Stars conspicuous by their absence
More and more players are opting out of senior county commitments to explore other options
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’