The words still ring loudly in Tom Parsons’ ears. ‘I will play for Mayo again.’
It was some time after his release from the county squad prior to the 2011 championship that the Charlestown midfielder delivered that guarantee to his parents Tom and Carmel. He enjoys a close relationship with them and, more than six years on, recalls distinctly the conversation they had.
“I remember saying to them that I will play for Mayo again. I had made a verbal contract to myself at that stage and you don’t forget words like that,” he says.
Parsons had been an early graduate to John O’Mahony’s squad, making his debut in 2008 and even featuring on an Irish International Rules squad that year. By the end of James Horan’s first league campaign in charge, however, he had been cast aside.
But even with the conviction he had that he would return there was always that little element of doubt in the background.
“Every athlete can have doubts and you face those doubts but to return and play for Mayo was something that was always on my agenda and a priority. That started when I was released, to get back to basics and playing with my club and they were the steps that were involved to get back in and play with Mayo.”
In 2012 he threw everything into a Charlestown campaign that took them to Mayo and Connacht intermediate titles.
By then he was based in Cardiff working as a structural engineer with Jacobs Engineering firm but the depth of his commitment to his club saw him come home on a regular basis, making the trip on nine successive weekends in one particular sequence.
It was the springboard for his eventual return in 2014.
“I felt I was resilient and I also felt I was lucky to have a great club in Charlestown. We had the opportunity at the time to win an intermediate (title) and then push on the following year and compete at a county senior semi-final because, without your club team doing well, you don’t get the stage to maybe show your skills and ability to come into a county panel again.”
He didn’t need a second thought when the call came to make that return; even the logistics of Cardiff didn’t deter him.
After playing through a league campaign and making a championship squad he sought a transfer from Cardiff to his firm’s Dublin office.
“They facilitated a transfer for me to the Dublin office so I didn’t have to change company,” he recalls. “But at the same time my partner Carol, I had to convince her to leave and give up her job in the UK and follow me back to Ireland to pursue my dream so there was a lot on the cards and maybe a risk to take at that stage when both of us had a career and life set up in the UK to come back and play for Mayo.
“But it is absolutely worth it every time you put on that jersey to play for Mayo, with the magic support we have day in, day out. It is something that I have absolutely no regrets about.”
Parsons really picked up in 2015 and had since established himself as one of the game’s most consistent midfielders. You can’t help thinking what impact that the 2017 model might have had in the second half of the 2013 All-Ireland final in closing down Stephen Cluxton’s near-perfect kick-outs that were so influential in getting Dublin across the line.
Being out of the squad for over two-and-a-half years made him appreciate more what it meant to be a Mayo footballer.
“To make a team at a very young age, for me personally I felt I could be playing for Mayo for 10 or 12 years.
“Then getting released, I certainly appreciate at this stage of my career how valuable and precious it is to represent your county at inter-county level and to put on the Mayo jersey.
It’s very hard to keep up that level of intensity at that age (19-20) and I certainly think at an older age, for myself personally, I definitely have more grá, more want and will to work really, really hard to keep that jersey because I know what it means to lose it.
“It doesn’t last forever and as a player or an athlete we’re only a game away, one injury away from playing our last game with our county.
“At the moment I am 29 years old and one big injury could finish my career and my last game could be my last game and that’s a reality I’ve learned from maybe being released. Maybe it is a reality that comes with age as well.”
Dublin is closer than Cardiff, of course, the but travel demand to make training for so many Mayo players based in the capital can be taxing.
“The fact that we have a number of guys in Dublin, we travel collectively. You spend a lot of time on the road with those guys, it’s nearly a 10-hour shift to Mayo, train, and return and you spend a lot of time together and you definitely build and create a special bond. It’s good in that way too. We’re certainly a very tight unit.
“I think at this level GAA players, with the professional environment, do need a really strong support network around them.
“I can tell you that if their partners aren’t invested in it, then it ain’t going to work. I’m blessed that Carol is invested in it and has the patience of a saint and supports me with all this time travelling and training and games and so forth. Let me tell you, this season has been a real test of character.”
With seven games in an eight-week period, Parsons has likened their qualifiers and All-Ireland series campaign to a second league and that has helped in their preparations.
“The National League is so competitive, they’re nearly like championship games at this stage and each year the National League is getting more competitive.
“So you build up those habits through the league. You are looking at all your recovery measures and pool sessions and ice baths and so forth. Those habits are ingrained through the league game and we’re nearly ready for it if it does materialise in a championship campaign like it has this year.
“We’ve been able to have games week in, week out which is fantastic. As a player that’s all you want to do, you want to play in Croke Park in as many games as possible a year and to date that’s been something special and something magic for us to have that opportunity, to have so many games this year.”
The great Kerry team assembled by Mick O'Dwyer won seven All-Ireland titles between 1978 and 1986 and, famously, lost another in dramatic circumstances. It has been widely held that this is the greatest side to ever play the game, a notion that is now being challenged by the dominance of Dublin since the breakthrough victory in 2011.
Comparisons between teams of different eras are odious. That is probably why people like doing it so much. The best team ever; the best player of his generation; the best corner-forward... the list is endless and everyone can be right as all opinion is subjective.