Monday 19 February 2018

Always playing on instinct

The supersub label doesn't faze Kevin McManamon but he wants a starting role

Kevin McManamon
Kevin McManamon
Marie Crowe

Marie Crowe

Sitting on the bleachers on a sunny day in UCD, Kevin McManamon attracts quite a bit of attention. Several Easter sports camps are in full swing around the campus and the kids giggle and point when they spot the casually dressed footballer. His heroics on the pitch for Dublin on the big days have ensured that he is a household name and a recognisable face.

Although McManamon doesn't always start, he is the type of player whose every movement from the bench causes a commotion in the crowd. Any time he stands up, spectators stretch in their seats to see if he is going to enter the field of play. And when he finally gets the nod, removes his bib and does his final stretches, the noise in Croke Park intensifies. The clapping turns to cheering in anticipation of what is to come.

McManamon is a rare breed of footballer, a proven game-changer who on his day can be spectacular. From the outside looking in, this role seems pressurised, but for the St Jude's man it is in fact the complete opposite.

"I'm always relaxed when I am going on as a sub," explains McManamon. "It is very difficult to make an impact on a game and I know that so I don't put myself under pressure. There was a time early in my career when I would get nervous at the start of games but I never had that when I was a sub, you have that freedom to go out and relax into a game.

"You get a great view of what is going on when you are sitting in the stand looking down at it. You can chat to the other guys and pick out weaknesses in the opposition. And when you go on you are likely to be marking a bloke who has been running around for 45-50 minutes."

So before he takes to the field McManamon has the game sized up. No match or situation is ever the same. He always has a plan and finds that each game requires a different approach.

Sometimes he needs to be the best tackler in the forwards, or the one to keep the ball moving. Other times his role might be to get his team-mates into scoring positions or else take on the opposition. The variables are endless.

Of course the Dublin manager Jim Gavin gives him direction and instructions but he never puts him under pressure to save the day. He takes a more tactical approach to the changes he makes and depending on the situation instructs accordingly.

Against Kerry in the 2011 All-Ireland final, McManamon's team were trailing by four points with seven minutes to go when he skipped past Declan O'Sullivan and slotted the ball into the back of the net, turning the game in Dublin's favour. Fast-forward two seasons and again he was a goalscoring hero for Dublin against Kerry, this time in the All-Ireland semi-final.

That goal caused quite a stir. He won a breaking ball in the middle of the field, raced through the heart of the Kerry defence and floated the ball over goalkeeper Brendan Kealy and into the net. Dublin won this titanic battle and the goal was so spectacular it left many spectators wondering if he meant to do it.

In the aftermath of the win, he admitted he was aiming for the crossbar and hoping the ball would drop under or go over. On the surface it seems that he simply took a risk and it paid off, but in reality that presence of mind he showed to execute the perfect shot is something McManamon has worked on since he joined the Dublin set-up.

"In recent years I realised that when I don't think I play my best football. It is a difficult one to explain but most of the stuff I do is on instinct, that is how I get the most out of myself. I was taught to do all my thinking on the training pitch and then when I go out to play I follow my instinct. If you are trying to hone your skills, that is what the training pitch is for. Then for the two days before a game I think about anything except football."

It was Caroline Currid who first brought McManamon's attention to the benefits of relying on his instinct. Pat Gilroy was the Dublin manager at the time and he brought in the performance coach to work with the squad. They won the All-Ireland and Currid departed from the set-up but she left a lasting impact on the forward.

Gilroy was also the man who gave McManamon his chance with Dublin. He was 23 then and had been on Paul Caffrey's radar for a while but never made the breakthrough. His break with Dublin came later than most of his current team-mates but he has no regrets. Even though he spent a lot of time glancing at the sidelines during club games, hoping that Caffrey or his selector David Billings were watching him.

"I was knocking on the door for a while under Pillar but I was probably a bit young. If I had broken in I would have more than likely spent time on the fringes of the panel. In 2009, when the lads lost to Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-final, Pat Gilroy turned things upside down. He brought in about ten of us who broke into the team and luckily I got a good run at it. He played me in about ten matches that year, started me in every game which was great for me.

"Whereas had I broken in earlier I might not have gotten any games. I probably would have just been training. So overall it worked out well that I was a bit older. I went away for a couple of summers and I think that suited me perfectly. I can put everything in to it now and I appreciate it more." By "everything", McManamon means tailoring his lifestyle to allow him make football his number one priority.

When he was called into the Dublin panel, he set up his own company, Fresh Foods Direct so he could be flexible for football. He now combines his work with a sports psychology course in Jordanstown University. And although it sounds like he has a busy schedule, nothing comes before his football.

Four eventful years have passed since he joined the Dublin set-up. Since then he has won two All-Ireland titles and three Leinster championships. As a result of his game-changing cameos, he has earned the tag of supersub yet surprisingly it's not something that bothers him.

"It's never really affected me. I've realised that the more decisions you can make where you put the team before yourself the better chance of success you have. So I have bought into my role. When Jim or Pat announce the team and I wouldn't be in it, I'd chat to them and obviously you are not going to be happy because you want to be playing. But the sooner you can put your grievances behind you and row into the panel the better."

But accepting his role to date doesn't mean that McManamon is content with it for the future. He's started all the games this season and wants to keep it that way. His goal for 2014 is to be the first name on Gavin's team-sheet.

"That's the challenge, you have Bernard Brogan back and Paul Mannion and Cormac Costello will be back when the 21s are finished, as well as Dean Rock coming back. It just shows you how difficult it is to get into the team. There was a change in the forwards in every game last summer so there is always hope. The secret is to get in for the first game it is as simple as that."

And if he doesn't, well that's not something the 27-year-old is thinking about. "I don't like thinking about the things that I wouldn't like to happen. I really believe in the idea of selflessness but I'm not going to talk about it because I don't want to put any ideas in Jim's head. I don't want him to think that I am an easy man to give the talk to."

For McManamon, today's Allianz League final is another step closer to his end goal. The first name on Gavin's team-sheet, supersub no more.

This is the 22nd year of Allianz's sponsorship of the National Football and Hurling Leagues, making them the GAA's longest standing national sponsor

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