'If I wanted a fairytale ending I would have finished off last year when I scored that point'
Mickey Linden first played senior for Down in 1981 and he never lost his love of the game
Last year, Mickey Linden went to Newry in search of a new pair of football boots. He's asked if the shop assistant enquired who they were for? A broadening smile gives way to laughter. "No, no questions asked." The store was doing an offer; two pairs for the price of one. In his prime he was "a Puma King man" but the offer meant there'd be one pair for his son, Cormac, and one for himself.
In July he will turn 56. Linden had already passed the half-century when he returned to football by coming on for the Mayobridge third team in a reserves championship match in 2013. Not just coming on to stand in at corner forward either, but to pick up where he had left off, scoring four points in fleet-footed defiance of all the constraints normally placed on a man of that age.
After that run ended he seemed to declare he'd had enough. Only he never quite stopped and last year, like a ghost from Down's past, he re-emerged to hit an astonishing score in the final of the reserves championship against neighbours Burren. The quality of the score, at 55, was staggering and a recording of the moment quickly spread across social media.
Someone lifted a point of his out of the archives from the 1991 All-Ireland final against Meath which had a similar look and juxtaposed the two. Though from two entirely different environments, and separated by over a quarter of a century, the similarities were obvious. His physical condition and movement were incredible. He still had the body swerves, a turn of pace and that deathless finish.
It is a long way back to November 1, 1981 when, just out of minor, he first played for Down seniors, against Meath in a Division 2 National League match in Newcastle. And yet all these years later, Mickey Linden is still playing and no slouch. He is reminded that he had declared himself done at 50. He laughs again.
"That's ok until the next year."
You still have the yearning for it? "Aye, I know, I do."
Do you question why you are doing it? "Yes, sometimes I do. When you think of some of the injuries you can get you might say, what am I doing? But I never had any serious injuries, I never had any problems with my knees or my ankles. No major operations. I dodged a lot of tackles!"
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Linden's pinnacle as a footballer. He was Footballer of the Year in 1994 and man of the match in the All-Ireland final when Down defeated Dublin. In one of the best matches of all time he had maybe his most acclaimed performance in the defeat of reigning All-Ireland champions Derry in Celtic Park earlier that summer, scoring six points from play. The team will be reassembling for a function to mark the All-Ireland win, Down's last, in Newry in mid-June and they're also planning a golf day. In September they will be paraded in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day and also during the Ulster final on June 23.
Linden was constantly pushing out the conventional age boundaries. He played county football until 40 and was a member of Mayobridge teams that won seven county senior football championships up to his mid-40s, still a key player, not one trading on past reputation. In both cases, county and club, he felt at the end that he could have gone for longer.
His last year with Down, in 2003, was desperately unfulfilling. "When I was 40 and I was playing for Down that time, apart from losing a wee bit on the stamina side, the speed was as quick as it ever was," he says.
In sprints in county training he was in the top three or five. Paddy O'Rourke had taken over as manager that year. "I felt Paddy at that time wanted to move on with the younger fellas. Regardless of whether I might have been a better player he still wanted to move that way. And ultimately that's why I left it."
The upshot was that he got a short run in the drawn Ulster final against Tyrone and played none of the replay when they were demolished, nor the fourth round qualifier six days later against Donegal which they lost in Clones by eight points. He turned 40 that week. And that was how the curtain fell. No great climax to it. No fairytale ending.
"I wasn't doing it to have a fairytale ending. If I wanted a fairytale ending I would have finished off last year when I scored that point (laughs)."
But he felt deep frustration. "Because I still felt I had more to offer, even at that age, and that I was better than a whole lot of people on the team. And in some ways I tried to prove that over the next few years when I was playing with the club. But that's what drives us all on. There's always something that we use as motivation. That's what players do. That's what most men do."
For a few years after he finished with the club senior team, he experimented with masters athletics. At 50 he competed in the 2014 Masters World Indoor Athletics Championships in Budapest, running in the 60m having earlier set an Irish record. He reached the semi-finals and finished 14th in the world.
"I was thinking of going back but it is very severe, I find, on my hips and that. You push yourself to the absolute limit and you feel it in the hips after and my back was getting sore as well."
He was proud to wear the Irish singlet in Budapest, all the more because he never got to play international rules while a Down player as the series was then suspended. He did travel to Australia later as an assistant coach to Pete McGrath with the Ireland team, but it ended in controversy when the hosts used heavy-handed tactics to overturn the series result against Ireland in the previous year.
It led to a major rethink on the future of the series and a change in the rules, punishing indiscipline where sanctions would subsequently carry over into the AFL. "It was disgusting," says Linden. "Disgusting. Put me really off it now. Desperate. Just the brutal tackles of them, because they knew there was no sanction against them. And because we had hammered them the year before."
Linden played with the Down Masters (over 40s team) for a few years and reached an All-Ireland final in 2007 with other former county players Gary Mason and Ross Carr. He currently coaches the Mayobridge minors and had spells in management after he stopped playing senior football with others clubs including Killeavy in Armagh.
"I think the fact that I was still involved, coaching different teams, you are watching football the whole time. So if you are involved like that you are still kicking a ball over the bar, or catching a ball, I think that just keeps you interested. I still love that. Then you might play the odd charity match."
The Gaelic Masters' Association (GMA) provides Gaelic football competition on a national stage for players of 40 years and over. This year 16 counties will be taking part, up from just five participants in 2011. According to Con O'Meara of the GMA, the games help fill a void left when a player's competitive club career has come to an end.
Last year Dublin re-entered and won the All-Ireland with former senior county players like Peadar Andrews, Ray Cosgrove and Shane Ryan, but Masters football can also offer an outlet to regular club players if they have the required fitness.
There are very few of Linden's vintage even playing Masters. His longevity is all the more wondrous given the distance he covered playing football at a serious level. He performed in the Ulster championship through three decades, beginning in the 1980s. "It was tough," he admits.
How did you survive that? "You learned very quickly to look after yourself. And you learned to be fitter than that fella you were marking. And keep moving. Don't let him get close to you. That was one of the tactics I used. I am fitter than you. I can run more than you. Corner backs in those days, you got a lot of that (physical intimidation). But I have to say, there was no sledging. Never got any of that."
The game has changed so much over his time involved and he found himself reluctantly, in management, having to move with the times. "If a team play 15 men behind the ball, if you don't do the same you are going to get caught on the break the whole time. When I managed Mayobridge (winning three county titles in a row as player coach after he retired from county football) we didn't have to do that, as it hadn't come in at that stage. We had to play that way a lot when I went to Killeavy for two years. Hard to watch. Hard to manage.
"We played Crossmaglen in Killeavy one night and it was a fantastic game. They played football. We played football. And then they got a scrappy goal that beat us but it was a brilliant game of football. And for me that gave me a bit of a kick, I like players to go and express themselves. Which we would try to do with the minors. I loathe to have to play sweepers or any of that stuff."
He finished with two All-Ireland medals and in retirement has seen Down deteriorate to where they are now playing in Division 3. The eldest of his three sons played for the club but the others were not interested.
One of them, he says, had "no interest in sport whatsoever," and when he took him to the All-Ireland final one year he read a book. All were given the same opportunities and exposure to Gaelic football "but you could see right away that one was digging a hole in the ground and the ball flying past him. And you were saying, 'there's no football in that lad'".
The conversation winds back to football boots - he's gone through a few pairs by now. He leaves the room to fetch boots he was presented with through his involvement with the Down Masters, returning with this flashy gold pair which he is determined to keep in the box. Because Mickey Linden may be a hero. Mickey Linden may still be willing to tog out at nearly 56. But wearing boots like those is a step too far. "They might suit Owen Mulligan," he says with a grin, "they wouldn't really suit me now."
Sunday Indo Sport