Nolan a keeper of the Sky Blue faith
Patience proves a virtue for Dub sub who has grabbed his chance
THE loneliness of the long-term substitute goalkeeper. It's probably the hardest position of all in inter-county hurling or football.
At least a fringe forward might have the capacity to reinvent himself as a midfield mainstay or born-again back. No such luck, bar the odd exception, for your second-choice No 1.
Alan Nolan knows the drill. He made his SHC debut against Offaly on July 14 2007, although he's not even sure if that Tullamore encounter counts as such.
Why? Because it was the last of three round-robin qualifiers for a Dublin team meandering towards its then-familiar early-summer exit.
His next championship start came on June 14, 2014 - last month's Leinster semi-final in Wexford Park. Exactly seven years and one month separated these two watersheds in Nolan's Dublin career.
There was one very pertinent reason for the gap: Gary Maguire.
The Ballyboden St Enda's custodian has been a fixture of this Dublin team during some of the bad old days and the more recent dizzy heights. Maguire is such an accomplished 'keeper that, in this era of standout shot-stoppers, he won an All Star in 2011.
All the while, Nolan bided his time. Whereas others might have walked away in frustration, the St Brigid's man kept coming back, surviving on the oxygen of league appearances and the sense that being a Dublin inter-county hurler now counted for something and the promise that, one day, the call might come and you'd kill yourself if you weren't ready to capitalise.
Then Maguire broke his thumb and Nolan was ready. Patience had been rewarded.
"Between '06 and '07 I came onto the panel," he recalls. "I think we played Offaly in a round-robin qualifier years back ... I played in that. But I suppose (in terms of) proper championship, Wexford was my proper debut."
A long time waiting? "Tell me about it!" he agrees. "But I suppose, if I wasn't there I'd be back at my club wanting to be there. So I said while I'm here, I may put the effort in. Look, you just have to be positive and you have to ready when a chance like the last month has come along. And luckily I've been there to be able to perform to my best."
Nolan is not blowing his own trumpet. He held his own impressively against Wexford, making a series of blocks and conceding just the one early goal as Dublin survived an opening test that had 'ambush' written all over it.
He was better still against Kilkenny in the Leinster final, so much so that he was later RTE's Man of the Match later that evening. Not that clean sheets or crystal counted for much in the greater scheme of things; Dublin as a team were chronically below-par and it all ended in a sobering 12-point reality check.
Kilkenny were back, and the Dubs were heading back down the uncertain route of an All-Ireland quarter-final against a back-in-form Tipperary. So the show moves onto Thurles this Sunday and, with Anthony Daly confirming earlier this week that Maguire still isn't fit enough for consideration, Nolan is set to start his third consecutive "proper" championship game.
Everything, you might say, comes to he who waits. If you peruse the Dublin line-up for his 'back door' debut seven years ago, what immediately strikes you is the dearth of players still living the dream. Stephen Hiney played full-back in O'Connor Park; Michael Carton was at midfield. Here's another sign of how times have changed: Offaly eased to a 12-point victory.
The fact that Nolan is still a survivor is a testament to his endurance. Speaking to media at the GAA's launch of the All-Ireland hurling series, in Co Clare last week, he was reminded that Brendan Cummins saw off ten different replacement 'keepers during his marathon career with Tipperary.
"They don't switch goalkeepers because they tend to stick, rightly so, with their number one. Sitting there, you probably think you're never going to get on," Nolan admits.
"I suppose it's very hard but you have to apply yourself the same as if you were playing. Because if you're called upon in the middle of the match and you haven't been doing your own preparation, something could go wrong and then you'd be really sick with yourself when you got a chance and you didn't take it."
Did he ever harbour thoughts of quitting, that he didn't have time for this any more?
"Yeah, a good few times," he confirms. "It's been a long time, Gary's still young, he deserves (his place), he's playing well, he's done nothing wrong ... then I suppose Dublin are doing well and there's people who'd want to be in your position. If I left I would be sick, so I just took the decision to stick and thankfully I got a break."
It has come through Maguire's misfortune, but the two 'keepers have a solid working relationship and that won't change, Nolan insists, even when his rival is back snapping at his heels for that No 1 jersey.
"We get on great," he says, "but I suppose I'd be no different than the corner-backs trying to get a place with each other. Everyone on the team is competing, because everyone wants to play. When myself, Gary and Stephen Chester are training, we try and bring the best out of each other - because if we're doing anyone favours, we're doing an injustice to each other.
"So we push each other hard and when Anthony picks the team, we're happy for whoever's playing; we'll support them," he concludes.