Thursday 14 November 2019

Playing football is an addiction - Longford's Barden

Longford's marathon man is desperate to overcome injury to extend his inter-county career into a 17th season

Paul Barden, Longford
Paul Barden, Longford
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

A wild, stormy night in west Dublin when even a doughty dog would recoil at nosing outside the front door.

Paul Barden, the country's longest serving footballer, arrives at the Lucan Spa hotel for a chat about his life and times when he would much prefer to ignore the dismal weather and be on a training field preparing for another season as a Longford player.

It's not on, for now at least, as he is recovering from an operation to sort out an Achilles tendon injury.

As for the future, who knows?

"I'll be making up my mind over the next few weeks. I'd love to give it another go but I don't know if I can. I'll be listening to what the body is saying and talking to the people close to me before deciding what to do. Even if I am to play on, it would be two or three months before I'd be ready," he said.

The retirement of Limerick's John Galvin leaves Barden as the ultimate veteran of Gaelic football, a man whose career has spanned three decades since making his inter-county debut as an 18-year old against Carlow in the Allianz League in the autumn of 1998.

"Three league games were played before Christmas back then. We (Clonguish) won the county minor title that year and the Longford senior management came to me just after the final and asked me to join the senior panel. Talk about a good day! Being asked onto the senior panel was something special," he said.

Debut

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He scored a goal in his Longford debut in a league game against Carlow a few weeks later. His brother, Enda also scored a goal but the day was spoiled by defeat. Still, the career of one of the best footballers of his generation was underway and, injury permitting, will probably continue later this year.

Barden has never missed a championship game since his first Leinster outing against Wexford in New Ross on May 9, 1999. He scored 1-2 from right half-forward in a game that ended level before Longford won the replay (Barden scored 1-4) by 10 points in Pearse Park.

The teenage star thought it was the start of a glory trail but reality dealt a thumping hit a few weeks later when Longford lost to Westmeath by 11 points.

"I took it very badly. I couldn't understand why we took such a hammering after playing so well against Wexford," he said.

It was the start of a painful learning process. Longford have lost 30 (three draws and 19 wins) of the 52 consecutive championship games he played since 1999, but his passion and dedication to the cause has never wavered.

Unlike some of the pampered performers from the bigger, more successful counties, who feel entitled to offer self-serving opinions on how the game is mistreating them, Barden takes a broader view of sporting life.

Of course he would love to be on the winners' podium - and has worked as hard as any player in the country to make it happen - but he retains an intelligent sense of perspective.

"If you're not enjoying it all, why would you do it? I have always regarded playing for my club and county as a huge honour. We haven't won a whole lot at county level, but the thrill of pulling on the Longford jersey remains as strong now as it was when I started. The fun never goes out of it when you're looking forward to match day" he said.

It's refreshing too that in an era when so many players complain about how they are treated, Barden has nothing but praise for his experiences with his native county.

"I couldn't say a bad word about Longford. We have one of the best set-ups in the country. It has improved so much in all departments over the years. It's as good as anywhere now, as far as I'm concerned," he said.

On a broader scale, he believes that there is room for improvement on how players are looked after. There's the matter of compensation for time taken off work, whether for games, training or injury treatment, areas where the GAA remains steadfastly opposed to making concessions.

Sacrifices

"Players are making a lot of sacrifices and it should be recognised. I'm not talking about pay for play or anything like that, but there are ways that players could be compensated if they have to take time off work," he said.

Despite being well looked after in the normal course of events by his own county, the struggle to make progress has been unrelenting. Longford, who are in Division 4 this year, never reached a Leinster semi-final in Barden's time, leaving their O'Byrne Cup success in 2000 and their championship run in the 2006 All-Ireland qualifiers as his highlights.

An O'Byrne Cup title might not mean a whole lot to more successful Leinster counties but Longford's win in 2000 was memorable for the new recruit.

They beat Kildare, Dublin, Offaly and Westmeath in an exciting January that gave him a taste of what might lie ahead. Unfortunately for him and Longford, the promise wasn't built on. Instead, the last 15 years have delivered a tale of modest highs and deep lows in an erratic graph.

Longford have taken some big scalps in the All-Ireland qualifiers, the most recent coming last year when they beat Derry in Celtic Park. Barden scored 1-2 in a splendid win but it wasn't the launch pad it might have been. Longford lost to Tipperary by 17 points in the next round.

"It's frustrating. We've knocked out some big guns over the years but we didn't put big performances back to back, often against teams we'd be expected to do well against," he admits.

Their best qualifier year was 2006 when, after beating Waterford, Tipperary and Derry, they booked a Round 4 date with Kerry in Killarney. It was one of the most memorable occasions in Longford history as the county emptied and moved south for the big late July shoot-out.

A crowd of almost 19,000 saw Kerry, experimenting successfully with Kieran Donaghy at full-forward, win by nine points on their way to winning the All-Ireland. It put Longford's effort in impressive perspective on a day that provided Barden and his colleague a feel for what the big time offered.

"That game gave me as big a buzz as I've had in football. There were so many Longford people in Killarney that day that you'd wonder was anyone left in the county. We stayed in Adare Manor the night before and were really well prepared for everything. We genuinely thought we had a great chance of winning but it just didn't work out for us. Still, it was a fantastic experience, playing for a place in the All-Ireland quarter-final against a great Kerry team that went on to win the All-Ireland. It was pure football all the way," he said.

Two years earlier, Longford beat Kerry and Westmeath to top Division 1 after two rounds of the National League but they collapsed from there on and were relegated. It was all part of the county's volatile history in a pattern which has continued to this day.

Longford went from Division 4 to 2 in successive seasons in 2011-12 but are back in Division 4 this year.

"The target has to be to get out of Division 4. We're good enough to do that," said Barden. However, he won't be part of the drive for promotion.

He was on crutches until December 27 following an operation on an Achilles tendon which has been bothering him for years. First jarred on a frosty winter morning in 2000, it has been one in a series of injuries which restricted him over the years. Despite that, he has never missed a championship game.

"Hopefully, the operation will provide the right results. The surgeon told me that 10 to 15 per cent of people who had a similar operation said they got no relief from it. Hopefully, that won't be the case for me," said Barden.

Cortisone injections and playing through the pain barrier have long been part of his sporting life but he regrets none of it.

"Playing football is an addiction and you don't want to give it up until you have to. At this stage, I don't know if I'll play for Longford again but hopefully I can. I'm lucky in that I can get fit fairly easily but obviously there are other considerations too," he said.

Football has changed dramatically since he first pulled on a Longford jersey, but he has adapted well.

"There's no comparison between the speed of the game now and when I started out. And then there's the homework teams are doing on each other. No detail is left unchecked nowadays," he said.

The social aspect of the game has changed too, with modern-day players unable to enjoy a normal lifestyle.

"If a player is even seen in a pub now, he's asked what he's doing there. It's the same in every county, big and small," he said.

Still, the demanding lifestyle is something he considers well worth pursuing, even if it hasn't taken him onto many title podiums.

"I play the game because I enjoy it. Isn't that what it's all about?"

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