'I’m back to doing what I love most' - Former Brighton midfielder set for Munster Championship debut

Dessie Hutchinson is a member of the Waterford panel for this evening’s game against Clare at Cusack Park.

“IF I WAS being realistic,” says Dessie Hutchinson, “I probably thought my chances of being involved in games like this were gone.”

It’s Monday afternoon, the beginning of Hutchinson’s first championship week as a senior inter-county GAA player. When the subject of Waterford’s Munster SFC quarter-final against Clare is broached, he’s unable to suppress his grin as he pours himself a cup of tea in a quiet corner of the bar in the Viking Hotel.  

AFC Bournemouth v Brighton and Hove Albion - Carabao Cup - Third Round - Vitality Stadium Bournemouth's Jordon Ibe under pressure from Dessie Hutchinson of Brighton & Hove Albion. Steven Paston Steven Paston

“I used to always tell Dylan Barnett, one of the lads I lived with over in England, that I’d love to go back and play GAA again. Even though I was giving my all to make a career in professional soccer, the urge to play for Waterford never went away.”

Hutchinson’s involvement with the Waterford football panel for tonight’s game in Ennis comes just shy of a year since his time on the books at a Premier League club concluded. After five seasons with Brighton & Hove Albion, he was released in May 2018.

The irony of being discarded at that juncture was that his final season had produced the most tangible signs of progress. In addition to captaining the club’s U23 side and receiving his first Ireland U21 call-up, the midfielder impressed in his first-team debut as Brighton suffered a 1-0 extra-time defeat to Bournemouth in the League Cup.

But in January of last year, his cause was hampered by the collapse of a loan move to Scottish side St Mirren due to the two clubs failing to reach an agreement over his salary. That was followed by an ill-timed two-month injury absence, which denied him the opportunity to make his case for an extension when his contract was about to expire.

After the disappointment of leaving a club he joined at 16, Hutchinson moved home to begin his bid to salvage his career. He helped Waterford FC to achieve a top-four finish, but by the time the season drew to a close, his relationship with soccer had changed.

The Hutchinson name is synonymous with GAA in Waterford. The origins of Dessie’s obsession with sport can be traced back to his early childhood, when he first donned the red and black hoops of Ballygunner, aiming to emulate his brothers Wayne and JJ.

When he initially returned from Brighton last year, there remained a determination to defy the setback by becoming the latest player to use the League of Ireland as a springboard for a move back to the UK. However, the magnetism of his first sporting love was difficult to resist. 

Wayne Hutchinson and JJ Hutchinson Wayne and JJ Hutchinson celebrate after Ballygunner's win against De La Salle in the 2017 Waterford SHC final. Ken Sutton / INPHO Ken Sutton / INPHO / INPHO

“I kind of just fell out of love with soccer after last year, especially being back from England. It just didn’t feel the same when I came home,” the 22-year-old explains.

“I had worked really hard for five seasons, but then it all seemed to fall apart in the space of two months. After getting my debut, I felt like the breakthrough was finally there. Then in January the loan move didn’t happen, I got injured and that was it, basically. You hear a lot about how football is a ruthless business, and I suppose I found that out myself then.

“After coming home to play in the League of Ireland for Waterford, Alan Reynolds [manager] was keen to keep me on this year, but I had to be honest with him. I didn’t want to end up playing just for the sake of it. It wouldn’t have been right to go in and go through the motions.

“I have great time for him and he’s doing a fantastic job at Waterford, but my heart just wasn’t in it. If I continued playing for him while feeling like that, it wouldn’t have been fair to me or him.”

Late last year, Hutchinson dug his helmet out from the back of the closet, wrapped a fresh grip around his hurley and joined up with the Ballygunner senior panel for training as they prepared for another Munster Club Championship campaign after winning their fifth county title in a row. 

As a dual player, Hutchinson also represents Gaultier. He was the match winner on his championship debut for the club last month, scoring 0-3 — including a decisive late free — in a 1-5 to 1-4 win against An Rinn. By then, Waterford senior football manager Benji Whelan had already handed him his senior inter-county debut in a National League win over Antrim.  

“When I was growing up, all I thought about was winning county titles with Ballygunner and playing for Waterford in Croke Park. I played for Waterford until U16 level before going away to England,” says Hutchinson, who was previously a team-mate of current Waterford senior hurlers such as Shane Bennett and Patrick Curran.

Dessie Hutchinson and Joel Coustrain Dessie Hutchinson in possession for Waterford against Shamrock Rovers. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

“All my family and the friends I hang around with are big GAA people, so it was hard to stay away from it. When the soccer season ended, I was training away with Ballygunner and it felt really good to be back at it.

“Ballygunner won their fifth county title in a row there last year. It’s unreal to see the lads winning them but I was also wishing I was part of it. It was wicked hard, especially when there’s such a strong connection.

“The level of professionalism that they have really surprised me when I came back. Even though it’s an amateur sport, it’s a professional environment in the dressing room, which I was used to from being away. But it’s so much more as well.

“You have to do your own bit for yourself, but you’re doing it for the fella beside you too. When you’re playing soccer in England, sometimes it feels like you’re competing against the fella next to you, even though you’re on the same team. People were always mainly looking out for themselves. In the GAA it’s very different.

“With soccer, you could also never really get away from the worry about whether you were doing enough to be kept on and to get a new contract. In GAA, whether it’s club or county, you’ll be in the team if you’re performing well enough. It’s as simple as that.

“It felt like there was a lot more politics involved in soccer. A certain fella might have to play a certain amount of games for one reason or another, and then you might be the one to miss out because of that. I suppose things are different when money is brought into it. In the GAA, put in the work and you’ll be rewarded for it. That’s a breath of fresh air for me.

“A lot of lads come back home after being with clubs in England, and it’s tough, but I consider myself one of the lucky ones. Most fellas seem to have nothing at all to come home to. It might not be a job, but I don’t know what way I’d be now without hurling and Gaelic football.”

inpho_00165805 Front and centre, nine-year-old Dessie Hutchinson on mascot duty for Ballygunner in December 2005. INPHO / Lorraine O'Sullivan INPHO / Lorraine O'Sullivan / Lorraine O'Sullivan

Now that sport is no longer a viable career path, Hutchinson is weighing up his options for third-level education. Teaching and sports science courses have piqued his interest. With the support of the Gaelic Players’ Association helping to ease the transition during a period of professional uncertainty, he’s optimistic about what the future has in store. 

“While I do wonder what I could have experienced with the GAA over the last few years, I have no regrets about going away to England. An opportunity like that is very hard to turn down and I took a huge amount from it,” Hutchinson says.

“You can never say what’s going to happen down the line, but for the moment I’m not looking at going back to soccer at all. All my focus right now is on football with Waterford, football with Gaultier and hurling with Ballygunner.

“Hurling probably is my number one, but I’m loving being involved with the Waterford footballers. Benji [Whelan] is building something good and he’s getting people interested in Waterford football, which doesn’t get the credit it deserves at all. I’ll be giving it everything I have for him.

“I’m back to doing what I love most, which is being around the people closest to me and playing the games that I’ve always enjoyed since I was a kid. I don’t care how much money I have or what other people think as long as I’m doing the things that make me happy.

“I want to live the kind of life that a normal 22-year-old should be living. Trying to sort out work and stuff like that is tough, don’t get me wrong, but for the moment I’m just so happy to be back playing hurling and Gaelic football.

“It feels good to be in control of my own life and that’s the way I want things to stay.” 

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