'Married men with kids don't play inter-county any more'
Family commitments force Conleith Gilligan to focus on club game
WHILE inter-county players seem to be retiring ever earlier, club players are bucking the trend and sticking with their teams for as long as they can.
Last week's Munster hurling final saw both 37-year-old Niall Gilligan of Sixmilebridge and 42-year-old Damian Quigley of Na Piarsaigh play important roles for their teams. That doesn't mean that club demands are decreasing, rather that these players are finding ways to make it work.
Ballinderry's Conleith Gilligan is another in that category. He is 33 now and retired from Derry football duty a year ago. A family man with three young children to look after, he had to prioritise his commitments.
Even so, finishing with Ballinderry wasn't on the agenda. In an effort to find the right balance between family and club commitments he learned the ropes as a personal trainer. This allows him to train in his own time and gives him the peace of mind to know he is doing it right.
"I took a notion and went back to college to train part-time," says Gilligan. "It is more for my own interest, for going to the gym to keep in the best shape possible to try and prolong the length of time I play for. I want to push on and not be a liability for the younger lads. Training is competitive and holding on to a place is getting tougher, so having a background in fitness helps.
"I'm looking after myself better now than I have ever done; it's unfortunate that I came to it later in life. If I'd done it when I was 18 I probably would have had a more productive county career."
He also switched his gym sessions to the morning. There is a gym in the club and a local one that the footballers can use. The guys on the team who have children train together in the morning. Then the younger generation train in the evening.
"We do the early morning sessions before work out of necessity. By the time we get home in the evening we have to do homework, dinner, bath-time and bed. The evenings are a very busy time."
Gilligan is lucky that he has stayed relatively injury-free throughout his career. And training with the younger lads keeps him feeling young.
"I don't feel old, I don't look at myself as being nearly 34, and that mindset helps keep me fit and fresh. It allows me to keep up with the younger lads. I just feel great to be part of it."
Ballinderry emerged as winners from the Derry championship and Gilligan credits the younger players for stepping up to the plate when the going got tough during their early games. Ulster is a very testing competition and although they disposed of Tyrone champions Clonloe O'Rahilly's in the preliminary round, they struggled against Monaghan's Scotstown and made hard work of the semi-final against Kilcoo. When their backs were against the wall in the latter games it was the older players like Enda Muldoon and Darren Conway who saved the day.
Since beating Kilcoo the Ballinderry team have been keeping their heads down and working hard ahead of today's Ulster final against Glenswilly.
However, last Wednesday the club was dealt a tragic blow with news of the death of former club chairman Eugene McGeehan.
"He was the uncle of three of our players and he passed away suddenly. It's a strange time and it will have a big effect on the club, he was a great clubman. No one could collect the club lotto like he did.
"It will put a different spin on the preparations for an Ulster final. It puts things into perspective, he was only 56. I can't believe it. He was always around the club, doing jobs, you'd nearly take him for granted. There will be no better tribute to Eugene than to go and win an Ulster club title in his memory."
Gilligan already has an Ulster medal to his name. He was on the team in 2001 when they beat Down's Mayobridge in the final. He was 21 back then and didn't think he would be so long waiting to win another one. Crossmaglen's dominance didn't help – Gilligan lost two Ulster finals and one semi-final to the Armagh champions. Not having Crossmaglen to contend with in this year's championship was novel.
"It was unusual. When the draw was made we looked at who was on our side of the draw. Crossmaglen were always the team that you looked at as being the one you would have to overcome to win the title. It didn't come to that and as soon as Kilcoo beat them it was very quickly put to bed."
For Gilligan, Ulster club football is pretty similar to inter-county. Both are keenly contested affairs and very few games are easy to predict. He has only been retired from inter-county for one season and his form suggests that he could still be competitive at that level. And even though he does miss it, he won't be returning.
"I found it hard being a spectator, especially during the championship. But watching the pace of the game and the way the game has evolved in terms of preparation makes me realise how much commitment is required.
"The guys have already started training for next season and last season is just over. It's a game for people who don't have much going on at night and have the time to dedicate to it. The days of married men with children playing inter-county football is sadly a thing of the past."
Today's game against Glenswilly is enough to keep him busy. The Donegal champions defeated Killybegs in the county final and then went on to beat St Gall's and Roslea in the Ulster championship. Gilligan is looking forward to the challenge they will bring.
"They have a lot of household names and lots of other very good players who are probably overshadowed by their county stars. They probably came in under the radar a bit because everybody was watching Crossmaglen and Kilcoo, but they are definitely a force to be reckoned with."