ALMOST two years ago, a group of researchers at IT Tralee’s School of Health and Social Sciences conducted a study, with the research taken from inter-county squads in Munster and Connacht.
One of the key findings of Patrick O’Connor, Joe O’Connor and Tadgh O’Shea was that a student inter-county hurler or footballer was more likely to choose a course at a third level institute than their student peer group because of sport.
Higher Education Authority (HEA) statistics reveal that the presence of third-level institutions in a region influences local cohorts of students to remain close to home but the IT Tralee research paper revealed how inter-county players far exceed their student peers by remaining locally.
The research found that 83% of Cork’s inter-county players study in Cork, with 82% of Galway’s students studying in Galway, while 77% of Limerick’s inter-county student players went to college in their own county.
However, those numbers naturally weren’t as high in counties where there was only one third level institution; 33% of Kerry players studied in Kerry, 38% of Waterford players studied in their own county while, in Sligo, only 10% of their players studied in the county.
The scale and variety of courses in Cork, Limerick and Galway was an obvious contributory factor to the higher numbers. But even in counties where there is no third level institute, the research found inter-county players were more likely than their peer group to study in an adjoining county.
The proximity to home was influenced by a number of factors including increasing requirements to attend multiple mid-week training sessions. Yet, in conducting their analysis, the researchers also found that increasing instances of requirements to attend mid-week training also had a subsequent effect on academic performance.
Long-distance travel for training though, can extend far beyond just academic and work performance – it also impacts teams’ injury lists and mental and physical fatigue.
For years now, much has been made about the huge advantage Dublin constantly have with the majority of their squad based within half an hour of their training base.
Those invisible gains were highlighted even more when compared with the logistical issues routinely faced by Mayo. When Mayo lost to Dublin in four All-Ireland finals between 2013-20, they invariably had over half of their squad (with often up to a dozen players in Dublin) based away from the county for most of the year.
Some of those players were able to return home for the summer but it always got trickier for Mayo when those summers seeped into autumn. While Dublin could easily extend their summer routine into September, especially for All-Ireland final replays, Mayo’s squad was splintered and scattered again.
For some counties though, that is a perennial issue, with even larger numbers away. Leitrim are probably unique in that there are only two players currently resident in the county. Upwards of 20 of the senior panel are either working or studying in Dublin. There’s another half dozen in Galway, some in Limerick, some in Belfast. It’s easy to see why Leitrim train their Dublin-based players in Blanchardstown IT.
The big cities will always be an attraction for young people but much of this issue is also defined by government policy, especially with so many jobs located on the east coast.
Shifting demographics within the GAA have been a growing concern in recent years, especially around rural depopulation, but the last 13 months of pandemic lockdown may have slowed down the huge migration eastwards.
Remote working has allowed increasing numbers of people to relocate home. The roll-out of the National Broadband Plan should also facilitate that greater transition of players being able to return to their own counties.
Some players are already exploring those options. In March, former Mayo footballer Enda Varley, who as a teacher in Dublin played for St Vincents for five years, announced that he was transferring back to his home club, Garrymore.
In an interview in the Irish Times, Varley said that he and his wife were actively considering moving across the Shannon in the new climate. “When this is over, hopefully employers will continue to see the benefits,” said Varley. “My wife’s company is offering two or three days at home and the others in the office and vice versa. When that’s on the table there’s a huge range of options for people who want to live in the country.”
The social aspect of city life has obviously been diluted over the last year but the benefits of living down the country are reflected through the quality of life and the reduced cost of living. And for players, being able to play with their own club, and train with their county without the hassle of travel, makes that option of moving home all the more attractive.
Those benefits were clear to everyone last summer.
It was obviously down to the split-season, players not being able to travel, and everyone being around, but it was unheard of for clubs to consistently have 35-40 players training during July and August.
The benefits of more players being around would also be apparent for county squads too. In private conversation, one recently retired Mayo player said that if the current working-from-home culture was prevalent in the past, he and the rest of the Dublin-based players would have been able to come home at their leisure on Thursday evenings, work from home on Friday and arrive into training fresh that evening.
That might have made a difference to Mayo in the past. But a new and more flexible working environment could make a significant difference to Mayo’s – and other counties - All-Ireland prospects in the future.