Alan Nolan's red hot battle to be a No 1 for the Blues
Dublin netminder kept faith on the bench and now he's relishing duel with Maguire
IT'S the classic conundrum for every fringe county player: stick or twist, wait or walk?
Alan Nolan hung around, and got his belated reward last June when injury KO'd Gary Maguire for the start of Dublin hurlers' Leinster championship defence.
Collectively that campaign was the ultimate in anti-climax but, from an individual perspective, it proved a major breakthrough for the St Brigid's 'keeper. The long-time understudy to Maguire not only held his place for all three matches but was named as RTÉ's man-of-the-match after the heavy Leinster final defeat to Kilkenny and finished the year as an All Star nominee.
Fast-forward to Championship 2015. Dublin have a new bainisteoir (and former member of the Goalkeeper's Union) in Ger Cunningham and they must hit the ground running in this Sunday's Leinster SHC quarter-final against Galway in Croke Park.
So, who will be the first name on the manager's teamsheet? Now there's a question.
Nolan was in situ for all five regulation league rounds, with Maguire sidelined by another injury. But then the 2011 All Star won his place back for the two knockout clashes against Limerick and Cork ... hence the uncertainty.
Yet, according to Nolan, healthy competition between the pair didn't start today or yesterday. "This is my seventh year (on the panel)," he says. "It was just the fact that Gary had never got injured or he'd always played. And I suppose now that I've played in the championship, people are raising questions who'll be in. But the two of us are always going hard at each other; Conor Dooley is there with us as well."
Prior to last season, he had featured at different league junctures but summer elevation proved elusive.
"A barren five years," he reflects. "Last year then, thank God, I got a start in the championship and I was happy enough with how it went. So my thing now is to try and just keep that going and fight hard for my place ... I can only put my best foot forward; so can Gary and Conor Dooley. And Ger's the manager, so he'll pick the best one of us."
Nolan isn't the first understudy to encounter a permanent fixture between the posts - think of all those deputies to retired Tipp legend Brendan Cummins - so had he ever considered walking away?
"You do," he admits. "You question yourself all the time. But then I suppose if you left, and something happened, like you got to the All-Ireland, you'd be gutted. So I suppose it is the GAA, it's what keeps you going; and lucky enough I got the break last year.
"And you look at Darren Gleeson's reward for hanging on as well (in Tipperary) ... he got an All Star, fair play to him, he'd a great display last year. When you do get that reward, it makes it more pleasing."
Looking ahead to Galway and hopefully beyond, Nolan isn't overly worried by Dublin's surrender of a 12-point lead to Cork in that recent league semi-final - so long as they absorb the lesson about consistency and "trying to finish out games". He views the race for Liam MacCarthy as being "nearly back to a 12 or 13-team championship" where everyone feels they have "a chance of winning it", Dublin included.
But, even under a different manager, isn't this the same Dublin being tarred with a 'manufactured hurlers' tag by certain pundits last summer?
"Well," Nolan surmises, "it's funny that the year before, when you're in a semi-final of the All-Ireland against Cork, people were saying it was one of the best matches for a long time. So I don't know how you go from being brilliant in August to manufactured six or seven months later."
Last summer's performances simply didn't represent "how we are as players, but there's no way you're manufactured." He then concludes: "When you're winning you're one of the best teams in the country; when you're losing you're one of the worst."
Time to be the best ...