His decision to pull back from being a full-time player has been justified after a spell in Letterkenny hospital
Twelve months ago, Barry McNamee finally came around to the realisation that he needed to do something different with his life.
He just never envisaged that following his gut instinct would land him into a shuddering reality, the task of working in a hospital during a pandemic that has put the nation’s life on hold.
McNamee had spent almost a decade as a full-time footballer in the League of Ireland, a profession that comes with an asterisk.
A solitary campaign with Cork City gave the Donegal native a taste of what it was like to be paid 52 weeks a year. However, in his long association with Derry City, he was effectively on their books for 10 months and on the dole for the other two. He admits that he used to relish the winter break even if, deep down, he knew that it was delaying an inevitable decision.
It was a combination of an unhappy year at Derry in 2019, and the realisation that he wouldn’t be able to secure a mortgage without a more steady existence, that drove the talented midfielder to look at other options.
This is a familiar talking point among League of Ireland players who reach their late twenties. Convincing lenders they are a safe bet is a struggle when your job is precariously short term.
“At the end of the day, the banks know you might get to 32 or 33 and it could be one injury and you’re done, you’ve got no income,” said McNamee.
He opted against closing the door on football completely. Instead, he was only going to consider offers from clubs that were willing to allow him work outside the game as well, and Finn Harps made a strong play to allow the Ramelton man play his football back in his native county.
His next task was to find the alternative source of income. Ireland was starting to shut down when he got around to looking properly, and the limited nature of his CV was a hindrance.
“I might sound a bit spoiled, but I had never worked before outside of football,” explained the 28-year-old. “I had been putting it off. Harps were helping me to look for jobs but I never really fancied any of them, and then the lockdown came.”
Family members working in Letterkennny University Hospital alerted him to the possibility of a job as a hospital porter. He didn’t know what to expect.
“I got called for the interview,” he recalled. “With no work experience, it was a bit tricky to try and explain to them how your skills in football transfer to a workplace. But I eventually got it.”
This has opened his eyes to a world away from his old existence. He doesn’t want to dwell too much on the sights and sounds of what he’s encountered in his frontline role.
Letterkenny made headlines after Christmas, when it emerged that a Covid surge had put intense pressure on the facility with patients treated in ambulances outside due to capacity issues.
“Sometimes the news makes it out to be worse than what it was,” said McNamee. “But, sometimes, it was worse in the hospital than what was being reported.”
He doesn’t want to say too much more because it’s not in his nature to make headline-grabbing comments, especially when the subject matter is as serious as this.
As far as he’s concerned, he’s just doing the best job possible, conscious that he’s just a small cog in a wheel.
His daily work can vary from laundry and housekeeping-style jobs to ferrying patients around for vital reasons.
“It can be full-on,” he revealed. “Everyone is working hard and everyone is very helpful – the nurses and the doctors. There’s a lot of different departments and there can be 20-30 porters on at the one time, but you might not see them all in a day.
“We have all of our PPE and you’re relatively safe. You still have to deal with patients that are sick, but you’re in your PPE and in a much better place than they are. You have to move patients with Covid but there are places in here where the patients don’t have Covid, too. That’s kind of been forgotten about during this pandemic. It’s what you are paid to do. You just have to be careful, and you have to limit your contacts outside of work.”
McNamee says that the work itself wasn’t a culture shock in the initial few months, when he was able to go home and switch off afterwards, even though the transition to a 40-45-hour working week represented an adjustment.
But when the League of Ireland resumed in late summer and he was fitting it around training and matches with Finn Harps, then it became that little bit more intense.
More pertinently, he was especially conscious of the importance of Covid protocols given his day job. Harps colleague Mark Coyle also works in the hospital in a lab. They were on the same wavelength in that regard.
McNamee concedes there was a certain amount of apprehension about the lack of Covid tests for players, noting that Harps had other part-time players based elsewhere in the country that were working in different environments and then travelling to Donegal.
He would prefer if regular testing was a feature of the forthcoming campaign but is resigned to the fact that the finances are not there to accommodate it. Vigilance is key.
“Players in the league were told we were going to get tested (last summer) but that talk stopped,” he said. “But Harps had everything sorted perfectly. We were one of the clubs without any Covid-positive cases. It’s a tricky one. There’s a lack of funding in the league. Even before the pandemic, that was a problem. It’s even more so now. It would be ideal if the funds were there for it (testing), but we know it’s a struggle.”
With a mortgage application now in train, a key factor in his decision to step back from giving everything to football has been justified. He wasn’t in love with that lifestyle, however idealistic it may sound to an outsider.
Friends that are still relying on the sport for all of their income have endured an uncertain winter, with the start date for the league pushed back and a number of out-of-work pros in limbo while clubs hold fire on dishing out contracts.
Ollie Horgan moved to tie him down to Harps quickly, with McNamee the first player signed up for 2021, so he has endured no stress from a football standpoint.
He worked long hours in January, aware that taking on extra shifts will allow him to get days back when the new season cranks into gear.
“If I was sitting at home being a full-time footballer wondering when the season is going to start and running on the same roads every day, I don’t know how I’d be feeling,” he revealed, when asked what former dressing-room colleagues would make of his off-the-field responsibilities. “I’m actually a lot happier now I’ve got something to get up and do every morning.”
In his new life, there isn’t enough time for thinking.