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Ciarán Murphy: Paul Mannion looks the poster boy for the benefits of club life

Split-season opens up a lifestyle debate for players when it comes to intercounty game

The All-Ireland club championships can often provide you with an interesting juxtaposition. The big city club goes up against the rural parish. The team stacked with county stars goes up against the well-drilled, no-stars-needed outfit. The young starlet faces off against a grizzled veteran long retired from the intercounty scene but eager for one last scalp before they ride off into the sunset.

Other juxtapositions can be a little more subtle, like the one on Sunday that saw two retired intercounty forwards line out at number 11 for their clubs in Navan.

Cian Ward and Paul Mannion are two of the purest 'ball-strikers' – to lift a phrase from golf that nonetheless describes these two perfectly – in the game over the last 15 or 20 years.

A quick on-screen summary of what they had scored on their team’s runs to county final success beforehand suggested that their battle within a battle was less of a juxtaposition and more of a straight contest.

But another column in that tale of the tape was also indicative, and that was the year they retired from intercounty football.

Kilmacud Crokes’ Mannion stepped away from the Dublin panel at the end of the 2020 season, and it appears as if he’s perfectly at peace with the idea of never playing for Dublin again. Cian Ward, on the other hand, was cut from Mick O’Dowd’s Meath panel in the middle of the 2013 season, and the Wolfe Tones man never returned to intercounty football.

Therein lies the juxtaposition, but whatever the reason for their ‘elite’ career coming to an end, it has benefited their clubs massively.

I didn't miss out on anything at county level and I've had great success now by winning this with the club, so I've had a very enjoyable number of years

Ward was speaking to Paul Keane in the Irish Examiner last month after their county final win over Dunboyne, and it was revealing to hear him speak about how his career was enhanced by returning to his club.

“The harsh reality is that most of the time when you go back after an intercounty season, your body is broken and you’re not actually able to perform with the club.

“Realistically, in hindsight, if I could have cut my intercounty career a bit shorter, this might be championship number three or four with the club (they lost county finals in 2009 and 2012). That’s just the unfortunate thing. Hindsight is 20-20, isn’t it? That’s life.

“Look, when your intercounty career ends, and mine was probably cut short against my will, you just focus fully on the club. I didn’t miss out on anything at county level and I’ve had great success now by winning this with the club, so I’ve had a very enjoyable number of years.”

It’s hard to argue with that, and it’s equally hard to argue that Paul Mannion, still only 28, has done anything other than the absolute best for himself in the last 12 months also.

Every time his retirement is discussed, people are quick to point out that it had nothing to do with injuries, and that, having won three All Stars in a row (between 2017 and 2019), and having won six All-Ireland titles, Mannion had simply made a lifestyle decision.

But it would also make perfect sense to me if he had said that retiring now, before chronic injury occurs, is a better personal choice than ruining your body in an attempt to stay at that level. He need look no further than his club-mate Cian O’Sullivan, who has stepped away from all football at the age of just 33 due to injury.

The split-season is being brought in to try to shorten the intercounty season, and to redress the balance back towards the club

There are obvious exceptions, most notably in Tralee, where Kieran Donaghy helped Austin Stacks to a county title on Sunday at 38, a full five years older than O'Sullivan, having left it all on the field with Kerry for 14 years.

But it is pertinent to ask if there comes a time when more players start retiring from intercounty before the wear and tear on their bodies reaches a critical mass. That Mannion was the best club player in Dublin by a distance this year is a fact that will not be lost on many people.

And there is also the not-insignificant fact that when we get our first real look at what the split-season has in store for us next year, then the profile of the county, provincial and All-Ireland club championships will only get bigger.

The split-season is being brought in to try to shorten the intercounty season, and to redress the balance back towards the club. The hope would be that more players would be willing to make the sacrifice to play for their county if the season was shorter.

But an unintended consequence of that may well be that as those club games are played earlier in the year, in better weather, with an increased TV profile, a growing cohort of players may well feel that the benefits of intercounty football just don’t outweigh the negatives on your career, and your lifestyle.

Nothing they’ve seen from Paul Mannion in the last two months would disavow them of that notion.

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