When the 2011 league finished up, James Horan sat down to draw up his championship panel for that summer. One of the names he pencilled a line through was Tom Parsons.
Horan had used the league to run the eye over a number of combinations and players. Parsons had started three games: at home against Armagh, in Croke Park against Dublin and up in Inniskeen against Monaghan. Mayo lost all three games, which can't have helped Parson's cause. They met and it was agreed that he would be released to concentrate on club football and see how things went.
Inter-county careers often go this way. They don’t so much officially end as gradually peter out. Real life – casual life – takes over.
Parsons didn’t return to the Mayo dressing room until the New Year of 2014. By then, Mayo had been transformed from an uncertain force into arguably the most consistent team in the country, winning three consecutive Connacht championships and featuring in the previous two All-Ireland finals. By then, Parsons wasn’t even living in Ireland, let alone Mayo.
"Yeah. I was in Cardiff, " Parsons recalled recently at the Mayo media evening not long after they had secured passage to a fourth All-Ireland final in six seasons.
“I got the call back in January of 2014. But that was to play a number of FBD or league games. I hadn’t necessarily made the panel at that stage. Like any team, you on a trial basis until they pick the panel for the championship so for that period of the league I was flying home to play with Mayo through the whole league until I was selected.”
In retrospect, his return seems inevitable. Parsons, despite the dip in form that led to his release, is simply too good to not be an inter-county player.
He says that he was “pretty confident” that he would get back into the Mayo squad.
"There was definitely an element of resilience built up. I have a very close relationship with my father Tom and mother Carmel. And I remember saying to them that I will play for Mayo again. And you know, I had made a verbal contract with them at that stage and you don't forget words like that. I felt that I was resilient and that I had a great club in Charlestown. "
The main purpose of concentrating on club football was to “get back to basics” and tap into the qualities that made him such a stand-out prospect in is teenage years. He was fortunate in that the team embarked on a scintillating run of form, winning the Mayo intermediate and then the provincial title.
But he only had to flick through the sports pages or watch the Sunday highlights to see that Mayo were getting on just fine without him. There was every chance that if the team made history, he’d find himself observing it from the wrong side of the wire fencing.
“I think every athlete can have doubts and you turn and face those. But to return and play for Mayo was always on my priority list. Playing with the club were highly enjoyable years too. But at the age of 18, 19, 20, to make an age at a very young age made it feel that I could be playing for 12 years. And so maybe getting released from the squad: I certainly really appreciate at this stage of my career how valuable and precious it is to represent your county and to put on the Mayo jersey. And it doesn’t last forever.
“As a player or athlete, we are only a game away or an injury away from our last game with our county. I am 29 years old and one big injury could finish my career. And my last game . . . could be my last game. That is a reality I have learned maybe from being released and a reality that comes with age.”
Fortitude and ambition
Parsons’ hiatus transformed him from an unproven younger prospect to one of the more senior figures in a squad that seemed to tunnel through deeper reserves of fortitude and ambition with each season.
When Horan got in touch that January three years ago, he knew it was a defining moment for him. There was nothing big-time about the second coming: the dismal dressing-rooms of some FBD game played before the Christmas tinsel had even been taken down and then zipping back and forth from Cardiff for training and league games. “I wanted to grab it with both hands, ” he says.
He was good to his word, restoring himself to Horan’s mind’s eye for what had become one of Mayo’s habitually epic summers, this one ending with that dusty, never-to-be-forgotten All-Ireland semi-final replay against Kerry.
After that, Parsons realised it was time to phone a furniture removal company. He works with Jacobs Engineering and they were willing to facilitate a move back to their Dublin office.
“But at the same time, I had to convince my partner Carol to leave and to give up her job in the UK and follow me back to Ireland to pursue my dream. There was a lot on the cards and it was maybe a risk to take when both of us had a career and life set up in the UK to come back and play for Mayo. But it is absolutely worth it every time you pull on that jersey with the magic support we have. I have absolutely no regrets.”
Horan stepped down after the 2014 season and Parsons has been central to the plans of the following two managerial appointments.
Adapt and change
Although his fiancee is a Dubliner, he claims that she is “totally converted” to the Mayo cause now. But when he speaks about her willingness to adapt and change their lives to facilitate his career, it is with sincere appreciation.
“It is very difficult. We are getting married in December. Life moves on and the older you get the more responsibilities you have with family and work and so forth. It is hugely difficult on Carol but in fairness she has massive patience and gives massive support.
“And I think at this level that GAA players do need a strong support network around them and I can tell you that if their partner isn’t invested in it, then it ain’t going to work. I suppose I am blessed that Carol is invested in it and has the patience of a saint and supports me with all this time training and games. And this season has been a real test of character.”
It has also been the usual test of the collective Mayo cardiac and psychiatric reserves. The journey from the underwhelming Connacht championship exit at the hands of Galway to this latest All-Ireland final appearance has been unreadable.
For most of the summer, Mayo seemed to merely surviving until they suddenly just caught fire. There was nothing planned or rehearsed about it and they lived on the edge. They arguably should have gone out against Derry and brought their support through a hugely tense Saturday evening qualifier against Cork.
“The way we have taken it from the onset is that we totally take each game as it comes and don’t look beyond and in the backdoor, our complete focus was on Derry,” Parsons says.
“And you are quick to realise when Derry bring you to extra time and arguably had opportunities to win the game too, that the performance needs to be better. That is what we had to do. We were meeting a Cork team that were quite strong and a Roscommon team who were Connacht champions.
“ So you are very much aware that each week you are meeting a strong opponent and you have to up our performance. And very much like the national league, we improved. In one respect it was like having a national league campaign in the middle of the summer. It has been fantastic. As a player that’s what you want to do. You want to play in Croke Park in as many games as possible in the year and that has been magical to have as many games this year.”
Somewhere along the way, Mayo managed to ridicule the idea that they didn’t have the collective energy anymore. They have become stronger through each passing week, a world removed from their league form.
It is nearly a ten hour shift to Mayo and returning so you spend a long time with these guys and you definitely create and build a strong bond.
Then, winter training for Mayo is a logistical nightmare. Depending on the year, up to ten of the squad works or studies in Dublin. They make one midweek trip west, meeting near the motorway and travelling by bus to training and returning after midnight. Parsons is among the number who also makes that journey during the summer months.
“It is nearly a ten hour shift to Mayo and returning so you spend a long time with these guys and you definitely create and build a strong bond. We are certainly a very tight unit.”
There was no guarantee that he would be on that bus. Ten years after first breaking into the Mayo squad, Parsons has never appreciated it more. He looks at the emerging Mayo seniors like Paddy Durcan and Conor Loftus and can’t help but compare their maturity and application to his own, when he felt that he was there to stay.
“It is hard for a young player to maybe dream or have the expectation that this could be nine or ten years playing with your county. And it is hard to keep up that level of intensity at that age.
“And I certainly think that at an older age I have myself more raw want and will to work to keep that jersey. Because I know what it means to lose it. And I take my hat off to some of the young players who are with us now because their heart and resilience is just brilliant and they are 21 and 22.”
Not that he doesn’t have the wherewithal to allow himself to occasionally remind himself of the grandest ambition involved with lining out for Mayo. Tom Parsons laughs when asked if 29-year-olds are allowed to dream.