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'Lads are dropping in and out all the time' - GAA facing crisis as 63 players leave inter-county panels for 2020

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Niall Murphy. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Niall Murphy. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Niall Murphy. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

News that star forward Seán Quigley wasn't going to make himself available to Fermanagh emerged as a hammer blow locally this week.

The Erne men were just a single victory away from promotion to the top flight last spring but have since lost their manager and now their talisman, who carried much of the load when it came to their attacking threat.

On a national level, it repeated a recurring theme and brought to 63 the number of players who are known to have opted out of county football for 2020.

It's impossible to know whether those numbers are a record high - the comings and goings of players is an annual event - but it feels significant and once again brings the inter-county experience under the spotlight.

Late last year, the ESRI, in conjunction with the GAA and GPA, released the second part of its report on the impact county-level football has on players' lives.

In what was one of the most comprehensive pieces of research into the GAA that has been carried out, the first part of the report revealed that county players give, on average, 31 hours per week to their chosen sport and outlined how it impacted on everything from sleep to career paths and relationships.

The second part of the report showed that players would like support on "how to keep their inter-county participation in perspective."

Of those who have opted out, 34 players are from teams who operated in the bottom two divisions of the league last year. It seems that those languishing towards the bottom of the pecking order are less likely to believe the juice is worth the squeeze. It also appears that the prospect of a 'B' championship, and the promise of TV coverage and the fixing of those matches before games between the 'big' teams did little to energise those playing for the smaller counties.

Predictably, the attrition rate at the top of the tree falls dramatically. Of the four All-Ireland semi-finalists, just two have opted out of the county game with Connor McAliskey (Tyrone) and Mark Griffin (Kerry) unavailable this season. Tyrone may also lose Cathal McShane to the AFL but he hasn't been included here.

The top counties, who are able to give their players the best of everything as well as a genuine chance of winning or at least playing on the biggest days, don't face the same issues in holding on to their players as smaller counties do.

Niall Murphy, who captained Sligo in 2019 and previously represented Ireland in International Rules, is one of those who will be taking a year out. He's in no doubt that some of those who won't be available in 2020 are simply fed up with the commitment required but he stresses that for him there is no single cause for stepping away.

"That is definitely the case for some people, there's no doubt about it," he replied when asked if there was a general malaise towards playing at county level.

"One thing that does frustrate me is the length of the season. We were in a county final at the end of October and Sligo were getting together and that shows you it is a 12-month season. It's crazy, that would annoy me a little bit. The seasonal calendar itself isn't right and if you had that definite two-month break you might not see as many drop-outs."

And he believes that taking a year out will become more common.

"I think it's becoming a little more acceptable (to go travelling) among people and the community and the GAA scene. You would talk to some people and they wouldn't understand it at all 10 years ago but it's becoming more acceptable. Players see the demands that are being put on teams and players and even families outside of that.

"I'm struck by the number, I know you said there was around 60 but I'd say you could probably double it with the lads you don't hear have dropped out at all. In the lower divisions there are lads dropping in and out all the time."

However, it's certainly not as simple as it being easier to walk away from a team that is struggling. Sligo didn't win a game in league or championship last year. But then Murphy has been toiling away for little reward since he was first drafted in as an 18-year-old in 2012.

For him at least, there's still an attraction to playing county football, even if there's little chance of playing on the biggest days. And he fully intends to rejoin the squad next year.

"We have never been successful since I have been involved and my plan is next year to go back. Ultimately for myself and Sligo there is very little reward but I would always encourage someone to go and try play county football because there is internal reward, be it the satisfaction of training, getting wins or whatever that may be.

"I love playing the game and fully expect to be back next year and get another few years under the belt."

2020s' ABSENTEES

Ulster

Antrim: Ryan Murray, Matthew Fitzpatrick

Armagh: Ben Crealy

Cavan: Dara McVeety, Conor Moynagh, Killian Clarke, Conor Rehill, Michael Argue, Jack Brady

Donegal: Odhrán Mac Niallais

Fermanagh: Sean Quigley

Monaghan: Stephen O’Hanlon

Tyrone: Connor McAliskey

Connacht

Galway: Peter Cooke, Danny Cummins

Leitrim: Michael McWeeney, Jack Heslin, Gary Plunkett, Noel Plunkett, Cathal McCrann

Roscommon: Diarmuid Murtagh

Sligo: Niall Murphy, Adrian McIntyre

Munster

Clare: Jamie Malone, Sean O’Donoghue, Gary Brennan

Cork: Mark White

Kerry: Mark Griffin

Limerick: Darragh Treacy, Sean McSweeney

Tipperary: Michael Quinlivan, Liam Casey, Liam McGrath

Waterford: Tadhg Ó hUallacháin, Shane Aherne, Tommy Prendergast, Shane Ryan, Jack Mullaney, JJ Hutchinson

Leinster

Carlow: Conor Lawlor

Kildare: Ben McCormack, Mark Dempsey, James Murray

Laois: Donal Kingston, Paul Kingston, Stephen Attride

Longford: Barry McKeon, Conor Berry, Darren Quinn, Robbie Smyth, David McGivney, Aidan McElligott, John Keegan

Louth: Andy McDonnell, Jim McEneaney, Anthony Williams, Derek Maguire

Wexford: Kevin O’Grady, Tiernan Rossiter

Wicklow: Anthony McLoughlin, Conor McGraynor, Patrick O’Connor, Theo Smyth

Irish Independent