The last thing Stephen Cluxton would want is any fuss whatsoever being made over his latest record-breaking feat for Dublin football this weekend, which is fair enough, as it allows more room to fuss over Ross Munnelly instead.
Assuming he does feature in Dublin’s Leinster football championship opener against Westmeath on Saturday, Cluxton will further extend his outright record to 107 championship appearances, in what is his 20th championship season in goal, at age 39 the oldest player still active in the senior game. Follow that.
Actually Munnelly won’t be far off. Assuming he features for Laois on Sunday against Longford, it will mark his 78th championship appearance, and a month shy of turning 38, Munnelly is now the oldest outfield player left anywhere in the game, only Cluxton his senior.
Only there isn’t much to compare after that: while Cluxton is now chasing his eighth All-Ireland and 16th Leinster title, Munnelly still only has one senior championship honour to his name, which began as a 20-year-old in 2003 under then manager Mick O’Dwyer, the year Laois last won the Leinster football title, their first since 1946.
Indeed Munnelly never once got to play beyond the quarter-final stage of the football championship during his previous 17 seasons with Laois; coming into last summer, his 75 championship appearances were also all consecutive. What keeps him going, or indeed motivated, is the simple desire to be as consistent as he can be, plus the old cliché; don’t look back.
“It’s a funny one, because I don’t like to dwell on how long I have been playing,” he says. “You can get a little caught up in that. Being honest, I’m always looking at ways I can reinvent myself even further, something that these younger players are doing that maybe I need to bring to my game, and so on.
“From when I first started, I always wanted to judge myself on consistency, and when you play for a smaller county like Laois, it’s not like professional sports where players move to different places, stronger or weaker clubs, and maybe money dictates. And the great thing about the GAA is that you’re representing your own community, county club and family, and while the game in some ways changes, in many ways it stays the same too, so I like to judge myself on playing to that consistency.
“The fact I’m still playing, and all these younger players are coming through, keeps me in reality too. I don’t need to look any further than my own Laois dressingroom, and at any time in the last number of years I could have been sitting beside a guy who was doing his Leaving Cert, or players here in DCU. So I’m very much a believer in youth, also being able to mentor some of these players, but that works both ways, there’s a reverse sharing of knowledge, and I can learn from their perspective too. But it’s fantastic from my perspective, and I’m enjoying every minute of it.”
Munnelly currently works at the alumni office at DCU, while also studying for Executive MBA, the retirements last season of Mayo's Andy Moran and Monaghan's Vinny Corey making him the oldest outfield player in the game (he turns 38 next month).
Still the actual playing rewards have been few and far between, that sole Leinster title in 2003, plus an All-Star nomination in 2006. Munnelly also made three panels with Ireland during the International Rules series with Australia, and helped his club, Arles-Kilcruise, to their one and only Laois county title, also back in 2003.
There have been other highlights and moments of inspiration, most recently as Laois survived the late, late fight against relegation to Division 3, coming back to beat Fermanagh 3-12 to 1-11, in what was his 109th league appearance.
“It never had the look of a game that we were completely dead and buried, even down to 14 men. But probably something we deserved in the overall balance of the league, I think we richly deserved to stay in Division 2. That was a massive goal for us from the start of the year, and we have another opportunity now to represent our county.
“It’s interesting ramping up to play this time of year, I think we’d all prefer of the pitches were a bit harder. It’s also about managing the load, maybe training as hard as I can, but maybe for a shorter period of time.
Michaell Quirke is also now his ninth Laois manager (fifth from Kerry), and while Dublin are expected to win Leinster with the sort of minimal fuss that Cluxton represents, Munnelly is staying philosophical about it all, as he well he might.
“Given the times we’re in, the intercounty season is providing something for people to look forward to at the weekend, and as players that’s one of our responsibilities. It also feels like all bets are off again, it’s back to the old format from before even I was playing.”