Congress set to address age-old question

 

ALL-IRELAND MASTERS CHAMPIONSHIPS: KEITH DUGGANbelieves the debate at congress calling for a reinstatement of the Masters hurling and football championships will be fascinating

THE THORNY issue of ageism and the GAA is about to rear its head at Congress later this month. One of the most perennial puzzlers in GAA lore concerns the old question: what happens to all the great minors? But the forgotten part of that equation is: what happens to all the great seniors? What do football and hurling men do after they have passed the peak of their senior careers but aren’t ready to hang up the boots?

The answer may be contained in Motion 40 on page 147 of this year’s Clár. The motion, submitted by the Burrishoole club in Mayo, calls for a reinstatement of the All-Ireland Masters hurling and football championships (a competition tailored for over-40s). The reasoning behind the motion contends there is a sizeable constituency of players who don’t want to quit on their games and take up golf or whist drives simply because they have hit middle age.

“We have this motto,” Michael Weekes, one of the founders of the hurling Master says. “We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.”

That has become the catch cry for several generations of disenfranchised players and it may well serve as the first time that George Bernard Shaw is quoted at Congress. Last year was the first time since 1990 that no Masters competition was held. After initially endorsing the idea with enthusiasm, the GAA gradually went cold on the Masters and have put forward the argument it is an elite competition serving only a small number of players. But Dr Michael Loftus, one of those behind the original incarnation of the Masters, believes a great opportunity is being squandered by cancelling the championship.

“There are Masters competitions in practically all sports, even contact sports. American football has its programme and the Australian Rules run a very successful tournament,” Loftus says. “The response to the All-Ireland Masters was very strong – we had 20 teams taking part, the standard of games was often very high and there was a good social aspect to the tournament. We had no serious injuries. There may have been the odd bit of a row but that was it. It lost its impetus in 2002 and I think it is very sad that the GAA’s interest waned because apart from anything else, it showcases the benefits of maintaining a healthy lifestyle as you begin to get older.”

Masters sport flourishes most visibly at individual games: the Irish golfer Christy O’Connor jnr has enjoyed a fine second career on the senior circuit while tennis maestro John McEnroe, now aged 51, continues to give stunning tennis exhibitions throughout the world.

But the idea of mature Gaelic footballers and hurlers is a harder sell. One of the great caricatures in GAA lore is the ageing corner back, the gnarled, greying utility player who started playing when the Horslips were young and went from his days as a feted minor to the notoriously hard tackler who refuses to accept his day is done. The stereotype is, of course, unfair.

The big attraction of the Masters tournament is that it has brought together some of the most celebrated artists in the modern game – Down’s Mickey Linden in football, Joe Cooney of Galway in hurling – with men who never previously represented their county. And because it is not as all-consuming or as deathly serious as the senior All-Ireland, it allowed players to socialise in a way they never could when playing at the peak of their careers.

When Dublin and Mayo met in the 2006 All-Ireland Masters football final on the eve of the senior All-Ireland, 2,000 people showed up to watch the game in Mullingar. Dublin’s Paul Curran, one of the outstanding footballers of the 1990s, played in that match. So too did Joe McNally, easily one of the top-10 folk heroes of the Hill. And what is more, Mayo won an All-Ireland, shedding the senior curse. The Masters has been democratic too. Carlow has appeared in All-Ireland final. Leitrim has played in an All-Ireland final.

“Mickey Quinn, who was an All Star played with us for nine years,” says Terry Short, who trained the Leitrim team for 17 years. “We took it seriously but not overly so. We always had a panel of about 24 and guys would play up until their late 40s, generally much more than that.”

The age limit is – no pun – a grey area. The age was lowered to 35 but there is no maximum. So in theory, you could have a 39-year-old who played county ball just three years earlier running in guerrilla mode to win a breaking ball against a 55-year-old who has not touched his toes for a decade. It is easy to understand that the GAA would hold fears about the danger of someone getting hurt or getting into medical trouble through forgetting they ain’t as young as they used to be. Because of that, they are attempting to introduce a “tag” element to the sport for over-40s.

“Yes, but what you have to look at is that when it was initially talked about, it was never meant to take away competition, it was meant to bring guys in who were retired,” says John Pat Sheridan, the Burrishoole man who has worked hard to bring this motion to fruition. “So the guys gone 10 or 15 years would not fancy playing against players who are out training two nights a week with their clubs. Because we are all able to play competitively at club level so I think the GAA are missing the point.”

His argument is that the Masters regulates itself. Players aren’t going to turn out for a match in which they know they are out of their depth. And the idea of being reduced to “tag” football or hurling is vaguely insulting to men in their 40s and 50s who keep themselves in good shape.

The Downey brothers of Derry do not seem like the tag-football type. The pace of Masters hurling and football may be slightly slower but they still want to play for keeps.

The Masters fraternity may be in the inadvertent victims of the culture within the GAA for younger and younger players. It has become commonplace for players in their early 30s being spoken of as past their prime and for guys in their late 20s to talk of retiring. In the last decade, it has become normal for players to start bowing out – or finding themselves left out of panels – by their early to mid-30s.

“Burn out?” says Sheridan. “I never heard of it.” Sheridan is 51 and still trains with players in their early 20s.

“I have no problem training with them and they have no problem training with me. There is a reason why these guys are able to play football in their 40s and 50s. It is because they looked after themselves in their young years. It doesn’t seem fair that players aren’t allowed to enter All-Ireland competition just because they turn 40.

“You are senior from 21 until you get your pension book. And it is not fair. I would like to see debate on it and would like to see the county boards backing the wishes of the players of the country. I have always heard that players are the most important and there is a lot of support for the reinstatement of the hurling and football Masters.”

One of the least discussed problems within the GAA is the psychological trauma that the top players encounter once they retire from the game. Some cope with it better than others but it is only in recent years that the severe change in a lifestyle – previously defined by a training timetable and the adrenaline rush of championship Sundays – can leave some players at loss as to how to replace it.

The Masters at least offers some sort of continuation; a more gradual retreat from the scene. But the 20 years of competition suggests it is not merely a grazing ground for well known names. In theory, there is nothing to prevent Cork and Mayo, for instance, from fielding the teams who contested the 1989 All-Ireland final.

“There isn’t, but the reality is that many of those players have finished up,” says Sheridan. “Pat Fallon and Anthony McGarry were the main two from that team who stayed involved. After that, the team was made up of ordinary guys like myself who had never played at county level. And to get an official All-Ireland medal is a fantastic thing.”

Hurling has also lent itself to longevity in a way that might surprise people. Stick craft is one of the last things to leave a hurler. “I wish more people in Central Council would see a Masters game because the quality is very high,” Michael Weekes says.

“Gerry McInerney is still hurling Junior B with Kinvara and he is 47 now. Actually, he may well have the cup because he was captain of the Galway team that won the last All-Ireland in 2006. But players want to stay active and it seems a shame that there isn’t a competition for them.”

There was a time when the Masters All-Ireland was deemed sufficiently important that it was scheduled before the annual under-21 final. Michael Loftus still has an Ard Stuirtoir’s report from 1993 in which the success of the Masters was subject to glittering praise. The argument that it is an elite competition doesn’t hold water for those lobbying for its return.

As John Pat Sheridan points out, the same holds true for the International Rules competition. And if the Masters was promoted, then it could lead to the creation of a club competition for players in their 40s.

Regardless of what happens at Congress, the motion makes for a fascinating debate. And it is hard to argue against the truth that when a player – even those who enjoyed the most glittering careers – is no longer up to senior hurling or football, he is quickly discarded. Talk to any ex-hurler or footballer and they take pride in never being sentimental or precious about the fact there will always be someone to take their place. But it doesn’t make the truth of it any less hurtful.

So what happens to the seniors is that we quickly forget about them until some day a quarter of a century after their best days they parade with their team-mates at half-time on All-Ireland day. Motion 40 argues that the day of hanging up the boots at 38 or 39 has become dated.

Will it pass?

That depends on how well the Masters around Ireland have lobbied their delegates.

But you know what they say about older players: they read the game well.