No counties for old men - Lengthy careers are becoming a thing of the past as increased demands and injuries take their toll
A few years ago the former Gaelic Players' Association chairman, Dermot Earley, spoke of how inter-county careers would continue to compress. His career started in 1997 and lasted 16 seasons before he succumbed to injury. Future players could expect half that time on average, he estimated, because the demands had gone through the roof.
"If you start off at 18 and play until you are 26 or 27," said Earley of the new reality, "that's a long time."
At that stage Aaron Kernan had caused a stir when retiring at 30, which appeared a little premature, and Earley said that this would eventually be more like the norm. But he also spoke of the exceptions. Those who defy the march of time and by dint of the prevailing trends are swimming more against the tide than ever.
With the championship almost upon us, Ryan McCluskey, nearing 37, is preparing for an 18th season. His first championship appearance was in 2001 against Donegal, making him the longest survivor playing today. The endurance is all the more admirable due to Fermanagh's lack of success. He is not doing it for the glory.
In hurling the honour of being the longest man standing goes to Michael 'Brick' Walsh, who first played Munster championship for Waterford in 2003 against Kerry. Waterford have had much recent underage success, winning a minor All-Ireland in 2013 and an under 21 title three years later. They have never been as flush with talented young players but Walsh continues to play a role. Now 35, his appearances in the recent National League were limited to one start and two runs off the bench but he brings a wealth of experience and is a highly regarded presence around the squad.
It was his former county team-mate Tony Browne who provided arguably the greatest defiance of age by managing to carve out an ongoing career even when the physical demands had become unprecedented. Browne retired in the spring of 2014 and played his last championship hurling for Waterford as a substitute against Kilkenny at the age of 40 in 2013. Five years earlier he was on the team demolished by Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final, aged 35, and still he decided to continue playing. Before that he had seriously thought of retiring at 31, which he described as "a period when you consider retiring . . . as if it is the thing to do".
He decided it wasn't and in his 30s he won another Munster medal and two All-Stars. In an interview with this newspaper six years ago, approaching his 39th birthday, he gave the following perspective: "If you have understanding people around you, there is no reason why you can't perform at your peak even in your mid-30s. That is something I would like the GAA to look at, to help prolong players' careers. I am very passionate about it; I think an awful lot more top-class players could do it.
"I had done that 15 years of travelling all the miles every night to training, I'd served my time. I had to readjust in my 30s to prolong my career."
Browne had his own way of doing things. He might wait until spring to rejoin the county squad - hence the need for a flexible management. Once Christmas was over he would train on his own, work out his own programme, with no more than one stamina session a week. Once Mount Sion were out of the championship the run-up to Christmas would be more about relaxation and recovery than anything too strenuous. He'd leave the hurl down altogether. Instead he focused on stretching and some fitness work in the pool. He seemed to understand his mind and body perfectly, knowing when both needed rest in order to be refreshed for the coming season.
But, as McCluskey and Walsh know, and all others nearing the inevitable end, you can also go on too long. Browne eventually made that call himself but he still faced the strong temptation to stay, and said later that he felt his body would have been up to it had he done so. Most are swallowed up by other factors, with family duties or work influencing decisions, even if the body is capable of standing another season and the appetite remains keen.
Having the decision made for you by someone else is also a strong possibility. When Henry Shefflin retired he revealed that he had had a phone call with Brian Cody before announcing his decision. The greatest hurler of modern times, and one of the best ever, he admitted that this conversation didn't exactly try to dissuade him from retiring. He was told it was each player's call to make, but he took it that his days were numbered. If he had been the indispensable Shefflin of old then it is likely that the vibes might have been more encouraging.
For longevity no hurler went longer in the championship than Christy Ring, a career that spanned 23 seasons from 1940 to 1962. He hurled until 1967 for Glen Rovers, then 47 years of age and still a handful. Browne's incredible career is just two seasons shy of Ring's. The Offaly player Jack Tooher, who finished up in 1920, went the same distance as Ring in terms of year span. Browne's feat is highly unusual for a modern player, with long careers becoming, as Earley rightly observed, a thing of the distant past. Joachim Kelly is the only other hurler who played for 19 or more seasons who was still playing in the 1990s.
When you examine the number of championship appearances there is the opposite effect. Most players towards the top of that list are from modern times, with few from days gone by due to the greater number of matches hurlers and footballers play now. But Ring is still up there, sharing fifth position with Browne, on 65 appearances. Brendan Cummins leads with 73 appearances, from Shefflin in second on 71 and Walsh on 70. JJ Delaney has 66. Walsh is on target to equal Cummins' all-time record if he makes three more championships appearances in the months ahead. The revised round-robin format that places an increased emphasis on using big panels should further improve his prospects of reaching the summit.
When it comes to championship appearances, Ring is the only player from an older generation in the top 20. But he had to deal with the question of when was the right time to leave the stage too. Given the size of his reputation the decision did not come easy. His last match for Cork was in the 1962 Munster championship, although he is believed to have been interested in playing again in '64 and was overlooked.
Ring's biographer, Val Dorgan, wrote a piece for the Irish Examiner in 1971 which recalled an exhibition match his subject played in New York. From the article the date is unclear, but it was after his county career had ended. "He was greatly overweight, suffering from a thigh injury which hardly allowed him to hobble, and he was totally outplayed by a 19-year-old full-back for half the game," recalled Dorgan.
Dorgan reported that at half-time Ring rearranged the team and put himself on the 40. "By running with the ball in the closing stages he was grounded unmercifully, but won two frees, one 35 yards out, the other on the 21. He scored goals from both." After the game he was carried off on fans' shoulders and afterwards "besieged for an hour in the dressing room".
John Kerry O'Donnell, the famous New York GAA man, said: "Goddammit, he would have more crowd appeal here than any other 30 players from Ireland, even if he played on crutches."
In 1973 Ring and Ollie Walsh, the legendary Kilkenny goalkeeper, were asked to take part in a hurling tour to promote the game in New York. Ring was 52 at the time. Walsh was 35. Some commentators questioned the wisdom of Ring taking part. Ring's natural competitive instincts might have persuaded him to take on challenges when it was wiser to let them go.
McCluskey (below) had his judgment questioned by his family in 2012 when he suffered a head fracture in a training match coming up to the Ulster championship. At the age of 32 it might have seemed a sensible time to make his peace but after having a metal plate inserted in his skull he returned to play for Fermanagh. He had the thrill of playing in an All-Ireland semi-final in 2004 and was nominated for an All-Star four years later but aside from the 2015 All-Ireland quarter-final appearance against Dublin, taking part and the challenge he places on himself are the motivating principles rather than any prospect of medals. He has served under nine county managers.
If Walsh plays championship for Waterford in the next few weeks he will have hurled in a 16th season. It is extremely doubtful he will reach the 21-season standard set by Browne and even less probable he will still be hurling for his county at 40. Browne was something of a freak in that respect. Yet Walsh won an All-Star last year approaching his mid-30s, as Browne had done.
In football, the top 10 players with the most championship appearances are all from the modern era, with two, Andy Moran and Stephen Cluxton, still playing. Of the rest, Brian Dooher was the earliest to start playing, and his first season was in 1995. Cluxton is also a goalkeeper, a position that allows better prospects of an extended career than outfield players. His first championship was in the same summer as McCluskey. This will be his 18th season. But the average for those with high championship appearances is more in the region of 14 or 15 years. One of the longest-serving championship players in football was also a goalkeeper - Tom McGrath played from 1902 to 1924, winning four All-Ireland medals and playing 38 matches.
The growing demands on inter-county players, with more intensive match programmes and heavier training schedules, has also translated into a noticeably higher rate of injuries, some career-threatening, at a younger age. Hip injuries in particular have become more commonplace among young players.
The GAA is still grappling with this issue where players are asked to do too much, sometimes serving multiple teams. But even if you manage to avoid injury the prospects of lasting much more than 10 years are becoming increasingly slim. In recent years Marc ó Sé and Aidan O'Mahony carried on into their mid-30s and were hailed for their devotion. Enjoy them while you still can.
GOING THE DISTANCE . . .
Most Hurling Championship Appearances:
73 Brendan Cummins (Tipperary) 1995–2013
71 Henry Shefflin (Kilkenny) 1999–2014
70 Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh (Waterford) 2003–
66 JJ Delaney (Kilkenny) 2001–2014
65 Tony Browne (Waterford) 1992–2014
65 Christy Ring (Cork) 1940–1962
63 Eoin Kelly (Tipperary) 2000–2014
62 Ben O’Connor (Cork) 1999–2012
60 Lar Corbett (Tipperary) 2001–2015
60 Davy Fitzgerald (Clare) 1989–2005
58 Frank Lohan (Clare) 1995–2008
58 Donal Óg Cusack (Cork) 1999–2011
58 Joe Dooley (Offaly) 1982–2000
58 Eoin Larkin (Kilkenny) 2005–2016
57 DJ Carey (Kilkenny) 1989–2005
57 Seán Óg Ó hAilpín (Cork) 1996–2012
56 Tommy Walsh (Kilkenny) 2003–2014
56 Damien Fitzhenry (Wexford) 1993–2009
56 Niall Gilligan (Clare) 1997–2009
Longest Hurling Championship Careers:
23 seasons Christy Ring (Cork) 1940-1962
23 Jack Tooher (Offaly) 1898-1920
21 Tony Browne (Waterford) 1992-2013
20 Sim Walton (Kilkenny) 1900-1919
20 Jamesy Kelleher (Cork) 1894-1914
20 Martin Quigley (Wexford) 1970-1989
19 Jack Gleeson (Tipperary) 1899-1917
19 Bob Mockler (Tipperary/Dublin) 1907-1925
19 Johnny Leahy (Tipperary) 1911-1929
19 Jim Dooley (Offaly) 1931-1949
19 Harry Gray (Laois/Dublin) 1936-1954
19 John Doyle (Tipperary) 1949-1967
19 Eddie Keher (Kilkenny) 1959-1977
19 Joachim Kelly (Offaly) 1975-1993
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