GAA has evolved and the 15 finishing the game are as important as the starters

GAA has evolved and the 15 finishing the game are as important as the starters

Cathal Naughton of Cork celebrates after he scored the key goal in his senior debut off the bench against Waterford in the 2006 All-Ireland hurling semi-final at Croke Park. Picture: INPHO/Andrew Paton

As the Dublin football machine relentlessly raged on over the past five years, nothing emphasised their relentlessness more than their bench.

Everybody knew that Dublin had the strongest panel but their subs reinforced how Dublin’s attitude was never shaped by the scoreboard or the clock. Invariably, anytime Dublin ran their bench, it was like a pack of hungry wolves being unleashed on the opposition, ripping at the cold corpse of a team already slain.

Kevin McManamon has long been the face of that additional weaponry in Dublin’s powerful arsenal. McManamon’s consistent big detonations from the bench appeared to frank that reputation, but McManamon was never fully happy in that role.

"Sometimes it's a bit lazy to say the reason he (Jim Gavin) is not starting me is because I make an impact,” he said early in 2016. “That's not the case, I feel like I'm in control of it. I want to do something that I've never done before and that's to be a big player for 70 minutes rather than what I've become accustomed to, or what management have decided for me.” 

McManamon finally appeared to have shed that tag during that 2016 season, when starting all of Dublin’s seven championship matches that summer. However, after starting Dublin’s first championship game in 2017, McManamon has only started two championship matches since – Dublin’s final Super 8s game against Roscommon and Tyrone in 2018 and 2019, both of which were dead rubbers.

At least McManamon had been accustomed to the mindset of being a squad player. But in a team environment, everyone wants to play. Players are naturally disappointed when they don’t start. The challenge for management is to flip the mentality and the outlook, to convince players that they may be on the pitch when the game is effectively being decided.

Kevin McManamon, Dublin, tries to get past James Loughrey of Cork. Picture: Diarmuid Greene/SPORTSFILE
Kevin McManamon, Dublin, tries to get past James Loughrey of Cork. Picture: Diarmuid Greene/SPORTSFILE

In the modern game, that requirement of having a strong bench, and finishers coming off it late on, has never been as pronounced as in recent years. Yet it’s likely to be more important than ever in the 2020 inter-county championships, especially with players coming from a totally different fitness starting point than normal.

The importance of the bench has grown significantly over the last two decades as the number of substitutes has doubled from three to six. In recent years, that importance has grown even more because the high-intensity running required at the top level for 80 minutes is getting harder to sustain.

With an increased emphasis on sports science, and with technology linked to actual performance, GPS trackers can inform managers and coaches when players are running on empty.

With concentration levels naturally dropping late on in games as players tire, the mindset about the last quarter has also changed. Styles and gameplans can alter in that time as different players come in. Some managers want experience and fresh forwards on the field in that last quarter, with fresh legs being able to exploit the gaps that may have opened up.

The whole area has become a fascinating subject in modern sport but, the dearth of research on the topic in recent years has been widely acknowledged. The most renowned study on the subject was conducted back in 2009, when Joanne Thatcher and Bernadette Woods researched the ‘Qualitative Exploration of Substitutes’ Experiences in Soccer’.

The findings revealed that athletes overwhelmingly described their experiences in negative terms. The paper also supported claims made by five previous studies that the substitute experience was largely stressful, especially when compared with when they were a starting player.

Any additional research in the meantime has found similar findings. A study by Bernadette Dancy in 2016 confirmed as much. Dancy concluded: “The substitute role is a stressor that has potentially negative consequences for the athlete’s emotions, cognitions and behaviors.” 

That has always even been obvious amongst elite professional sportspeople. David Fairclough, who was probably the first professional soccer player to become famous for being a ‘Super Sub’ in the 1970s, expressed a similar level of dissatisfaction in an interview in 2001. 

“It definitely did not help my career that I came off the bench and scored so often,” said Fairclough. “From 1977 onwards, I made it clear that I wanted to leave irrespective of the success Liverpool were enjoying at the time.” 

In contrast, other research has revealed that athletes may perceive the substitute role more positively, which may lead to a sense of accomplishment. The most obvious example was former Manchester United player, and current manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Still, nobody is ever comfortable on the bench. In the new Spurs documentary ‘All or Nothing’ released on Amazon Prime, English player Eric Dier spoke emotionally in one episode about finding himself on the bench. 

“Nothing else really matters apart from playing,” said Dier. “So, if I’m not playing, personally, I’m just not happy.” 

Many players who struggle to get game-time find the experience traumatic. In her conclusion, Dancy also highlighted “that psychologists, coaches and athletes need to afford this role independent consideration”, because “substitutes may benefit from increased support from a range of sources”.

Psychologists can certainly provide self-regulation strategies to manage emotions and behaviours, but managers and coaches can assist unhappy players through improved communication and reinforcing the importance of the core group.

Striking the right balance is important because, while the substitute role is never cast in a glamorous and heroic light, it can be with acceptance.

McManamon and Seamus Darby are ample proof. Not everybody remembers that they didn’t start an All-Ireland final. But everybody remembers that they scored a historic and game-changing goal.

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