Afortnight out from their All Ireland club semi-final against Slaughtneil, St Vincent’s headed out to Enfield to play in what must be the most salubrious surroundings a club team has ever played a challenge game.
With a match of their own only a week away, the Dublin footballers were in camp in the Johnstown Estate House Hotel. It might only have been the league but Jim Gavin wanted to win that opening game up in Cavan and so was happy to invite on site a team already up to the speed and ferocity of winter football.
For one particular St Vincent’s player it was all a bit surreal. A little over three years earlier, Enda Varley had been in camp at the same venue with his native Mayo preparing for an All-Ireland final against Dublin. Back then the rivalry was merely bubbling. Now in 2017 it had boiled over into the most heated in inter-county football, and while he was no longer playing at that level, Varley was still very conscious of who and where he was — a Mayo footballer deep behind enemy lines.
Varley’s approach was pretty much like the one he took when he first went up to Vincent’s — head down and only bring attention to yourself through your football. It would be fair to say that the reception he received up in Marino was more welcoming. On his first night out with the team, Tomas ‘Mossy’ Quinn threw an arm around him and told him that he was now Vincent’s for life. This particular January afternoon out in Johnstown, it was Philly McMahon who ran over to offer him some company just before the referee threw in the ball. No love lost there, and as Philly would remind him, no TV cameras either!
For all the jabs and jibes that McMahon would throw his way, Varley would end up holding his own, just as he had in the Dublin championship semi-final a few months earlier when Vincent’s edged McMahon’s Ballymun Kickhams by a point. In fact Varley has pretty much bettered every man-marker since he transferred from his native Garrymore 18 months ago. In the county final he was man of the match, landing four points from play in a five-point win over Ciaran Kilkenny’s Castleknock. Even when Vincent’s would fall short to Slaughtneil, Varley would kick five of their 10 points, three of them from play.
Such a vein of form invariably prompted two talking points on the terraces and social media: how he looked like he could still do a job for Mayo, then the outcry of another county player throwing his lot in with a big Dublin club. After the county final, Colm Parkinson spoke for the latter constituency, tweeting: “Vincent’s lost final last year, got Enda Varley in during the transfer window and are champions again. Welcome to Dublin club football.” Parkinson wouldn’t have been aware that if Varley hadn’t make the switch to Dublin club football, he wouldn’t have been playing any club football at all. Would anyone have tweeted or thanked him for that?
“There just came a time when you said enough was enough,” he says in a hotel lobby just off the M50, coming from work as a metalwork teacher in Baldoyle. “Mentally and physically I needed a break from the travel.” During the past week there he thought of the county lads who still make the midweek commute from Dublin: Chris Barrett, Seamie O’Shea, Jason Doc, Tom Parsons, Stephen Coen, Diarmuid O’Connor, Rob Hennelly, most of them having taken off work early to be out at the Lucan Spa for half-four and the mini-bus to Castlebar.
In Varley’s time there was also Alan Freeman, Kenneth O’Malley, Ger Cafferkey, Kevin McLoughlin, Cillian and Aidan too before they either moved on or moved back home. The banter would be great, especially the first hour on the way back home, the adrenaline high from another good night’s training and someone winding up Noel Howley, AKA The Wolf, the team’s playful, risible logistics man. But after a while the mood became more sedate, subdued even. They were still a long way from home. By the time they all fell back into their own beds, it would be 1.30am. Welcome to Mayo football.
It took its toll on Varley. In 2014, his fifth and last summer on the panel, his body broke down. He’d grit it out to light it up in training to make his way back into the matchday 26 for the All-Ireland quarter-final against Cork but a disappointing cameo off the bench belied his proven if underrated impact sub status. For the two semi-finals against Kerry he was back outside the 26. A few months into 2015 the new management of Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes let him go, the memory of that Cork game and one particular wide too vivid in their minds.
He’d soldier on with Garrymore, something to Mayo football what Monaghan are to county football with him as their Conor McManus, but after again raging against their limitations to reach another quarter-final they’d hit their usual glass ceiling and at the end of it all, Varley felt like he was repeatedly banging into a brick wall as well. If he was going to keep making the solitary three-hour home commute for Garrymore, they’d only be getting a version of Enda Varley — a cranky, crocked one. They weren’t going to break through to a county final with that fella.
“I wasn’t enjoying it. And at the end of the day it’s supposed to be a game, a hobby. Did I want to make the decision to leave? No, I didn’t. But with my job and [fiancée] Audrey up here in Dublin and the fact I wasn’t enjoying it, what do you do? Retire? You don’t want to retire at 28, 29. Obviously you still want to play. But I needed a break from the travel and a fresh start, to experience something different.
“People say there should be a residency rule in Dublin football. That’d have been fine with me. I was six years in Dublin. It’s not like I transferred after only a year. I served my time up here, like! And it’s not like the home club was just an hour down the motorway. People always throw it at you but are they willing to do the commute themselves after that many years?”
As for joining a big hitter like Vincent’s, well, he’d have taken just as much flack if he’d joined a Ballymun or Ballyboden, Brigid’s, Crokes or Plunketts. All of those are clubs capable of winning a county, none of them anywhere near certain to win it. There was also an inherent risk in joining such a good side. “There were no guarantees I’d make the bloody team.” The way he describes the culture up in Marino, you leave your ego at the door. Whether you played county or not doesn’t matter there; what can you do now? But that’s what exhilarated him. That challenge. That internal competition.
His first night at training alright was a bit like the first day at school and for a moment driving into the gates up in Marino he thought of turning the car around again until he checked himself: this is what he wanted. Vincent’s had been recommended to Varley and Varley recommended to Vincent’s by Liam Moffatt, the Mayo team physio who had worked for Vincent’s during his time studying in DCU. Within the Mayo setup, Varley was recognised as one of the team’s hardest and most diligent trainers. Donie Vaughan, now renowned as one of the team’s most ferocious grasseaters, has spoken about how he had his eyes opened back in 2011 when Varley was still based in Garrymore and Vaughan would team up with him for some extra work outside collective training. As Vaughan would arrive up to the pitch, he’d invariably be met by the sight of Varley already out there, fully absorbed, practising his kicking. For Vaughan it raised his awareness and expectations of what an inter-county footballer should be. Moffatt knew a Vincent’s would love a Varley and a Varley would love the standards and culture in Vincent’s.
“It’s a very special club,” says Varley. “There’s a real sense of respecting the jersey and what it represents. After every game you’re expected to fold the jersey before you give it back to the kit man. No one is bigger than the club or the jersey. You earn your spot on the field. You have 25 committed lads there all fighting for game-time while with a smaller, rural club with a smaller population, you might have only 12, 13 committed lads. That’s one of the reasons why the standard would be higher in Dublin.”
There are other subtle, significant differences he’s noticed. People have laughed at him for saying this but it’s true — the football is that bit better in Dublin because the pitches are better, harder, faster from having less rainfall than they have out west.
And they can play midweek games with everyone living and working in the city. That means they can play more games. Last season Varley reckons he must have played over 40 matches for Vincent’s.
“They play a lot more games than they do train up here. And that’s very enjoyable.”
He’s well settled now into the scene and into the club. Four years ago this weekend he came on at centre-forward in the All-Ireland final to be marked by Ger Brennan. Didn’t know the guy, what impressions he had were of a sombre, sober guy. Now? The complete opposite. He knows Brennan well enough to have been at his wedding in Fota Island earlier this year and knows that he’s one of the biggest jokers and messers on the team.
The same with Eamonn Fennell. Vincent’s very own Barry ‘Big Bird’ Moran: a huge man with a huge personality, invariably loud and laughing.
As for Diarmuid Connolly? Initially ‘Dermo’ might have been a bit standoffish with Varley having played for Dublin’s archest rivals, but anyone who saw those vines from Vincent’s championship run last winter will have identified the repeated target of so many of Connolly’s sublime footpasses and seen just how much he respects and has clicked with the Mayo man.
But it’s another aspect of Connolly’s game that has impressed Varley so much. “He’d be one of the best tacklers that I’ve ever been involved with. Obviously in Mayo with Donie [Buckley] as our coach we’d have prided ourselves in that aspect of the game and you’d have fellas like Jason Doc and Cillian who are very good tackling forwards. But the first thing I recognised about Dermo was how strong he was in the tackle. Not many people give him credit for that. He’ll dispossess the opposition at least twice every game. His technique in the tackle is exceptional.”
Varley was no slouch in that department either. When Mayo famously ambushed Galway in Salthill in 2013, Varley would have been at the forefront of the wolfpack that repeatedly forced a startled Galway backline to cough up ball that led to a couple of Mayo goals outside the 1-3 he struck for himself that day. That’s one of the things that he finds most intriguing about Sunday — the two best tackling teams in the country are squaring off against one another.
But not every tackle or challenge will be found in the textbook or rulebook. Varley had his own nose broken in the 2012 semi-final after an off-the-ball altercation with McMahon but for him it and the 2013 final were almost innocent encounters compared to the last four championship meetings between the sides.
“I watched the 2013 final back there not that long ago and it was striking how much the intensity and rivalry has increased. To be honest, it’s almost become toxic. In 2013 it was very intense in its own way, in the first half there was hardly a break in play, but I’m talking about the late challenges and dragging off the ball you have now. The first game in 2015, I think that’s where it went up a notch. Dublin went out that day with some challenges that were definitely red cards. You get the real sense that the players don’t like each other. That shines through and it’s spilling over now to the supporters.”
And yet when he looks back on his own career, one of his fondest memories will be of those Dublin supporters. The Hill. In the 2012 semi-final he shared free-taking duties with Cillian O’Connor and weeks out from the game they each downloaded from YouTube the Hill chanting ‘Come On You Boys In Blue’, had it on their iPods while practising every free. Come game day when the Hill struck up that chant as he was lining up a right-sided free, he just slotted it over as if it wasn’t a thing. “I was nearly singing along with them at that stage.”
In all he looks back on his career with huge fondness. With some regrets too, mind. At 30 now he’s in better shape than he was playing in All-Ireland finals four and five years ago. In hindsight when he was in with the county he pushed it too hard. He almost wanted it too much. Instead of just sticking to the S&C workouts prescribed by Ed Coughlan, he’d do even more. He remembers one summer himself, Mickey Conroy and Colm Boyle doing their 150m sprints together and Conroy leaving them for dead. Boyle and Varley couldn’t understand it. Conroy wasn’t training as much as them! Therein lay the answer. Now, like Boyle, he recovers better, trains smarter, eats better.
Tomorrow Boyle will be the only one of the three of them still running out there in Croke Park; like Conroy, Varley will be watching from the stands. But like Conroy who philosophised in these pages last month, it was an honour to have been in that arena, that circle.
“People ask how do they stick with it after all the near-misses, but like, what are you supposed to do? Just give up, is it? You have to keep going. Something Mickey said really stuck with me which was why wouldn’t you stick at it when you’re going down having the craic every evening with 30 of your best friends and you’re in an environment where players and management are all striving for the same goal and everyone is pushing each other on?”
As Vaughan would vouch, Varley in his own way helped them get better, just as he’s doing now in Vincent’s.