'You're a while out of minor now, Liam?'
'Jaysus, I am!'
In his day, Liam Myles was a county footballer with Tipperary at all grades, and played hurling on the same club team as 'Babs' Keating. But that would suggest he's had his day, which is not entirely true. After football he found a new life in hurling and after outfield positions came the longer-life prospects offered by playing in goal. He doesn't play much now, only sporadically, but the official line is that he is still available if needed for the Civil Service junior hurlers in the lower reaches of the Dublin leagues.
We haven't mentioned that he's 73. Myles retired from a management position in Teagasc at 65 and found that golf just wasn't cutting it. Hurling was his fix. Several years ago he was playing in goal for Civil Service when they lost a man to injury in the half forward line. He came out of goal to play at centre forward and picked off two points. A playing colleague that day recalled how he still had remarkable hands and positional sense.
Myles says that he has derived as much pleasure from spells down on the hurling wall in nearby St Jude's with his 11-year-old grandson, Sam. But still he drives over to Islandbridge where Civil Service play from his home in Rathfarnham for training, or to help out doing the tasks that are essential to keep the show on the road, like lining the pitch and putting up nets.
"I'd get the notion one year that I wouldn't bother anymore and then, by jaysus, I'd go out," explains Myles, now 55 years out of minor. "I can't really explain it. Obviously it wasn't designed anyway. I found hurling kept me in shape. And suddenly I got to like hurling more than I ever did. Give me a ball and a wall and I'd be delighted with myself."
People are living longer and looking for sporting activity when they retire from the competitive field, with forms of social hurling popping up in different parts of the country. The GAA is starting to recognise vast growth potential in social games. Gaelic for Mothers and Others has been a huge success and brought people into clubs who may never have played previously. The Masters provided outlets in hurling and football for inter-county players to play after 40. But even that threshold now seems lower than a generation ago, with a more active population and an experimental generation looking for stimulating activity.
Liam Myles' voyage is epic. A native of Ardfinnan, he captained them in the senior county football final in 1973, having just come back from honeymoon. They lost, but he had the consolation of winning the following year. In 1975, by then Dublin-based, he played against Kerry in the Munster Senior Football Championship semi-final in Clonmel. The sides were level at half time and Tipp went a point ahead six minutes into the second half before two goals from John Egan in a five-minute spell ended hopes of an upset. From there Kerry blossomed into a legendary force under Mick O'Dwyer.
Myles was in the full forward line. "My wife Olive had no interest in sport. It was regular enough for us to go down to a match - Cahir, Clonmel, wherever it was - and we'd have young children and they mightn't stir from the car until the game was over. Then back up again. The wife would bring magazines to keep her occupied. There was a time when we might picnic, on the way down or the way back, but mostly on the way down."
In '75 she heard the commotion from the next field when Tipperary) were rattling Kerry and was drawn from the car to discover the cause. "The curiosity got the better of her," says her husband, "when she heard the shouting. I said to her, 'Why didn't you stay in the car?'"
Myles played senior championship football with Tipp for ten years. "Sure you know yourself what we were like that time, Clare, Waterford, Limerick and ourselves, you got to a semi-final and you got a hiding. The highlight was winning Division 2 of the League."
After county he continued to travel home to play for Arfinnan and one year they asked him to manage which he took to be a hint that it was time to hang up the boots. He did. He managed for a year and then decided it was too much time for too little return. One night he went down on a Friday and the ground was covered in snow. Only two showed up for training. He took the session anyway but realised it was a lost cause.
With Ballybacon-Grange, the local hurling club, he won a South Tipp title in 1968, with 'Babs' Keating a powerhouse on the team. The same year they won a county under 21 hurling title. Brendan Cummins' father, John, was on many of the same teams.
Looking for an outlet in Dublin in later life he found Civil Service. "We were senior hurling when I joined them first," he says. "They were also senior football."
He stopped playing football but continued hurling because it was less physically demanding. "Whatever metamorphosis happened with me, I can't say when or how, it had to be gradual, but I got to love the hurling - I love having the stick in my hand. I've three hurls outside the back door there like you'd be living at home (in Tipp). Except we'd only have one in my time.
"Even going out with Sam, the young fella, he's well able to hit it now, he'd give you enough to do (laughs). But I don't enjoy games when we get hockeyed, like we do sometimes. It's terrible."
He had a shot at the Masters for over-40s, playing for Dublin against his native Tipp two years running in the final, losing the first and winning the second. With Civil Service he reckons he played outfield until his 50s before moving into goals. Through his time playing a great deal has changed. The helmet and faceguard being made compulsory nearly finished him. He admits the adjustment was tough. "Oh fierce, even still. I think goalkeepers shouldn't be wearing them at all, or even the helmet. They are not like the hurlers of the '60s any more, there's no fellas flaking on balls landing in the small square and everybody inside there. I know there's a risk."
There is nothing to prove. He is not looking at finding a place in the Guinness Book of Records. It is simply the enjoyment of playing. "I love getting the hurley and belting a ball off a wall," he explains. "If I had a handball alley near me I'd be the happiest camper going, I wouldn't have to be bothering anybody else, I'd hurl away. It keeps me in shape. Sure you're twisting and turning and you're bending and you're keeping flexible."
In the 1990s he had a spell training several Dublin-based Tipp footballers for then manager Seamus McCarthy. In 1993 and '94 they reached Munster finals, losing both to Cork. He was part of that journey, present in the dressing room before they defeated John Maughan's Clare in the quarter-finals in '94 when they played back a local radio interview with a Clare footballer from the day before. "He was saying a good performance should do us, something like that," says Myles, smiling. With Peter Lambert on fire, Tipp won, ending Maughan's reign.
Colin Regan, GAA Health and Community Manager, says their Healthy Club Project, currently active in 300 clubs, is looking to develop social games for older members and even to attract new or lapsed ones.
Normally players past their prime, like Liam Myles, find a place on the lowest placed adult team, but there is a gap in the market for those wanting the game without the competitive element.
It can cause friction. Regan says he has heard of a club where a successful social team was scrapped "because it started 'cannibalising' its lowest competitive team."
Colm Crowley has been running a social games programme in Cork, where he is a Games Development Adminitrator (GDA). "We put it out on Twitter, found there was an interest and ran it in Páirc Uí Caoimh for a few weeks," says Crowley. "Over 35s is the age profile but we have one or two younger lads. Generally, they are in the mid-40s onwards. We have one regular who is nearly 60."
They play a few games depending on numbers. "The thing is, it is very relaxed, and players try all sorts of stuff, overhead flicks, backwards hand-passes and so on. It's enjoyable and good fun."
In Belfast's Falls Road a group of hurlers had been gathering before the lockdown each Thursday for social hurling. They trade under the name Halfpace Hurling, and travel in from north Antrim, Down, Derry, Lurgan and Carrickmore in Tyrone. Brendan Murray, who played in the 1989 All-Ireland club final for O'Donovan Rossa and is now 53, set up the group and thought up the name.
He stopped playing at 37 to focus on coaching. Four years ago a hip replacement gave him a new lease of life. Why not a lower junior team? "No. I wouldn't do it, there's enough players, you are only taking the place of a young one. I had no interest, I had done my time. I am flat out with coaching. It takes up a lot of time."
Here they can turn up when they wish and if they don't, they won't get a tongue-lashing. "Whoever turns up turns up, and we just roll with it," says Murray. "We have no referee. Two set of bibs in the middle, you pick a bib and away we go. Different levels and different ages, nobody under pressure, it's all social and a bit of crack. I would say there's 20 clubs involved."
Even though he played at a high level, he loves this environment. "See, to be back playing at 50 is fantastic, it is a real buzz. It is your highlight of the week, you can coach all you want - it's not the same.
"We have everybody and anybody. We had a big Polish fella, his son is playing for a club, and he wanted to get a wee feel for it. We've had Presbyterian Ministers. There were a couple of 67-year-olds who've come a few times."
Myles' parents died in their 60s and he points out that it was nothing unusual back then. So as life extends, the playing age is rising too, even if he is well above the average.
"They'd be slagging me. 'Myles, are you still playing?' I've a good friend up in Louth, he never hurled in his life. He turned round to me one day and he says, 'Tell me, are you getting any better at it?'
"I don't see this as a gaisce (great achievement). I do it because I enjoy it. I am not doing it for medals. I've medals up there in a bag and I've forgotten what they're for. They don't interest me. It's the satisfaction of doing something right and getting it right on the day."
He recalls one day when a young fella from the opposition looked at him in goal, and said: 'Jaysus, you're older than my father!' But he can lap that up at this stage, explaining at one point. "It's like a drug."
Covid-19 has made him think and he had difficulty completing the 'return to play' app on his phone.
"This Covid thing is worrying me slightly at the moment, whether I should be going out. The fact that I am over 70. I am supposed to be vulnerable. I even asked the chairman and secretary, they weren't going to say no to me I suppose, I am just a little bit conscious of it."
But the drug won.
Sunday Indo Sport