WITH Roscommon and Monaghan level in Dr Hyde Park in Round 2 of the league in early February, Conor Cox stood over a difficult 25-metre free close to the sideline as the game was deep in injury-time.
Monaghan had bagged the previous two scores and seemingly had all the momentum, but Cox connected with the outside of his right boot and drove the ball over the bar.
“You will not see a better score,” said Bernard Flynn in his live RTÉ Radio 1 co-commentary.
“That is a momentous score from the Kerry-man.”
It was the first time many people had heard of Cox. He had been central to Kerry’s All-Ireland Junior success in 2017 when scoring 1-8 in the final against Meath. He had been a prominent player with UCC.
Tomás Ó Sé, who played with Cox briefly during a spell on the Kerry panel in 2013, revealed recently that UCC manager Billy Morgan “could not understand why he wasn’t in with Kerry”.
Ó Sé felt that while Cox’s talent was never in doubt, he fell victim to the raft of forwards coming off the Kerry underage production line. Ó Sé also felt that a decision to go travelling early in his career put Cox on the back foot.
“That was never a thing in Kerry, if you want to be a Kerry footballer you break your backside trying to get in there,” said Ó Sé.
“And there’s always forwards in Kerry. The attitude possibly would be that there are three of four Conor Coxes there.”
Cox, who lined out for Kerry seven times in the league, accepted as much and, keen to play championship football, he transferred from Listowel Emmets to Roscommon club Eire Óg in December, the home club of his father Martin.
Yet to be eligible to play with Roscommon in the league, it appeared that Cox would had to have played a club championship game first, which would have ruled him out for the entire league campaign.
A mad scramble ensued, which involved a submitted transfer request to Dublin club St Jude’s before Cox discovered he didn’t even have to leave his home club to qualify for Roscommon.
Cox, who last played a senior match for Kerry in the 2016 league, gave a glimpse that February afternoon against Monaghan of what he could add to Roscommon, and he has proved this summer just how much of an addition he has been. After scoring 0-15, 0-9 from play, in three games, Cox was absolutely central to Roscommon’s Connacht title success.
If the All-Stars were being handed out at the moment, Cox would be a definite on the team.
Cox’s move to Roscommon under the ‘parentage rule’ in the GAA’s rule book relates to transfers where ‘other relevant connections’ are in place.
It constitutes playing with a particular county if the player’s parents at the time of his birth were permanently resident in that county or if it’s the county of the ‘first club’ (original home club) of one of those parents.
These avenues are open to 14 counties to take advantage of in football — Clare, Offaly, Leitrim, Sligo, Longford, Carlow, Fermanagh, Kilkenny, Laois, Cavan, Roscommon, Wicklow, Tipperary, and Westmeath.
Some of those counties have far bigger populations than some of the others on that list, but the rule is still there to be used to good advantage. A handful of players with Dublin clubs have declared for Offaly, Longford, Wicklow and Westmeath this season, but Cox has been by far the most successful transfer.
It’s unlikely that Cox’s transfer could act as a catalyst for more cross-boundary movement, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t.
The reality is that most of the top counties have a raft of players surplus to requirements, while the rest are dealing with a deficit of talent and a need for more.
Most of those counties might only need two or three better players who, for whatever reason, have been cut adrift, but still crave the platform to compete at the highest level. Yet unlike other sports, the only way to balance those inequalities is through the parentage rule.
Since the rule was first introduced though, the take-up has been poor and, aside from Cox, it has made no significant difference to the fortunes of any county.
Transfers though have always been highly debatable in the GAA. The Association has always accommodated those who had to transfer out of necessity but rightfully drew the line on those who sought to do so for opportunistic purposes.
The GAA has always been community-based but the downside to that reality is that many players born in a sparsely populated county with little or no chance of success — in either code — are resigned to an inter-county career of disappointment and unfulfilled ambition.
The flipside is of talented and ambitious club players — especially those in Dublin — who just can’t break into those elite county squads, but who crave that platform to play at a higher level.
The Seánie Johnston case from a few years back, when he moved to Kildare after Cavan didn’t want him, was a whole different and more controversial debate. Even if Johnston had parental links to Kildare, he wouldn’t have had any grounds to transfer because Kildare is not one of the designated counties where the rule applies.
On the other hand, for players who do have those links to other counties through their parents, the move may not always fit, or players may not feel comfortable in a new environment that, from a distance, could seem alien to them.
Yet for ambitious players who feel equipped to play county football, but who are unable to break into elite squads, at least there is an outlet to do so if they have an identifiable link with a particular county.
Cox has certainly proven as much. And the inter-county game is far better for his involvement with Roscommon this season.