GAA

Fermanagh’s Ryan Jones steps away in his own quiet way... for now

‘Was it fulfilling? It was unbelievably fulfilling even though you make all those sacrifices’

Ryan Jones' continuation of his autumn form for Derrygonnelly is a huge boost for Fermanagh.
Ryan Jones' continuation of his autumn form for Derrygonnelly is a huge boost for Fermanagh. Ryan Jones has stepped away from Fermanagh after 14 years of service

AND just like that Ryan Jones disappeared like the summer rain. For someone who pursued excellence on the intercounty circuit for 14 years, his exit was as discreet as could be.

When pre-season started up again, Jones just wasn’t around.

There was no heartfelt retirement statement posted on his social media platforms.

Nothing. Just a quiet chat with Kieran Donnelly and he was gone.

For good? Probably, but you never know. The door is still ajar.

Having been called into the Fermanagh senior panel by Malachy O’Rourke in 2010, Jones emerged as one of the most consistent players not just in his own county but in Ulster.

On good and bad days, you never had to look too far to find the Derrygonnelly midfielder.

Still only 33, he could easily have continued to play for Fermanagh - but a busy work-life and the travelling itch finally took over.

He takes this phone call in Bangkok where he’s just finished a circuits class - old habits die hard – and where he and his girlfriend have been sight-seeing parts of Asia for the last three weeks.

His last game for the Ernemen – a Tailteann Cup defeat to Laois last June – ended in a red card dismissal for the all-action midfielder.

“I didn’t announce a retirement,” Jones explains. “I took myself off Twitter, more so because it takes up too much time. And I’m not one of those people who’s going to come out and post an announcement that I’m retiring.

“I had a chat with Kieran, and he said: ‘Listen Jonesy, I don’t think you should mention retirement because you can always change your mind. If you say you’re retired, you’re kind of putting a seal on it.’

“So, I decided to step away for now and that’s where it’s at. Each to their own – you don’t necessarily have to make a statement. There’s no right or wrong way to do these things. The lads who do come out and make statements, I’ve no problem with that either.”

Rarely injured throughout the last decade-and-a-half, Jones invariably started and finished every game for Fermanagh. A winner of eight club championships with Derrgonnelly – and still hoping for a few more before he stops playing - Jones embraced everything about the inter-county life.

But as time wore on, he wanted to experience different things.

“I’ve never done any travelling like this before as football can be the main reason you don’t,” he says.

“Obviously I opted out this year and we’ve been thinking about this trip for a while. If I wasn’t thinking about going back to the county, we decided to make it happen.

“The trip has been unreal so far. Of course, my girlfriend and I enjoyed a few city breaks in the past and in the off-season we’ve gone on a week’s holiday - but this is the first time we’ve actually gone away for a longer period.

“It’s one of those things you always put it off because football takes priority. You don’t want to have regrets, so I just decided to do it.”

Ryan Jones lifts the trophy for Derrygonnelly. Picture by Donnie Phair.
Ryan Jones lifts the trophy for Derrygonnelly. Picture by Donnie Phair. Ryan Jones has won eight championships with his club Derrygonnelly. Picture by Donnie Phair.

For the past number of years Jones, a qualified pharmacist, has been working in Drumshanbo, Co Leitrim.

In 2019, he decided to open his own pharmacy business with a friend which made playing inter-county football a little more tricky.

“We work from 9am to 6.15pm and I wasn’t getting to Lissan [Fermanagh’s centre of excellence] until nearly half-seven and the boys are out on the pitch from seven. And being in retail you’re working every Saturday as well.

“It’s just the way the county game has gone now – a lot of lads are students or they work Monday to Friday. For instance, under Pete McGrath we would have trained Tuesday and Friday, to allow boys coming home from Belfast or Dublin and then we would have trained on a Sunday.

“Now the pitch sessions are Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday – and if you’re not training on a Saturday, you’re playing a game. All of Fermanagh’s matches, bar two in the National League, are Saturdays. So that made it more difficult again.”

The older he got, the more his priorities changed. He loved every minute of his days with Fermanagh but there were times he perhaps felt the strain of not having a bit more freedom to do other things.

“To be honest, a county player who is driven and wants to succeed and has been playing for a long period of time, it probably is a priority in life.

“You see other lads coming in for a couple of years and then stepping away. With me starting and playing every year, it has to mean more to you. But you often think, am I missing out on other things?

“Stuff like, a friend’s wedding where I can’t go on his stag, or going home early because of a National League game the following day.

“So, it ends up becoming a way of life and I’ve no doubt so many inter-county players see it the same way. They maybe decide to move closer to home or get a different job where it suits them better to play football.

“I decided to juggle everything as best I could, I tried to commit as hard as I could when I played while also making sure that I was in Queen’s studying pharmacy and getting the degree. I was in Dublin for a year too and it was very taxing trying to get up and down for training and matches.

“But was it fulfilling? It was unbelievably fulfilling even though you make all those sacrifices. You wouldn’t do it for as long if you didn’t enjoy it.”

He adds: “People outside of the county might feel Fermanagh are clutching at straws if they think they can win an Ulster title.”

“Throughout my time that was the main goal. When Pete McGrath came in, Fermanagh had a really strong team. You’d be a wee bit disappointed we didn’t reach that goal but probably on reflection there are so many players and lots of great players that never achieved a provincial championship – it doesn’t mean their county career wasn’t a success.

“I played with brilliant players, played under brilliant managers and brilliant personalities and all the relationships you’ve built up over that time was very fulfilling too.”

He’s not at all coy about whether he will ever return to play for Fermanagh again. He’s not in that head space right now.

He’s a big fan of current manager Kieran Donnelly, describing him as a “sound fella, firm but very fair and a very passionate Fermanagh man” – and when he woke up on the other side of the world to read about Fermanagh’s NFL win over Kildare last week he was delighted for the group.

Jones doesn’t know what his next move is - even if he has a next move at all.

For now, he plans to enjoy their final few days in Thailand before returning home this weekend and putting his shoulder back to the wheel in Drumshanbo.