Joe Kernan: Proof there’s life in the old dogs yet
The notion that players who are fortunate enough to reach inter-county standard can now expect rather shorter careers at this level would appear to be gaining in substance — if we are to believe all we hear, that is.
The Gaelic Players Association has already expressed concerns on this issue and it would appear that it would like to see more done to help players who may be forced to call it a day earlier than has been the case in the past.
The more rigorous individual training programmes which are being undertaken, the greater intensity of games, additional financial and personal pressures and the ongoing clamour for success are being cited as reasons why players can now expect a limited life-span in the jersey of their county.
Yet while there is evidence to suggest that the demands on county players are greater than ever, this should not be taken as confirmation that they will be only expected to serve their counties for a pre-ordained spell.
While a number of players have already withdrawn from county squads for a variety of reasons even though the season is still in its infancy, many are still prepared to give unrelenting commitment to the cause.
And there is compelling evidence to suggest that many counties are currently reaping the considerable benefits of having vastly experienced, battle-hardened foot-soldiers in their ranks who continue to not only make a fine personal contribution to their teams’ welfare but whose integrity, dedication and ambition serve as an inspiration to others.
It is surely no coincidence that with the National Football League still only in its embryonic stage several such players have already stepped up smartly to the plate to emphasise the message that they still have a big part to play in their counties’ destiny.
When Down surprised Donegal at Pairc Esler on Saturday night, it was 30-year-old Liam Doyle, having earlier shown commendable courage in making a full recovery from a career-threatening cartilage injury, who scored their vital goal and tacked on four points — playing at centre-half-back!
Similarly, when Cork strove to snatch a winner against Armagh, it was senior citizens ||Ciaran McKeever, Brendan Donaghy and Andy Mallon who did most to keep them at bay.
McKeever has been in the Armagh side for eight years having led his county to All Ireland U21 glory in 2004 and his leadership last Sunday was exemplary while his distribution and tackling were faultless.
It was two players of similar vintage who engineered Tyrone’s fine win over Kildare at Croke Park, too.
Owen Mulligan had one of his best games for some time for the Red Hands while Stephen O’Neill’s cultured touches embossed a team performance that was right out of the top drawer.
Even these venerable campaigners are put in the shade by Antrim’s long-serving Kevin Brady.
The Moneyglass clubman, a schoolteacher in Downpatrick, has been fifteen years with the Saffrons and as well as scoring an important point in their morale-boosting win over Sligo at Casement Park on Saturday night he set up five other scores in a superb solo show.
For several years Brady and Kevin Madden formed a lively twin strike force for Antrim — now Brady, still as fresh as paint, continues to keep the flag flying for the older brigade in sparkling style.
Just, indeed, as does Nicky Joyce with Galway. When the Tribesmen stunned Derry in Celtic Park on Sunday, it was veteran Joyce who was both creator and finisher in their attack.
Nor was he the only Dad’s Army member on parade — Paul Conroy also started the game while Joe Bergin went in as a substitute to help take Alan Mulholland’s side over the line.
And three of Kerry’s renowned performers — Tomas O Se, Bryan Sheehan and Paul Galvin helped to mastermind the team’s win over Dublin for whom Tomas Quinn showed that he still possesses a decent turn of pace and an eye for a score despite having been part and parcel of the metropolitans set-up for several years now.
Paul Finlay is still arguably Monaghan’s most consistent player, his ball-winning capacity and scoring exploits still underpinning the team’s performances even though a decade has elapsed since he made his debut.
While scientific theories continue to be advanced in relation to overall term a player can expect to enjoy as a member of a county squad, there is one underlying element that can, in many cases, define a player’s career.
And that is — does he actually enjoy playing for his county? If he does, making sacrifices will not impose too much pressure on him.
Players pull the curtain down on their careers for a variety of reasons — recurring injuries, a change in manager, they may get married, move to a new job in a different location or just lose heart, perhaps because of a perceived lack of success.
That’s why some county squads have a greater turnaround in personnel than others.
Tyrone may have had a raft of retirements recently but the achievements of those players who decided to call it a day will undoubtedly serve as an incentive to the newcomers to the side.
Young guns will always get the chance — but the old guard can hold the fort when the going gets tough.