‘My role is to serve the intercounty players. If that’s unpopular with a percentage of people, that’s fine’

For Tom Parsons it has been a rapid transition from intercounty player with Mayo to former intercounty player and now to GPA CEO

A few weeks back, Tom Parsons dug out a bag of balls, laced up his boots and masqueraded at being a footballer again.

Concerned about rustiness ahead of a charity game at Croke Park, the retired Mayo midfielder mapped out a training session from his past – 100 metre sprints, sharp twists and turns, a couple of balls on the go, soloing, kicking, the works.

Within hours, the throbbing had started, the body reminding the man it was in charge.

“My knee blew up for two days,” recalls Parsons. “My groin as well. I did a 60-minute session, like something I would have done with Mayo. I had no right to do that session. You have to listen to the body, you have to respect it.”


Especially one that has been through the mill. In 2018 Parsons suffered a frightening knee injury against Galway, even now the images remain shocking. His foot turned black and he was told he’d never run again. The worst of stuff.

But he overcame it all and returned for Mayo at the end of the 2019 championship, managing another season too in 2020. Then, he went out on his own terms. His injury comeback had been a journey the entire GAA community rallied behind.

But since 2021 Parsons has been in a role that doesn’t always endear itself to the entire GAA community – CEO of the Gaelic Players’ Association. Rightly or wrongly, there are plenty who still view the GPA with suspicion. And when it comes to GAA presidential races, the intercounty players’ body are seen as low-hanging fruit.

Larry McCarthy didn’t hide his views on them during his campaign and already in this whirl of candidates, Jarlath Burns, in a wide-ranging interview with The Irish News earlier this month, didn’t spare the GPA.

“The GPA hasn’t worked out that we are an amateur organisation. Amateur status is our second core value and we’ve also devolved that to the GPA – a private organisation,” Burns told The Irish News.

The former Armagh captain continued: “The GPA carries a lot of clout now and the new president has issues to sort out with them.

“The chair of the GPA, Tom Parsons, is a man I have great respect for, but when he went on The Sunday Game and said that if a manager wanted to do 14 sessions-a-week that should be unquestioned and the GAA should pay the travelling expenses to allow that, a chill went down my spine.”

Parsons actually said 10, and argues his comments were misconstrued.

“I stated if a player is asked to train twice or 10 times a week, and the 10 was used as an extreme example, it is not the player scheduling sessions. They are scheduled by management,” he says.

“Do we want to send out a message that if you want to be the best you can be in an amateur sport, Gaelic games isn’t for you because what we are looking for is somebody that will train twice a week?

“That was taken out of context, deliberately maybe, unfairly, by people saying the GPA are advocating for excessive amounts of sessions. We have been very consistent in saying sports science should dictate the number of training sessions and that it shouldn’t be some arbitrary number or it shouldn’t be dictated by, ‘this is my opinion.’”

Burns added, if president, he would attempt to regulate intercounty training to two sessions per week during the league. Again, it is a position Parsons disputes.

“Strength and conditioning isn’t about building strength, it’s about preparing players for the explosive environment of the intercounty game,” he states.

“Those third or fourth sessions, they are the ones that protect player welfare. With only two sessions a week we’d have a huge amount of our players injured within the first three weeks of the intercounty season.

“To state then after the league there would be an unlimited amount of training sessions just really reinforces that the position comes with no scientific evidence. It’s certainly not pro player welfare.

“It also begs a question, is there no place for elite amateur athletes in Gaelic games? Or do the senior leaders who are striving for these positions want to settle with an average amateur athlete?

“Do we want to send out a message that if you want to be the best you can be in an amateur sport, Gaelic games isn’t for you because what we are looking for is somebody that will train twice a week?

“So, it’s a position I would gladly debate. When asked a question on what issues need to be addressed, to point the finger at the GPA when there are challenges such as integration, discipline, abuse of players on social media, urbanisation and the loss of rural clubs, is disappointing.

“In saying that, maybe we need to put these comments in the context to running for an election and is there an element of trying to favour some cohorts of the GAA that would warm to those comments? But if that’s the direction then that is equally disappointing.”

The direction of the GAA’s recent broadcasting deal was watched closely by the GPA. With no replacement for Sky, it raised questions if the overall package represented a financial hit. The GPA receive 15 percent of the GAA’s net commercial revenue, which is typically around €3 million annually. That arrangement will remain.

“We’ve received assurances that it hasn’t changed it and that it won’t, whether that’s a result of other commercial deals picking up the slack or its overall intrinsic value, I don’t know,” says Parsons.

The practice of managers receiving under-the-counter payments remains a vibrant one in the GAA. Parsons feels part of the solution could be more transparency and key performance indicators being set for those entrusted with managerial positions.

“I would like to see KPIs for managers and coaches, beyond simply the performance of the senior intercounty team. Because I think that brings negative behaviours in how players are brought on a panel. I would like to see a solution on it.”

Working on integration remains a priority for the GPA and Parsons says players “want to see significant change, not in five years or 10 years, but in 24 months”.

And the contentious Fenway Classic, which last took place pre-pandemic, might not have seen its last days either. “There is certainly an appetite from a number of our friends in the US and stakeholders to re-engage Fenway. It’s something I’ll be exploring in 2023,” Parsons says.

He makes no apologies either for the GPA’s stance earlier this year on issues in relation to expenses and the number of collective training sessions permitted.

As reported in The Irish Times last week, the GAA and GPA have now reached agreement in principle on a players’ charter and a contact hours policy, which they hope to have in place before Christmas.

“It’s important that the GPA represents the voice of the players. Sometimes that might be against the opinion of the GAA,” adds Parsons.

“But that’s the nature of a healthy relationship, you can be in disagreement because you are representing your members but at the same time there is a professional relationship where you are working constructively for a solution.

“My role is to serve the intercounty players. If that’s unpopular with a percentage of people, that’s fine. What’s really important is I serve intercounty players, that’s my role.”

His role these days is also to be a Dad to two kids under four. As for the knee, generally it doesn’t give him too much bother, so long as he doesn’t overextend it and keeps the body strong.

It has been a rapid transition from intercounty player to former intercounty player and now to GPA CEO, but it’s one he feels the hurdles along the way prepared him for. Retired, but still in the firing line.

“I was released from the Mayo squad at 22. I eventually got called back in,” says Parsons. “Then I picked up the injury in 2018, where again I was told ‘your time is up’.

“So, in the end it was very positive to be able to make the decision on my own terms. My life philosophy, from when I was initially dropped, was to build your self-esteem and your identity away from the field.

“I was lucky that I had to go through those setbacks and build that resilience to get balance in my life, so I could authentically say when I retired I had no regrets and my life outside the game was rich and full.”

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning is a sports journalist, specialising in Gaelic games, with The Irish Times