Wednesday 21 March 2018

Home away from home

Gareth Smith's move to Cavan is typical of a growing GAA trend, writes Damian Lawlor

A T a press conference prior to the start of the 2006 national league, Kilkenny manager Brian Cody was asked about the new transfer system for weaker hurling counties.

Cody took the opportunity to reiterate his understanding of some underlining fundamentals. He spoke about where the Association was heading and observed that the GAA was built on the 'one life, one club' rudiment. He reckoned it should stay there.

A few years later and that outlook, though still cherished by many, is changing. The landscape is different. Players frequently leave their home clubs and counties to seek out employment, enhance playing opportunities or fulfil their potential. And they don't dwell long before moving either.

In many cases, the GAA's parentage rule makes moving easier but that's not an entirely new phenomenon; Declan Darcy played for Leitrim and Dublin during the 1990s while Niall O'Donoghue turned out for both Roscommon and Dublin. Under the same directive, two more Dubs, Shane Cooke and David Brennan, togged for Laois in recent times.

The overall traffic on the GAA's transfer landscape has swelled since then. Players are no longer confined to their home counties if they've no futures there. It only takes an internal row, an omission, or job prospect emerging elsewhere to move whereas before that would have been blasphemous.

Change is actually fashionable now and already this year, we've seen a variety of transfer requests swing by the GAA.

Dublin midfielder Eamon Fennell has been seeking a move from O'Tooles to St Vincents for the past three years but the proposed switch has been blocked on three occasions because his club won't let him go. That ongoing saga is currently resting with the Disputes Resolution Authority.

Meanwhile, Thomas Walsh found it no problem to hop between two counties in that period. Walsh's shimmying simply makes Fennell's rejection ludicrous. He returned to Carlow during the week after the squad voted to bring him back. It was a dramatic comeback after three controversial seasons with Wicklow and a move that was under a cloud from day one. In a different era, Walsh wouldn't have been welcomed back at all.

Last weekend also saw another interesting shift with former Dublin hurling goalkeeper Brendan McLoughlin lining out for Westmeath against Antrim, six years after his last outing for the Dubs. McLoughlin is based in Mullingar and works for food manufacturing company Cuisine 365. Under GAA rules, non-natives can play for Nicky Rackard and Christy Ring Cup counties where they reside without having to leave their home club. McLoughlin may be at the end of a fine career but he's still a fantastic 'keeper. He can remain with O'Tooles and restart his intercounty life where his experience will be hugely welcome. It works out nicely.

But of all the transfer opportunities out there, the parentage rule appears to be the most authentic.

John Coughlan, once the great white hope of Dublin football, transferred to Offaly in February under that ruling whilst maintaining his status with local club St Sylvester's. His brother, Niall, joined him. They are nephews of former Offaly hurler Eugene Coughlan, who won All-Ireland medals in 1981 and '85. The link is strong.

Shortly afterwards, Paul Cunningham of St Jude's in Templeogue, linked up with his father's old team, Wicklow, and has enjoyed good form since joining them.

It was last October when another Dubliner, Gareth 'Nesty' Smith, decided he'd waited long enough for a Dublin senior call-up and headed north to link up with Cavan, home to both of his parents.

The St Oliver Plunketts/Eoghan Ruadh man is one of the top forwards in Dublin and one of the club's most treasured warhorses but never managed to crack Dublin's first 15.

He was part of the U21 panel that reached back-to-back All-Ireland finals in 2002 and '03, and holds a winner's medal from the second campaign. Various coaches just felt he lacked the pace for the very top. Paul Caffrey looked at him briefly but despite boasting a sweet left foot he never made it -- even after bursting to prominence again when Plunketts reached the 2008 Dublin SFC final.

It was then Cavan manager Tommy Carr called and reassured the 26-year-old that he could stay at Plunketts and still play for the Ulster side. Smith could not help feeling there was something missing from his CV. He agreed to move. "You can only wait for a call for so long," Smith says. "I can't speak for any of the other fellows who've transferred recently but I just wanted to test myself at the highest level. I felt I was good enough to play senior inter-county and it clearly wasn't going to happen at home.

"People were proclaiming there would be a clear-out with Dublin and that I'd get my chance but sure I was hearing that for years. Nothing was happening. I got a phone call off Tommy, he said he'd give me a fair crack and that's all I ever asked for."

Carr's been true to his word and Smith hit the ground running in his first McKenna Cup game against Donegal, banging over seven points in a debut of dreams. He has featured in every minute of his adopted county's McKenna Cup and league fixtures thus far.

'Nesty' knew there would be some resentment to his transfer and received a few verbals from opposing players but says his switch is genuine. His dad, Norbert, and mum, Marion, both come from Cavan where they returned to live six years ago.

When he was younger, Smith spent a lot of his time with his Cavan cousins and friends, some of whom are on the current squad. He also played for the Breffni County in the New York championship in 2006. And yet some locals were not too happy to see him arriving on their doorstep. Heads turned and elbows nudged other elbows when he first landed but a few months later there are only smiles and welcomes. The world turns.

"I'm mentally strong, so what people say outside the team does not bother me," he insists. "But a lot people around Virginia and Mountnugent, where my family are, showed me huge support. My father was very proud when I put on the Cavan jersey. That's all that counts. Yes, when I've been playing matches I've had smart comments but it's water off a duck's back.

"Most Dublin players wished me the best of luck and said I was hard done by. I was playing my best club football but the shout didn't come so I got on with it. I'm getting a fair roll of the dice in Cavan but there's more to come."

Smith's move north was facilitated because Cavan is one of the 10 designated counties that can benefit from the parentage rule. Those counties were picked out by the GAA in the late 1990s and selected on the basis that they hadn't won a provincial title in the previous 10 years.

The Plunketts man appreciates that conservatives might not be enamoured with the rule but says the change has given him a new lease of life and imagines it's the same for others.

"I needed to test myself and Cavan is where my roots are; I'd be a bigger eejit if I didn't try it," he reckons. "People will have their own opinions and one or two might look down on me but what about it. I don't know how the Coughlans in Offaly or the others have found it, but this move was not a huge culture shock for me.

"My first night training was like a first day at school but I really benefited from meeting the team during boxing training for a white-collar charity fundraising event. I was sparring with different lads every few minutes and got to know them much quicker. Had I been confined to just field training, it might have taken me longer to settle.

"Overall, they've been brilliant. I get slagging about my Dublin accent and nearly have to whisper to hide my accent but they're as bad as me. I keep telling them I'll be bringing a translator down one of the days to figure out what they're saying."

While the move up the N3 has been smooth for Smith, not all other recent transfers have been as unproblematic. Since Christmas, the relocating of Laois footballers MJ Tierney, Colm Begley, Darren Rooney -- and before them Colm Parkinson -- to Dublin club, Parnells, has left an extremely sour taste in the mouths of the midland natives. Another local player, Billy O'Loughlin, is set to join the Coolock outfit.

Some moved to Dublin to get work, but Laois chairman Brian Allen remarked recently that it couldn't be a coincidence that the same club was targeting so many Laois players and warned that his county would consider drafting a motion for next year's Congress to try and stem the tide.

They have to do something. While a player whose parents hail from another county holds a very strong link to that place, there's no doubting that the GAA's transfer system is being abused in some cases, particularly at club level.

The Dublin county board, too, will not like it when one of their former players knocks them out of the championship some day. There's an ever-expanding list of Dubs in exile around the country but when a population is so high, they continually run the risk of discarding players too early.

Up to now, only a handful of counties have managed to use the parentage rule to their advantage but if this recent evidence is anything to go by, expect much more movement from now on.

If it's genuine and handled correctly, it's heartening to see an overlooked player forging out a career in the land of his parents.

Smith will line out for Cavan against Fermanagh today, cursing the fact that a loss to Sligo has ended their promotion hopes. He'll hit the gym twice during the week and will drive back to Cavan on Tuesday and Friday nights.

His life still revolves around Gaelic football only it's with a different county. All is normal, but all is changed; he knew the N3 pretty well anyway but now he could navigate it with a blindfold.

"The goal is to win an Ulster title," he says. "We're definitely capable of it. It would mean more to me than anything."

That's saying something for a man born and bred on Dublin's northside.

Sunday Independent

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