It’s Tuesday night at the Aviva stadium. Aiden McGeady is dancing along the leftwing. The ball is rolling around his feet in a flurry of step-overs. He looks perfectly balanced, at one with the ball, a picture of athletic equilibrium. That is until Armenian defender Sargis Hovsepyan saunters over and gently dispossesses the willowy winger, for the umpteenth time tonight.
Meanwhile, some miles away, a sedentary thirty-something man nearly spills his popcorn-and-brownie ‘twofer’ – try it, it’s yum – and hurls a stream of invective at his television. ”AH FOR [insert Anglo Saxon word]’s SAKE. TAKE HIM OFF!!!”
Aiden McGeady can be a frustrating player to watch. But he’s not the first person to be on the end of the rigorous and scientific Colm O’Regan Professional Sports Analysis Program. Over the years, trainers of such other failures as Grand Slam winner Ronan O’Gara, multiple All-Star hurler Sean Og O’hAilpín, even a show-jumping horse have been urged to bring on a substitute.
You would think I would have a bit more empathy. During my patchy and undistinguished sporting career I have spent more time fruitlessly warming the bench than a tribunal judge.
“I’m a substitute for another guy” – sang Roger Daltry back in 1966. Roger clearly never played in the Primary School GAA competition Sciath na Scoile. My life reached a low point some time in 1990 when I was substituted during Dripsey National School’s crunch match against Doneraile – by a GIRL. It’s not as bad as it sounds. 12 year-old girls are about two feet taller and have more muscle mass than their male counterparts, but it set in train a pattern that was to continue for many years.
The scene moves forward to 1995. Coachford Under 18 soccer team are playing against Kilrean Celtic. There’s a heavy tackle followed by a roar of pain as studs make their mark somewhere below the shin-guard. Pushing and shoving follow as players complain to the referee about the tackle.
It was no one’s fault. The conditions are not ideal. Coachford’s old pitch was effectively a clearing in the woods and for most of the year a carpet of leaves covered most of the pitch. The day is a miserable one. A wind is swirling around. The rain sometimes blows horizontally into the roughly-built lean-to shed where I huddle on the substitutes bench.
My team-mate is still on the ground while a team of expert medics attend to his twisted ankle by pouring some water on it and asking him how he is. The coach turns to me.
“Get warmed up there Colm”
Now, I had never heard of Carlos Tevez at this stage. The Argentinian international who is paid about a million euro a month by Manchester City two weeks ago refused to come off the bench as a substitute because his head was in the wrong place. It made headlines around the world. How could anyone not want to play for their team?
During most of my underage soccer career, my head was definitely in the wrong place. Being a perennial substitute is like being strung along by a girl you don’t even like. A girl who chooses to call you at the last minute, or not at all.
Team player is a hackneyed phrase these days. CVs are littered with it. It’s hard to think of the Team for every waking minute though and we can all admit to some distinctly non ‘team player’ thoughts. Mine generally happened while sitting on a substitutes bench.
Thought Number 1: Before the match, count the number of people who turn up. Someone’s late. I might get a game. No, there they are. Sigh. The number 18 shirt is mine again I think.
Thought Number 2: During the match, look out for team-mates that are not playing well and hope they screw up in such an obvious way that a desperate coach will turn to me in one last desperate throw of the dice.
Thought Number 3: Hmm… everyone is playing quite well. If I come on and do badly, it’ll mess things up and everyone will notice. It’s best to hide away at the back of the shed.
Thought Number 4: Oh what a rotten day. I’m nice and cosy in my jacket, and we’re losing. I don’t want to be part of this.
But the alternative is far worse. The substitute who doesn’t play – win or lose – has the emptiness afterwards of not being able to join in any match post-mortem. Even the long trek home in the back of the van after a crushing defeat can have a certain solidarity about it. But if I wasn’t playing, I can have no part in it. It’s like I had a desk job during the war and the veterans are saying “What would you know about it Colm? You weren’t there.”
Back on the soggy, leafy pitch in the wind and rain, when The Man says: “Warm up there Colm”, I know I have to take part. They say there is no ‘I’ in team but at 4-0 down and with ten minutes to play, there is, in this particular team at least, a ‘me’.
My first touch results in the ball thunking off my knees and out of play. My second touch strokes the ball gently to Kilrean Celtic’s nippy midfielder who launches a swift counter-attack that ends with them striking the bar. “Take him off” mutters one of my team-mates. “C’mere langer, leave him alone or I’ll give you a dig into the face” replies one of the opposition – who happens to be in my class in school. This is definitely not a team-player moment. But even the oddest vote of confidence can help. One minute later I redeem myself slightly by providing a pass that nearly leads to a goal.
In the Aviva, Giovanni Trappatoni has ignored my tactical advice. At the start of the second half, Richard Dunne bundles the ball into the net with his crotch. The cross was provided by: Aiden McGeady. Sometimes you just need a little time.