â€œOne has to call it a day sometime and nowâ€™s the time for me.â€
With those characteristically straightforward words, Paul Barden explains why he has decided to retire from inter-county football.
Regarded as the greatest Longford player of the modern generation, he informed team manager, Jack Sheedy, of his decision onTuesday, February 3.
Had he gone ahead this would have been his 17th championship campaign, singling him out as one of the longest serving players in the country.
But the Clonguish man is comfortable with his decision. He knows the time is right.
â€œIâ€™ve had four years to decide. I know myself that the work rate required to get myself fully fit for another campaign, is simply too much for a 34-year- oldâ€™s body.â€
He will now concentrate his efforts on playing with his home club, Clonguish.
â€œI always loved playing with Clonguish,â€ he states simply.
He was just fifteen when he lined out between the posts for the senior side of the club that heâ€™d grown to love so much, and the first four games were perfection itself. A clean sheet in every single game.
Then in the fifth game they met Slashers, with Dessie Barry at the peak of his powers.
Four goals later, none seen by the goalkeeper until they had flashed by him, he could only marvel at the brilliance of Barry.
â€œHeâ€™d be in a ruck of players and suddenly heâ€™d send them whizzing past me! I didnâ€™t even see them. Youâ€™d say where did that come from? I thought he was a remarkable goal scorer. Growing up, thatâ€™s who I wanted to be - Dessie Barry.â€
For Paul Barden growing up, football was the only thing he wanted to do. It was clear from early on that his was a truly special talent. He shared the limelight with his two brothers, Enda and David who also played with distinction for the county.
Itâ€™s a very big statement, and probably contentious, to say he is the best player ever to don a Longford jersey, but heâ€™s worn that mantle for so long itâ€™s hard to imagine a Longford team without him.
Iâ€™ve seen none who equal his ability, behaviour, and understated knowledge.
Family steeped in football
His family are steeped in Longford football, and many of them - most notably the impeccable Brendan - wore the jersey with the highest distinction.
Paul started for Longford seniors in October 1998. He was playing with Clonguish minors whoâ€™d just won the county final. Michael McCormack and Dennis Connerton were in charge of the Longford team and watched the game.
When Paul came out of the dressing room, the two men were waiting for him and invited him to join the senior panel.
He jumped at the chance; he says it was like having two wins on the one day, called into the Longford panel and winning the minor championship with Clonguish.
His subsequent baptism was against Carlow, in the National League, in â€˜98. In that game he started at wing forward and scored a goal. The experience back then was very different to what has evolved in the intervening period, particularly in terms of the drinking after every club game.
â€œThat was it, club championship in Longford, thereâ€™d be no work on a Monday.
â€œEven National League matches, we had a few clients with us back then, they....werenâ€™t too fond of Mondayâ€™s after National League games!
â€œEvery lad seemed to be out and about â€˜til the early hours of the morning, and up for work on a Monday morning, though some lads used to go to the Monday Club in Hughie Doyleâ€™s. Iâ€™ve never been in it, but I heard of it alright!â€
After the National League v Carlow, his next significant fixture was in New Ross, where Longford managed to come out with a draw.
â€œThe Championship in that Summer of â€˜99 in New Ross on a teeming wet day, Iâ€™ll never forget it.â€
In 1999 he was asked by Matt Kerrigan from Meath to join the panel, but Paul was injured.
However, again in 2001, he got the call from Luke Dempsey, and this time he was playing with the Clonguish U-21s who had a game on the same date as the Railway Cup, against Slashers.
Martin Skelly was Chairman, and readily agreed to postpone the game.
Slashers kindly agreed.
Paul headed to Killarney, with Paraic Davis in tow, where the semi-final was to be played, followed by the possibility of playing the next day in Tralee, if they won the semi-final.
He was playing at wing forward and scored 2-4. After extra time they won by one point.
So, next day was Tralee - the final against Connacht - and that match they won easily; he scored three points.
Paul Barden, still U-21, had his first Railway Cup medal.
Meanwhile, Clonguish were emerging as a force and in 2002 they were beaten in the county final by Ballymahon - with Frankie Dolan on board. Clonguish were leading by five points but in Paulâ€™s eyes they let the final slip.
Nonetheless, he feels, theyâ€™d probably not have won the 2003 and 2004 finals but for the learning curve of â€˜02.
He feels they didnâ€™t win enough, given the quality of the players involved, and was disappointed in 2005 and 2006 by losing each year in the semi-final, virtually beaten in injury time in both games.
He describes himself as â€œan awful passionate Longford player...â€ before going on to talk about the Longford team set-up and how he dealt with the constant losses.
â€œIâ€™ve played with some exceptional footballers over the years. We seem to lose good players in Longford.
â€œWhen we lost good players like Pauric Berry, David Hanniffy, or David Barden...the problem seems to be getting all Longford players on the field at the one time. All you needed in a big game was to lose a player or two and you were in trouble.â€
We talked about the progressive changes that were introduced along the way, in his experience of the game and its changes. He recounted how when Dennis Connerton came in to take the team, he introduced weights, and that was a phenomenal thing at the time.
â€œI remember Cullyfad and youâ€™d be running along the sides and jumping from one punkah to the next...oh it was something!
â€œHe had the barbells, and dumbbells out in the field - and youâ€™d have to do half minute sets, and you had lads like Enda Barden, Niall Sheridan, Ciaran Keogh and John Kenny, and theyâ€™d just drop the dumbbells when finished. So by the time the thirty seconds would be up, youâ€™d still be trying to get them up out of the muck!â€
He quips, â€œNo wonder I had a bad back!â€
â€œDennis brought in a lad from Galway - a rugby fella - and he had some brilliant rugby drills with him. He was very good in his way. Weights were only coming into rugby at that stage, in a big way.
â€œI remember doing a drill in Slashers. It was channeled with the shoulder bags and youâ€™d be bouncing off each bag in turn.
â€œThere were twelve lads in the drill and when youâ€™d get to the last few youâ€™d be out on your feet. More often than not, youâ€™d meet Niall Sheridan and Aiden Keogh at the last two bags, and theyâ€™d finish you off altogether!â€
We talked about Longford, the training, the organisation, and the mindset, in those days.
Paul thought that the weights and the training disciplines brought a new dimension to Longford training sessions. Paul said that Dennis was very shrewd and tactical.
We also remembered that - what many people forget - Longford were then in Division One.
Whereas now the Longford team are languishing in Division Four and seeking to return to some state of relative grace, by climbing.
He speaks of the set-up in Longford of today, and what he says may surprise some people.
â€œWhere it is now, our lads go training there, with Barry Horgan. Barry is absolutely fantastic. One of the best strength and conditioning guys Iâ€™ve ever come across. Iâ€™d say heâ€™s one of the best in the country. I donâ€™t think Longford people realise how good he is, and how professional he is at his job.
â€œItâ€™s all down to GPS, and nutrition. Fair play to Jack in that regard, he has everything laid on. Short of cutting the chicken up and put it into their mouths! Nutrition, supplements, everything is there. He couldnâ€™t do more.
â€œAny night up there now, five GPS systems are handed out to different players. And after training, having food, the results are there for viewing on laptops. All is there. Speed, football endurance, the lot. What was your fastest speed over a certain period of time, etc... The training has come some distance in 15 years.â€
The conversation turns to general approach of the GAA with regard to injuries, compensation, and duty of care. He feels much could be done to improve the state of care given to lads.
â€œThe GAA could do a lot more. It takes too long to be looked after,â€ he states.
He feels very strongly that not enough is done to help those whose injuries are acute and threatening, and that the GAA could take a more compassionate and urgent approach.
He wouldnâ€™t contemplate making the GAA professional nor does he seek payment for his labours, as such, in the context of GAA affairs.
The coming year will be a different story, now that heâ€™s not playing for Longford anymore.
Preparation canâ€™t get much more intense, and the fact is, the body simply wonâ€™t cope.
Paul feels strongly that, â€œItâ€™s probably necessary to be a student or such, so that guys can go to bed for a few hours to recover. The possibility to play for as long as people expect is quite unrealistic.â€
After all the enjoyable years, 16 of them, there have been many memorable moments.
For me, one enduring vision is him collecting the ball, 14 yards out, and proceeding to accelerate at astonishing pace upfield, through midfield, the half forward line, weaving to evade repeated attempts to catch him, and calmly kicking the ball over the bar from 30 yards out, on the left wing.
In his wake he left numerous breathless Down players.
One of them, paused, clapped his hands together, in briefest applause.
Everyone on the hill gasped.
Itâ€™s a fitting way to close this chapter on Paul Barden.
One of the finest, cleanest, fastest, strongest, and most difficult players to play against.
We will miss him in the Blue and Gold.