Cork hurlers Eoin Cadogan, Colm Spillane and Bill Cooper all made a hard call in stepping away

Christy O'Connor looks at the experiences inter-county hurlers have when they move on from the elite level of the game
Cork hurlers Eoin Cadogan, Colm Spillane and Bill Cooper all made a hard call in stepping away

Colm Spillane of Cork in action against Ronan Hayes of Dublin in 2020. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

THREE weeks after last year’s All-Ireland final, Waterford’s Stephen O’Keeffe made it known that he was stepping away from inter-county hurling.

O’Keeffe was at the top of his game, having kept a clean sheet in the All-Ireland final, an achievement embellished by an incredible double-save from Kyle Hayes and Cian Lynch in the first half.

Nobody knew at the time if O’Keeffe would be back over the summer, but he didn’t return. Speculation grew again after the championship that he might rejoin Waterford for the 2022 campaign, but his sole focus now is with Ballygunner.

O’Keeffe has a different rhythm to the beat of his life now.  When he went back training with Ballygunner last summer, he found it more enjoyable, certainly less intense than it would have been with Waterford for the first few months of the season.

“You were able to ease yourself in,” said O’Keeffe recently.  “I enjoyed that. As the year went on the decision became clearer.” 

Cork have lost three key players this past month.  Eoin Cadogan, Colm Spillane and Bill Cooper have all had enough of inter-county hurling and will be hard to replace in terms of experience.

Eoin Cadogan. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Eoin Cadogan. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Similar to O’Keeffe, Dublin’s Paul Mannion had also featured in an All-Ireland final in December 2020, but he didn’t start a single championship game for Dublin in that championship. 

That may have been a factor in Mannion’s decision to step away from Dublin in 2021 but removing himself from the constant grind was the primary reason. 

“It’s not just a training thing,” Mannion said last June. “It’s around the clock, week to week.” 

Like O’Keeffe, Mannion has enjoyed his time with his club Kilmacud Crokes and is still involved in the provincial club championship. 

Yet Dublin clearly missed him last year and the discussion around whether Mannion will or won’t return has been a constant source of debate for months now. If Mannion has played his last game for Dublin, he can have no regrets after such a brilliant career. 

He may feel he has no more to achieve, nothing left to prove, but the easy assumption for the casual Dublin supporter to make is that Mannion has still plenty more to offer at just 28.

That decision is ultimately down to Mannion but because the GAA is such a community-based organisation, supporters often feel like stakeholders in the choices players make around their careers, especially when ending them at inter-county level.

When players walk away, it’s more than just their team-mates that feel their loss; the supporters can deduce that the team’s chances, and ultimately their hopes as fans, are impacted by that player’s decision. 

So, despite a player’s desire to return to some form of normality, that connection to the community doesn’t always make it easy for GAA players to just walk away.

PRIDE OF THE PARISH

In an excellent interview on OTBFM in November, the former Galway goalkeeper James Skehill, who only retired in 2021, gave a brilliant insight into how tight those binds to the community are for players, and how hard they can be to walk away from. Much of the discussion in that interview was based on a brilliant piece on Skehill by Arthur O’Dea on OTB Sports. 

James Skehill. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
James Skehill. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Skehill outlined how the easy and lazy response from many supporters towards the increasing commitments had always infuriated him.

“There are those who say, ‘Oh, sure you have a choice, give up it if it is so hard,’” said Skehill to O’Dea. 

“That f**king galls me – it’s not that simple. You only have a select period in your life where you can put yourself in a position to perform for that team. I cannot come back and do it again.” 

The vast majority of players never have a hope of winning a provincial title, let alone an All-Ireland, but most elite sport is built on inequality. Players have different goals, many of which are achievable; a couple of championship wins, individual progress, and satisfaction, passing different thresholds in their minds as they go.

For many, the chase may seem pointless, but the investment in the process extends far beyond an individual framework. 

Skehill spoke about a 93-year old neighbour who gets so wound up seeing Cappatagle winning club games that it was almost like the man was playing with the team.

“If I didn’t play with Galway, I wouldn’t be letting down just myself,” Skehill told Ger Gilroy on that OTBAM interview. “I’d be letting down so many people in Cappatagle who get great pride in saying ‘We’ve got a county player’.

Coming from a club who have no senior county titles, it would be very difficult for me to get into a position of prominence with Galway and then to give it up when I know that I’m representing something much deeper than just myself.” 

For a lot of inter-county players, their identity is centrally bound up with that status. 

So, when the time is eventually right to walk away, and the player can do so on their terms, the decision is still never easy because of how those players are representing more than just themselves.

As January approaches and the inter-county season winds up again, the trickle of player retirements normally rises into a torrent. Most will have made their peace with the decision. Others won’t because they’ve been dropped or politely told to retire. 

Some just silently slip away into the sunset. Bouquets and tributes are thrown at retired warriors. 

Many are lauded and feted, but the applause isn’t always as loud when the supporters feel that the player, irrespective of their personal situation and choice, has more to give.

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