Past masters outside the GAA fold still enjoying their football

Despite being banned by the GAA in 2009, Masters football continues to thrive

The first rule of Masters club is you don’t talk about Masters club. Wednesday night in east Galway and Gaelic football’s secret society are moving through the gears.

The Irish Over-40s (Masters) side may be littered with stars as they dismantle their Australian counterparts but they’re doing their thing off-Broadway now.

Still, this is where Gaelic football’s great and good go when the glory days have passed them by – but if it’s flabby thighs and coolers of beer you’re expecting, think again.

This is fun, we quickly discover, but it’s serious, too. Sixty players attended trials to earn their shot and the squad trained together over 10 weeks.

It shows. By the end of the first quarter, Ireland are 33-0 up and the Aussies are gasping, Sligo All-Star Eamon O’Hara inflicting most of the damage.

And when Donegal man David McShane sends over a point from long range, we even detect a fist pump.

"It is about the social end to a degree but from the perspective of Tyrone Masters football, we train and we train hard," says former intercounty star Damian Gormley, the Irish captain.

“But there’s a great deal of enjoyment in terms of the social thing. You can have a few pints and have the craic not worry about training on the Wednesday night.”

Gormley, a three-time Ulster SFC medallist, wandered into Masters football by chance. Having dabbled in other disciplines, a chance meeting snared him in and he's been hooked since.

“I liked to stay in a some sort of shape and the fella that was running the Masters in Tyrone grabbed me one day and said ‘Gormley, you must be nearly 40 now, would you come out and play?’” he laughs.

“It went from there. It’s really good. I did a lot of things after I quit football but Masters football, a team sport and the craic in the changing-room with the lads, even the physicality of it, has more reward for me than triathlon or cycling or running.”

Went underground

So far, so good – but there’s more. Conspicuous by their absence here in Clonbeirne – where the novelty factor has attracted a 300-strong crowd – are any GAA officials of note. Masters football ran under the auspices of Croke Park from 1990 until 2009, when the authorities decided to ban it.

True to form, the game went underground. The rebel Gaelic Masters Association sprung up and set about organising competitions on community pitches, attracting sponsorship. The numbers quickly rose; next year, 15 counties will take part.

The authorities’ unwillingness to sanction it – the suspicion here is that they were concerned with the costs of insurance – has created a strange situation.

Genuine football legends are permitted to take their chances against the mean and lean upstarts in senior club football, yet their own age group is banished to the margins, forced to pull favours just to find a pitch. And while there’s an air of co-operation and positivity about the whole thing – the teams offer three cheers for each other and supporters stay on to help tidy the stand – there’s a lingering resentment, too.

"I feel that the GAA are discriminating on the grounds of age. There are guys here who are an example to young people, they keep themselves so active and so fit," says Gaelic Masters Association treasurer James Breslin, who played with Longford's Fr Manning Gaels till he was 50.

“I’m a schoolteacher and we hear about sugar taxes and this kind of stuff but schools could take these guys as examples.

“Some of our players are 45, 46, and it’s a credit to them. That’s the kind of sports culture we should be putting forward.”

Breslin is concerned with the direction the GAA has taken.

"The GAA seems to be going very elitist . . . It should be sport for all. Our chairman, John Pat Sheridan, has a saying, 'we don't pack up football because we get old, we get old because we pack up football'. It just seems foolish of the GAA."

Clubs on the ground, he says, are “very supportive” but he mentions occasions when headquarters has stepped in and “pulled games at the last minute, saying we weren’t covered by insurance. But we have our own insurance in place”.

O’Hara, the top scorer on the night, who played in the series at senior level, concurs.

“It gets us out and about, meeting guys you played against and meeting new guys. But there’s a bit of a bite, seeing can you still do it. Everybody wants to win, no matter if you’re playing cards or tiddlywinks or Gaelic football or International Rules.”

The fact that it’s outlawed almost adds to the charm, he reckons. “It’s like sort of street football. It is what it is, we have to be grateful that clubs are willing to allow us to play on their fields. But, yes, it would be lovely if it was recognised.

A space

“There’s a lot of support given to all county players and there’s a body being built for club players and I think there’s a space for the Masters somewhere.

“We’re not going to interfere, hold up any calendars or anything, but it would be nice to be recognised a little bit more. It’s difficult when you’re trying to get support for it, to fund it, but we’re standing on our own two feet, we got a great crowd tonight and we’ll be back for another crack at in Denn [Co Cavan]on Saturday.”

One theme keeps recurring. To a man, each of the 37-strong Irish squad still play ball, coach kids, sell Lotto tickets and all the rest. They’re GAA to the core, they say, yet feel they’re not wanted.

“They’re giving it all back to the GAA and the GAA are saying, ‘you know what boys, you’re over 40, good luck to yiz’. That doesn’t sit well with me,” says Gormley.

This afternoon in Crosskeys, Co Cavan (2pm), the sides meet for the second Test, the Aussies – with just one former AFL player, goalkeeper Brent Staker – having shipped 101 points in the opener. “We’re playing football to play football and it’s a great honour, we’ll keep organising it ourselves,” says Gormley.

The Fatboy Slim song (Renegade Master, of course) couldn't have put it any better; power to the people, indeed.