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Like a fine wine: the GAA stalwarts showing the hunger to play into their forties

Kerry legend Aidan O’Mahony and former Cavan ladies player Monica Sheridan discuss the long careers they’ve enjoyed in GAA.

AT 41, FORMER Kerry defender Aidan O’Mahony is still mapping out the goals he wants to aim for as a club footballer with Rathmore GAA.

If the team is instructed to do runs at training, he wants to be at the front of the pack. 

The off-season period, one which is normally reserved for rest and relaxation, is actually pre-season time by O’Mahony’s clock.

He retired from the inter-county game in 2017, checking out with five All-Ireland medals and 70 championship appearances. That’s a princely sum to walk away with before settling into full-time commitment with the club.

O’Mahony’s age and years of service might suggest that he has built up enough street cred that would allow him to linger at the back of those runs without any guilt.

But O’Mahony still has a hunger.

Even at this advanced stage of his career, after all he has achieved, he has no intention of easing off the gas.

He has a new home now at full-forward for Rathmore, a move which has given him a new lick of life and a change of scenery from his old view on the defensive end of the field.

“Why didn’t I go up to the forwards 20 years ago,” he says to The42 over the phone, ”it might have made my life a lot easier.”

For former Cavan ladies player Monica Sheridan, it’s a similar story. She has been kicking ball since 1978 and has stayed the course with her club Mullahoran all the way into her 50s. She was 51 when she won an Intermediate county title in 2014, sharing a dressing room with her four daughters – Louise, Mona, Geraldine and Aishling — on the day.

She hung up the boots for good only recently due to problems with sciatica. But her interest never waned.

“I enjoyed every minute of it and if I was still able to play, I’d be up there,” she says. “You’d regret it when you’re older that you didn’t give it everything.”

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O’Mahony and Sheridan are far from outliers with the longevity of their careers. You have probably spotted the names of some high-profile county stars from bygone eras on social media recently, all being recognised because they are still trucking along for their clubs.

Offaly legend Ciarán McManus remains a star player for Tubber at 46. 38-year-old Kieran Donaghy is still a starting forward for Austin Stacks, and stepped up to convert the decisive spot kick which assured them a place in the Kerry senior final after their semi-final clash with St Brendan’s went to extra-time and penalties.

Likewise, Longford legend Paul Barden continues to shine for his club Clonguish at 41. He clocked 2-1 in a relegation play-off this year to preserve his side’s senior status.

That’s just a selection of the more seasoned GAA stars who are defying the dates on their birth certs with their consistency in a sport that puts huge mileage on the body.

In addition to still playing GAA, Aidan O’Mahony is also becoming a student of the sport. He has his own fitness business called AOM Fitness, which he runs with his cousin Michael O’Donoghue.

O’Mahony is also enrolled in some college courses concerning this subject, one of which is a bachelor of science in strength and conditioning degree in Setanta College.

Through a combination of his long playing career and what he has learned in the text books, O’Mahony has a few thoughts as to why GAA players are enjoying longer spells on the pitch.

aidan-omahony Aidan O'Mahony during his time with the Kerry footballers. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

One insight refers to the newfound sense of freshness that retired inter-county players receive when they return to their clubs on a full-time basis. The other point relates to good diet and lifestyle choices.

“Players are minding themselves a lot more and I think you see that the gym side goes hand in hand with the pitch work,” O’Mahony begins.

“It’s no different to having social media and players know what’s good for their bodies. They’re minding themselves more and I think for inter-county lads, when you’re playing at that level, you’ve a strict regime and diet. And when you retire, players bring that along with them and it doesn’t change. You keep those good habits and that stands to you longer in your career.

“When I started out first in 2003 or 2004, your off season was your off-season. You played the club games, that was it. There was no gym work. Now, you’re off-season is your pre-season and I found that when I was coming to the end if my career with Kerry, I used my off-season as my pre-season so I would always try to get ahead of the rest, whether it was in the gym with conditioning work.

“The minute the football finishes, players are back in the gym straight away. They know what’s good for the body and I think for injury prevention, the gym is probably the best place in your off-season for that. You’ve players rehabbing injuries. Your off-season now is your pre-season and trying to get ahead of the rest that are going for the same jersey.”

From Monica Sheridan’s experience, the reason why players are having longer careers these days derives from their passion for the game. That was certainly the case for her.

Growing up on a farm, she was always outdoors and was always active. 

“I was strong and fit, ” she says, “I didn’t need a gym. I’d still do farming and help out as much as I can.

“If you love something, you keep playing or continue at it. They probably do want to look after themselves and making sacrifices. You give up a lot when you’re training. You wouldn’t do it only you enjoy it.

“If you get support at home and you’re encouraged to keep going, that’s a big thing. Because if they’re saying, ‘Well, what’s taking you up?’ It’s just brilliant to get the support to say, ‘Well, why wouldn’t you go?’”

Sheridan endeavored to create that kind of support network when her daughters were growing up in sport. They were eager athletes and “into everything” according to Monica.

Most days were spent in the car whizzing about from one training session to another, and that effort has reaped huge dividends. Three of her daughters play with Cavan now, while Mona, Aishling and Geraldine were both involved in the Cavan squad that captured the 2013 All-Ireland intermediate title. Gerry was the manager that time too.

Aishling is also playing with AFLW side Collingwood and has established a firm foothold in the team’s attacking unit since her arrival at the club in 2020.

“It’s a way of life really,” says Monica. “When the girls were younger, they were in everything and I was going from one place to another. I miss all that so much now. You have to be at something.

“I was going from athletics to music to training and they all played underage county so you were going from one field to another. It was brilliant, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.”

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AOM Fitness offer different programmes to clients who come to them in the hope of improving their performances. O’Mahony estimates that the programmes take about six months of hard work to complete, and he’s currently working on another one to add to the portfolio.

Clients might come to AOM Fitness with different goals in mind for what they want to achieve, or areas they want to improve in. But O’Mahony uses the same approach every time he begins working with someone new.

“When I set up AOM Fitness, the biggest thing for me was just to be honest with the player. I think at the end of the day, the skills of the game has to be number one, and then it’s about bringing in the gym work for injury prevention and bringing that work onto the pitch.

“The biggest thing I find for any athlete I train is that you need to ingrain in their mind that it’s not a case of doing the gym in your off-season and when it comes to go on the pitch, they forget about the gym.

“They go hand in hand the whole way and they have to balance for your whole season. Obviously the sport you’re playing is number one but bringing the other two together is the biggest thing for me. There’s no magic gains, you need to work on it and you need to enjoy it. That’s the biggest thing. You can’t be doing something for 10 or 12 weeks and next all of a sudden, it’s finished and gone backwards.

“It’s a process and something you always need to be doing, and always need to be doing.”

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Age was never a concern for Sheridan as the years went by in her football career. She was thrilled to be able to play on the same team as her daughters, and they were equally proud to share the field with her.

The Sheridan name has great representation in the Mullahoran club when you add in their cousins to the mix. It all makes for a busy household after games and the washing machine is rarely off the clock.

“One year there was nine of us playing,” Monica recalls. “I had three nieces, and then Gerry has two other nieces. It’s just lovely to tog out beside your daughters. Them shouting, ‘Mammy, Mammy’ on the field.

“They enjoyed it too and they were quite proud to think that their mother is playing alongside them.

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“To me, age didn’t come into it. If you’re able to play and good enough, then why not?

“After a match, the house would be full here and we’d have a postmortem on what went wrong and what went right. It’s great.

“Everyone comes in here, tea is taken and then everyone sits down and it has to be thrashed out. But in fairness, Gerry is big into football and he’d never be negative or critical to them. It’s a great house to be in after a match, win or lose. It’s very encouraging.

“That’s a big thing too, that you’re not criticised for something that went wrong. You’re never going to do everything right the whole time and people know their own mistakes without being told.

“It’s a big thing for parents to give their kids support. The girls were into athletics and I used to bring them twice a week. Now, of a Sunday morning when you’d be saying, ‘We need you for a team,’ and trying to get them out of bed. They never let a person down and they got encouragement from us all the time.

“And now they’re saying that if they have kids they’ll go to athletics and do this. They see the benefits of it now.”

Another possible reason which could explain why GAA players are lasting longer is the increased number of gym owners among inter-county stars. Hurlers TJ Reid and Conor McDonald are among those who have moved into that area of the fitness industry.

Former Mayo footballer Andy Moran switched professions to open his own gym, after discovering that the time he spent driving his time as a sales rep was causing injuries for him.

O’Mahony believes that the knowledge they are gaining from working in health and fitness equips them with the tools that can extend their playing careers. Understanding the science of it all is key.

“Absolutely,” he begins. “I started studying about two years before I knew I was going to retire because I knew I wanted to be involved in fitness and I knew if I set up my own business, the first thing people would ask is, ‘What are your qualifications?’

“I suppose for me, that was the biggest part in setting up my own fitness business. As a player, you know the one side of trying to do the right thing as an athlete but I suppose from the career you’ve had, you can give them some tools and basic principles of strength and conditioning are mobility, movement and the sport you’re playing in as well.”

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As Sheridan reflects on her time as a player, a few highlights come to mind. Winning the Player of the Year award is up there, along with winning championship and league titles with Mullahoran. 

Speaking to the media last year, her daughter Aishling said that her mother threatens to retire every year before eventually succumbing and joining in at training. 

Monica backs up her daughter’s assertion and concedes that she “might be a bit slower than some of them but I kept going up.”

For O’Mahony, the journey isn’t quite over yet. He was part of the Rathmore side that reached the semi-final of the Kerry intermediate championship this year where they bowed out to Beaufort.

And whenever he feels it’s time for him to vacate and allow another player come through to make their mark, he’ll happily make his exit. 

“I love going out there now. When you get to my age, it’s not a challenge, it’s an honour to be still playing. I know myself that if the time was coming when I thought I was filling another player’s jersey or spot, I’d be gone out the gate. But I’m very fortunate that I love the lads I play with.

“Most of the lads I played with at a younger age have retired. But we’ve a fantastic group there for the last 10 years and I’m just thoroughly enjoying it, I love the challenge of it. You start to think more when you’re older where instead of trying to run a race around the pitch, you’re playing a lot cuter. I know that challenge is still there but once I have something to offer to the club and once they want me, I’ll still be there.”

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