Like so many older play­ers around the coun­try, the pair use their well-earned ex­pe­ri­ence to make the ball do the work

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - A VI­TAL PART OF RU­RAL FOOT­BALL A LACK OF OF­FI­CIAL SUP­PORT

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

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