Rivalries renewed: Aidan O'Mahony and Stephen O'Neill.

‘We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing'

All-Ireland Masters series has allowed former legends and dedicated club players to taste success once more and keep the middle-aged spread at bay.

THERE IS A tagline the Gaelic Masters adopted that sums up their approach to slipping into the waistband-expanding territory of middle age.

A famous quote of George Bernard Shaw, once a prophetic statement rendered almost obsolete by overuse from Insta Huns. But it regains relevance when used in this context; ‘We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.’

And that’s as good a place to start as any when it comes to Masters Football.

Stop it now, we can hear the smart-asses down the back with your sneers and scoffs. That they should cop on and know better. What at their age. Overgrown children that can’t let the thing go. Tragic figures still trying to prove their masculinity.

Let’s be honest though. Aren’t we all a little like that?

If, say, we are walking in a park and a football rolls in front of us, who among us won’t showboat a little with a little flick up and a volley back?

Maybe those playing Masters are a little less hung up on that stuff. Maybe, maybe, they just really love football and competing.

Either way, it’s not what the cynics might guess; beery farts in the dressing rooms and flat-capped oul bucks setting their woodbine down on a wall to take a free. It’s fast and hard and tough stuff. You only have to go to a final like last year’s in Ballinagh, Co Cavan, between Tyrone and Dublin to see it for yourself.  

In sweltering heat, Dublin pegged back an impressive Tyrone lead to push the game into extra-time. The man who was brought off the bench to create such an impact was an older brother of Kevin McManamon.

With Denis Bastick’s introduction, things were looking sweet for Dublin. But Bastick was brought on prior to a Dublin free towards the Tyrone posts. As the ball was in the air, he punched an opponent. Red card. His involvement lasted less than three seconds.

Performances from Stephen O’Neill, Conor Gormley and Fermanagh’s Marty McGrath pulled Tyrone through in the end to win, 0-13 to 1-9.

On Saturday, they lay their title on the line again. At this level, they have become market leaders.

After winning the Shield in 2017 by beating Galway, they reached the Masters final the year after, losing to Dublin, the same opposition they have beaten for the last two years.

In that time, a whole host of players who made history twenty years ago with Tyrone’s first Sam Maguire, have either become mainstays, or made fleeting appearances for the Masters.

This year there were high hopes for Ryan McMenamin only for his involvement with Cavan to get in the way, while Sean Cavanagh was bossing things in midfield once again before he had to take over as player-manager of his club, The Moy.

Still, they have plenty about them as they attempt to make it three-in-a-row this Saturday, in the St Brigid’s club in Kiltoom, Roscommon. Niall Gormley has come in this season, and Ciaran Gourley, Stephen O’Neill and Conor Gormley remains.

stephen-oneill Still the point of the Tyrone attack: Stephen O'Neill. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

Who’s standing in their way? No less than Kerry, would you believe.

Fresh from playing his part as a squad member for Rathmore as they won the All-Ireland Intermediate title this year, Aidan O’Mahony just can’t escape the lure of playing a bit of ball.

For sure, he has enough going on at home. A Garda patrolling Tralee, two children, a wife, a home, a personal training gym as a side hustle, and he was coaching the Dr Crokes hurlers this year too.

But still.

“I play a bit of Junior football and I really enjoy it. I’m at full-forward. You get to my age of life now and you start moving up the field and the next step is outside of the white lines,” he laughs.

aidan-omahony In action for Rathmore. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“I think even for your health, you need to stay involved in something.

“When I took on the hurling team, I took two lads in with me and we said we would buy into this at the start of the year and go out to do all the running with them. It was thoroughly enjoyable.

“And then when the championship came near and it was more game specific, we used to do the running before the training and got into a routine. It’s no different than being part of a tri-club or out a few times a week.”

This year, he hasn’t been able to make everything, but he played against Cork and Limerick and while he isn’t in a dressing room with a host of familiar faces, he gets the spirit of it all.  

“It is a great outlet for the lads, they are training a night of the week and then we have an All-Ireland final against Tyrone which is brilliant.

“Because a lot of these lads might not have worn the Kerry jersey before and will have been to All-Irelands before, now they get a chance to get playing in an All-Ireland final.

“People have asked why there are not more Kerry players involved. Maybe that’s a time thing. For me, it is not that time consuming. I enjoy it. We had a challenge game there last week and I think it is enjoyable to get out and kick a ball with some lads. It’s formed part of who we are down through our lives.”

A simple twist of fate means he gets to meet Marty McGrath again in the heat of battle. Fermanagh have no Masters team, so McGrath goes into his third season with Tyrone.

In 2008, McGrath roomed with O’Mahony in the International Rules trip to Australia. It will be a nostalgic moment for them both to come up against each other one more time.

In Tyrone, Joe Leonard and Eugene Bradley have been involved in Masters football since 1990. In time, Joe’s son Damian has taken over most of the coaching.

Unsurprisingly – it’s Tyrone after all and they’d cut you in two to win a game of Subbuteo – they go after the titles.

“We have always taken it seriously,” says Damian.

“It’s been a knock-on effect, you scour the country looking to see who is turning 40 next year and then you see who is available and others have been onto us about coming out next year already.”

They train from before the season starts, in Garvaghey. No scrounging pitches for them. Food after training, decent sponsorship deals, nothing like that is a bother in Tyrone. The closer they have gotten to the final, the Wednesday night sessions have been supplemented by a Saturday run out. They get the use of the gym. There is specialist goalkeeping coaching. Would you expect anything different?

“A lot of people at the start used to think it was something of a gather up,” explains Damian.

“But then they started to come, especially in Tyrone here, they used to come and watch the matches and seen the quality on the pitch and the quality of the football. So, they can see that it’s not a ‘Dads and Lads’ thing.”

They played a series of challenge matches recently against some top club teams; Killyclogher, Aghyaran and Carrickmore. The night they played Carrickmore, they fielded ten senior players.  

It’s good to know that the success of some can still drive others crazy. Steven Doherty is not a name you might know from the GAA, unless you have come across his hilarious series of blogs under the monikor of ‘CityColt’.

But after Tyrone’s win last year, he bumped into former Derry defender Paul McFlynn at the Derry county final. He asked McFlynn when Derry were going to get their act sorted out.

Turns out they had, a long time ago. They won the Intermediate title in 2007 and backed it up with the seniors (Masters) a year later, with Tony Scullion manning the full-back position. Then they folded the tents.

The reformation was with the intention of putting manners on Tyrone. For now, they will contend themselves with the Shield Final against London, at St Peregrine’s, Dublin, on 23 September.

20230506_152256 The Donegal and Derry teams after a recent match.

They formed a committee of Doherty, McFlynn, Derry CEO Stephen Barker and former player Ronan Rocks.

Rocks was the only person with a whistle on the first day they gathered, so he became manager.

Doherty produced a blog about their adventures this season which explains, ‘We set up an introductory training session one Saturday afternoon more in hope than expectation. This was April Fool’s Day, 2023. No fool like an old fool! The exact location of the defibrillator was noted by all as players quietly shuffled into the first changing room they would share this year. That initial training afternoon at Owenbeg may have showed plenty of interest, but players sat next to one another, like strangers, in silent reflection.

‘However, as the weeks went on and we all soldiered together on the pitch, a very powerful and unbreakable bond was formed. Drink, of course, helps. And there has been more than one player oxtered off the bus on return runs home from Mayo this season so far. Already difficult marriages have come under increased strain.

‘Masters football is very much like club football, only in slow motion. We share so many similarities.

‘Boys unable to make games because of the usual excuses – work, looking after the kids, crabbit wife, cutting silage. Best of all was probably the BBC’s Thomas Niblock who texted to say he’d be late because he was reading out the national news at 6pm.

But in fairness to the big Magherafelt man he was half way down the M2 to Owenbeg as Barra Best read out the weather forecast.’

Now when they enter a room, there are no more awkward silences or hushed conversations. They are young men again, picking at each other for choice of clothes or mistakes in a game.

When they travel to games, there are a number of guitars and harmonicas brought. They don’t wait for the return journey to strum a few chords.

There’s a purity too, in that the actual trophy for the Masters is the Dr Mick Loftus Cup. Former GAA President Loftus was an advocate for clean living and continuing sporting involvement into middle age.

Ultimately, Masters football is a story of new and enduring friendships. Men relating to each other in a way in which they are comfortable.

Aidan O’Mahony may have five All-Ireland medals and one club Intermediate. He’d like another one for sure, but he knows at this stage that it’s all about the journey.

“We talk about Men’s Sheds and all these things. I think it’s brilliant for that number of lads to come together and to be able to bring something together and keeps people involved. It’s just having that outlet.”

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