Dublin on verge of making history in Masters football final

Dubs look to complete season in style after rejoining Masters contest this year

The Dublin Masters team face Tyrone in the final on Saturday having gone unbeaten in the contest this year

The Dublin Masters team face Tyrone in the final on Saturday having gone unbeaten in the contest this year

 

They’ve gone unbeaten all summer and now stand on the verge of Dublin football history. Trying to stop them is a Tyrone team of considerable repute and desire to get back to the top. Only for some people, if Dublin do win, it will further reinforce their perceived dominance of the game.

Fear not the obvious. You have not read this before – at least not in the context of this coming Saturday’s Masters final showdown between Dublin and Tyrone, both teams equally desperate to get their hands back on an All-Ireland title. With a blend of former county stars and top club players – all over the age of 40, some more over it than others – it promises to be properly competitive and meaningful, especially beyond the end result.

It will also be the culmination of a dedicated campaign throughout the summer, each of the 16 teams guaranteed six games, and typically training three times each week, plus gym sessions, video analysis, etc. Dublin are managed by Val Andrews, who previously managed the Dublin junior team and also the Louth and Cavan seniors, and for experience on the field have former county standouts Ray Cosgrove, Shane Ryan and Peadar Andrews, plus club stalwarts Mick O’Keeffe, Ian Clarke and John McNally – all backed up by Dublin headline sponsors AIG.

Only the GAA itself will have nothing to do with it. For 20 years they officially sanctioned and ran a Masters competition, before disbanding and shunning it in 2009, citing rising insurance costs and indiscipline – and in some cases settling of old scores. Image was a problem too, sometimes physically, sometimes more action off the ball than on it. With that the over-40s of the game slipped underground, calling themselves the Gaelic Masters Association (GMA) and surviving as outlaws, effectively trespassing any time they trained or played on GAA property.

Avoid oblivion

Now they’re rising again – and in more ways than one. Croke Park has agreed a set of guidelines to allow the GMA to use their grounds without fear of repercussion, and while remaining autonomous this does represent a sort of welcome back. In many ways it was impossible to ignore one of the fastest growing sectors of the GAA.

After the competition was disbanded, Mayo native John Pat Sheridan twice brought motions to congress to revive it, in 2010 and 2011, and both failed. Undaunted, he set up the GMA knowing something had to be done to avoid oblivion. In 2011, there were five participating counties; last year that was up to 13; for 2018, Clare, Down and Dublin all rejoined, and there’s no turning back now.

Because more than any other grade, perhaps, Masters football is more than just a game. Sheridan’s mantra has always been “We don’t stop playing because we have grown old, we grow old because we stop playing,” and that was something former Sligo standout midfielder Con O’Meara quickly discovered when taking to the Masters game three years ago.

“For me, you’re so consumed with football for the best part of your life, and then once you retire it is very hard to replace that,” says O’Meara, who now acts as PRO for the GMA, all on a strictly voluntary basis (there are no expenses or mileage for any of the teams). “After players retire there is that void, a certain lack of identity, and this is something to fall back on.

“I’ve said it before it’s like the GAA’s men’s shed, in there with guys your own age, with the same interests and issues, while out getting some exercise, having some craic, having something to look forward to. And of course to put on a county jersey at any age is a great honour. And you’re not chasing a 20-year-old down the wing either, taking off your boots to throw at him. It’s a level enough playing field.

“With the club, you’re togging out with guys 18, 19, 20, all great guys but at a totally different level. With the Sligo Masters, I get to play back alongside the likes of Eamonn O’Hara, Paul Taylor, Dessie Sloyan, Paul Durcan, Nigel Clancy, but it’s also about the club guys who never got to play for their county coming in, and loving the fact they’re playing with former county players.”

John Gillick is such a player – over 20 years of playing with Ballinteer St John’s in south Dublin, and at 41, now relishing his place as a Dublin Masters footballer. When Gary O’Connell from Erin’s Isle hit 40 he also hit on the idea of reviving a Dublin Masters team, and the response speaks for itself.

“Gary just started ringing around, ex-Dublin players over 40 still playing with their clubs, players recommending each other, and straightaway he got a great response,” says Gillick, older brother of Irish 400m record holder David, who now shifts between wing back and wing forward with the Dublin Masters.

“We’ve a panel of 35, and from day one everyone was engaged, totally up for it, and just had a good team bond. The standard has been excellent, going unbeaten this summer, and I’ve been very, very impressed with the positivity in the team. Guys like Shane Ryan, Peadar Andrews, Ray Cosgrove, decorated Dublin footballers, getting a bit of love back for football, the passion for the game, meeting new friends.

“There are so many dimensions, the social side. And Val Andrews is a great manager, plus five more in the backroom team, all different clubs around Dublin. In fairness to the Dublin county board, even through we’re not officially part of the GAA, they have been trying to help out.”

Discipline

Each of the Dublin players pay €50 into an insurance fund in order to represent their county, and in London, players put £300 up front to cover the costs of the travel over the summer. The GAA cited rising insurance as the main reason for pulling the plug on the Masters game, but according to Feargal McGill, the GAA’s director of games administration, now is the time for some reconciliation.

“We’ve been working with the Gaelic Masters Association for the last number of months on a set of conditions, primarily aimed at allowing them to use our venues, in keeping with what they need,” says McGill. “And more broadly speaking it is about having a better relationship.

“Our main concern in the past was over insurance, some issues of discipline, but also how the masters games impact on existing club fixtures. But we’ve spent the last number of months working through that in a very, very positive way.”

Whatever about the Masters game falling into disrepair, or in some cases disrepute, McGill also recognises the wider values of the game for players of that vintage: “We absolutely acknowledge that, and all the people involved in the GMA are current GAA members, and if now past GAA members, and people who do great work on the ground promoting the GAA, quite apart from the masters game. So there is a responsibility on the GAA to recognise and acknowledge all of that.

“But also allowing for independence, at the moment, because that’s what they want. They can continue to develop, but with a much better relationship with the GAA, moving forward. We’re all GAA people at the end of the day, and we look forward to working with the GAA.”

O’Meara and Gillick both cite several positives to Masters football beyond the game itself, including the fact they both keep themselves in far better shape than they otherwise would (Gillick reckoning he got more injures in club football). Keeping the game in good order, says O’Meara, is also central to its development. This is the first year the GMA paid neutral referees for each game, and black cards were issued in all instances of verbal abuse.

“We’ve also allowed some minor tweaking of rules to encourage its inclusivity, mainly unlimited and rotating subs, to allow as many players as possible to get some game time, even if it’s only a few minutes. And it is all strictly voluntary. John Pat Sheridan must have ran himself through a 3D printer, because he’s everywhere, and still finds time to tog out with Mayo.

“Right now we’re mostly restricted to community pitches, and that hampers some counties more than other. Some county boards are better than others, but this will improve greatly once the GAA guidelines are agreed. For now, we also need to keep that flexibility, in terms of fixtures, especially when you’re dealing with over-40s, and the GAA have enough to be dealing with, without setting up another layer of fixtures.

“We’re also looking at a Sevens game, to help encourage more players, or maybe dropping it to under-38, to get more counties involved, such as Kerry and Cork, and eventually make it a 32-county competition.

“But it’s definitely getting more competitive. This was my third year with Sligo, after winning one game in 2016, then narrowly losing the final last year to Mayo. And when you see Dublin come back in, the standards rising again, we may have just missed the boat. We’re not getting any closer to 40 by the years either.”

How the Masters of Gaelic football go to war

Starting back in May, the 16 counties that competed for the 2018 Masters championship were Dublin, Cavan, Westmeath, Galway, Monaghan, London, Kildare, Mayo, Sligo, Down, Clare, Tyrone, Donegal, Roscommon, Leitrim/Longford and Antrim. Each county got six games, the top four progressing to the semi-finals, the next four into the Shield semi-finals, and the next four into the plate final. It makes for meaningful games throughout the summer, and avoids any “dead rubbers”.

Open to all players over the age of 40 (this year, for instance, anyone born in 1978 or before), the game is played under regular GAA rules with select modifications, including unlimited substitutions.

Mayo won the back-to-back titles in 2016-17, boasting former county stars such as Aidan Higgins and Kenneth Mortimer, while Tyrone, captained by former county player Damian Gormley, won the 2015 final over Galway, who had the likes of former All Star Declan Meehan in their ranks.

Dublin, Clare and Down rejoined the competition this summer and straightaway Dublin have made their presence felt, going unbeaten, with former county stars Ray Cosgrove, Shane Ryan and Peadar Andrews in their ranks. They needed a replay to get past Donegal in the semi-final, by a point, to set up the final with Tyrone.

Managed by Eugene Bradley, Tyrone’s standout players in their semi-final win over Sligo were midfielder Eoin Gormley, plus Damian McCrory, Damian Patton, and substitute Mark Donnelly, all looking extremely fit and like a well-drilled team.

With the Dublin women’s team also contesting their senior final next Sunday against Cork, the county is seeking a first “Triple Crown” of senior adult inter-county football (senior men, senior women, and men’s Masters)The Dublin-Tyrone final takes places this coming Saturday, September 15th, at Fr Manning Gaels in Drumlish, Longford, at 3.0pm (preceded by the Shield final between Mayo and Roscommon).

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