Reality bites: Why our GAA stars are stepping away

For Killian Clarke, it was a matter of changing values.For Donie Kingston, it was simply business.

Reality bites: Why our GAA stars are stepping away

For Killian Clarke, it was a matter of changing values.For Donie Kingston, it was simply business.

Two twenty something All-Star nominees quitting the inter-county game for slightly different reasons but two twenty something All-Star nominees, nevertheless, bidding adieu at the peak of their athletic powers.

On first glance, the large swathes of footballers and hurlers choosing not to play for their counties this year would suggest an epidemic.

The Gaelic Players Association (GPA) would highlight the numbers stepping away aren’t much different to previous years while the Irish Examiner is aware players’ reasons for doing so range from interpreted disrespect from new management to a lack of starts.

That being said, the commitment involved is a common thread. The juice is not worth the squeeze for a large proportion.

Clarke, 26, couldn’t countenance playing on when the fun had gone out of it.A stockbroker with Cantor Fitzgerald in Dublin, the commuting to and from Cavan had become more of a strain.

Yes, Cavan were in Division 1 last year and reached an Ulster final but it was that defeat to Donegal and the subsequent 16-point qualifier loss to Tyrone that made him wonder just how far the team were from achieving something tangible.

“I felt we had a good bit of work done for that Ulster final last year and it didn’t work. We struggled to cope with Donegal and they tore us to shreds. We scored a couple of late goals that took the gloss of their win a bit and didn’t make it look as bad for us but if you sat down and analysed that game you just wouldn’t be happy with it.

“Then the Tyrone game we got the tactics very wrong and had no answer to them and that’s been pretty much the case against them through the years. I played the club championship after that and I wasn’t really enjoying my football with the club either when I usually would enjoy playing with the lads andhaving that bit of freedom.I wasn’t getting the return I usually get from it.

“So when I came back to the county, I had a three-week holiday planned at the end of October. I already had my doubts when I was doing my own pre-season before I met up with the lads. I just said I’d get it done and then I would be in the right position to make a decision when I came home.

“I did a week’s training when I came home and said, ‘No, it’s not for me.’

“I wouldn’t say I was under a huge amount of pressure. My values just changed and I appreciated other things in life more so than looking to achieve that ultimate goal. You are getting older and people around my age are doing a lot more things in life. So you ask yourself is it really worth putting that off for another year or two for football? It was coming down to not enjoying it. The GAA has areliance on people loving the game itself and that winning feeling but if you weren’t getting that reward from it then it was hard to comprehend why you were doing it.”

BACK-to-back promotions under John Sugrue and the prospect of working with Micheál Quirke wasn’t enough to persuade Donie, 29, and Paul Kingston from removing themselves from the Laois panel.

With the family business of selling milking machines growing rapidly, something had to give.

Donie explained: “There’s a bit of a boom in that side of things at the moment. We’re actually going into cows as well so we just didn’t have the time this year. That was it more than anything. The business has been going well over the last two or three years. There have been grants for milking machines; they’re ending last year so people are getting as much out of it as they can.

You can see lads putting off their careers for their football, which is the wrong thing to do. Your career is number one and that’s the only thing that is going to put food on the table so you have to prioritise it.

According to the 2017 Economic Social Research Institute report commissioned by the GAA and GPA, 29% of inter-county players in 2016 did not return to play the following year.

With that in mind, the number of players who have opted out for 2020 is in keeping with that trend. That ESRI document revealed almost 50% of those players cited their careers as the reason why they were discontinuing with injury (24%), deselection (23%), age (17%) and no chance of success (22%) the next four (respondents could pick more than one reason).

A spokesperson from the official players’ body said: “GPA is fully aware of the increasing demands being placed on players who play at both club and inter-county level as highlighted by the ESRI reports.

“Those demands are making players question whether they can give the inter-county game the commitment it requires. GPA know this from ongoing contact with our members and our own research among those members.

“Demands for our programmes are now at unprecedented levels in line with the growing demands being made of inter-county players. We encourage our members to seek balance between their playing careers, their professional or educational responsibilities and their personal lives.

"Many of the support programmes and services we provide aim to help players achieve this balance. If achieving that balance means leaving the inter-county set-up we will support them on making that transition. Our services are still available once they have stepped away.”

Clarke, one of at least seven 2019 Cavan panelists to opt-out this season after Cian Mackey yesterday announced his inter-county retirement, is adamant his decision had nothing to do with any fallout or the possibility Cavan could be a second tier championship team come the summer.

“It didn’t even come into my head. I believe Cavan are good enough to challenge for the top tier. We probably wouldn’t be a top six team but we would be in the top eight, top 10 and on our day you don’t know what’s going to happen.

“People have asked me if there was an issue with Mickey (Graham) or the management team but I wouldn’t put it down to that. The lads have a good system and their expectation levels are a notch above what they would be in other years but given where my head is at I couldn’t justify it anymore.

“I know a couple of lads in Westmeath and they would be in agreement with me. They would in a similar enough scenario, bouncing around the different divisions and not really competing for that Leinster title.

“Cavan has probably been a bit like in Ulster with last year being the exception but if you’re winning provinces and competing for All-Irelands it’s a different scenario. I’d say my mindset would have changed had we won a few of those games.”

Kingston has noticed the number of high-profile exits and puts it down to one underlying factor: “I think it’s the demands. Your career has to suit it to get the most out of your football.

If you’re not able to be at training then you can’t give it 100% and you’re doing yourself a disservice. Lads are taking that into consideration and making a decision and stepping away from it to concentrate on other aspects of their lives.

The Arles-Killeen man could yet return to Laois colours but he’s not in that headspace yet.

“I’ve been playing 12 or 13 years and that’s a lot on the body as well. I haven’t retired or anything yet but I had to make a choice for my career.”

Nor has Clarke decided if he has kicked his last ball for Cavan. “It’ll come down to where my head is next October/November. If I’m happy in what I’m doing and the changes I’ve made and if I see myself enjoying it and not being a hindrance to Cavan in 2021 I will make myself available for selection but time will tell on that.

“But ask me if I would go back into Cavan on Monday and it’s a no.”

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