Playing the generation game to win
Smart managers realise the benefit of having older players in their squad and on the pitch
Age is just a number, until a manager decides yours is up. So often, the curtain is drawn on an inter-county career before a player has finished his lines. Once you hit 30, you're not so much over the hill, but too often airlifted from it by short-sighted managers.
If this season's All-Ireland championships have taught us anything, it's how wrong that approach can be. The permanence of class should not be ignored: Andy Moran, at 33, is frontrunner for Footballer of the Year. In the drawn Mayo-Kerry game, Keith Higgins (32) and Kieran Donaghy (34) were the other two players nominated for man of the match.
The list of impressive tricenarians goes on: Stephen Cluxton, Colm Boyle, Kevin Moran and Michael Brick Walsh. In common, each are in the running for player of the year awards. Without these veterans, their counties may not have been playing in September.
In Waterford's case, Moran and Walsh carried the fight to Cork from the start in the All-Ireland semi-final, while the young guns rode the wave. Derek McGrath has kept the duo around with good reason, for their class and their ability to bring the best out of others.
Elsewhere, too many players are either leaving or being pushed from the inter-county scene too soon. What difference might Paddy Kelly have made in the 90th minute for Cork this year against Mayo? Could John Mullane, at 31, have provided that extra scoring power to dump Kilkenny out in a 2013 qualifier that went to extra-time? No doubt Offaly would love to have Niall McNamee on board for 2018.
Between the eight semi-finalists in the two codes, just ten of the 112 starting outfield players were 30 or older. Five came from Mayo; rather than miles on the clock, their nous and know-how has kept the engine roaring.
The question is: could more players be kept on board, or as importantly, should managers be tailoring training loads depending on age to retain experience? Scientifically, the answer is yes.
Dr John Murphy set up the GAA injury database in 2006, and is now the co-director of the GAA Injury Prevention Strategy alongside Dr Catherine Blake of UCD. Their research shows that there are three groups of players: those between 22 and 30; the bracket of 30-plus; and those 22 and younger. The 22-30 group are 35 per cent less likely to get injured per 1,000 hours than older players being forced to do the same training, and it's the same for those under 22 who are being pulled by a variety of different teams including club, college and county.
"You take Denis Bastick, forget that he hasn't started this year," says Dr Murphy. "Denis Bastick at 34 (now 36) had multiple major surgeries and still started the All-Ireland final in 2015. He is an example of that (tailoring training for an older player).
"Donncha O'Connor is an unbelievable example of it: 36 years of age and if you look at his scoring this year as a percentage compared with other players, and look at his game-time, you will see it. He is one of these players I'd know very well and advise that it's all about load management. If he trains too much and loads himself too much, he wouldn't be on the pitch in the first place. You can apply the same then to Dublin, their strength in depth and the bench. If you look at last weekend, Bernard Brogan, Diarmuid Connolly, Michael Darragh Macauley, Paul Flynn, Kevin McManamon, all these players are not young [all are over 30]. But they're there ready to perform and being loaded and managed properly, I would say."
The value of experience comes in many forms. Derek McGrath had Brick Walsh room with and sit on the bus beside Shane Bennett when the youngster first joined the panel. Bennett's father, Pat, explaining that, "Brick is kind of his soul mate and has taken him under his wing."
Selector Dan Shanahan adds: "He's just a great man, lads. He loves coming down training and when he does he gives it 110 per cent. I don't care what age he is. You saw Andy Moran, 33, 1-5. What is age?"
It can be of immense value. The oldest man on the field won his battle with the least experienced, Cork's Mark Coleman, in the All-Ireland semi-final, and Brick did the same to Cillian Buckley last year.
When all hell is breaking loose, and heads have been lost, being able to rely on experience is huge. Just look at the contrast with Tipperary in their semi-final defeat to Galway, when Michael Ryan's only substitutions in the game were to bring on a wing-forward, and then replace that same man later on.
James Woodlock, who left the Tipperary hurling panel aged 29 at the end of 2015, feels that a lack of experience cost Ryan in defence of the Liam MacCarthy Cup. When you consider that Gearoid Ryan (29), Woodlock (31), Shane McGrath, Conor O'Brien, Conor O'Mahony and Paddy Stapleton (all 32), and Lar Corbett (36) all left the panel in the past two seasons, it presents a marked contrast with Jim Gavin's Dublin.
A player might not spearhead an All-Ireland win anymore, but there is still a chance his experience can carry you over the line. "Everyone talked at the start of the year about Tipperary having a massive panel and it turned out that when it got to the business end of the year, we actually didn't have anyone that the management trusted," says Woodlock.
"It doesn't matter what people say, it matters inside the camp what the management think and they obviously didn't have faith in their own panel on the biggest day of the year for Tipperary in an All-Ireland semi-final. Could Paddy Stapleton have hurled that day, could Conor O'Brien, would they have had something to offer (in the full-back line)? Absolutely, of course they would. Shane McGrath the same, Conor O'Mahony . . . but for whatever reason, they're not there.
"I would like to see more encouragement of managers trying to keep the more experienced players for longer. The younger players coming in get the benefit of the experience of those players and they're the best in the county at the time.
"It shows the standard they have to reach. At the moment, there's a gulf between the starting 17 or 18 players in Tipp, and the rest. That's just the way I feel, and if other people are saying the same thing, you tell me why the last four, five, of six players couldn't be hurling, are you telling me they couldn't still be hurling? Of course they could."
In Dublin, they do. What marks it out even more is that they are the authority in Gaelic football, have huge strength in depth, and yet have still retain a horde of veterans. Flynn, McManamon, Darren Daly, Eoghan O'Gara and Connolly all came off the bench against Tyrone, Macauley and Brogan didn't get on, while Bastick was involved in the warm-up but didn't make the 26.
Not one starting outfield player was over 30, yet consider the drop in standards at training if the old heads weren't there to set the tone. Imagine if the Dubs were in trouble, well in arrears, and Gavin looked back to his bench and saw only inexperience. Through smart planning and personalised training, the reality is an assured Brogan coming off the bench to hit 0-5 in the Leinster final, Flynn taking Tyrone for 0-3, and O'Gara adding 1-1.
"Yeah well I think the way the game has gone, with more expertise you're able to play a bit longer," says Michael Fitzsimons. "Monitoring loads and making sure you keep injuries to a minimum, stuff like that. I think it's definitely important; we had Paul Casey back in the day and even Paul Griffin stayed on for a bit when he was injury-free, their experience is massive. How they handle themselves around the dressing room makes a big impact on the squad and definitely benefits teams, especially the younger lads. It's hugely beneficial and it's good to have a mix. Age is just a number.
"Paul Casey was big for us back in 2011 under Pat Gilroy, and we've a good mix now and experienced heads can contribute massively. Both on the pitch and in the dressing room too."
Sean Armstrong retired from the Galway panel at the end of 2014 but was tempted back this season by Kevin Walsh. Without the understanding of the manager, the forward would not have had such a positive impact.
"I don't think you can beat experience, personally," says the 31-year-old. "My training load was definitely altered for this year because of miles up on the clock and, secondly, back pain. I remember going back for pre-season and it was mainly in the gym, but the under 21s were looking for a challenge. Kevin thought it was a good time for me to get a game under my belt with Galway but, after about 15 minutes, my back just gave way.
"I think he then realised that I really did have issues with my back so we sat down with the medical team, and while the boys went into a serious training programme in January and February where they were doing a lot of running, topping up the tank, I stood out of a lot of that.
"Instead, what I was doing was getting the aqua suit and getting into the pool and doing an aqua session so you're getting a good cardio hit, but no real resistance or load on the legs, back or joints."
By allowing Armstrong to step in and out of training depending on what his body was saying, Galway got value out of the Salthill-Knocknacarra man, as no doubt they'd hoped to with injury-plagued Michael Meehan.
"It comes with my position as well in the full-forward line, the ground that you cover is a lot lower than if you were out in the middle third," says Armstrong of how he was used. "I know if he asked me to play the ten or 12 role, I would struggle in that; maybe 20 minutes is all I'd be able for.
"In the full-forward line, you are being a lot smarter with your runs, obviously your runs are more intense but they're a lot shorter. When you get older, you gain the experience to know where the ball will end up or how you want the ball, or how to lose your man a little quicker."
Dr Murphy says players in their late 20s and early 30s have reached a maturity to recognise how they can't perform without overdoing training. "If the manager doesn't buy in then, they don't have the opportunity to succeed. Because they have the wisdom of how to play, but it does need an integrated team approach where it's all about getting those guys on the pitch at the right time."
It's up to a manager to retain them, and maintain them too. The age profile of county teams remains low but Dublin, Mayo and Waterford continue to stock fine wines. Gaelic games rely largely on athleticism but a sprinkling of know-how will always have its place. It's like the old saying goes: he was never the quickest, but he always left in time.
As Woodlock adds: "In some cases, counties are losing out. If the player is good enough to start, it doesn't matter if a player is 24 or 34. On the big day, you can't beat experience and the calmness of the player on the field, it rubs off on other players."
Ryan Giggs won PFA player of the year in 2009 aged 35. Six of ten players shortlisted for the UEFA Player of the Year in 2017 are 30 or older - you don't need to look too far for evidence. Former Waterford manager Michael Ryan relied heavily on Brick and made Moran his captain. "Well a long, long time ago, an old coach called Ned Power who played in goal for Waterford in 1959, I remember he was coaching and he said to 'forget about your birth certs, if you look after yourself properly and you have the desire to play and keep working, there's no reason you can't play on'. You need a balance and there's a role for everybody. Waterford are a young team, with a few wise old heads thrown in, and they're invaluable. I've no doubt they'll prove their mettle on the pitch - both are having almost their best ever seasons on the pitch this year, which speaks volumes for themselves as well."
Sunday Indo Sport