Like so many older players around the country, the pair use their well-earned experience to make the ball do the work
The unmistakable clickety-clack of studs dancing out the dressing room door pierces the peaceful Carlow evening. We’re in Old Leighlin, where a synod in 630 AD decided the Irish church should follow Roman as opposed to Celtic dating conventions.
And there’s something almost biblical about the scene. Thunder storms threaten in the skies all around, but above the GAA field there’s a patch of perfect blue.
The clickety-clacks start at pace. Young eager 18-year-olds with ball in hand eager to burst on to the field of play. Junior footballers dreaming of the big breakthrough to more senior sides.
But the older the player, the less frenetic the burst out through the dressing room door.
Johnny and Tommy take their time. With a combined age of 117, they know it’s more important to conserve their energy until it’s most needed.
With 15 minutes remaining, 56-year-old Johnny is brought off the substitutes’ bench and goes in at corner forward. Minutes later Tommy Kelly is stripped off and ready to make an appearance at the ripe age of 61.
The pair chase and challenge their much younger markers. Tackles fly and Johnny sprays passes around the pitch.
Like so many older players around the country, the pair use their well-earned experience to make the ball do the work.
Without them, the Clonmore Junior footballers would, at times, struggle to field teams. The likes of Johnny and Tommy, and so many others like them, are vital to the survival of such sides across rural Ireland.
They hold the fort until the next generation are ready to take up the mantle.
But older players are not just there to make up the numbers. Far from it.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been contacted by dozens of clubs from every corner of Ireland telling me of their older players who are the fulcrum of their starting 15, men and women around whom teams are built; leaders, captains, tacticians and motivators.
In a time when there’s huge investment in developing underage talent in GAA, funnelling towards inter-county strengthening and success, there’s much less focus on players still lining out in the latter stages of their careers.
The physical and mental health benefits for those players in their 40s, 50s and even 60s is undisputed, but is enough being done to promote participation for older players by the GAA?
While there are a host of over-40s soccer leagues across the country, less of these seem to be available to those of a GAA persuasion.
Indeed, there was surprise in 2009 when the GAA decided to remove support for a Masters Football League which had been running since the 1990s. Why did they do it? Nobody knows for sure.
What we do know, however, is that efforts to reinstate the competition at GAA Congress were strongly rejected on two separate occasions.
Frustrated by these developments, and with vital playing time being lost, concerned older players decided to establish their own GAA