Cahir Healy is 36. For a large chunk of his thirties, his inter-county involvement has been haunted by the curse of two cruciates and then the curse of Covid. He lives in England where, as an added complication, he has been appointed player-manager of his adopted GAA club. And yet he continues to rage, rage, against the dying of the light.
The former Laois dual player is now a London senior footballer.
You ask the obvious – why? – and he offers up several interweaving reasons. “There is an obsession. It’s all I would think about from morning, noon to night,” he says.
“I like the training, I like the commitment involved. It gives a good direction to my life, if I’m being honest. I’m getting up in the morning and my breakfast is important; my lunch is important. Going to bed early doesn’t bother me because I feel there’s a reason for it. It makes the mundane things almost mean something for me. I’m never really bored.
“The other one is there is a little bit of unfinished business. I don’t feel I ever proved myself really as a county footballer - I’ve played an awful lot more hurling.
“There’s a period from when I was 31 to 35, I kind of had four years taken off me, two with surgeries on the knees and then two with Covid … so in one way I’m trying to claw those back.
“And the third one is I enjoy it. I like being in the dressing-room; I like being around the lads. The bus journeys and stuff, I don’t mind them.”
Just as well, given that any away game for London is effectively your weekend gone.
Round six of the Allianz Football League is upon us, the clock counting down towards SFC lift-off in April. The roll call of players who won’t feature this weekend, having retired since last year’s championship, reads like a ‘who’s who?’ of millennial legends: Lee Keegan, Michael Murphy, Jonny Cooper, David Moran and the 40-years-young Ross Munnelly.
But here’s something even more fascinating: the array of veterans embracing one more year, clearly outnumbering those who have stepped away. Most have long since crossed the Rubicon into their thirties. They have been senior county footballers for anywhere between ten and 15 years – some longer.
But they’re playing on in search of Sam or a more achievable prize – or maybe for no other reason than they can’t countenance life without it.
When the medics speak solemnly of GAA burnout, they obviously weren’t thinking of this cohort. ’Keeper Raymond Galligan first played as an outfielder with Cavan in the 2006 Tommy Murphy Cup. Fellow Breffni Martin Reilly along with Monaghan duo Darren Hughes and Conor McManus made their SFC debuts in 2007. Mark Timmons, the indefatigable Laois defender, will turn 37 in May.
Mayo have lost a multitude of battle-scarred heroes since the end of 2020, Keegan the latest. But even as Kevin McStay builds anew, a handful of veterans remain: Kevin McLoughlin will be 34 in
May, Jason Doherty and Rob Hennelly are 33, Aidan O’Shea 32. The eternal search for the holy grail still consumes them.
Mick Fitzsimons has reached that destination eight times already. But even as his 35th birthday looms next month, the Dublin defender is still chasing a record ninth. Likewise his 33-year-old skipper, James McCarthy.
They are a remarkable breed, for sure, but don’t call them endangered just yet.
THE RETIREE: CHRIS KERR
Chris Kerr is now a former Antrim footballer – for the second time. His recent county comeback may have only lasted for a short window of weeks around last year’s Ulster Championship and Tailteann Cup … but even fulfilling the role of goalkeeper back-up helped to bring “a bit of closure”.
Now 36, Kerr had previously retired at the end of 2018. “It would have been my 11th year, give or take,” he explains. “It was five days a week training and basically I was just starting to get sick of it a wee bit.”
Instead, he got stuck into St Gall’s and enjoyed one of his best ever club seasons. Antrim boss Lenny Harbison was on to him about going back. And then, in that innocuous way it so often happens, he ruptured a cruciate ligament.
He had the operation that September. With Covid’s arrival, he missed barely any football before returning in August ’20. Then he slipped in training one night and wrecked the same knee: a torn ACL, cartilage and MCL damage. Cue more surgery.
Changing physios proved a “game-changer”. Helen McElroy had similar testing systems to the Sports Surgery Clinic in Santry, allowing for constant feedback. He made it back for the 2021 championship with St Gall’s before transferring last season to Ballymacnab in Armagh, where he now resides.
In the midst of all this came a call last April from Seán Kelly, fellow St Gall’s man and an Antrim selector under Enda McGinley. They had lost two ‘keepers ahead of championship: would he be interested in a comeback?
“There’s a lad (Michael Byrne) who had trained all year and in the short period I was there, I knew they were looking for me to help him out … but once you get in, you’re like, ‘Right, I want to play now.’ I don’t think that ever leaves you, that competitive edge. But it was great to be back in - and disappointing then when they stepped down.
“It was probably to make peace with the injuries too, because it’s always in your head: ‘God, will I ever get back to that level?’ Do you know what, I was actually buzzing to go back then. I remember driving to training that first night, and it was as if I’d just been called up again at 18-19.”
However, with the birth of his son Páidí last summer and with new Antrim boss Andy McEntee keen that all the gym work take place in Belfast, the obstacles to going back were “probably too much.” And so retirement beckoned once more.
THE GPA VIEW: COLM BEGLEY
A still-teenage Colm Begley first quit inter-county in late 2005, swapping Laois for Australia where he spent four years as an AFL professional. Upon resuming his Laois career in 2010, he played on for a decade. He didn’t feature in 2021, then officially retired in ’22.
Begley is player welfare and engagement manager with the GPA, so he’s regularly dealing with players facing this pivotal life choice – when to call time on your county. It helps when you’ve been that soldier too.
“The injuries played a bit on my mind,” he says. “One of my strengths would have been my physical capacity, running wise, good enough defender back in the day … but I wasn’t quite as alert or strong or even the fight wasn’t as strong in some training [sessions].
“Was there an actual moment? Maybe not. Now, I did definitely get a few roastings some nights. I remember Eoin Lowry and Paul Kingston with some one-on-ones absolutely scutching me!
“I still think I added value but it was more a personal [question] … do I feel like I want to be there, or is it an effort for me going down to these trainings? I felt like I was not getting as much back from it as I was going to give in. And when that happens, you just need to step away.”
The 36-year-old sounds as ease with his decision but it probably helped that “I had a few years thinking about it.” Through his GPA work, which has included organising programmes for county players as they transition towards retirement, he can cite various reasons why some struggle more than others.
It can be particularly challenging for those forced to quit early through injury, career ambitions unfulfilled. But perhaps the key issue is whether you have planned for retirement and have other outlets to fill the void.
“The life balance needs to be shifted a small bit, and I think players are trying to do that,” he expands. “Even Covid might have done that, unintentionally. People might have gone, ‘Well, there’s more to life than sport.’
“Identity is a big thing, and for a lot of players they’re ‘the footballer’, ‘the hurler’, ‘the camogie player’ … that’s why we try and encourage players to be more than that. Their career is important to them, their hobbies outside, their passions, their family too.
“Definitely some players are finding it more difficult but I do think, over the last number of years, players are getting a little bit better about preparing themselves.”
Most of them, though, will miss the “social connection” of the dressing-room. “You’ve spent four nights a week with these guys. You’ve played games with them, had nights out after games. But when you’re outside, it takes effort to keep the friendship going the same way because you don’t have the availability. You’re not involved in the circle.”
The old cliché that inter-county is a young person’s game doesn’t always stack up. Begley makes the intriguing point that leading players from some of the mid to lower-tier counties “can feel a sense of responsibility to stay involved and bring on the next wave.”
He concludes: “The split season might really add some more years to players in the long run, because November you start training – and you could be finished in June, and that makes it a little bit easier. It’s definitely more full-on as regards week to week … but some older players might go, ‘Can I give four or five months there? Yeah, I think I can.’”
THE SURVIVOR: CAHIR HEALY
Cahir Healy enjoyed a winning SFC debut for Laois against Wicklow in 2008. Mark Timmons (still going) and John O’Loughlin (retired last May) were fellow rookies that day. Yet Healy’s county pedigree stretches even further back, to 2005, when he made his summer bow with the hurlers.
The really incredible bit, however, is that this primary school teacher has been living in London since 2010 and spent the next decade travelling home to play hurling/football for Portlaoise/Laois. If you measured selfless dedication in air miles, no contemporary comes close.
But recurring knee injuries coupled with Covid wreaked havoc with that once-relentless schedule. He transferred club allegiance to Robert Emmetts (hurling) and St Brendan’s (football) in 2021, then graduated to become a London county footballer last year. Aged 35, as you do.
“I did more cartilage in the knee in the summer of 2021,” he recounts. “The advice I got from one or two fellas that I would trust, when I showed them the scan results and the report, they were like, ‘Just quit now, this is kind of stupid.’
“I said right, I’ll finish out the season with the club. I was in pain for a few months, the swelling was terrible. And then I don’t know what happened. I got up one morning, the swelling was gone, I could move the knee, and I haven’t had any real trouble since with it.”
But having started London’s first two league games this year, a hip cartilage injury sidelined Healy for the next three. The Exiles complete their Division 4 campaign at home to Laois (who else?); Healy is hopeful of making it back for that March 26 clash and would be “devastated” to miss it.
Beyond this year’s Connacht SFC, which has thrown up a “huge opportunity” for the Division 4 minnows on one half, Healy is taking his county career year by year. But don’t expect him to embrace the quiet life.
“Look, I’m pushing on 13 years here. It was the right thing to get involved and start putting down a bit of roots,” he explains. “I’m with St Brendan’s, player-manager of the club team and playing county football – I’m not making it easy on myself!”