Long trek back to Mayo worth every minute for O'Malley
Football nomad relishing All-Ireland club run with native Louisburgh
"I've seen plenty of tar alright," laughs Austin O'Malley, who has been bouncing around the roads of Ireland for two decades now, playing football wherever he happened to pitch his tent.
Throughout his career O'Malley has had a 'have boots, will travel' attitude and it has served him well. His has been a football life less ordinary.
He was part of Mayo sides that won three Connacht titles and lost All-Ireland finals in 2004 and 2006. He's won a Division 4 title with Wicklow where he also played under Mick O'Dwyer.
There have been championship wins in Dublin, Wicklow and Mayo and Sigerson Cup success in Sligo. And, at 37, he's going for perhaps the biggest prize of them all.
On Sunday, he'll line out for his home club Louisburgh in the AIB All-Ireland Club JFC semi-final against Kerry's Glenbeigh-Glencar.
A football nomad for a decade, O'Malley is hoping for the dream homecoming.
Back in the 2000s, he said goodbye to his home club. It wasn't an easy call but the logic behind the decision was simple. He was based in Dublin and Louisburgh is 'next stop New York territory,' almost as far west as you can go on the island.
At the time, he was already coming back for training with Mayo and the travelling was too much.
After securing a Dublin SFC title with UCD in 2006, where he worked with the late Dave Billings, St Vincent's was the natural choice. After a couple of seasons there, a group of friends - among them former Wicklow footballer Paul Earls - persuaded him to join them in St Patrick's in the Garden County.
Thoughts of home tugged at his sleeve but soon a phone call came to try out with Wicklow. The opportunity to play under Micko was just too good to turn down.
"At that stage, I was 31 or 32 and I probably thought I was finished with inter-county football. But I went to a trial and it just all took off from there."
Going home had always been in the plan, but by the time he returned to Louisburgh for the 2014 season, it was a little later than he had envisaged.
On his return he found a club that had slipped down to junior. Like many small clubs, the recession hit them hard and the town and the club suffered.
Recovery has been slow to come to that part of west Mayo but the club's run to Mayo and Connacht titles has rejuvenated the place. For that alone, O'Malley reckons this is the best thing he has been a part of in his varied career.
"We are a small entity as a club," O'Malley says. "The economics of the area wouldn't have been great over the last few years and people were stripped away from the place.
"But when you see how this run has brought young and old together and how people have connected. It has bonded the community together again. You can play away at inter-county level and it's great. But when I finish up I think this is what will stick with me, how this run has just re-energised the whole place.
"Look (Louisburgh) is idyllic in many ways and you wouldn't change it. We have Croagh Patrick there and Clew Bay so we are hemmed in nicely.
"And the place is football-mad. You just have to commend the structures that have been put in place these last few years, the new facilities like the gym and the astro turf and we've had some success on the back of that, winning an U-21 title a few years ago and again this year. And we have John Kelly in too as manager."
A teacher in St Benildus College in Stillorgan, O'Malley is based in south Dublin, meaning there's still plenty of travel involved. The school, who have helped produce the likes of Paul Mannion and Davy Byrne of late, have been good to him throughout his career. O'Malley does some coaching there as well as in UCD.
But playing as long as he can remains the priority so he's happy to keep running up the miles. During the week, the club train on whatever pitch they can get their hands on in the midlands. Their players come from Dublin, Limerick and Galway as well as Mayo to train. On Fridays, they gather at home, meaning that O'Malley points the car west after school for a trip that would normally take just under four hours.
However, that sort of stretch in a car just isn't agreeable with a 37-year-old body so he works in at least three stops to loosen up along the way.
"Sometimes it might just be to stop and get a cup of coffee. You can get some looks when you pull up somewhere and just start doing stretches, you can get some strange looks.
"It's a bit of a commute alright, just under four hours in total but I'm not alone in doing it. We have a number of lads travelling and it's common for most clubs to have lads travelling I'd say, so you just accept it as part of it.
"And I suppose it's entrenched in me at this stage, I've always been travelling for football in one way or another."
Learning to train 'smarter' has helped his longevity.
"I remember jumping in a van for Mayo training with a few other lads and it was a like a bullet train to Castlebar for three hours.
"But it would be 40 minutes into training before you'd feel anyway normal. These (stops) are the small things you have to fit into your regime.
"My saving grace is I've learned to train a bit smarter and more economically. I have a degree in strength and conditioning now and that has been a big part of staying fit. That has helped me find what works for me. Honestly, I've never felt as fit as I do at the minute."
Louisburgh will need him this weekend as they take on Darran O'Sullivan and Co. Kerry clubs have won five of the last eight All-Ireland titles at this grade. Whatever happens on Sunday, there's no plan to stop pulling on the boots.
"I love the game, it's a great organisation to be involved in. I honestly don't think I've enjoyed a year of football more," he reasons.
Time is ticking for O'Malley. But there's more tar to be covered.
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