It was 3.30 am in the morning and Dara McVeety’s phone was buzzing. The former Cavan captain had just watched his teammates secure a spectacular shock Ulster final win against Donegal. Then they rang him from the dressing room.
In different circumstances, McVeety would have been alongside them. It was October 2019 when he decided to go travelling for a few months. With only a one-way ticket in the back pocket, he left with a group that included fellow Cavanman Conor Moynagh and Dublin hurler Chris Crummey.
There was a vague plan to tour South America, visit family in Australia and then make his way home. 2020 demolished the world’s plans. So, it was that the 2019 All-Star nominee found himself sitting in Sydney, a predisposed spectator cheering on one of the shocks of the decade.
“It was unbelievable,” he recalls. “I was just delighted for the county and some of my best friends. Ray Galligan is my first cousin; Thomas is my first cousin. We grew up playing ball and killing each other out the back. I was thrilled for them.
“I watched it in the house with Nevin O’Donnell. We played U21 together with Cavan. Straight after the game Killian Clarke and Niall Murray FaceTimed us with the cup.”
In the following days, countless messages and well wishes flooded in. All congratulatory, many with a hint of commiseration. Super to see them win, a shame to miss it.
These are strange times. That brings good, bad and a mix of both.
“From my point of view, if things were normal, I would have been there, but this is how life goes. The reason I didn’t go home was Covid. I don’t regret it. I’m happy with where I am now. I mean my club also won the county title for the first time in 48 years.
“But coming here, the whole point was to realise there is more to life than football. At the time I was doubting if I did the right thing, but when I reflected on it you have to take it as it comes.”
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when the 27-year old’s mood was intrinsically linked to the game. His form hinged on club and county fortunes. 2019 brought an Ulster Final and career-best season. 11 points in five games and Man of the Match accolades came his way. The sole goal was to win.
It took time to unwind from that philosophy. Even after he left, his heart remained with the Breffni County. Their first league game of 2020 was against Armagh. In South America, McVeety and Moynagh messed around with streams and Twitter updates, following along as Mickey Graham’s outfit fell to a 13-point loss. Torture. For the ensuing six hours, they hardly spoke to each other.
A timely reminder as to why he elected to leave. It became obvious a break was needed, mentally and physically.
At home, every year ran into the next. You start back, look, realistically not many teams wait until December to go back. You have to be honest. Especially for us. New managers come in and try put their stamp on things, that is completely understandable. I would do the exact same if I was them.
But if you come back in October, do a preseason, that runs into Mckenna Cup and league. After the league, you might play some club games and then championship. That is how I got injured twice, playing hell for leather for county and then coming back to the club.
“After championship you go into a club championship and repeat the cycle. I was teaching so maybe I’d go away for a few days in October if I was lucky. I wasn’t completely sick of it, but I definitely needed a break.”
It just so happened the opportunity presented itself when it did. A schoolteacher by trade, he was on a career break having just completed a Masters.
The plan was never to settle in Sydney. Be that as it may, it’s the ideal host city. The first few months were spent playing everything but Gaelic football. Eventually, he found a club and last September, they won the New South Wales club championship.
The fact that it can be part of his life while not dominating is a welcomed development.
“It is great. Just being able to play so many different sports. At home when you are playing Gaelic, if you go and play any other sport it is like ‘what are you doing?’ If you told a county manager you can’t train because of a soccer match it wouldn’t be accepted. Over here, I play soccer, hurling, basketball, rugby, surfing, AFL. I always loved sport and training. Just being able to mix it up is nice.
“It doesn’t make sense the commitment you give. I’m chatting to lads here describing the commitment you give at home, and you realise how mad it is. They all say, ‘the players must get a lot of money for that?’ No. When you remove yourself from the situation, what were we at?
"Obviously, I will go home someday and do it again, but it doesn’t make sense really to be so invested. Some people want that, I needed a break.”
First triathlon� myself and a crew of 40 people from all over Ireland completed our first triathlon in aid ICU in St. James’ Hospital. Thanks a mil to those who donated and if anyone would like to donate to a great cause➡️https://t.co/iGEJDUSOEF pic.twitter.com/ulIiTzPHXi
— Dara McVeety (@DMcVeety11) February 27, 2021
There was never any risk of letting himself go, the whole point was a change to the staple diet. When he first arrived in Australia, the 50-metre swim across Clovelly Bay was harrowing. Come last February, he completed his first Triathlon.
Prior to that, there were 24-hour bus journeys the length and breadth of South America. The only struggle was for phone coverage and sandwich filler.
Watching Cavan’s success was one thing, watching his club Crosserlough was another matter.
“They won the championship, first time in nearly 50 years. That was way more emotional. I wanted us to win so much. I’ve a brother playing; I am related to the Smiths. There could have been six or seven of us, cousins on the team.
“The first day I remember watching it in my sister’s house here and they drew. It went to a replay. I mean I literally screamed at the TV and stormed out. Even though they robbed a draw I was desperate to see them get over the line. We won it the next day anyway. To see them win was brilliant.
“Look, you can’t say it was a total shock. Even with Cavan, we were in an Ulster final before I left, and the club were competing. Neither was a massive surprise to me. I mean they won. It is way, way harder to see them lose.”
That reality made witnessing their relegation earlier this year difficult. In his final year, they welcomed the likes of Kerry and Dublin to Breffni Park. That sort of stress test stood to them down the line.
Nevertheless, he stresses, they always started slowly in the league. He is quick to credit strength and conditioning coach Andre Quinn for his work with the group. McVeety’s last game for the county was a 16-point loss in the qualifiers against Tyrone. That day, the biggest difference he noticed was a physical one. That gap needed to be bridged. Slowly, they are getting there.
Unfortunately for Graham’s outfit, the wing forward is no rush home. The lifestyle is too good to leave behind and he has begun to take steps to extend his visa.
“If I go home right now the only reason is football. Everything else, I’m happy out here. I’m from Cavan, I’ve never had the chance to get up and walk down to Coogee beach in the morning. I’m happy where I am.”
Content, even more so if Cavan can win.