Waterford’s PJ Fanning on striking the balance between sport and study

Full-time student squeezing in part-time work and spending 16 hours weekly driving between Limerick and Waterford for training

PJ Fanning is talking through the demands of his life as a full-time student in Limerick and an intercounty hurler in Waterford, spending up to 16 hours a week driving between the two. He is juggling some part-time work also, all while trying to perform at his best for two managers.

Now in his second year on the Waterford senior panel, Fanning has already tasted considerable success with Mary Immaculate College in Limerick this year, helping them secure a famous win over rivals and defending champions UL in the Fitzgibbon Cup final in February; so he’s getting some part of that balance right.

“Then I’m one of the very lucky ones,” Fanning says, “In that my county manager in Waterford, Davy Fitzgerald, has already been there, done that, with LIT in college, so understands the demands of us college athletes.

“Then on the college side, I also have Podge Collins, a selector [with Mary Immaculate manager Jamie Wall], so he understands the academic side, and would put as little pressure on me as possible, actually, to be around. But as a college athlete, you want to be there as well.”


Speaking in Dublin at the launch of a new report by the Gaelic Players Association (GPA) into the experiences and challenges of student intercounty players, Fanning also sees room to ease some of those demands, particularly on the college side.

The comprehensive 24-page GPA report, Student First: Prioritising the Academic Lives of Student Inter-County Players, found that 63 per cent are regularly overwhelmed by their commitments, and 59 per cent believe the communication between their academic department and the sports department is poor. It also found that 27 per cent are regularly missing class due to their sporting commitments.

“That relationship, between your academic side, and your athletic side, is so important for us,” Fanning says. “And just to lessen that burden even slightly is huge for us as intercounty players. Definitely, that relationship Davy had with the Fitzgibbon Cup himself has played a huge part for me, he understands the demands, knows what is expected of us.”

He adds: “From my home in Waterford to college in Limerick, it’s a 2¼-hour journey, door to door, and that’s each way, and it’s not a great road. So that is taxing on the body. [He occasionally shares the drive with Waterford defender Mark Fitzgerald, in college at UL].

“Usually it’s a return trip on the Tuesday, then again at the weekend. And if you’re training again on the Thursday or on the Friday you could have another return trip … It’s between 12 to 16 hours in the car each week.”

In his final year in primary school teaching, Fanning likely won’t feature with Waterford this Sunday in their opening game of the Munster hurling championship against Cork, as he’s nursing a leg injury; however, he makes no secret of his future ambitions.

“With Waterford, everyone knows how long it’s been since we won an All-Ireland, everyone is dying to bring Liam MacCarthy back to Waterford, so any chance you get to go in with the senior county panel you want to take it. You’ll sacrifice anything to make your dreams your reality.”

Regarding the impact of sport on their academic studies, the GPA found that 84 per cent had to turn down jobs due to their sporting commitments, 62 per cent do not feel they have time for part-time work and 32 per cent are experiencing serious financial difficulty.

The report also found that 32 per cent are regularly torn between college and county commitments and 62 per cent say county managers cause most pressure during college.

Fanning works part-time at the South East Technological University Arena, the fitness and training campus in Carriganore, Co Waterford: “Again I’m lucky I can choose my hours, one of my employers is from my own club, but again not every student has that privilege.

“It’s very hard to hold something down. If you’re training on a Sunday, it might only leave the Saturday free. But then the employers might not have any hours on a Saturday — it’s that reliance they need from you as well.”

The report’s overriding recommendation is that “a rebalancing of the identity of these student athletes is needed”, with an emphasis on their “academic challenges rather than on their sporting commitments”.

Overall, 35 per cent of the GPA’s male and female members are students; 967 of those contributed to this research which formed part of the GPA’s annual scholarship survey.

The report also showed some positive progress since the GPA’s last student report (pre-merger with the Women’s GPA) published in 2019: 86 per cent say they are satisfied with their chosen course; 23 per cent of male players say they have had to repeat an exam (which is down 12 per cent); and 47 per cent of male students travel home to intercounty training three times a week (down 22 per cent from 2019).

In 2023 the GPA provided €1.7 million of educational support to 1,176 members, including its student membership. The report was authored by Aoife Lane, department head of Sport and Health Sciences at Technological University of the Shannon Midlands and Fiona McHale, also a successful Mayo footballer.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics