Saturday 17 February 2018

back where he belongs

Regrets? Shane Supple doesn't do regrets. He tells John O'Brien about life after Ipswich Town

T OWARDS the end of November, Shane Supple lined out in goal for his club St Brigid's in a Division One relegation play-off against St Vincent's. It was a dog of a Sunday morning in Blanchardstown. Dog of a game too. By half-time, two Brigid's players had seen the line and, before their suffering was complete, three more would join them. Mercilessly, Vincent's filleted them for a 17-point victory and ate them without salt.

And yet, as desperate as their fate and the anger and gnawing pain that ripped through their bones was, there was something about the elemental ferocity of the game, the harsh emotions it rendered, that left a warm glow in Supple for a long time afterwards.

The crippling sense of hurt they felt told him how much it mattered, how ferociously they cared. How worse it would have been, he reasoned, to have felt nothing at all.

The madness of the game bemuses him still. He'd seen feistier encounters on the Ipswich training ground yet, one by one, they walked. Kevin Bonner, Jason Ward, Mick Galvin, Barry Cahill, Declan Lally. One they could willingly accept. Two they could have lived with. But five? You had to be joking. He smiles at the implausibility of it now. What else can you do? He never imagined the GAA to be the perfect place.

Three months earlier, he'd stepped off the professional football treadmill at Ipswich and opted instead for the home comforts he'd known as a kid. And days like those reminded him why he'd taken a decision that was so unusual and sufficiently rare to have shocked even those who had barely heard of him.

The East Anglian club is famously homely, but it didn't have the communal spirit and sense of togetherness he saw at home. Not nearly to the same extent anyway.

At first he was nervous going back to Brigid's. He wondered how they'd see him there. A big-time Charlie returning from the relative heights of the English League? What about the player whose place he might end up taking? The questions rolled uneasily around his head.

"It was strange at first," he says, "but the lads here were great. I came back and settled in straight away. There was no 'oh he's this' or 'he's that'. They just accepted me and that was it. I knew I could be taking some fella's place but the way I looked at it I've had that happen to me enough times over the years. It isn't nice but it can help you focus and become a better player."

In truth, he needed no reminding that turning his back on the easy wealth of English football was the right thing to do. Not long after he left Ipswich, the club's first-choice 'keeper fell out of favour with Roy Keane and Supple knew that if he'd stayed he'd most likely have found himself back in the first team. But the thought changed nothing. He felt no pangs or stirrings of regret. He was perfectly at peace with the direction he'd taken.

Five months on, people still ask him to explain and, though he tries his best, he knows even his most measured responses leave them unsatisfied and slightly suspicious. How, they wonder, could a 22-year-old man in the prime of health simply turn his back on the game for a life of honest toil on civvy street? They imagine a trauma-inducing incident. A blazing row with Keane perhaps. "I don't mind people asking me about it. And I just tell them it wasn't for me. That's how it was. And whatever I say or do I know I'll always be referred to as the guy who quit football. To jack in something like that.

"It was a big enough thing to do and people will always ask why. There's nothing you can say. Like, everybody is different. It's just the decision I came to."

He can't pinpoint a moment when the thought of quitting took hold and began to crystallise in his mind. It was always there, he thinks, dormant, a seed awaiting germination. When he arrived at the Ipswich academy at 15, they asked him what he would do without football.

"Probably join the Guards," he said. Just like his father Brendan. Long before the notion of being a professional footballer occurred to him, he'd thought of following in his father's footsteps.

He'd thought long and hard about his life last summer. Tentatively he'd signed a one-year deal at Ipswich, but a part of him pined for release. He'd been seven years at the club and how time had raced on. He thought of how far he'd come and what he'd missed out on. He'd no Leaving Certificate. No knowledge of life, really, outside the narrow confines of a football field. If he felt like this at 22, he reasoned, how would he feel at 27?

Ipswich wasn't the problem. As a precocious Home Farm teenager, he'd been courted by Aston Villa and Everton and, as a boyhood Villa fan, he thought Birmingham would be his destination. But something about Ipswich appealed to him. The homely vibe and their proven record in bringing young players through. For a 15-year-old he was mature, he thinks. Not lured by glamour or easy money. Capable of taking the long-term view.

His days at Portman Road bestowed him with mostly happy memories. At first he stayed in digs with four other Irish lads, never pining for home, never overwhelmed by the demands of professional sport. He liked the senior manager, Joe Royle, and by 18 he'd made his first-team debut and helped the youth team to win the FA Cup. At home they talked about him pushing Shay Given for the Ireland No 1 jersey. He liked hearing it. Liked the giddy feeling that he was going places.

No regrets, he thinks. The seven years were far from wasted. He's proud to have left home at 15 and survived so long in such a cut-throat world. He can't see how such a life could be wholesome, though. All those hours to kill when you weren't playing or training. He wasn't a drinker himself, but he saw alcohol claim the careers of enough promising kids around him to appreciate its pernicious influence. In a small town like Ipswich there wasn't a hell of a lot else to do.

What struck him most of all about club life were the cliques that existed despite the global nature of the staff. No amount of team bonding sessions could alter it. Since his arrival there had always been a strong Irish presence at the club and, generally, they stuck together. He remembers Sunday afternoons in McGinty's bar where they gathered to watch the day's GAA action from across the sea. Those looking for Ford Super Sunday were given short shrift.

The speed of his departure reflected the essence of his life there. He informed Keane on a Wednesday morning, had his house sold by the Friday and, a day later, he was with his family in Blanchardstown. He had told Owen Garvan, his closest friend at the club, and one or two staff members of his impending decision but, mostly, his former colleagues were in the dark and he didn't stay around long enough to gauge the shock his departure had induced among them.

"Football's a strange game. You wouldn't have a lot of close mates in the game. I know you train together every day. Travel to games together, stay in the same hotel. But you have all these different cultures. I remember someone saying to me if you have three or four good friends when you leave football, you'll have done well. And he was right. You go through the game and you don't trust too many people. It sounds sad but that's how it is.

"It's madness really. You get lads who don't get on with each other, lads who are out of the team and it creates a bit of atmosphere. Like, in the GAA, lads are from the same area, the same town. You don't get that because they all want the same thing. To win trophies. Win All-Irelands. Whereas with soccer you get a little bit of older boys looking after themselves. We get promoted, maybe I won't get another year on my contract. Stuff like that.

"It's too easy for guys. They know if it doesn't work out at a club, they'll get a contract somewhere else. Even in the Championship you can set yourself up for life. No problem. It's not like that here. Lads work their socks off in a normal job and then go training. They do it because they want to. It makes a huge difference."

As a goalkeeper, he knows he could have easily had another 15 years in football, if not at Ipswich then somewhere else. Codding himself and those around him. He saw no peace in that scenario, though. Either you wanted it desperately enough to endure the torment or you took yourself off the treadmill. Nor did he want to occupy a phoney middle ground. Ultimately, he knew he had to be brave.

"I know a lot of lads who really love the game and that's great. But I was thinking long-term which footballers don't tend to do. I've seen so many lads end up out of the game and they know nothing only football. I know the PFA do well for guys in bad situations but it's up to the guys to go to them and they're the ones who have to sort themselves out in the end. They put their heart and soul into it and they don't know anything else. I find that sad really."

Now he knows the comforting embrace of home and it feels right. He's studying for his Leaving Cert and when the next round of Garda recruitment takes place in the summer, he fancies he'll throw his hat in the ring. Several League of Ireland clubs have tested his resolve to stay away from the game but he's politely resisted their advances and can't see any way that his present road is for turning.

The blue of Dublin is the pull now. Long before Ipswich came calling he was a GAA-mad kid and reconnecting with that thread of his life has been reinvigorating. He remembers the Sam Maguire being paraded around Scoil Bride in 1995 and the euphoria that swept through the capital that summer. From there he graduated to St Declan's and his last act, before he crossed the channel, was to help them beat Portlaoise in a Leinster schools' final.

On Thursday, the school will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a game against a Dublin 15 at St Brigid's ground and it needles him that a knee injury he picked up last month will preclude his involvement. As a kid he remembers Brigid's teams backboned by Cahills and Brogans and Cartons and thinks there is something telling about the prominence of a few families in such a sprawling city suburb.

He's played four league and one championship game for Brigid's now and, already, he is gripped by their struggle. The league starts again next month and the imperative to restore their top-flight status will drive them. Their talent and sheer scale of the parish demands it, he thinks. He is woven into the tapestry there in a way he knows could never have happened in football.

After that there's Dublin. His knee injury thieved him of any chance he had of featuring in the annual Dubs Stars challenge earlier this month, the first major county trial of the year. He's spoken to a couple of people on the Dublin coaching panel, though, and is keen to make an impression. The League might come too soon, he thinks, but by summer he'd like to feature somewhere in Pat Gilroy's blueprint for Dublin's future.

"I've no problem saying it," he says. "It's one of the main reasons I came back. I didn't want to lose more years that I might have to play for Dublin. I'd love to do it but I'm under no illusions. The lads that are there have done well. It might take me years but so be it. It's just something I want to do at some stage."

He imagines a day he'll leap out onto the hallowed turf at Croke Park, gallop towards the goal, the adulation of the blue hordes on the Hill ringing in his ears, feeling the ache in their hearts for all the hardship they have endured. What more do you need to know? He has a dream now. A dream worth having.

Sunday Independent

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