Don't ignore Masters - they're coaches of the future
On the Ulster senior football final match programme last summer, it was reported there are 90,000 active players of Gaelic games. Just in Ulster. That is quite astonishing.
The GAA caters for a wide spectrum, starting at the 'FUNdamentals' stage for nursery-age children, teaching them motor skills and functional movement.
Ulster GAA have been particularly active in providing programmes for those with special needs, and cerebral palsy.
At the other end of the age scale, local clubs occasionally host evenings for the elderly in the community, to give them a sense of belonging and greater association, a necessity since the slow decline of the traditional pub.
There is one cross-section that the GAA have difficulty with, however, and that is of the recently-retired player. Specifically, those that still want to play among their peers.
Last Saturday, Tyrone captain Damian Gormley was sitting down beside full-forward Stephen Lawn in the dressing rooms of Fr Manning Gaels clubhouse, basking in the afterglow of their Masters All-Ireland win over Galway.
Twenty years ago, Lawn was wearing the same number 14 in the senior All-Ireland final defeat to Dublin. Gormley was on the bench that day. But last Saturday Lawn turned to Gormley and said; "D, running and cycling… You would never get a buzz like this no matter what you do in it."
It's a neat little story, but one that the GAA do not seem keen on embracing. Two years ago, it effectively disowned Masters football and would not continue to host it on GAA premises, nor cover the insurance necessary.
All they succeeded in doing, was driving it underground. A group of determined Gaels clubbed together and formed the Gaelic Masters Association. They play their games on community pitches. They have no problem attracting sponsors for jerseys. They pay their own insurance of £25 per man.
Last Saturday, the shield final between Monaghan and Westmeath, and Tyrone's headlining final attracted a live broadcast on Irish TV (Sky 191).
Their movement has flourished. They are the new pioneers, railing against an association that is guilty of ageism.
Of course, the GAA might feel that men in their 40s would have no problem finding a job in their club coaching youngsters or administration.
But the average age of men getting married is now 35, like I was myself. By the time my father was 35, he had five children.
Usually, former players get involved in coaching when their children are of the age to start. By today's standards, men would be approaching their mid-40s.
Therefore, we have a period of three or four years where veterans may feel embarrassment about sitting in a dressing room full of teenagers and students, but would be quite keen to play in an environment a vibrant Masters movement provides.
In fairness to the Ulster Council, they have made attempts to introduce what they called 'recreational football' a few years back. It promised a blitz; 'for over 35's who are not currently playing first team or reserve football. The games will be limited to two touch with no intentional contact.'
But that's the problem right there. Gaelic football has to be a contact sport. Take away the contact and frustration grows. Old habits die hard and after one game played in the Mid Ulster Sports Arena, an all-out brawl occurred.
It's not uncommon for men in sport to play on into middle age. A quick look at the Ballynahinch 7ths rugby team shows a fair sprinkling of weekend warriors in their 50s. Chances are they wouldn't be so keen if it was touch rugby.
Local soccer leagues have always had a sprinkling of men who played on and on. In the Fermanagh and Western league, Joe Keenan is the player-manager for the extravagantly-named Enniskillen Santos, playing alongside his two sons.
Plenty of men in their 40s are still playing, like former Laois star Mick Lawlor, who scored a goal in the county final for his club Emo only a few weeks back. And the Ballinderry veterans still turning out are a credit to themselves and the club.
But nothing replaces playing among your own age.
When Desertmartin advertised a tournament for over-35s last season, they were flooded with entries from 14 south Derry clubs. 14!
Cycling Sportives have become the new club lottery and, in many cases, those bitten by the bug will travel to other events and indulge their new sporting love. Eventually, the reason they got into cycling - the GAA -could take a backseat. Can the GAA afford to lose the next generation of coaches that easily?