Even the most talented players are now willing to put their GAA careers on hold to see the world

Even the most talented players are now willing to put their GAA careers on hold to see the world

UCC’s Tom Devine racing onto the ball from UL’s Tony Kelly. Devine had shown great form for Waterford in the league, but won’t be available for championship as he’s travelling. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

The Christy O'Connor GAA column

EIGHT minutes into the second half of the Galway-Waterford league quarter-final in Pearse Stadium last month, Tom Devine turned Daithí Burke and scored his, and Waterford’s second goal. 

As soon as the ball hit the net, Derek McGrath turned around to his management team and pumped his fist.

Few players have managed to skin Burke but Devine did it twice, his two goals coming within the space of 60 seconds. He ended the match with 2-1 from just six possessions but Devine scolded himself after scoring his point because he should have given the pass to Shane Roche, who was steaming through the centre. Another goal at that stage would surely have ended the match.

It was Devine’s second big statement within the space of seven days. A week earlier in Cusack Park, Devine turned the game against Clare. For periods of that game, Waterford looked a little directionless and aimless but their focus changed when Devine came on with 25 minutes remaining. In such a tight, pulsating contest, Divine’s contribution pushed Waterford over the line. As well as scoring 1-1, he also had two scoring assists.

His performance on both days was even sweeter for a variety of reasons. Austin Gleeson and Patrick Curran were gone off by the last quarter against Clare before Devine grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck. Waterford left nine starters on the bench against Galway but Devine showed the kind of leadership up front that looked set to make him a permanent starter this summer for the first time in his senior career.

Devine though, has made a decision to leave the panel and go travelling for the summer. “With college and career demands looming large in the next year or two, this is essentially my last chance to travel for a summer,” Devine said in a statement recently. 

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do but have been putting off for a few years now, and this year I simply can’t pass the opportunity to travel."

In one sense, it is easy to understand Devine’s thinking. He is a medical student with a hectic academic life, which is only going to get more hectic as he progresses in his studies. If Devine doesn’t go travelling now, he may not get that window again.

Jack McCaffrey was Footballer-of-the-Year when he took a similar decision around the same time last year. McCaffrey is also a medical student and he spent much of last summer in Ethiopia and Africa, mostly working for GOAL.

McCaffrey missed out on another All-Ireland medal, just as Paul Mannion did the previous year in 2015, when he also went travelling. So did Rory O’Carroll who left for New Zealand early in 2016. Since nailing down the number three jersey in 2010, O’Carroll started all but one of Dublin’s next 36 championship games.

He won three All-Ireland medals but the lure of another one, maybe even more, wasn’t enough to hold him back. “I’m open to the idea I could play again,” said O’Carroll in February 2016. “And I’m open to the idea I may never play again. I’ll see how it goes. I’m not too worried about what is down the line.” 

There was a time when the prospect of an All-Ireland medal, or even being involved in an inter-county team, was enough to keep players around but inter-county hurlers and footballers are no longer bound by that attraction and lure. For many players now, their commitment only stretches are far as their first championship game, where if their team loses, they head to the US. 

That is as much down to a broken championship structure as a desire to travel but more and more players with a realistic chance of winning an All-Ireland are taking up that option.

There were times when managers made do with players who were gone longer. Gerry McInerney, the tear-away Galway half-back was an exile during the county’s back-to-back Liam MacCarthy Cup wins of 1987/'88, flying home from the searing heat of the Bronx a few weeks before Galway's annual All-Ireland semi-final matches. Pete Finnerty would be on the same flight because he was also in New York along with McInerney during those years.

For a couple of years in the early 1990s Cork’s John Fitzgibbon jetted into town in time for the championship but it seems unimaginable now that a player could fly in from abroad and successfully audition for a starting spot in just a few training sessions. But it worked for Galway, and for Fitzgibbon.

Galway’s Johnny Glynn, who has been based in New York for the last year, is going to try and pull it off this summer but the challenge for most managers is to keep players around when they want to go.

The problem is far more common at club level. That is much more understandable given how chaotic and unpredictable club championship fixtures are but society has changed now too and the mindset of players, at club and inter-county, is vastly different to what it was. 

The world is a much smaller place now and many players want to travel it rather than make the huge lifestyle choice that demands so much from them as inter-county players.

Devine will be a huge loss to Waterford this summer as they go chasing that elusive All-Ireland. He knows that. There will surely be times when he will miss the buzz and wish he was there. But that is the chance that Devine is prepared to take.

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