Not many players involved with Mayo have had quite the chequered history with the Green and Red jersey as Charlestown Sarsfields midfielder Tom Parsons.
Injured in the Summer of 2005 he missed out on an appearance in that year’s All-Ireland minor final. The following year he was back at minor while most of his teammates from the previous year went on to win an Under 21 All-Ireland title.
Parons would go on to captain the Mayo Under 21 side in the following years but with no All-Ireland final to show for their efforts. He would break into the senior set up fairly quickly, however, making his championship debut against Sligo in 2008, ending that season as a member of the Irish International Rules team which were victorious in Australia.
Just under three years later, however, Parsons found himself on the outside looking in when he was dropped from the senior panel following the 2011 National League campaign.
It was that abrupt end to his intercounty career which the midfielder believes was the making of the strong, running number 9 we see playing for Mayo now.
Speaking to The Mayo Advertiser, Parsons did say he didn’t always think he would be back, “There were doubts. I think 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 on my priority list and that started when I was released to get back to basics and back to playing with my club. They were the steps involved to get back in and play with Mayo. I played with my club, there were nine or ten weekends in a row I came back (from Cardiff, where he had moved in 2012 ) and played and we won a county Intermediate title and a Connacht title and that was a thoroughly enjoyable time too.”
He continued, “Definitely I think that at the age of 18, 19, 20, to make a team at a very young age, I personally felt I could be playing for Mayo for 10 or 12 years and maybe getting released from the squad has made me certainly really appreciate, at this stage of my career, how valuable and precious it is to represent your county at intercounty level and to put on the Mayo jersey. It doesn’t last forever and as a Mayo player we’re only ever a game away or an injury away from our last game playing with the county. At the moment I’m 29 years old and one big injury could finish my career and my last game could be my last game. That’s a reality I’ve learned maybe from being released and maybe it’s a reality that comes with age as well.”
Parsons cites the influence of his family, not least his fiancée Carol, as a major reason why he is back playing football at the highest level, “I was never pretty confident (of getting back in ) but there was definitely an element of resilience built up in myself. When I was released from the panel in 2011, I would have a very close relationship with my father Tom and my mother Carmel and I remember saying to them I will play for Mayo again. I had made a verbal contract with myself at that stage and you don’t forget that.”
“I was lucky that the engineering company I work for has an office in Dublin and they facilitated a transfer for me to that office. I didn’t have to change jobs or anything but at the same time I had to think of my fiancée Carol and convince her to leave Cardiff and change her job and follow me back to Ireland in order to pursue my dreams. There was a lot on the cards and maybe it was a risk to take, when both of us had a career and life set up in the UK, in order to play for Mayo. It is absolutely worth it though every time you pull on the Mayo jersey and with the magical support that we have day in and day out, it’s something that I have absoloutly no regrets about.”
That support network of family around GAA players is very important says Parsons. For someone in the midfielder’s position, where he lives in Dublin and commutes from the capital to Castlebar and back again for training, strains can be put on personal relationships but he says when you have support it can make things much easier.
“It’s very difficult, you know, and we’re getting married in December and I’m 29 now. The older you get the more responsibilities you have with family and work and so forth. It can be hugely difficult on Carol and in fairness she has massive patience and massive support. At this level GAA players, with the professional type environment it is, do need a really strong support network around them and I can tell you, if their partner isn’t invested in it too then it ain't going to work and I suppose I’m blessed that Carol is invested in it and has the patience of a saint and supports me with all this time travelling, training and playing games. Let me tell you, this season in particular has been a real test of character.”
Success came early to Parsons, a number of minor, Under 21 and a senior Connacht title came his way by the age of 21 as well as being involved with the International Rules team and he knows more than most the perils of success at an early age, telling The Mayo Advertiser "you know, at the age of 18 or 19 when you do play for your county, especially a strong football county like Mayo, and you get one or two successful years, definitely it’s hard for a young player not to maybe dream or maybe have the expectation that this could be nine or ten years playing with your county and sometimes it can be very hard to keep up that level of intensity at that age. I certainly think that at an older age, for myself anyway, that I definitely have more grá, more want and will to work really hard to keep that jersey because I know what it means to lose it. I tip my hat to some of the young players with us now, their character and resilience is just brilliant at 21 or 22 years old.”
Mayo have been on a whirlwind adventure this Summer, Sunday’s game will be the tenth they face into since the middle of May, on top of eight in the 2016 campaign, but Parsons says it has been enjoyable for the players, “This year it’s great to play the quantity of games that we have played. You can only do so much in training but what you learn in games is key, and in one respect it’s like having a national league campaign in the middle of the Summer in that 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 know, you want to play in Croke park as many times as possible in the year and to date that’s been something special and something magical for us to be able to have that opportunity to have so many games there this year.”
“I have to reference the National League which is really competitive these days and are nearly like championship games at this stage and each year the National League is getting more competitive and you build up those habits through the league of how to recover for big games and what does that mean if you’re looking at all your recovery measures like pool sessions, ice baths and so forth, so those habits are ingrained through the league campaign and then we’re nearly ready for it if it does materialise during a championship campaign like this year.”
At 29 years of age Parsons has become one of Stephen Rochford’s leaders on the pitch. He had many dreams as a young footballer of winning numerous All-Ireland titles and other accolades in the Green and Red.
Does he still dream?