A golden age of older players in club football on Leeside

A golden age of older players in club football on Leeside
Moonaleen's John O’Dwyer tackles John Hayes of Carberry Rangers. Picture: INPHO/Cathal Noonan

The Barry O'Donovan GAA column

WHEN Lionel Messi snapped that late, great Classico winner to the net last Sunday evening it couldn’t have sent out a clearer message to Real Madrid and the football world in general. 

Barcelona were going nowhere and if there’d been this suggestion building that the time of Messi was coming to some kind of end, well two wonderful goals in such a massive game more or less finished that for a while. Ronaldo had done the same the previous week, basically sticking it to those who said he was somehow becoming irrelevant with five goals over a Champions league quarter-final tie with Bayern Munich - it’s fairly impossible to see how a footballer could actually be more influential. 

And if there’s an overall lesson to be learned here it may be that we’re far too willing to be looking for evidence of the end of players, teams or managers rather than wring every last moment of genius from them.

It’s become a bit of a habit now to go looking through the teams at the start of every club championship to see what of the older players have moved on and which are still hanging around and it’s looking a little like we’ve been focusing on the wrong aspect of this. That instead of finding it noteworthy that any player from his early thirties onwards has decided to have another go that perhaps we should be asking why wouldn’t they stay around and how come they’re still remaining so important to championship? 

By the way, the other point from last weekend’s game in football: the high scoring element continues. 

Five winning senior teams scored 19 points or more last weekend (three losing teams scored 17 points or more) and that’s on top of two 3-20s the previous week. But a skip round the teams found plenty examples of the older players still able to do their bit. 

John Miskella has been around for an age now with Ballincollig and is still a standout. Rob Brosnan has played over 20 championship campaigns with St Nick’s.

Robert Brosnan of St Nicholas gathers the ball ahead of team-mate Robert McCarthy Coade and Carrigaline’s Niall Quirke. The Brosnans have given incredible service to St Nick’s. Picture: Howard Crowdy
Robert Brosnan of St Nicholas gathers the ball ahead of team-mate Robert McCarthy Coade and Carrigaline’s Niall Quirke. The Brosnans have given incredible service to St Nick’s. Picture: Howard Crowdy

Noel O’Donovan and Kevin MacMahon were on the last Cork minor team to win an All-Ireland in 2000 and both are still togging out for the clubs and playing key parts. 

And here’s the thing – these are still big roles and will be big shoes to fill for these clubs, so why would you bring that task on yourself prematurely and lose the experience and knowledge as well? We recall meeting someone involved with Cork senior football teams after the county final last year and his first reaction was how it’d been the older lads who were the key factors in the championship overall.

This weekend look at someone like Kev O’Sullivan with Ilen Rovers. It’s a fair few years now since O’Sullivan burst on the scene as the finishing threat of that lovely footballing team from West Cork, 10 years since he led them to a county final and still there aren’t any valid reasons why he wouldn’t be their main man a decade later. 

Think of the culture element, of how O’Sullivan (below) shared a dressing-room with the likes of Fachtna Collins and is the only link to keep that mentality going, to pass on that willingness to do the right things the way Ilen Rovers like to do them. 

Look at Nemo a couple of years back who had fellas like Dave Niblock and Dylan Mehigan to show the young lads what the standard was, fellas who’d been in dressing-rooms with Billy and Stephen O’Brien and Joe Kavanagh and Martin Cronin and could pass on that message of how Nemo works. We’ve seen say with Cork seniors how the loss of a group of experienced players can leave a void and you can only imagine on the other side how much insight and knowledge might have been lost to a young Nemo footballer if they’d passed on Tomás Ó Sé a few years ago instead of realising the value of those years worked up. 

You could rule probably two otherwise very decent club teams out of the senior football championship through a simple lack of these sort of core experienced players.

As much as anything, there’s been a quality element as well. Kev O’Sullivan scored 3-6 against Dohenys last summer. He had 1-4 a couple of weeks back in the Kelleher Shield and if there’s scoring to be done, there’s still nobody quite at the same consistency or levels that O’Sullivan has managed over the years for his club, even now. And it’s a trend that repeats among the top teams with their main playmakers/ marquee attackers all of a certain vintage. 

We’ve gone through John Hayes’ absolute necessity for Carbery Rangers previously and if John O’Rourke’s emergence has taken some of the weight off his shoulders, you still get the feeling that any opposition that keeps Hayes scoring levels down is going a long way towards overcoming Ross, which is basically the same as it’s been since he started playing with them. 

Paul Kerrigan was still there last weekend putting up four points from play for Nemo with minimum fuss and if Paddy Kelly has never been the main scorer for Ballincollig, there’s still nobody they need more on the field to make them tick. 

Ballincollig’s Pa Kelly against CIT last year. He’s playing better than ever for his club. Picture: Eddie O’Hare
Ballincollig’s Pa Kelly against CIT last year. He’s playing better than ever for his club. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

All three played minor for Cork 14 years ago now. They’ve won the last three Reardens Footballer of the Year awards between them and if it’s a sign of how we can understate sometimes the impact of the more experienced players (while hyping up the role of the fresher but less consistent new guys on the block) you could also flip the argument on its head and wonder whether there’s been an absence of high-quality young forwards coming through when it’s been the same names at the top for some time. 

Add Colm O’Neill to that line-up for the four most important attacking players in last year’s county semi-finals. 

The pattern continues and if any lesson needs to be taken on board it’s that clubs have to be careful about how to manage those players who they’ll miss most only when they’re gone.

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