Sunday 20 October 2019

Being the best you can be a greater motivator than medals

For all the talk of the commitment it takes to be a modern-day player, I've never met one who regretted it

St Loman’s and Westmeath playmaker Paul Sharry. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
St Loman’s and Westmeath playmaker Paul Sharry. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Dick Clerkin

Around this time of year, hundreds of young, talented footballers and hurlers are being offered the opportunity to stake a claim for a place on next year's inter-county panels.

For some established players, short sabbaticals to recharge the batteries, physically and mentally, are acceptable, but the young starters are being asked to prove themselves to new management and new team-mates, but most crucially, to themselves. For many across the country, that first opportunity will come today.

Earlier this month, on my way to meet up with the club management team and wind up the season past, I caught an interview with St Loman's and Westmeath playmaker Paul Sharry (right).

The focus of the interview was the Leinster final against Moorefield in what ultimately proved to be a heartbreaking defeat, but a question regarding his inter-county career came up. 'Why bother?' was essentially the question being asked of him.

With Dublin's relentless dominance in Leinster, how can there be any enjoyment playing for a county with little or no chance of securing major silverware? "The challenge", was Paul's frank answer.

The personal challenge of setting yourself up against the best and seeing how you can perform. A great answer, I thought, and one that I could strongly relate to.

One of the highlights from my career was being able to say I pitted myself against some of the greatest players from the era - Kieran McGeeney, Darragh Ó Sé, Seán Cavanagh et al.

Even in years when success with Monaghan was unlikely, the challenge of lining up against these players was often a sufficient carrot for the year's efforts.

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Leaving aside the romantic rhetoric about representing your county, Paul was tapping into what lies at the very core of the best inter-county players - a selfish drive to be the best they can be, and a willingness to make sacrifices many onlookers cannot comprehend.

This Christmas many of us will read the stories about some of our great sporting icons, and marvel at their level of commitment, and the sacrifices made to get to the top of their chosen sport.

Jackie Tyrrell's relentless obsession with self-improvement. Philly McMahon's remarkable journey, via the most challenging of paths. Cormac McAnallen's legacy of leadership and integrity towards the sport he loved. Common threads of dedication and perseverance run throughout.

Yet no sooner do we eulogise about those who have inspired a generation than we happily lend a sympathetic ear to the difficulties facing modern-day players who attempt to follow in their footsteps.

How often nowadays do we hear anonymous tales, about how poor Johnny Snowflake couldn't do this or that, because he was expected to show a high level of commitment to his team-mates and manager? Nobody will want to read that story in years to come.

Making excuses about how hard it is to do something isn't the inspiration that President Higgins spoke about when he recently hosted the Dublin ladies and men's All-Ireland-winning teams.

Following their recent documentary 'Blues Sisters', we have all grown very fond of the Dublin ladies team, and joining their male peers on the steps of the Áras, President Higgins imparted the following words: "Inter-county footballers and hurlers are so often looked to as heroes and role models by young people and I want to acknowledge now, as President of Ireland, the role that you play in inspiring young people to participate in sport at all levels and abilities."

Nicole Owens inspires. Philly McMahon inspires. Stories of ordinary people who have thrown everything into achieving their goals will inspire many others to follow in their footsteps. In seeing the reward for his efforts, whilst others remain blinded, Paul Sharry inspired me to write this piece.

Regardless of whether he will win anything with Westmeath, the challenge of pitting himself against the James McCarthys of this world is enough for him. Days like their thrilling victory against Meath a few years back are memorable side-notes on this journey.

This is also a time of year when many inter-county players finally call time on their careers. Alan Dillon, Denis Bastick and our own Stephen Gollogly are some of the latest to announce their inter-county retirements.

You won't get a word of regret from any of them, and I have yet to meet any retired inter-county player who regretted giving the commitment they gave over the course of the career.

Yet they will all agree that it is tough. It is unforgiving, and at times it will feel downright unfair. But it is ultimately worth it.

They have finished a journey that many others are now being offered the opportunity to begin, and, as they will all testify, it is a journey worth making. Life is plenty long enough to do all the things you want to.

The opportunity to do one of those things is on the table for many of our young stars at present.

For those fortunate enough to be in that position, I implore you to take on the challenge Paul Sharry speaks about. Go as hard as you can, for as long as you can. Trust me, you won't regret it.

Irish Independent

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