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20th Feb 2018

Players are finally reading the writing on the wall but how many will follow O’Rourke?

Jack O'Toole

Meath goalkeeper Paddy O’Rourke retired from intercounty football late last year and he claims that his life has instantly improved.

In a recent interview with AIB, which has since been deleted, O’Rourke said that he left the Meath panel in November of last year after it became abundantly clear that the level of commitment required was not worth his time and investment.

As with almost any interview of interest, there was a divisive reaction to his comments.

In some quarters he was praised for his honesty. Heralded for shedding light on the rigours and demands of intercounty football.

While in other parts of the country, particularly Offaly, he was slammed.

New Offaly manager Stephen Wallace, who’s side are busy loitering at the bottom of Division 3 with no wins from three games, took time out of his schedule to blast O’Rourke for giving two fingers to the rest of the players on the Meath panel.

“What about all the other Meath guys who are happy to be there?,” Wallace said in an interview in The Irish Examiner. “What about the Meath guy who is number 25 on the panel, or 36 on the panel?

“Don’t stick your two fingers up to the rest of your team-mates, especially a guy who has been lucky enough to get trips to Australia, played in Leinster finals and all the rest.

“Meath are where they are at the minute and his team-mates don’t need to be hearing that, but he is not alone. If you want to walk away, then walk away, but don’t beat the guys who are still at it with a stick.”

His teammates don’t need to hear the truth, but rather, they need to hear from men like Wallace selling them a lie.

O’Rourke spent seven consecutive seasons looking for incremental improvement with Meath and left the panel last year after a career where he received a torrent of online abuse and nothing more to show for it over the last seven years than the question of ‘what the fuck am I doing?’

“From 2011 to now, the commitment levels have gone through the roof but we’ve had nothing to show for it,” O’Rourke told Shane Stapleton on the AIB GAA blog.

“Our seasons have been over by early to mid-July. Last year we lost to Kildare, which suggests we’re slipping in the province, while Dublin are well out in front, and then this new Super 8 won’t help any team outside the elite.

“So I finally came to a decision: this is not worth it. Because when you think of the consequences of the incredible commitment levels required, you’re losing so much of your life. Never mind the amount of evenings you’re spending training and at the gym, it means you end up isolated from your family, your friends and your club. And for what?

“How can you justify training five or six nights per week for eight or nine months of the year, without a realistic chance of winning anything? I just can’t do it any more.”

It took O’Rourke seven seasons before he reached a tipping point where the lack of return was no longer worth the investment.

Dublin have won 12 of the last 13 Leinster senior football championships and are closing in on a fourth consecutive All-Ireland title where they will almost certainly face Kerry or Mayo, the two teams that have occupied at least one spot in the last seven All-Ireland finals between them.

They say intercounty players operate with their heads in a bubble but it’s more like the sand if they can’t see that a team like Meath have no chance of competing within this lopsided landscape.

Last year, Kildare manager Cian O’Neill appeared on RTE’s new series GAA Nua where he introduced GPS monitors and occlusion goggles to improve Kildare’s physical performance on the pitch.

Less than a month later, Kildare lost by nine points to Dublin in the Leinster senior football final, but hey, at least their eyes were that much sharper when watching the ball fly over their own bar.

It turns out that sports science, occlusion goggles and GPS monitors don’t stack up against a juggernaut like Dublin.

Who would have thought that a team sponsored by Brady’s Family Ham, a company with ‘the finest 100% Irish topside pork joint’ would have lost to Dublin, a team sponsored by AIG, an American multinational insurance corporation with operations in more than 80 countries and jurisdictions.

Who would have thought that a team that received €749, 081 in coaching and games development grants over the last decade would have lost to a team that received €16,612,847 over the same time span.

Who would have thought that a team with 90 development officers in their own county beat a fellow team from the same province that will eventually have 89 development officers throughout the rest of said province when the East Coast Project kicks in.

It can be uncomfortable for players to think that they are a product of good coaching and resources, rather than their own hard work.

The whole idea behind playing sport is gradual improvement, even though factors like superior coaching from a younger age have had undeniable effects in cultivating sporting success.

Con O'Callaghan

However, when a team wins 12 of the last 13 provincial titles, and the other teams in that province are convinced that they just need to work harder and show greater commitment to catch up, there is a blatant lack of self-awareness on their part.

Meath aren’t troubling Dublin anytime soon, and Westmeath certainly aren’t troubling them either following their 31-point shellacking in last year’s Leinster semi-final, but the question ultimately then comes down to enjoyment for players in Leinster and other lopsided situations.

Here are two sets of quotes from Player A and Player B.

Player A:

“It’s literally a dream come true for most lads there. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that there’s a massive commitment, but you wouldn’t do it if you weren’t enjoying it.

“The craic you have and the enjoyment of it all most definitely outweighs the negatives.

“Even the negatives, Jesus, if you weren’t playing football you’d like to think you’d be keeping yourself in somewhat decent shape. You’d probably be going for a run or to the gym three or four times a week anyway.

“Everyone on the team is the kind of personality who enjoys exercise. After my operation I was going out of my mind because I couldn’t do anything exercise-wise and I was in a foul humour, I was taking the head off everyone in the house.

“Once you’re able to go and do anything like this, it’s fantastic. It’s a real part of a balanced lifestyle and I think the negatives of it are very definitely overstated.

“I leave the house looking forward to going to training. You arrive and have the craic with everyone. You go out and you train and you come back in and you’re home to bed. It’s not a chore.

“In the depths of January when you’re running up and down a mucky pitch you can question your life-choices sometimes, but definitely it’s something most people do because it’s fun.

“I think people do lose sight of that a little bit.”

Player B: 

“You either enjoy being a part of a inter county set up or not!! Nobody forcing lads to be apart of it. Gives my life a structure and drive to keep improving! Maybe we are just lucky with the management we have in place!”

Player A is Dublin defender Jack McCaffrey. Player B is Carlow forward Darragh Foley.

Football would not feel like a chore and would be fun if you were apart of a team that was honing in on its fourth consecutive All-Ireland, but then by the same token, Foley, who plays in Division 4 and has almost no chance of ever making a Leinster final, much less an All-Ireland final, is perfectly happy with his sport and the commitment it requires.

If McCaffrey and Foley roughly receive the same enjoyment from the game despite operating in different stratospheres; what’s the problem?

There is none, both players should continue playing and enjoying their football. If you can derive enjoyment from an activity without necessarily tying your happiness from that activity to wins and losses, more power to you.

However, the problem lies with managers like Wallace lambasting O’Rourke for realising that there’s more to life than double sessions and getting hockeyed on a yearly basis by the likes of McCaffrey and Dublin.

That’s the problem, when rational, logical thinking is suffocated and trampled on as soon as it raises its head.

If at 28, with nearly a decade of intercounty experience under his belt, O’Rourke wants to leave intercounty football to play with and captain his club side, can you really blame him?

Nobody is forcing intercounty players to play intercounty football and hurling, but managers, friends, parents, relatives, siblings and coaches like Stephen Wallace contribute to a culture where you are punished for leaving and critiquing a flawed system in favour of a more balanced competition that doesn’t consume some of the best years of your life.

If a pig is happy rolling in shite, let them be, but if they want to explore other parts of the farm after nearly a decade in the mud, they should not be shamed for leaving the other pigs rolling around in  the Leinster Senior Football Championship shite.

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