'Juggling family and inter-county life can be crazy', says Royal veteran Stephen Bray
STEPHEN BRAY has just been asked whether, as an inter-county footballer, you are occasionally compelled to question your own sanity.
"I totally agree with that," he nods. "Bob O'Malley actually said that to us, five or six years ago - 'You need to be a little bit mad to be a GAA player.' And to be successful you need to be nearly twice as mad!"
The Meath forward, 33, is talking on the cusp of another championship campaign which starts with a Leinster quarter-final against Wicklow in Navan this Sunday (3.30).
He has tasted some notable highs during his decade as a senior Royal: an All Star in 2007, a key man in the attacking blitzkrieg that shredded the Dubs in 2010, en route to a final that delivered his one Leinster medal etched forever in refereeing controversy.
There have been, in truth, twice as many lows: the twin-pronged debacle of Wexford and Limerick in 2008, not to mention last year's Leinster final calamity against a very different Sky Blue machine, rank high on the list.
Bray has watched commitment levels soar since making his SFC debut against Dublin in 2005, all for the beguiling promise that this might be the year. Yet it can all end in a flash: even last summer, when Leinster final dreams were shredded by Dublin and all optimism crushed by Armagh.
In the months that followed, as Navan O'Mahony's embarked on another climb to the Meath SFC summit, Bray questioned if his time in green had come and gone.
He had to think about his wife, Muireann, and two young kids - Dan, now two-and-a-half, and Kate, just turned one. He was acutely aware that devotion to family and commitment to the county cause can pull you in diametrically opposed directions.
"It puts a lot of strain on Muireann," he admits. "She's carrying the can a lot of the time, because we're out four or five nights a week.
"Just when the club finished up, I was a little bit 'Is it acceptable for me to continue to do this?' I suppose we had a kind of a chat. I had a chat with Micko (Mick O'Dowd) as well and said I might have to tailor things a little bit, just so I wouldn't be out every night.
"That basically was it. I kind of felt that the body wasn't too bad, I was in reasonably good health. It's just the commitment levels, that is what I was questioning … "
Is it a case that inter-county players have to be selfish beasts? "Without a doubt. That's 100 percent. If I'm being honest, I am being very selfish. I feel sorry for my wife: she's very understanding for the last ten years we've been going out - and married now four years.
"She has to live a very singular life at times, and now that we've two small kids, it's certainly not easy. Anyone that has family would understand that it's huge work, and with your daily routine between work and trying to care for them - just trying to organise yourself. I just have to keep singing her praises!"
In one respect, Bray is lucky: his job as a business analyst with Generali International in Navan means he has just a ten-minute spin to work while 15 minutes will take him to training in Dunganny. He can fit in a gym session at lunch. He doesn't face the marathon commute that ultimately shortens many inter-county careers.
Still, he has to be on the ball all of the time. "It's that constant organising; it's that constant trying to mind your diet; it's that constant training, trying to keep yourself in good shape; looking after yourself, the rehab, stretching," he outlines.
"There's so much behind the scenes that, unless you're involved and been in that situation, it's hard for people to understand from the outside."
Bray wouldn't have returned if he didn't believe Meath were edging back towards where they should belong. There was also a sense of needing to atone for last summer's anti-climax.
"I feel, in ways, the championship petered out for us," he reflects. "I thought we'd made the necessary progression through the league … then in our championship as well, we'd progressed: a decent win against Carlow, high-scoring, and put Kildare to the sword.
"I thought we were in a good place going into the Dublin game, but it hit us hard."
And yet, he adds: "Micko has brought one of the best set-ups that I've ever been involved with, and that encourages you to be part of it. I wish I was five years younger, because I do feel there is something happening and Micko is really striving for that.
"He's the main driver and is putting everything in place for us. His attention to detail is really good. We don't want for anything. That's another reason why … it's probably the best set-up I've been involved in and it's hard to walk away from that, knowing there is a possibility of achieving."