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Dublin: 15 °C Monday 18 June, 2018

'I remember saying to them that I will play for Mayo again. You don't forget words like that'

It’s been a career of long roads for Tom Parsons.

Tom Parsons takes to the field Source: James Crombie/INPHO

MAYO HAVE TAKEN the scenic route to this year’s All-Ireland final, but Tom Parsons’ is a career forged on the long road.

When the Charlestown midfielder was chopped from James Horan’s inter-county panel following the 2011 league campaign, he might well have packed in football altogether. Instead he made a promise to his parents and to himself that he’d return to the Mayo set-up, and despite moving to Cardiff for work in 2012, never wavered in such a belief.

He spent two years commuting from Wales to Ireland not for work, but for club football. It’s but one sacrifice he hopes will ultimately pay dividends this weekend, when he’ll likely line out in his second All-Ireland final since moving back to his native country on a full-time basis.

Irrespective of what transpires on Sunday, Parsons will have no regrets. There were, however, plenty of doubts between 2011 and 2014 as to whether he’d ever don the green and red again – an added perspective which has imbued the 29-year-old since his return.

“Every athlete can have doubts and you face those doubts,” he says, “but to return and play for Mayo was something that was always on my agenda and priority list. But that started when I was released, to get back to basics and playing with my club, and they were the steps that were involved to get back in and play with Mayo.

“I played with my club nine or 10 consecutive weekends in a row. I came back and won an Intermediate county title and Connacht title, and they were thoroughly enjoyable years too. But no, definitely, I think at aged 18, 19, 20, to make a team at a very young age, [for] me personally felt I could be playing for Mayo for 10 or 12 years.

“And maybe getting released from the squad, I certainly appreciate at this stage of my career how valuable and precious it is to represent your county at inter-county level and to put on the Mayo jersey.

Tom Parsons Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

It doesn’t last forever, and as a player or an athlete we’re only a game away – an injury away – from playing our last game with our 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, and that’s a reality I’ve learned from maybe being released. And maybe it’s a reality that comes with age as well.

The energetic midfielder spent two years in the UK during which he was never even so much as ‘pretty confident’ that he’d be recalled to county action, but was fuelled by a vow to both his parents and himself that he’d return before his prime footballing years were behind him.

Club circumstances, he maintains, boosted his bid for a second bite at the cherry.

There was definitely an element of resilience built up in myself, and when I was released from the panel in ‘11 – I have a very close relationship with my father Tom and my mother Carmel – I remember saying to them that I will play for Mayo again. I had made a verbal contract to myself at that stage and you don’t forget words like that.

“I felt I was resilient and I also felt I was lucky to have a great club in Charlestown. We had the opportunity at the time to win an Intermediate and then push on the following year and compete at a county semi-final in the Senior Championship, because without your club team doing well you don’t get the stage to maybe show your skills and ability to come into a county panel again.”

Parsons was still based in Cardiff when he was tentatively called back to the Mayo panel three-and-a-half years ago “on a trial basis”, and traveled back and forth for Connacht League and National League games in a bid to regain his place in James Horan’s squad for Championship.

He came good on that promise, but while back in favour at last, was confronted with a life-altering decision.

“I work with a large international engineering company called Jacobs Engineering,” he says, “and I was lucky enough that they have offices around the world and one of those offices was Dublin, and that they facilitated a transfer for me to the Dublin office so I didn’t have to change company.

But at the same time… My partner, Carol – I had to convince her to leave and change her job, and give up her job in the UK and follow me back to Ireland to pursue my dream. So there was a lot on the cards and maybe a risk to take at that stage when both of us – myself and my partner – 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 put on that jersey to play for Mayo, with the magic support we have day in, day out. I have absolutely no regrets.”

Tom Parsons Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Fiancée Carol still has an awful lot to put up with, too.

Parsons is based in Dublin but spends six hours on the road, most days, in order to train with his county.

“She’s from Dublin but she’s totally converted now to Mayo!” he says. “I’ll make that very clear.

“It’s very difficult. We’re getting married in December, and I’m 29 years old and life moves on, and the older you get the more responsibilities you have with family and work and so forth.

“It’s hugely, hugely difficult on Carol and, in fairness, she has massive patience and massive support. And I think at this level, GAA players, with the professional environment, do need a really strong support network around them.

I can tell you that if their partners aren’t invested in it, then it ain’t going to work. I’m blessed that Carol is invested in it and has the patience of a saint and supports me with all this time traveling and training and games and so forth. Let me tell you, this season has been a real test of character.

The Dublin-to-Mayo commute is one which he shares with Séamie O’Shea amongst others. While obviously testing, it has also transpired to bolster Mayo’s sense of unity, explains Parsons.

“Yeah, absolutely. The fact that we have a number of guys in Dublin, we travel collectively.

“You spend a lot of time on the road with those guys, it’s nearly a 10-hour shift to Mayo, train, and return, and you spend a lot of time with these guys, and you definitely build and create a special bond.

“It’s good in that way too and we’re certainly a very tight unit.”

It’s scarcely believable that it’s been nine years since Parsons was called up to Seán Boylan’s International Rules squad for two victorious tests Down Under.

For Parsons, it was even more difficult to come to terms with the fact that he was cut from his inter-county panel a mere three years later, aged just 22.

“At the age of 18, 19, when you do play for your county,” he says, “and especially a strong footballing county like Mayo, and you get one or two successful years, it definitely is hard for a young player not to maybe dream or have the expectation that this could be nine or 10 years playing with your county.

It’s very hard to keep up that level of intensity at that age and I certainly think at an older age, for myself personally, I definitely have more grá, more want and will to work really, really hard to keep that jersey, because I know what it means to lose it.

“I put my hats off to some of the young players who are with us now, their character and resilience is just brilliant, and they’re 21, 22 years old.”

But is he still allowed to dream at 29?

“Oh, absolutely.”

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