you’re carrying, now is the time to let it heal. You know as well that that sort of talk won’t wash with the club. You know all about the need for rest. And you know there’s really no chance of that at this time of year.

You end up fighting with yourself. As a county player, you have a certain amount of pride and ego when it comes to going back to the club. You want to show the best of yourself. You can’t have fellas saying you didn’t put in for the club. But at the same time, you can’t be going back to the county set-up and spending the first few weeks of the summer getting physio.

Ultimately, your loyalty is to yourself. It takes you a few years to come to terms with this but the older you get, the more you realise that it’s crucial you do what’s right for you. Sometimes that is going to mean being strong enough to say: “Sorry lads, I’m sitting this one out. Ye can bitch at me all ye like but I know my body and I know what I should be doing here.” In the end, you have to follow your own road.

I’m not saying play half-hearted. Not at all. The vast majority of the time, following your own road means pulling on that club jersey and playing like the county man you are. There’s still plenty to be said for picking up the local paper and seeing the phrase “inspired by county man Joe Soap” in the report. Anthony Maher had a great game last weekend, a real shoulder-to-the-wheel job. That’s what most county players will do. That’s what makes them county men in the first place.

Attitude and application

This is the great unspoken aspect to the whole club vs county debate. What is it that really separates club players from county players? Obviously, in some cases it is pure ability. But there are 30 players in a county panel – absolutely nobody believes they are the 30 most talented footballers in the county. The reason they are where they are is that their attitude and application is better than the players who have more ability than them.

There’s plenty of lads who are happy to be handy club players, who haven’t it in them to give their lives to being on a county panel. And fair play to them, I wouldn’t criticise them for it. But I wouldn’t be crying rivers of tears either for the poor, downtrodden club man and holding him up as being somehow more pure than a county player. Don’t be telling me they’re more dedicated. It’s just not true.

I remember plenty of times landing back down to club training and finding only 10 there. Maybe the system is stacked against them and maybe they get a raw deal and that makes them throw their hat at it a bit. But everyone knows people in every club in the country and their commitment would be watery enough when it comes down to it.

That doesn’t stop them telling you what’s what, all the same. A year or two after I retired from playing with Kerry, I had to go up to Newry on business before a league game in Ardfert. I had missed a training session during the week because I was up the walls busy but I had committed to making it down to the game and I was not going to miss it.

So there I was, driving down the road from Newry telling myself I was a great club man altogether. I was nearly getting a bit emotional about it. Isn’t this the glory of the GAA? Driving 300 miles at the age of 35 to keep togging out for the club. Am I mad? No, I’m just a great club man. A hero to rival my man the ball-robbing referee.

We got annihilated. One of those games where we went behind early and that was enough for half the team to down tools. Nobody making runs, nobody working back. Beaten out the gate. The sort of game that left us all walking off the pitch knowing there was going to be a few home truths delivered in the dressingroom afterwards. I was looking around from player to player thinking: “He’s in trouble. He’s in trouble. He’s definitely in trouble.”

And so it started. This is wrong, that is wrong, the other is totally wrong. And by the way Darragh, we’re going to need more commitment out of you.

That didn’t end well for them.

I reared up and I decorated every last one of them. Managers, players, bagmen, the lot. I let them have it, a sub-machine gun spraying bullets everywhere. I’m after driving 300 miles for a county league game and you’re going to tell me I’m not putting it in? You’re blaming me, a washed-up old intercounty player, for not carrying ye? Good luck with that, lads.

That tension will always be there. And it will only get worse. County players have never been under so much pressure. I’m retired since 2009 and it’s even gone through the roof since I finished up. The recession killed off the old carry-on of sorting out a handy job for a county player so now every man has to apply himself to that side of his life more than ever.

The game is faster than ever, the hits are bigger than ever, the season is longer than ever so you have to take greater care of your body than ever before. Social media has added to the mental strain far beyond anything anyone could have imagined when I was playing. And for these few weeks, the pressure from your club is another ball you have to keep in the air.

I guarantee you they can’t wait to get the summer started so they can get back to serving just one master again. Life is so much simpler once the championship begins.

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