In the week when one Ireland cricketer, Stuart Thompson, opened up about a battle with anxiety, another international, James Shannon, talks candidly about how he has fought his own demons.
From his early teens, the hype around the Instonians batsman and now Northern Knights captain was such that he might well have been known as FIC - Future Ireland Cricketer.
Outwardly, Shannon has always appeared confident and driven, but inside he was battling with the pressure of meeting his own exacting expectations.
The dream of playing for Ireland dominated Shannon’s life growing up, and even after he achieved his goal aged 22, he struggled to adapt when it didn’t quite work out as he had hoped.
“Whenever I was about 11 or 12 I remember making a decision that all I wanted to do was play cricket, I tunnel vision towards it,” Shannon explained. “Looking back now, I wish I hadn’t because I think what it might have done was create a thing, when if I failed to make an Irish squad, I didn’t maybe know how to deal with that. I seemed to move between the 13s, the 15s and the 17s, and I was getting success at those early ages. The 19s just fell into place too. I was very focused on playing cricket, I always wanted to do the best I could do but I didn’t accept failure well, it’s something that up until this last year or two I never dealt with very well at all.”
When Shannon didn’t make the final Ireland 11 at the World T20 finals in Bangladesh in 2014, he says he made a conscious decision to step back from his all-consuming focus on cricket. He returned to university, eventually got a job. Now employed at Brake in Lisburn, he no longer obsesses over every Ireland squad announcement.
“Cricket is not the be-all and end-all anymore. It’s still the main focus but it’s not life or death and that’s the way I might have perceived it when I was in my late teens or early twenties.
“I think in the past I have worried too much about it, probably two or three years ago, I was asking, ‘why am I not being picked for Ireland’, or ‘what do I have to do to get picked for Ireland’, and I was losing track of the process to get there. Playing for Ireland is a dream, but in between that you have certain processes you have to go through, you have to tick off certain goals, and I think that whenever I was left out a couple of years ago I was always thinking of the dream rather than the actual process. I was obsessed about how to get back, but now I don’t think about it too much.”
Shannon knows there is a perception around him, of the talented cricketer who has rubbed some opponents up the wrong way and occasionally fallen foul of officialdom. He has mellowed, but he still loves a sledge.
“I love sledging, I love to play aggressive cricket, I love people who play aggressive cricket. I admire people who play cricket the way I like cricket to be played,” he said. “People perceive me on the pitch to be the way I am off the pitch, that’s where the perception is wrong. If someone sledges me on the pitch, you have a bit of fun with them, but as soon as you cross back over that line, it has to be forgotten about, in my eyes anyway. I would hope that people wouldn’t hold a grudge against me for something that happened on the pitch and I certainly don’t hold a grudge against someone who came hard at me.”
Taking the Northern Knights captaincy has matured him, taught him that he is now a role model young cricketers.
The NCU’s interprovincial team continues to be criticised for a perceived reliance on overseas help, and Shannon does not duck that much-posed question.
“I can see both sides, I can see why people might be frustrated with it,” Shannon said. “The last three years of the interpros were very disappointing, we are an ambitious union and we have ambitious people behind the scenes with a lot of drive. And we wanted to reflect that in our performance when we sat down to discuss how the side was going to be made up. Also I play with the mentally to win every game, so I felt that I wanted the best possible team.
“People might ask why is that not 11 NCU guys, or why are there six people with foreign accents in the team. To me these guys are Irish citizens, they have every right to be here. It’s all about getting the best team on the pitch.”
There was a personal consideration for Shannon, because his long-time friend, and now work colleague Lee Nelson, was a high-profile casualty of the selection policy.
“Two or three years ago, you had guys like Shannon and Nelson, these guys were are automatic picks regardless of their performance, and I think that created mediocrity in performance. ‘It doesn’t matter what I do, I will be picked next week’, and you just drifted by. But this year we have 16-17-18 guys who can all play. If you are successful on the pitch, people are going to back you, it might take time, but they will.”
In an era when cricketers are routinely lured from their home-town clubs, Shannon won’t be forsaking his Shaw’s Bridge home any time soon.
There have been overtures in the past, but interested suitors are wasting their time.
“I was reading this article about Francesco Totti and he played his whole career at Roma, and he said ‘you don’t leave your poor parents to go and live with rich strangers’, and I am totally behind that. I will always play for Instonians. My dad is chairman but there are a lot of close people who are associated with the club, who are good friends, not just because they play cricket. I have been at Inst since I was 11-12 and I will always be there,”