Stars con­spic­u­ous by their ab­sence

More and more play­ers are opt­ing out of se­nior county com­mit­ments to ex­plore other op­tions

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - GAELIC GAMES - DER­MOT CROWE

SUM­MER­TIME and the leav­ing ain’t easy. But leave they do, some by choice, some by fac­tors be­yond their con­trol. Cham­pi­onship is pre­mium air time for a county foot­baller or hurler so when one de­cides to with­draw, chooses some­thing else, it tends to raise eye­brows. In 2016, it was Jack McCaf­frey, walk­ing away from a Dublin All-Ire­land-win­ning team when reign­ing Foot­baller of the Year.

Jack was high pro­file but he wasn’t first nor last to do so. Be­fore him there was Paul Man­nion. Be­fore that you had Rory O’Car­roll. This year it looks to be Diar­muid Con­nolly. Their de­ci­sions fuel de­bate in black and white en­vi­ron­ments where tun­nel vi­sion and group­think are in­clined to hold sway. They swim against the tide. But the cham­pi­onship, like ol’ man river, car­ries on with­out them.

McCaf­frey could not have been in a bet­ter place from a foot­ball point of view when he left the Dublin panel two years ago. From that an­gle it seemed an un­usual time to go. He knew that by leav­ing he stood an ex­cel­lent chance of miss­ing out on an All-Ire­land medal. But that is one an­gle, and clearly he could see more than one. In­stead of see­ing what he would miss by go­ing, he saw what he’d miss if he didn’t.

And so, the day af­ter Dublin opened their ti­tle de­fence with a win over Laois in Kilkenny in June, 2016, a match he watched in his lo­cal in Clon­tarf, McCaf­frey boarded a flight to Ad­dis Ababa. He went to work with Goal as their am­bas­sador in Ethiopia for a week and from there he took off to a num­ber of dif­fer­ent African des­ti­na­tions, free as a bird. Dublin foot­ball went on with­out him, as he knew it would.

If McCaf­frey bucked the trend, show­ing a streak of in­de­pen­dence, the pres­sures and all-con­sum­ing earnest­ness of in­ter-county foot­ball and hurl­ing has per­suaded oth­ers to fol­low. In some cases they have no op­tion. In­jury rules out for­mer Foot­baller of the Year Bernard Bro­gan this sum­mer, but there will still be those who take the de­ci­sion to re­move them­selves, leav­ing of their own vo­li­tion. When they do so vol­un­tar­ily it tends to have peo­ple ask if there is some­thing we don’t know. How could a player leave oth­er­wise? It goes against the grain of think­ing which re­gards de­vo­tion to a county as ab­so­lute and un­con­di­tional.

Dublin’s re­sources are suf­fi­ciently well stocked to en­able them to lose even play­ers of the cal­i­bre of McCaf­frey, who is re­cov­er­ing from in­jury at the mo­ment, but the county they de­feated in their first match in the Le­in­ster Cham­pi­onship last year, Car­low, will not find it easy to man­age with­out Bren­dan Mur­phy. The mid­fielder is head­ing to Bos­ton to play foot­ball there for part of the sum­mer and will be ab­sent when Car­low start out on their Le­in­ster Cham­pi­onship cam­paign against Louth at Port­laoise on next Sun­day in the pre­lim­i­nary round.

Mur­phy de­clined to dis­cuss the rea­sons be­hind his de­ci­sion when con­tacted on Thurs­day and he is en­ti­tled to keep those items pri­vate. It is be­lieved that he made the de­ci­sion with a heavy heart. Last year Car­low man­aged three wins in the cham­pi­onship for the first time since 1942 with Mur­phy a key man in their mid­field. In 2011 he was part of the team that caused a shock when de­feat­ing Louth, Le­in­ster fi­nal­ists the pre­vi­ous year, a re­sult which earned Car­low a place in the Le­in­ster semi-fi­nals for the first time since 1958.

That is how mod­est the win­nings are in a county like this. The fol­low­ing year they drew with Meath. They didn’t win a Le­in­ster Cham­pi­onship match again un­til last sum­mer when they sur­prised Wex­ford, the re­ward be­ing a match against Dublin which gained them more at­ten­tion than they prob­a­bly ever had be­fore, even though they were on an im­pos­si­ble mis­sion.

In the spring Mur­phy was part of Car­low’s long-awaited pro­mo­tion from Di­vi­sion 4 and he would have en­joyed that given that as re­cently as four years ago they fin­ished bot­tom of the en­tire Na­tional League and went on to get a beat­ing from Meath in the Le­in­ster Cham­pi­onship that ranked as their worst of all time. Car­low foot­ball was in as good a place as it has ever been when he re­vealed the news that he would be DIAR­MUID CON­NOLLY (Dublin) BERNARD BRO­GAN (Dublin) away for the cham­pi­onship. Man­ager Tur­lough O’Brien, who has done much to steer them on this up­wardly mo­bile course, had known for a few months longer.

“It does not re­ally af­fect the Dublins and Ker­rys of this world,” says O’Brien of play­ers leav­ing for sum­mers abroad. “Yeah sure you would be dis­ap­pointed, but look that’s life at the mo­ment. You move on from it. It’s an op­por­tu­nity for some­body else.”

Last year, af­ter Car­low’s match with Dublin, Diar­muid Con­nolly missed all of the rest of the cham­pi­onship through sus­pen­sion un­til the semi-fi­nals when he came in as the last sub against Ty­rone. He was in­tro­duced for the sec­ond half of the fi­nal against Mayo, hav­ing a typ­i­cally telling in­flu­ence, but this spring he has been lim­ited to a sub­sti­tute ap­pear­ance in one league game be­fore with­draw­ing from the panel.

In the last few days Jim Gavin was asked again about Con­nolly’s ab­sence, stat­ing in re­sponse that the player would be wel­comed back when he felt in a po­si­tion to give that kind of com­mit­ment. Con­nolly’s ab­sence from re­cent se­nior foot­ball cham­pi­onship matches with St Vin­cent’s has also been no­tice­able and in­ter­preted as a sig­nal that the player wants a com­plete break from the game and has lost his ap­petite and mo­ti­va­tion. But there was a flicker of hope when he ap­peared for the club in a se­nior hurl­ing league match against Craobh Chiaráin on Fri­day night.

Whether he will re­turn at this point is sim­ply un­known but the prospects, Fri­day night notwith­stand­ing, don’t look ter­ri­bly en­cour­ag­ing. Un­like Car­low, where a short sum­mer is vir­tu­ally guar­an­teed, Dublin’s ex­pected jour­ney into Au­gust and prob­a­bly Septem­ber al­lows Con­nolly time to change his mind. But even a player with his rep­u­ta­tion can­not ex­pect to ca­su­ally slip back in if he is out of the fold for too long and the on­go­ing spec­u­la­tion about when he might re­turn isn’t help­ful to Dublin’s prepa­ra­tions. Like last year, he has found him­self, in ex­ile, still part of the on­go­ing nar­ra­tive.

Con­nolly may miss the cham­pi­onship but the sum­mer had started to get more ac­cus­tomed to him be­ing ab­sent or hav­ing a di­min­ish­ing role. His last start for the county was the Car­low game in June, with the first an­niver­sary of that land­mark quickly ap­proach­ing. In July he will turn 31. He has won five All-Ire­land se­nior medals and two All Stars, the last in 2016, his last sat­is­fy­ingly com­plete sea­son for Dublin. He has taken the de­ci­sion to step away of his own ac­cord. This is not a fairy­tale end­ing, if it is to be the end of his ca­reer. The many who ad­mire his foot­ball tal­ents will hope there is a twist yet in the tale.

In Water­ford, Shane Ben­nett has also de­cided to step away from in­ter-county hurl­ing af­ter win­ning All-Ire­lands at mi­nor and un­der 21. Last year he was on the team de­feated by Gal­way in the All-Ire­land se­nior fi­nal and while Water­ford have a lot of at­tack­ing op­tions, Ben­nett pos­sesses an abil­ity to pull off the spec­tac­u­lar that places him in a rarer cat­e­gory. One of three broth­ers in­volved with the county last year, he has gone against the grain, not giv­ing any clear in­di­ca­tion as to why he did so. Un­like Con­nolly and Mur­phy who are ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers, Ben­nett is just 21.

The frus­tra­tion for those like Water­ford man­ager Derek McGrath, for whom de­liv­er­ance of that long-awaited All-Ire­land se­nior ti­tle is the all-con­sum­ing goal, is un­der­stand­able. For McGrath, and many oth­ers as­so­ci­ated with that quest, very lit­tle is al­lowed to come in the way. He tried more than once to per­suade Ben­nett to al­ter his think­ing but the spark wasn’t there. Travel was men­tioned by Ben­nett as a pos­si­ble rea­son for his de­ci­sion with­out sound­ing con­clu­sive. In any event they are now re­signed to be with­out him when they start their Mun­ster Cham­pi­onship against Clare in En­nis on May 27. Last year Tom Devine took a de­ci­sion to opt out for the cham­pi­onship in or­der to travel. He is back with the squad this year and Water­ford hope Ben­nett will join him be­fore too long.

Ar­magh have faced the same co­nun­drum in the past with Jamie Clarke, a fish out of wa­ter with his fond­ness for ex­otic cof­fee and travel and want­ing to learn more first-hand about the world out­side the GAA. Clarke fol­lowed his in­stincts and did his own thing be­fore re­turn­ing to the fold and if he felt a mea­sure of guilt leav­ing at the time it wasn’t enough to stop him. He went against the crowd. To­day he lines out for New York in the Con­nacht Cham­pi­onship against Leitrim. On May 19, Ar­magh will face Fer­managh at Brew­ster Park in the Ul­ster quar­ter-fi­nals with­out Clarke, who was one of their star play­ers in their run to the All-Ire­land quar­ter-fi­nals in 2017.

Some years back one of the Kilkenny hurlers went to Brian Cody to re­veal to him a job op­por­tu­nity that would en­tail miss­ing train­ing and not be­ing able to give the com­mit­ment that he had been able to of­fer be­fore. Cody’s re­ply was that he could have that if he wished, but he could not have hurl­ing. It was a straight un­var­nished re­sponse ab­sent of any sen­ti­ment or judge­ment. It was what it was. Take it or leave it.

Now, with the op­por­tu­ni­ties out there, some more may be leav­ing it than did be­fore. Some by choice. Some, like Bernard Bro­gan, with­out that ben­e­fit. But the show goes on. They will watch this sum­mer’s ac­tion with a strange sense of alien­ation.

Cody replied he could have that if he wished, but he could not have hurl­ing

‘Shane Ben­nett has de­cided to step away from in­ter-county hurl­ing af­ter win­ning All-Ire­lands at mi­nor and un­der 21. While Water­ford have a lot of at­tack­ing op­tions, Ben­nett pos­sesses an abil­ity to pull off the spec­tac­u­lar that places him in a rarer cat­e­gory’

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.