By Daire Walsh
With uncertainty remaining over when the senior inter-county season will get underway, there has been more discussion about who won’t be featuring in 2021 as there has on those who will be.
Although a number of high-profile hurlers – such as Cork duo Anthony Nash and Stephen McDonnell – also called a halt to their county careers in recent weeks, the raft of departures in the Gaelic football world has captured the most attention.
Between Mayo and Kerry (the two biggest threats to Dublin in recent years), a total of seven players have announced their retirements since the end of the 2020 championship.
David Clarke, Donal Vaughan, Seamus O’Shea and Tom Parsons have all played their final games for Mayo, while Shane Enright, Jonathan Lyne and Brian Kelly are the ones to say a fond farewell to the Kingdom set-up.
Despite being the eldest of the quartet at 37 (38 in November), it is Clarke’s loss that will arguably affect Mayo manager James Horan the most. Whereas the remaining trio were peripheral figures in recent months – Vaughan and O’Shea saw no championship action, Parsons was a late substitute in their All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary – Clarke was an ever-present throughout as the westerners reached yet another Sam Maguire Cup decider.
He has had to battle with the likes of Rob Hennelly – who is expected to take his place between the sticks – and Kenneth O’Malley for the number one spot over the years, but has generally been a safe pair of hands since making his competitive debut against Kildare way back in 2002.
Vaughan, O’Shea and Parsons were previously mainstays in Mayo’s starting line-up but, for a variety of reasons, have slipped down the pecking order in recent years. A horrific injury sustained in a Connacht SFC semi-final clash with Galway back in 2018 significantly curtailed the latter part of Parsons’ career.
Having suffered damage to his knee, calf and hamstring, he faced a long road back to full fitness. He managed to return in time for the business end of the 2019 championship, but couldn’t quite force his way back into the Mayo side.
Whilst all four men end their inter-county careers with multiple provincial titles, All-Ireland success ultimately eluded them.
From this point of view, Enright, Lyne and Kelly can feel fortunate as they look back upon their journeys with Kerry. This triumvirate were all part of the last panel outfit to secure Sam Maguire Cup glory – a 2014 triumph at the expense of Donegal.
Kelly was the last line of defence for this victory and Shane Enright also played his part as a second half substitute for Fionn Fitzgerald. Lyne was an unused substitute for the final, but had kicked two crucial points in their extra-time success over Mayo at the semi-final stage.
Again, like their outfield counterparts in the West, their respective decisions to call it a day are perhaps unsurprising. None of them were called upon for Kerry’s Munster championship defeat to Cork in November or indeed the previous year’s All-Ireland final replay reversal to Dublin.
Likewise, recently-retired Meath stalwart Graham Reilly hadn’t featured for the Royal County in the championship since the Super 8s in 2019 – despite Andy McEntee’s charges having played three games over the course of their 2020 Leinster campaign.
The same is true for Johnny Byrne, Tommy Moolick and Keith Cribbin, who brought the curtain down on their Kildare careers after missing out on their county’s provincial championship encounters with Offaly and Meath. Nevertheless, Lilywhites boss Jack O’Connor will still be disappointed to lose these experienced figureheads as he looks to close the gap on the all-conquering Dublin side in the east.
Elsewhere, Gareth Bradshaw has bowed out of the Galway set-up with three Connacht senior titles and a National Football League Division Two crown to his name. He arguably still had plenty to offer to his former team-mate Pádraic Joyce, who introduced the Moycullen man off the bench in their narrow Connacht final defeat to Mayo.
Given he turned 34 in the closing weeks of 2020, it is understandable that Paul Kerrigan is solely focusing on lining out with his club Nemo Rangers for the year ahead. He too retires as an All-Ireland senior winner, albeit he claimed his Celtic Cross all of 11 years ago.
Conor Maginn was a substitute for Down in that 2010 final and he recently joined Laois’ Denis Booth in ending his inter-county odyssey.
Though the volume of these retirements may open up a wider debate surrounding the commitment required of county footballers in the modern era, it is important to look at it in a fuller context.
Of the 14 players listed above, only Clarke started a game in the 2020 senior championship. Having waited so long for the return of the elite level of Gaelic football, there would have been understandable frustration amongst the remaining men at the lack of game-time they received.
Arguably, a number of them may have stayed on for this year’s championship – which, if everything goes according to plan, will finish in July – if they had been featuring more prominently over the past few months.
Also, whereas the absence of social media meant Galway attacker Niall Finnegan was able to quietly slip away from inter-county football during the foot and mouth scare of 2001, retirement announcements tend to create greater traction these days.
However, with inter-county potentially taking an initial back seat to club football in 2022 as part of a proposed split season, there may be more retirements to follow later this year.
It was 15 years ago that Chris Barrett, Keith Higgins and Colm Boyle were all part of a Mayo side that secured an All-Ireland U21 title.
Now playing his club football in the capital with Clontarf, Barrett was a regular starter for the green and red but it remains to be seen if he will stay on beyond this year. Higgins and Boyle are no longer guaranteed their spots in the Mayo defence, which means 2021 could be their last hurrahs.
As of yet, no one from the Dublin panel has followed Diarmuid Connolly and Darren Daly into retirement. This comes as little surprise, given the Sky Blues are hot favourites to claim a seventh consecutive All-Ireland.
Yet, there are several players within their ranks who have considerable mileage on the clock.
Remarkably, Stephen Cluxton will turn 40 this year and the Metropolitans may soon have to contemplate life without their legendary custodian.
Michael Fitzsimons, Jonny Cooper (both 31), James McCarthy and Dean Rock (both 30) all look like they still have a few more campaigns left in their locker, but father time is catching up on a few others.
Kevin McManamon and Michael Darragh Macauley were both held in reserve for their recent All-Ireland final victory over Mayo. Neither player has officially committed for another season just yet and with both of them turning 35 in 2021, they could well bow out either side of the upcoming championship.
Philly McMahon (33), Cian O’Sullivan, Paddy Andrews (both 32) and Rory O’Carroll (31) are others who are entering the twilight of their inter-county careers. With Dublin manager Dessie Farrell and his predecessor Jim Gavin preferring younger players in their favoured positions, it has been difficult for them to gain substantial minutes on the field of play.
With 11 players on their panel in the 30+ bracket, you might be inclined to think that the blues’ powers might be on the wane. This is far from being the case, but when any of these players do decide to ride off into the sunset, they will undoubtedly be afforded the same glowing tributes that were deservedly bestowed upon the recent retirees from the game.