‘It’s really ruthless’ – Dessie Hutchinson on leaving soccer and returning to hurling

Ballygunner all-rounder fulfils his dreams with hurling after ditching professional soccer

Dessie Hutchinson:  “A lot of lads in Ballygunner have had this experience a number of times down through the years. For me, it was my first.”  Photograph: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Dessie Hutchinson: “A lot of lads in Ballygunner have had this experience a number of times down through the years. For me, it was my first.” Photograph: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

 

We came to talk hurling with Dessie Hutchinson, and left with another lesson in the harsh realities of pursuing a professional football career.

There was no single moment when Hutchinson realised he wasn’t going to make it with Brighton & Hove Albion in the Premier League; only the slow and now increasing realisation he might actually be transferring one dream for another.

Last Sunday week, Hutchinson played a man-of-the-match role – scoring 1-3 from play – as Ballygunner landed a sixth successive Waterford hurling title; better still alongside his older brothers Wayne and JJ, and other faces and names he would have grown up watching.

“It’s been unbelievable, especially for myself,” says Hutchinson. “Obviously a lot of lads in Ballygunner have had this experience a number of times down through the years. For me, it was my first. To be able to get over the line, win with your best friends and your brothers and your family, and the whole community was unreal. Probably the best moment of my career, to be honest.”

Six years ago, at age 16, his dream was going in a different direction: “I went over to Brighton, in the Championship in England at the time, and served there for five years. Which was great, an unbelievable experience. But things changed a bit for me over there. The first couple of years, everything is great. Then it comes to a stage where you think, ‘what’s the best for my career here?’ Whether I went out on loan or stayed with Brighton. I wasn’t getting the chance with Brighton that I would have liked so I decided to come home in May of 2018, and played with Waterford FC for the remainder of the Irish season.

“At the end of that I decided, ‘look, it’s probably not going down the road I want it to go down’ so I said I’d change my career. Not leave it too late. It wasn’t about making sure I got back playing GAA, more a career change for myself. Not leaving it too late to go back to college or whatever. The GAA obviously played a big part in making that easier for me.”

Speaking at the launch of the AIB club championship in Dublin, Hutchinson clearly looks back on that period with mixed emotions; no regrets, perhaps, but some difficult lessons nonetheless. “I was going over and back to England to a few clubs from 14 onwards, also playing hurling and Gaelic football in between that. But then the time came when I had to choose one or the other.

Chris Hughton

“Chris Hughton was the manager at Brighton. We’d a couple of other managers as well, Oscar Garcia, Nathan Jones, then Chris Hughton. It was a tough one. At the time, Waterford were doing so well in the Irish league, fighting for a European spot, it was probably best to come home, particularly the way things ended with Brighton. I got released that May (2018), the January before I was fighting for a loan move. Then I got injured in the last week of the transfer window, kept me out until April. I knew then that it was unlikely I was going to be at Brighton the following season.”

Brighton had gained promotion to the Premier League at the end of the 2016-2017, for the first time in the club’s history: if anything that made his task of breaking into the team even harder.

“With Chris, an unbelievable manager, I loved working with him, but he always depended on his experienced players rather than his younger players. Now you look at the new manager Graham Potter after going in and he’s blooding in a lot of young lads. Different managers have different styles. Obviously Chris was fighting to keep Brighton in the Premier League. And it is a big risk to throw in a young lad. But that’s what a young lads needs – they need to be given a chance and a bit of luck to get in.”

The evening before Hutchinson won his county title, he watched his former Brighton team mate Aaron Connolly making his Republic of Ireland debut against Georgia: nothing about that surprised him. “I looked after him for a while when he first came over. I knew if he was given the chance he’d make it. He is an unbelievable player. Once he keeps grounded he can go a long way. He’s got that bit of luck and in fairness to him he’s taken it.”

No one left

His own experiences, he also realises, are more common: “It’s completely different to what people think it is. The first six months are great. You think, ‘I’m going to earn loads of money, have the best of everything. I’m going to work really hard.’ But things just don’t happen like that.

“From my group when I started in Brighton, at age 16, there’s not one player left. And from the year above there’s no one left either. There are a few left playing in the lower leagues, a lad that came in below me, Ben White, he’s flourishing in Leeds, on loan. There are a couple that will flourish, go far, but a lot of people don’t.

Dessie Hutchinson in action for Brighton’s under-21s against Danny Welbeck of Arsenal in 2016. Photograph: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images
Dessie Hutchinson in action for Brighton’s under-21s against Danny Welbeck of Arsenal in 2016. Photograph: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

“And only one in every 99 in an academy makes it? You look at them stats and you think ‘jeez’, do I have a chance? But it’s an opportunity you can’t turn down. People always ask me, if I was a young lad would I do it again, and I would, because you don’t know if you’ll get another chance. But I’d stay in school and go over at 19.

“But no regrets, I loved every minute of it. The only regret you could say is that when you do come home, you do struggle for a year or two, whether it’s getting back into education, or work, it’s a completely different life.”

Currently working with Store-All Warehousing in Waterford, with plans to start college, Hutchinson has found his return to Ballygunner welcoming in other ways.

“It’s very different, playing with someone who wants the exact same as you, whereas in England, you’re constantly competing against the player beside you, hoping he gets injured, and that’s just the reality. And it was hard for me to go to that, after being so involved with the GAA, because I was used to the team environment, everyone together.

“Then you go over there and people are kicking you, don’t want you anywhere near them. We were lucky there were a few Irish lads over there and we stuck together, but I wouldn’t wanted to have been an Irish lad on my own. It’s really ruthless.

“I’ll keep the head down with the club at the moment, but the long-term goal is definitely to be playing with Waterford. That’s definitely my aim. I played Gaelic football with them, towards the start of this year, and that gave me some idea what it would be like to go in with the hurlers.”

Next on Ballygunner’s radar are Clare champions Sixmilebridge in a Munster quarter-final: “A tough task, but really looking forward to it,” Hutchinson says.

The dream transfer continues.

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