Being named as a substitute in any match should be a disappointment to any player, particularly a player that has been going well in training. But, as we all know, only 15 can start and every manager constantly reminds their players of this fact.
I know exactly what this disappointment feels like having experienced it while I was playing for the Armagh U21 team. In fact, the year it happened – 1998 – was the one year out of the four that I played at U21 level that we actually made the breakthrough and won the Ulster title for the first time in our history. I was almost known as the “supersub” in that team. A tag to which, you won’t be surprised to discover, I didn’t take too kindly. I came off the bench in all of our games and scored anywhere between two to four points each time. I’m sure the management had genuine reasons for keeping me on the bench but I was certainly looking at it differently.
The previous year as an 18-year-old, I started at corner-forward against Tyrone and top scored for the team with six points. I was also the designated free-taker. The year I was coming off the bench, we had a better team but I was also a better player so that is why I wanted in from the start. We had quality throughout with John and Tony McEntee, Paul Hearty, Paddy McKeever, Paul Watters, Barry Duffy, Kevy McElvanna and John Toal to name a few. Plenty of players that would later go onto win an All-Ireland at senior level so competition for places was intense. Maybe the management team of Liam McCorry and Seamus Heffron felt that they wanted a player that could into the game and get them scores. While it was hard to take, I had to accept it and channel my energy towards making an impact from the bench.
While I totally respected that management duo, I also wanted to prove them wrong and make a statement each time I entered the fray. In my mind, I had to continuously make them think long and hard about their decision not to start me and I believed that I achieved this. Since retiring and going into the coaching and management side of things, I can certainly relate more to their decisions not to start me. Management is a cut-throat business and you live and die by the decisions you make, but you make them to try and benefit the team always. Sometimes it goes right for you and sometimes it doesn’t.
Looking back now, I think a lot about how I reacted each time they named their team. I accepted the challenge of it and as an 18-year-old lad unbeknownst I was teaching my future self a valuable lesson in management. That lesson is the awareness of the body language around a dressing room once the team is named. I pay quite a bit of attention to this now. The lad that remains positive and focuses for the benefit of the team will have a strong chance of coming into the game, while the lad that is selfish and sulks around the place he has little or no hope. The sulker creates a negative atmosphere and often is like this for quite a few days afterwards which also leads into training sessions. Do I feel sorry for these lads? Not a chance. Why not? He only considers himself. While I am all on for trying to get the best out of everyone and putting an arm around the shoulder of certain players, I just cannot for the life of me tolerate the sulker that drags all around him down. Trust me, I have only been in management four years and already I have encountered many of these guys.
How should a substitute react? He has got to be hurt but he has got to put the team first. He has to genuinely encourage his team-mates that are starting to help boost their confidence. He has to remain positive and when called upon, he has got to make an impact on the match. If he thinks this way, the odds are stacked in his favour of doing just that.
The way the game has developed, substitutes have become more and more important particularly when it comes to deciding the outcome of matches. Dublin have proved this time and time again. Jim Gavin often finishes a game with his strongest 15 to make sure they get across the line. Another positive substitute recently was that of Owen Duffy coming on for Monaghan against Fermanagh. He made an instant impact in the game, he scored three points in the second half, provided the platform that allowed the Monaghan attack to kick on and ended up as the man of the match. He had the right attitude.
Of course, Owen wanted to start the match as he openly came out and said it in his post-match interview, but his body language and frame of mind was that he was going to make a difference when the chance arrived. He has now provided Malachy O’Rourke with a new dilemma going into the Cavan match. Like it or not – and I’m not suggesting that Owen is one of these players – but there are players that are simply better coming off the bench. I was one of those players in 1998.