Sunday 17 December 2017

The match: 'I hate the game. I actually hate the game.'

Stockport County are the latest stop in Barry Conlon's eventful career.
Stockport County are the latest stop in Barry Conlon's eventful career.

Dan McDonnell

BARRY Conlon doesn't really mean what he's saying. Several hours into discussion and a man who has lined out for 14 different clubs, and scored over 100 goals in the Football League is in full flow about the pitfalls of his profession.

He's a treasure chest of stories, an Irishman who has attracted few column inches at home, but is an instantly recognisable name to players, fans and officials in the circuitous environment that is the English lower leagues.

Conlon turned 32 in October, and realised he has spent half his life in this strange world, so far removed from his upbringing in Carrickmacross.

"As soon as I get onto the pitch, I love football," he cautions, qualifying his early statement. "I just hate a lot of the stuff around it, being under pressure now coming to my age, wondering if I've to play so many games to get a contract. It's the not knowing where you're going next."

From Monaghan to here, it's already been one hell of a journey. Goals, girls, and greed. Cash, cars and cells. Life in the fast lane, with no spotlight and a distorted version of glamour. He speaks a truth that is rarely articulated.

* * * * * * *

THE barman in The Bollin Fee has served two dreary looking pints of Guinness. Conlon lifts one with a disapproving glance. He's still getting used to the haunts around Wilmslow, a village on the outskirts of Manchester where he moved to last summer upon accepting a one-year deal from Stockport.

Leaving Leeds was a necessary wrench. It had served well as a base, especially when he was with Barnsley, Bradford and Chesterfield, but there's only so much commuting that a man can do.

He's on a day off, and shooting the breeze. Despite his lengthy exile, the big man has retained the Carrick accent and most of the lingo and mannerisms as well. Chat veers off on tangents. For minutes, he racks his brains trying to figure out which retired Down footballer is related to a man who works down the road in The Swan. Luckily, he speaks to his parents, Kitty and Noel, every day so he fires up the hotline and figures out that it's Mickey Linden's brother.

The Conlons look out for each other. Barry is the youngest of six sons and could rarely pick a fight in school because potential opponents were worried about the wrath of the elders. Football gave him an outlet for his aggression, the old fashioned target man.

He sums up his qualities. "I've a good left peg," he says, before adding earnestly, "And I love getting on the pitch and smashing people."

He relishes the physicality and is proud to be greeted with abuse at practically every ground he visits. It's taken as a compliment.

Chances are he's either played for them or scored a goal against them.

"Grief everywhere I go," he admits. "They hate me, but that's good. People don't faze me." A smile breaks through his stubble. "I'm still a Carrick boy," he says. "People change. I don't."

* * * * * * *

BRIAN Kerr saved his football life. Conlon was released by QPR in the summer of 1997 and down on his luck. Then a piece of paper came in the post offering a call-up which led to the U-18 European championships in Iceland that July.

The craic was mighty. The day before they flew out, Kerr announced they had time to amuse themselves. Conlon and Richard Dunne headed for the latter's house in Tallaght with beverages and company.

When they reported back at the hotel for the presentation of caps, they were tired and emotional. "Big Richie!" he declares. "Bushead! We were nearly sent home. Everyone was suited and booted, but we were sent to our rooms out of sight."

He made the plane, and treasures those experiences, the camaraderie and Noel O'Reilly strumming the acoustic guitar in the corridor.

Further underage caps up to U-21 level followed, but that's as far as his representative career went. But the initial recognition kept him on the carousel.

Five or six years ago -- he's not sure when -- he took a call from Sean McCaffrey when Kerr was senior manager, hinting that he might be in contention for an end of season gathering. Conlon was at Barnsley and preparing for a holiday in Magaluf. Nothing ever came of it.

"I was bitter at the time," he admits. "I remember Clinton Morrison playing and it might sound bad, but I'm thinking: 'I'm from Carrick' and he's got a Cockney accent.' One cap would have done me, one cap."

A dodgy knee removed any lingering hopes. Thereafter, it was a case of making sure where the next deal was coming from. In truth, it was that way from the start. Look after No 1 because nobody else will.

* * * * * * *

THE romance disappears from the game when you make your living from it. When Conlon was courted after officially parting with QPR, he sized up offers from Manchester City and Middlesbrough and took the bigger money from City. Why should he apologise? It's the template for most professions.

He was fortunate to have arrived in a time where discussion of weekly wages related to thousands rather than hundreds. The collapse of ITV Digital in 2002 made life harder in the Football League, with contracts shorter and clubs working off smaller squads. Old team-mates of Conlon have dropped off the radar. "Better players have come and gone," he acknowledges. He developed a reputation as a no nonsense front man who could deliver goals, attributes which have kept him in demand.

"There's no three-year deals anymore," he says. Instead, from Christmas every year, footballers in the nether regions of the UK ladder have to find an extra gear or face unemployment.

Nowadays, it's sometimes the better option to be surplus to requirements. When Conlon fell out with Grimsby boss Neil Woods last year, he was stuck in limbo. He wasn't alone on the transfer list. Chesterfield gave him an offer which he accepted, and Grimsby were delighted to release his registration to accommodate it. The penny eventually dropped; the others who nobody wanted got their contracts fully paid up, and were then free to find new clubs as well. Sickened.

"People are making money because clubs are paying up," he explains, "If the club doesn't want you, they'll try and cut a deal -- 100pc or maybe less. I've been at clubs where lads got a year and a half paid up in cash. It's business."

* * * * * * *

INCOMING call. It's Miles. Who is Miles? A mate, apparently. "I'm doing an interview. Talk to this man, tell him a few stories about me," says Conlon, thrusting the phone in the direction of the visiting hack.

Miles, after some persuasion from his pal, tells two stories. One involves 'Baz' getting stopped by a bouncer at a nightclub in York because he was wearing a cap. In mitigation, he argued that he was the actor, James Nesbitt and desperate for privacy. The lookalike was believable enough for the entourage to enjoy red carpet treatment.

The second story is unprintable. Conlon shakes his head and verifies that both tales are true. Anecdotes related to his antics are plentiful, and they're not always correct.

It annoys him when family read those stories on the message boards that serve as his paparrazzi.

"I remember my brother ringing me and saying: 'I heard you were fighting last weekend'.

"I was seeing a girl at the time and I shouted over to her. 'Was I fighting last weekend?' and it was news to her considering I'd stayed in. Honestly, the people who spread these things..." he tuts.

Some rumours are bang on the money. After all, when asked to sum up his career in a sentence, he plumps for "Eventful, very eventful. On and off the pitch." The accompanying panel, where he goes through each of his clubs in his own words, is proof of that.

"I've been a dick along the way," he concedes. "I've made mistakes, and I've spit the dummy out a few times."

There's no point hiding it. He is open about his indiscretions, and scathing towards those who portray themselves as angels.

"I rewind to what my mother and father say, there's a reason everything happens" he says. Like his 16-month ban from the roads for drink driving at Barnsley, caught just 100 yards from his house.

He responded as footballers do. Every day, he walked to Leeds train station imagining what he'd drive when he was back on the road. So he bought a Range Rover Sport, a purchase he could barely afford.

Another brush with the law came at Grimsby. There was a warrant for his arrest in relation to a speeding issue, and the police couldn't find him due to a change of address from his driving licence. "The cops came looking for me," he says. "I was in the police station with my hands tied behind my back. People thought I must have been up to all sorts."

At least Miles is a pal he can trust. They are few and far between in the modern game. Dressing rooms are different from when he started. Less honest, he reasons.

"I'm old school," he declares. He likes his few pints, the banter attached and discussing it on a Monday morning. It is an enshrined part of British football culture and yet it is almost taboo for a protagonist to speak about it until they have hung up their boots.

Conlon's biggest mistake, perhaps, is refusing to disguise his personality in a sport he considers to be packed with cowards, happy to perpetuate his caricature to cover their own flaws.

"It took me a while to realise it," he says. "I've been stung loads of times. The changing room is the changing room. You say it like it is. You pick people out and say 'you were shit today'. I like that. But it goes out of the changing room, and you don't know whose saying it. This is what I hate.

"If people want to stab someone in the back saying 'he was late for training today, that'll get me brownie points'...I don't know how these people sleep at night.

"You can't trust anyone. I've been slagged off. Baz goes out, he does this. It'll probably be on the net tomorrow.. 'Barry Conlon goes for a pint'. But I give 100pc for them on the pitch. If they won't give 100pc for me, and pull out of a tackle, what's the point of them talking about what goes on in the dressing room? I'll put my head where people wouldn't put their boot."

* * * * * * *

EVERY day he worries about what comes next. It's been a frustrating season so far, setbacks and substitute appearances.

He reckons he's got another contract in him and doesn't envisage staying in Wilmslow, but time is ticking and wear and tear is catching up. The years of hard knocks and injections have taken their toll, and the knee issue means, in all likelihood, his right leg may never feel quite right.

Coaching is off his agenda, but the stints on the treatment table have given him a curiosity about the science of sports injuries and massage treatment. Maybe it's the way to go.

There is a void though. He speaks to the lads in Carrick, Jimmy, Noel and the gang. When he was flying high during his 20s, they were scrambling around trying to make their way.

Now, they're married with kids, enjoying a certain kind of domestic bliss that is alien to his existence.

"Sometimes, I think I'd love to have a few bambinos, sitting at home in front of a fire. With a nice woman," he sighs. "I've lost women along the way. Football takes over. You lose things."

His dream growing up was to play at the top level. Pragmatism redraws the boundaries. But make no mistake about it; football has been good to him. He's just unsure what the dream is any more.

"It goes through my head," he continues. "What have I got to offer? Sometimes, I look back and think maybe I wish that I had been a plumber or something. A longer term plan. But then again I've seen a lot of things," he muses, with a cheeky grin creasing across his face and a glint in the eye. "Unreal stuff."

A suitcase full of memories.

Irish Independent

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