By Anthony Hennigan
The decision of Mayo County Board to twice refuse Sean Regan permission to play hurling with Tooreen in 2021 is one that warrants exploration for several reasons.
For those who are unaware, Sean Regan is a native of Ballina who played underage football for Mayo and who plays senior hurling for Mayo. He featured alongside current stars like Diarmuid O’Connor, Paddy Durcan, Stephen Coen and Michael Plunkett on Mayo minor and U21 football teams in 2012 and 2015, unfortunate to miss out on All- Ireland titles by one year with both.
In 2016 he was in Croke Park helping the Mayo hurlers win the Nicky Rackard Cup. He’s one of the county’s few certified ‘dual stars’.
An integral member of the Ballina Stephenites senior football team, the 26-year-old has for all of his adult career (or for seven consecutive seasons to be precise) been just as integral to the blossoming fortunes of Tooreen Hurling Club.
In fact, he’s on record as saying his most treasured possession is the medal he won in 2019 when Tooreen lifted their second Connacht intermediate hurling championship title in three years, with Regan starting both those finals against Ballinderreen and Kinvara, and the one in between which they narrowly lost to Oranmore-Maree. The Blue Devils remain the only non-Galway club to have won the crown.
It wasn’t by choice that Sean Regan ended up as a Tooreen hurler, but necessity. Having hurled as a boy with Ballina, the Stephenites’ adult team had disbanded by the time Regan turned from boy to man so if he wished to keep on hurling, the only club in Mayo he was entitled to join, without having to transfer his football allegiance from Ballina Stephenites as well, was Tooreen, given its exclusive hurling club status. And it’s there he has honed his craft since 2014.
If you’re in any doubt as to just how good a hurler Regan is, a video of his point from tight to the sideline in front of the Hogan Stand against Armagh in that aforementioned 2016 Rackard final remains a permanent fixture on the GAA website under the banner headline ‘GAA Great Plays’. He contributed significantly, after Ballyhaunis had won 12 Mayo SHC titles in 15 seasons, to Tooreen winning three-in-a-row from 2017 to 19.
You can imagine the disappointment of Regan and the Tooreen club then, when they discovered late last month that Mayo County Board was rejecting the player’s ‘permission to play’ request for 2021.
The board was doing so on the basis that Ballina Stephenites GAA Club had informed them of their intention to enter an adult hurling team into competition this year and that by rule, Sean Regan would therefore have to play with his ‘first club’.
Of course, there would be obvious benefits in having a player of Regan’s ability and stature to help drive-on the reinvention of Ballina’s hurling team. However, it’s an admirable thing that no one affiliated to Ballina hurling has actually objected to Sean Regan remaining a Tooreen player. Quite the opposite, in fact.
There is nothing but admiration down at James Stephens Park for what one of their own has gone on to accomplish in the colours of his adopted club and at county level too, and the Moyside outfit was even an active participant in Sean Regan’s recent appeal before a special hearing of Mayo GAA, explaining that neither football or hurling arms of Ballina Stephenites GAA Club had any objection to his wish to remain a Tooreen player.
Having played in two Nicky Rackard Cup finals, been involved in seven Mayo senior hurling finals in-a-row with Tooreen, eight if you include a replay in 2016, three Connacht finals and two All-Ireland Club semi-finals, the hurling folk of Ballina are said to fully appreciate that it would not be in the best interest of Sean Regan (at this mid-point stage of his career) if he had to forsake senior championship hurling with Tooreen and instead play in a Mayo junior championship that, at most, will contain just two fledgling teams.
Those teams are Ballina and Caiseal Gaels, and the ‘B’ teams of Tooreen and Castlebar Mitchels, if indeed Covid-19 even allows for such a competition to take place in what seems sure to be another condensed GAA season.
So why did Mayo County Board go and make such an unpopular decision, especially one that serves neither player or their own county hurling team well in the short term? Or is it that the hands of the board were simply tied by a rulebook that allowed them no other choice?
Is it fair, after seven years legitimately playing for one team, to force a player to transfer to another that will play at a lower grade?
Or conversely, has a county board a responsibility to ensure that any player who lives and works in their home parish, as Sean Regan does, plays only for the club in that parish, if there exists a team for which they are eligible?
Those were two keystones to the conversation between Tooreen Hurling Club and Mayo County Board at the appeal hearing. Ultimately, Mayo County Board stood over the original decision of its Competitions Control Committee (CCC) and earlier this week ruled again that Regan must play for his ‘first club’ i.e. Ballina.
There would probably be a different slant to this story were it only a year or two that Ballina hurling had been in the doldrums but it’s 2014 since Sean Regan had his transfer to Tooreen accepted by Mayo County Board. It’s also as recent as two years ago that he was informed for the first time by Mayo County Board that a ‘permission to play’ form would have to be signed by James Stephen Ballina (the hurling wing of Ballina Stephenites GAA Club) for every year hence.
Whether that means the player was actually ineligible when playing for Tooreen in each of the previous five seasons is now something of a moot point but if Ballina have, as has been established, no problem signing that form again this year, then should there really be an issue to Regan playing for Tooreen at all?
There would of course be advantages to him returning to play for Ballina, including an end to 60-mile round trips for training and matches and, quite probably, less conflict between his club managers, given those under the one Ballina Stephenites GAA umbrella would likely be in better communication over matters such as the player’s availability to both football and hurling teams. But Sean Regan has known nothing other than playing senior hurling for Tooreen and as much as he’d be back among friends in Ballina, is it fair to expect he’d not feel bitter at someone else’s decision to strip him of the opportunity to stay playing at the highest level?
The player is understood to be taking his appeal to a higher level outside the county. The outcome is one that will be keenly anticipated for various reasons.