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Dublin: 21 °C Friday 7 August, 2020
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Passion still burns in Sligo's Dunleavy as League of Ireland returns

They’re bottom of the league, have been hit by injuries, bad luck and a global pandemic but Sligo aren’t giving up on this season.

Sligo Rovers' John Dunleavy.
Sligo Rovers' John Dunleavy.
Image: Ciaran Culligan/INPHO

Pressure can stunt an athlete, but evidence argues powerfully that a major league ball player is fully grown. To make the majors at all, a man first survives under pennant races, other-play-offs. As he rises, pressures rise with him. A Little Leaguer feels the eyes of his parents and his neighbours and his team-mates when he comes out to bat. If he wriggles helplessly, he has found something out. High-pressure competitive baseball is not for him. A minor leaguer, driving toward the majors, has coaches and scouts studying him every day. The man who collapses into tremors with men on base dies, as the saying is, in Peoria.” (The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn)

STRESS USED TO get to Johnny Dunleavy. He’d gaze at the ceiling; curse the dryness in his mouth; the tick-tock sound of a bedside clock; the street-lights squeezing in through the hotel curtains, the slow pace of the night.

He was the captain of the Irish U17 team, a heavy load for a teenager to carry. Often, 2am was breaking point, when he’d noiselessly slip out of bed, get dressed and sneak down to the hotel lobby to phone his father.

“Dad, I can’t sleep,” he’d say.

Then he was a worrier – fear stemming from a wonder if sleeplessness would affect his performance.

Suddenly, he turned 21, and turned those nerves into a welcome companion, the spark that lit something inside him; the adrenaline rush he needed to play better. “Friday night is what you are measured on,” Dunleavy says. “You’ll hear these stories about such and such a player being an unbelievable trainer, but no one ever signs you on the back of those rumours; you’re signed on what you deliver; how you cope with the pressure.”

This evening, we’re about to discover how the people inside that Sligo dressing-room cope. They’re four games into this League of Ireland season but 14 games out from finishing it, Covid-19 reducing the campaign from a long-distance race to a sprint.

As things stand, Sligo are bottom and pointless, and even if Dunleavy is prepared to mention mitigating circumstances – ‘we should have got something out of at least two of those games; we were cursed by injuries for all four’ – only results, not words, can change the complexion of the table.

And while that creaky old body of his continues to give trouble – in 2015, he had an operation to clear-out his cartilage; in 2016, surgery to repair a micro-fracture on the same knee – he knows he can make a contribution during Sligo’s run-in.

After all, he’s been through tougher tests. After those aforementioned knee injuries came another one, his cruciate going this time midway through Cork’s double-winning year. There was another operation needed in 2018. But 2019 was good, before this pandemic got in the way of his 2020 plans.

“There is very little at this point that could shake me,” he says. “Like, when you are on crutches, doing rehab, you are not really living a normal life. What I mean is; you can’t go out for a game of golf, can’t walk to the shops. It hinders you. But you talk to yourself, say stuff like ‘I know I am going to get through it’.”

Easing his concerns further is the arrival of Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe, the League’s leading scorer last season, into the Sligo dressing room. “That was a real statement signing, something for the fans to get really excited about.”

cameron-dummigan-and-junior-ogedi-uzokwe Junior in action for Derry last season against Dundalk. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ah, the fans.

They won’t be there this evening at the Brandywell for Sligo’s trip to Derry, stranded instead in their homes, watching on an online stream.

So he knows this day will be weird. The sleeplessness of his teenage years on the eve of a big match may have gone but other habits are still there. He trains his mind to switch off during the day, watching some series on Netflix to get him through the mid-morning and early afternoon.

“Now and then some thought will trigger something off and the match-day nerves will come back to your stomach,” he says, “but you suppress those (thoughts) as best you can. Then, as soon as I leave the house to go to a game, sprinkling a bit of Holy Water on me before I go, that’s when you really start to tune in. Ordinarily, you’d meet people going to the game; see the jerseys around the town; the energy slowly building inside you.

Come match night you’re buzzing. Footballers are creatures of habit. We’re used to crowds. You know when it is a raucous atmosphere, that it can be intimidating for the opposition. Conversely, I’ve been there – Shamrock Rovers away, my first season in the league, leaving the tunnel, seeing this 30-foot banner, flares being lit; smoke everywhere; the crowd going mental. I remember thinking then, ‘My God, what have we let ourselves in for’?

“So tonight will be weird. No crowd. That doesn’t mean there’ll be no pressure. It’ll just be different.”

patrick-hoban-and-john-dunleavy Dunleavy puts in a crunching tackle on Dundalk's Pat Hoban. Source: Ciaran Culligan/INPHO

Soon life will be different because some year soon he’ll be done. Football, like every other business, is a harsh one with a merciless disregard for a person’s age. At 29, he’s young in life terms but in sport, 29 isn’t a friendly number.

There’s something else we need to know, though. Men like Dunleavy may change careers when their playing days end but one thing that will never change is their identity. No matter what they end up doing, inside the game or away from it, they’ll always be football men.

“Nothing …. I mean nothing … can compare to the feeling you get when you pull off a big win on a Friday night,” Dunleavy says, “the elation at the final whistle; the buzz you get from the crowd; the hyper nature of people in the post-match dressing room and then, when you’re in the shower after the game, that lovely contentment that washes over you. You just know, there and then, that your weekend is going to be a great one and that nothing in this world can stop that from happening. Of course if you lose, well you’re in for a tough time. That is where the big characters and the man-managers come into their own.”

He loves the emotional delicacy of these days, the hugeness of the occasion; the absence of ambiguity. Non-believers to the League of Ireland church may never hold it in high esteem but what they fail to understand is the money and passion so many people invest in it. Tonight’s result will determine people’s moods. This season’s League table will impact livelihoods and homes.

“When a team is close knit, when everyone is pulling in the right direction, things work. It is great to be able to look across a dressing room and know that there are fellas there who will dig you out of a hole. You can’t buy that. We have that here. With the season halved, every game is magnified. The injuries have cleared. We’re more than ready. It’s showtime. Bring it on.”

  • Derry City v Sligo Rovers, 5.45pm, go to www.watchloi.ie for streaming details

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About the author:

Garry Doyle

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