WHEN news reached Sonny Liston that his original rematch with Muhammed Ali was off due to Ali being in hospital after suffering an incarcerated inguinal hernia, the first thing he did on hearing the news was to pour himself a screwdriver, as he muttered ‘That damned fool. That damned fool’.
Liston had prepared really well for the rematch, nine months after their original clash in Miami, and was genuinely devastated by the news of the cancellation.
“I feel very bad. I was ready to go. If it had to happen, I wish it happened earlier instead of waiting until the hard work was over.”
These remarks by Liston sounded like the words of a man who knew that time was no longer on his side, and that he knew he could not go to the well too many more times. It was generally accepted that he was much older than his stated 34 years, and deep down he knew the end was coming.
That 1964 rematch was his last realistic chance at winning back that heavyweight crown that he wanted so badly. He would be further past his peak by the time the fight could be rescheduled some six months later. In truth he never fully regained his full motivation ever again. Ali’s hernia effectively ended any chance Liston had of regaining the title.
Liston would be knocked out in controversial fashion in the first round of the rescheduled fight in May of 1965 in Maine, when he went down to the infamous Phantom Punch. The spark had gone.
Many of GAA’s leading lights, who are passed the 30 years of age mark, may be experiencing similar negative feelings to Liston right now. What should have been one of their peak years looks lost. For some, it may have even been a last chance. Father Time is no longer on their side.
The lockdown came in March, so for GAA’s top players that meant that the hard winter slog had already been done. This meant that for some players that some of the last remaining matches in the box got used up, and without any fire to ignite either. It will have felt like a wasted flame.
Even if some matches are played towards the end of 2020 every player on every team in Ireland will effectively have to go through another pre-season beforehand. The older brigade are unlikely to be looking forward to that.
Some teams will be affected more than others.
Mayo look to be the worst affected team in Ireland. Rob Hennelly, Chris Barrett, Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle, Aidan and Seamus O’Shea, Donal Vaughan, Kevin McLoughlin, Keith Higgins (below), and Tom Parsons will all be on the wrong side of 30 by the time Mayo play championship football again.
I think it’s safe to say that it is not going to happen for them at this stage.
The five-in-a-row winning Dublin panel will have similar issues. Stephen Cluxton is fast heading towards his 39th birthday. James McCarthy, Michael Fitzsimons, Philly McMahon, Darren Daly, Jonny Cooper, Cian O’Sullivan, Michael Darragh McAuley, Dean Rock, Kevin McManamon, Eoghan O’Gara, Paddy Andrews, and Diarmuid Connolly — that’s a lot of players who will never see their 20s again.
These lost months are bringing Dublin’s inevitable championship defeat that bit closer.
The Tipperary hurlers are another squad where a lot of their leading players are ageing away at home when they really need to be out on the pitch.
Brendan Maher, Pádraic Maher, Noel McGrath, Seamus Callanan, and Bonner Maher (below) have a lot of hurling done, but Liam Sheedy has a lot of youth around them, with plenty more recent underage All-Ireland winners to come, so they won’t be going away any time soon.
Other counties have much better age profiles though, so could well weather this crisis much better.
The Galway hurlers have one or two sneaking past the 30 mark, but have most of the 2018 All-Ireland winners coming towards their prime now. They will be very dangerous in the year or two after Covid-19. Limerick, too, will expect to kick again after a disappointing end to 2019 for them.
In football Tyrone and Galway have a good looking age profile, while Kerry will be licking their lips, as their underage stars mature by the month as Dublin’s main players go further past their prime.
As for Cork, the footballers are a young panel. James Loughrey and Paul Kerrigan are both 33, and Mark Collins has just drifted past the big 30, as has Kevin O’Driscoll, but everyone else is still in their 20s, even the returned Ciaran Sheehan, for another few months anyway.
The U20 winners from 2019 will start to filter through now, slowly but surely, and every month will see them get ever more stronger and ready for senior inter county fare.
It is a similar enough story with the Cork hurlers in this regard. Anthony Nash is 35, Eoin Cadogan is 33, Bill Cooper and Patrick Horgan are 32, Stephen McDonnell 31 and Aidan Walsh 30, but everyone else is still in their 20s. On top of that, a lot of players in their early 20s will be looking to break through in the next year or two.
Again, like with the footballers, these few months could be extremely beneficial for the development of the likes of Daire Connery, Tommy O’Connell, Sean Twomey, and Shane O’Regan. They all would have got U20 championship action too.
It is a strange time, with time being the operative word. These lost months could be game changers for many GAA careers.
Elder statesmen might be over the hill, in Sonny Liston fashion, the next time we see them, while the young pretenders, like Ali, may have kicked on in the interim.
It will be certainly interesting to see how this plays out when we eventually do get competitive GAA back.