'Maybe he's better off down under for the time being'
Down's players are in demand in Australia but not everyone thinks it's a bad thing, writes Damian Lawlor
T WO years ago, Down became the first county to formally oppose the resurrection of the international rules series between Ireland and Australia.
The GAA had spent months trying to draft a new template in the hope that they could transform the negative image of the series, but Down weren't interested. They had already lost Martin Clarke to the AFL and another of their brightest stars, Paul McComiskey, had just appeared on the radar of the Brisbane Lions while plans to bring another promising youngster, Jamie O'Reilly, down under were at an advanced stage.
Despite the protests of Down and a few others, the series was revived, however, and begins again in October.
At least it wasn't all bad news, though, for Down. Clarke returned home after three years and 46 games with Collingwood while a back injury put paid to McComiskey heading to Australia. O'Reilly, though, went ahead with his move and he could become an instant star at Richmond after impressing in his first two games.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about Down," O'Reilly says. "It's human nature and you do think to yourself 'God, I'd love to be out there'. Watching Down play Kerry in a packed Croke Park a few weeks back, how could you not think about it?
"I've played for Down and a lot of the guys I won a minor All-Ireland with in 2005 are playing and now they're in an All-Ireland semi-final. But I don't regret anything. I'm out here and I've made the decision to pursue another adventure."
The latest soundings are that the county's next jewel, 17-year-old Caolan Mooney, has just signed for Collingwood who had been tracking him for 18 months. Two or three other Down youngsters are currently attracting attention from AFL clubs while rumours that Clarke will resume his career in Australia when this season is over refuse to go away.
It seems that right from the moment they won the 2005 All-Ireland minor title, Down's best players have been singled out -- hence the county board's stance.
But for former Down manager Ross Carr that just doesn't cut any ice. "I wouldn't go along with the concerns that our best players are being stolen from us and I find there's a lot of horseshit talked across the GAA," he says.
"Take our county board objecting to the international rules -- how many players have we lost to the AFL in the last 26 years? Marty, Jamie and Caolan. And sure Marty's back. It's not a lot. Look closer to home, see how many social problems we have within the county, and see how many youngsters we're losing there. There was no point having a pop at another sport. That was bullshit. Just an excuse.
"Overall, since 1984, Gaelic football has probably lost Jim Stynes, Marty Clarke, Colm Begley, Tadhg Kennelly, Setanta ó hAilpín and Tommy Walsh to the AFL. And some of those boys came back. But how many have we lost to rugby? How many to soccer?
"It's easy pickings to say that the invaders/non-natives are the culprits here; the people stealing our local talent. But what about the guys at Marty's level who are literally wrecked by the time they're 22 because of the pressures county teams put on their better players."
Carr said that the constant speculation around Down youngsters shouldn't unsettle anyone. Recalling McComiskey's situation some years ago, he revealed it wasn't in the least bit perturbing to him or the player. "It was absolutely no distraction to Down football," he insisted. "I went to see Paul and his family at the time of interest and we had a totally open and frank relationship. Both the McComiskey and Clarke families were looking out for the lads academically too -- it wasn't just the lure of money. Marty was gone before I took charge but we were in constant touch and I always felt he'd come home. I couldn't tell you whether he'll go back again or not next year, but if we win today and then land an All-Ireland he might well do.
"And fair play to him. Because rather than sit back and feel sorry for ourselves, Down people should adopt the attitude that we're like Manchester United, sending our best underage prospects out around the world to play professional sport. Most of the lads might only stay three or four years and they'll come home, only 25 or 26, in peak shape to do a job for Down football."
Carr describes the latest recruit, Mooney, as a very exceptional player. Surely, however, it's a huge loss to see someone so young and gifted leave? Maybe the county board is justified glowering at losing another gifted kid?
"Caolan is a Grade A footballer, a huge loss, but there's no reason that he won't be back playing for us when he's 22," Carr reasons. "Maybe he's better off down under for the time being. Look at the way the GAA handles its best youngsters. People are already criticising Joe Canning and he's still only 21 for God's sake.
"Compare him to Marty Clarke: Marty was a Down minor and went from there to professional sport where he played for one team only nine months of the year. Now look at Joe: he went from being a minor, under 21 club and county player, senior club and county player to playing interprovincial and university hurling across 12 months for about four years.
"Meanwhile, Marty had a proper weights and conditioning regime and was allowed settle. But it's almost impossible in the GAA for our best 18/19-year-olds to sustain their form amidst all these demands.
"So, if you ask me, some of them are better off down under. We can whinge all we want in Down about our best players leaving but I'd like to ask how many times the county board sat down with the likes of Marty and Jamie and their families to discuss if there was any way we could match what the AFL were offering?
"It's alright coming out, defending the amateur code. But until we stand up and try everything we can to keep the lads, we should not complain."
If they win today, reach an All-Ireland final and keep the momentum going over the next few years, Down's best young players will find it harder to leave a winning environment. Maybe that's the only solution to all this.