The experience of a lifetime

Monaghan footballer Sean Jones didn’t know what to expect when he headed to Chicago club Padraig Pearses for the summer, but it turned out to be one of the best experiences of his life

By Niall Gartland

CONOR Meyler, Michael McKernan, Rian O’Neill and more.

It won’t have escaped your notice that Chicago club Parnells recruited a few A-listers of the GAA world this summer, but they were pretty much beaten out the gate in the recent Chicago final by the rather less star-studded Padraig Pearses club.

Among their ranks was 20-year-old Monaghan and Inniskeen forward Sean Jones. Initially he had no designs on heading to the United States this year, but he was convinced into joining the Pearses and, park your preconceptions, it wasn’t all gallivanting and Instagram poses.

Yes, there was plenty of sight-seeing and night-life activities, but he also worked 12 hours a day (digging holes in searing heat is not a glamorous pursuit) and trained ferociously as part of a united and ambitious Padraig Pearses side.

Asked about how the big move Stateside came about, Jones said: “A few clubs from America had contacted me but I turned them down. I got talking to Sean Tobin, a manager of the Pearses team, and he’s very forward, there’s no bullshit with him.

“I pretty much made my mind up that night and I told [Inniskeen manager] Oisin McConville the next day. I said it was something I had to do to renew my interest in football and he was definitely one of the most understanding about it, especially around Inniskeen. He said ‘do what you have to do and come back whenever you need to’. It was tough leaving the club but I definitely made the right decision as the summer I had was just unbelievable. I’m back now for the club championships so I didn’t miss too much.”

At this stage Jones didn’t really know what he was getting himself into. He thought he’d go over, have a look around Chicago and play a bit of ball before returning to Inniskeen at the earliest opportunity. It wasn’t long before he was invested in their all-out assault on championship honours.

“I didn’t really expect much, I thought it might be one training session then playing a game at the weekend, but I was in for a rude awakening. I got a flight into Chicago, arrived in the morning and had my first training session that evening.

“It was about 35 degrees, the heat was outrageous, and I wasn’t used to it at all. We got to training and I thought it would be a bit of a kickabout to get to know the boys but the running we did was unbelievable and I’ve never sweated so much in my life. You wouldn’t do it on a county team, but it stood to us as we could see we were by far the fittest team in Chicago. It also brought us together, we were like a family.”

Jones was put up in digs by his manager Sean Tobin. There were 13 lads in the house at one stage – all Padraig Pearses footballers – but it was all part of the experience.

“I went over with my friend Kyle Connolly, a friend of mine from college. We lived in a house in a village called Niles, about 20 minutes from the city, it was a bit hectic but the lads were very welcoming and it didn’t take long to fit in with them. There was a room with five lads, another with four, but Kyle and I got lucky as it was just the two of us in our room.

“We got there early and both of us just called it. I think the reason we did so well was because you get a bond living with these lads. We were around each other 247 for two-and-a-half months and normally you’d get sick of the sight of each other but I wouldn’t have a bad word to say about any of them.”

Chicago is a huge city that is home to more than seven million people but Jones did his best to sample all that it has to offer.

“One of our managers, Roy Mone, took us to an America Football match and we were in a box and had free food and drink, we also went to Wrigley Field to watch baseball. We did everything really, kayaking and speed-boating and I got to meet a tonne of new people, friends I’ll have for the rest of my life. The likes of Brian Donovan and Dan O’Mahony and I’d never have got the chance to play alongside them otherwise and I learnt a lot from them.”

As for the natives of Chicago, Jones said that they were certainly different from people back home.

“They’re a bit on the crazy side over there. You could be going across a zebra crossing and they wouldn’t stop for you, they would happily run you over if you didn’t look out for them. They’re a bit mad like that, but once they know you’re Irish they all want to know your story and why you’re here. When you say you play Gaelic football they don’t have a clue so we just said we were over playing soccer on a scholarship. Once they heard we were Irish people playing soccer they were loving it.”

Even though they trained like dogs and were expected to behave accordingly outside of training hours, they still did more than their fair share of partying.

“We were put on drink bans but we made the most of things. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t do much partying. We trained on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and afterwards we’d head to a nightclub or a late bar. On Sunday night after matches the whole team would go out as well. Coming up to the final we settled down a bit but after we won we went a bit mad again. We’d a good mix of training and socialising, it definitely didn’t do us any harm.”

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On the work-front, Jones didn’t have it handy. He wasn’t entirely unaccustomed to manual labour, but it was on a whole new level to mucking around the farm back in Inniskeen.

“I worked with one of the other lads, Luke Mangum from Offaly. It was outside sewerage plumbing, and a lot of it was basically just digging holes with a shovel. It was rough work. Most evenings you were picked up at six in the morning and we were done at 6pm. You went straight to training so it was grim enough. I farm a bit at home but I’m not used to 12 hours of digging holes. It shows what you need to do to make it out there. The lad I worked under was Irish and he had a bit of money but he obviously had to work incredibly hard to make it.”

It wasn’t just a matter of showing up on Sunday for selection. Only five Irish recruits were permitted on the pitch at any one time.

“It was 13-a-side and you have to play eight Americans. We were lucky our American lads were very good footballers, they were as good as the Irish lads. We’d a strong panel of around 45 lads, roughly half-Irish and half-Americans. We’d a senior and intermediate team.

“It definitely surprised me how good the American lads were. Colm O’Reilly was raised in Carrick-on-Shannon but he’s considered American as he’s been living there for years. He took frees with his right and left feet, that’s how good he was. David May played for Sligo when he was younger and he was one of their best players. If you didn’t tell anyone, you would assume they were current GAA players from Ireland and I think that’s what stood to us against teams like Parnells, McBrides and Wolfe Tones.”

Jones’ time at Pearses climaxed in a brilliant victory over Parnells in the all-Chicago final. He was marked by Tyrone star Michael McKernan in the decider, but he more than played his part in a resounding victory.

“We won comfortably enough in the end up. We beat Parnells by 11 points. Going into that game they were massive favourites, they had eight or nine big names. Nobody expected us to give them a game at all but it suited us as we knew we were the best team in the competition.

“We got off to a rocky enough start but I got a goal heading into half time and then we took over in the second half. It was a great experience to play those boys, McKernan was on me and he did very well. I scored a fair bit in the first half but you could tell he’s a class above everyone else when it comes to defending, and he’s so calm on the ball when he comes out of defence. Conor Meyler was solid on the ball but we had Brian Donovan from Limerick on him and he had a great game. We won the Nationals title last weekend as well and Brian should be getting National Player of the Year as he’s been unbelievable.”

Jones is more than content to be back home playing for Inniskeen, who have been knocking on the door in Monaghan in recent years, but he relished his time in America and it would be no surprise if there’s further trips across the Atlantic in years to come.

“When I first went to America I’d no real hopes at all. I was thinking I’ll get a few games, we’ll get knocked out and I’ll get back to the club. I thought that would be ideal, but as the games went on, I thought ‘we’ve a great chance here. We won six games straight and you start to get confident and realise we can win the whole thing. It makes you train a bit harder, and only five Irish lads can play so it can be hard to get your spot. I’m proud we did so well. Watching the Nationals final from my bed last night (Sunday), I was thinking I’d love to be out there playing with them, but really I couldn’t be happier being back with my club. I’ve the head down and we’re trying to do whatever it takes to do well in the Monaghan Championship. We’d love to get to a semi-final and maybe even a final.

“It’s been nice being back, talking to Oisin and the other lads, they all want to hear the stories from America. A few of the games were live-streamed, like the Chicago final, and most of them would’ve watched which is great.

“I can definitely see myself going back and seeing a few more cities. I’m happy being home as I know I’ll get my opportunities to travel. It’s an experience everyone should have at some stage of their life.”

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