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Sunday 24 September 2017

Parsons ready to take chance

Mayo's midfield ace now has more appreciation for call of the county

Tom Parsons has become a pivotal figure in the current Mayo team. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Tom Parsons has become a pivotal figure in the current Mayo team. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

When he was young and carefree, making waves for his county and touring Australia for his country, Tom Parsons reckoned that a decade and more in the green-and-red stretched out before him.

He's now 29: older, wiser, and thrilled to embrace the here-and-now of Sunday's All-Ireland final between his beloved Mayo and their old nemesis, Dublin.

"For myself personally," he says, "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."

The story of how Parsons lost it is a salutary case-study. But it's also a tale of redemption, for here is a midfielder now playing the best football of his career - nine years after his championship debut.

The Charlestown clubman burst onto the senior summer stage in 2008, promoted by John O'Mahony. Come the autumn, he was selected by Seán Boylan for the International Rules tour of Australia.

But a few years later, just as Mayo's star began to rise, Parsons' world went into freefall. James Horan never gave him a championship start. In fact, he wasn't even there for the first three summer campaigns under Horan.

At the end of the 2011 league, he was among a handful of players culled from the panel. In his absence, his county established a stranglehold on Connacht, then pitched their ambitions ever higher by reaching the 2012 and 2013 All-Ireland finals.

Still barely in his mid-20s, the county game seemed to have passed him by. Parsons had moved on in another sense too: from September 2012, he was living and working in Cardiff.

Speaking to The Herald two years ago, fellow Charlestown man John Casey recalled how his form dipped in the aftermath. "Obviously he was psychologically affected by it," the RTÉ pundit surmised.

Here was a player who, on his breakthrough, drew favourable comparison with Pearse Hanley, the precocious talent who swapped Mayo for Aussie Rules; and now it looked game over, burst ball. But at any stage did he sense his Mayo days were done?

Doubts

"Every athlete can have doubts and you face those doubts," Parsons replies. "But to return and play for Mayo was something that was always on my agenda and priority list. That started when I was released, to get back to basics and playing with my club.

"I played with my club nine or ten consecutive weekends … we won an Intermediate county title and Connacht title (in 2012) and they were thoroughly enjoyable years too."

With absence grew resilience. "I have a very close relationship with my father Tom and my mother Carmel," he explains. "I remember saying to them that I will play for Mayo again, and I had made a verbal contract to myself at that stage and you don't forget words like that."

Then, as 2014 dawned and Mayo's manager mulled over back-to-back All-Ireland defeats, opportunity knocked once more. Horan called him up that January to try out in the FBD League, and retained him for the Allianz League. Only one problem: he was based in Wales.

"I was flying home to play with Mayo until the end of the league campaign," he says, "when I was selected in the championship panel."

That prompted a career reassessment - and relocation that May. In one sense it was seamless: a civil engineer, he works for a large international company called Jacobs Engineering who facilitated a transfer to their Dublin office.

But he also had to convince his partner, Carol, to "give up her job in the UK and follow me back to Ireland to pursue my dream."

He can describe it now as a risk for both parties, their careers and lives established across the water.

"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.

"I have absolutely no regrets," he stresses.

As it happened, injury curtailed his opportunities in 2014, Horan's swansong campaign. Restored to fitness, he came off the bench during the drawn and replayed semi-finals with Kerry.

The following June, against Galway, Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly handed Parsons his first SFC start in five years. He retained his place for the rest of summer.

Injuries have intruded at different stages during both years under Stephen Rochford but, once fit, he's one of the first names on the team. His most recent form is veering into All Star territory.

For Parsons and his fellow Dublin-based colleagues, who travel collectively to training out west, the sacrifices are obvious.

"It's nearly a ten-hour shift to Mayo, train, and return," he explains.

But he's quick to highlight the sacrifices made by others - notably Carol.

"We're getting married in December," he reveals. "Life moves on and, the older you get, the more responsibilities you have with family and work and so forth.

"It's hugely, hugely difficult on Carol ... at this level, GAA players, with the professional environment, do need a really strong support network around them.

Invested

"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," he adds. "Let me tell you, this season has been a real test of character."

Now game-ten beckons on Sunday. Against, of all teams, Carol's native Dublin. "But," Parsons clarifies in a flash, "she's totally converted now to Mayo!"

Harking back to how he once was, he concludes: "To make a team at a very young age, I personally felt I could be playing for Mayo for ten or 12 years ... and maybe with getting released from the squad, I certainly appreciate at this stage of my career how valuable and precious it is to represent your county.

"It doesn't last forever and as a player or an athlete we're only a game away, an injury away, from playing our last game with our county. That's a reality I've learned."

But, at 29, are you still allowed to dream?

"Oh, absolutely."

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