More than a game. Down Masters prove you don't have to wait for the call
FINALLY I got the call.
“We have training this Saturday if you’re interested?” said Tony Wilson, the manager of the Down Masters team.
At last I’d been selected for a county team.
Okay it was Down, okay it was the Masters, okay it was about 20 years too late and okay I had asked my old school mate Tony to let me know when the training was on. Okay, okay, okay…
But he still asked, so I’m taking it even though I haven’t actually trained or played.
I couldn’t make it to training but I went along to watch Down’s next game against Cavan at Mayobridge. I didn’t know what to expect: A kick-a-bout? A bit of a laugh?
It’s much more than that.
The Masters isn’t where former inter-county stars go to keep in touch with their old mates, it's mostly for former club players who never got near senior level for Down.
It provides a focus through the week at work, an escape from depression or the bottle, the feeling of having accomplished something, improved fitness, head space, a chance to meet friends, make new ones and be one of the boys again.
And it’s an opportunity to play a bit of football, because some of us will always be nine years-old at heart when it comes to the football.
The Down Masters were reformed last year and Tony, a successful manager at club level with Clonduff and Clann na Banna after a playing career with ‘the Yellas’, stepped up from playing to walking the line. He has brought a level of organisation that wasn’t there before and, with numbers rapidly expanding, players need to attend training to be in the frame for game-time.
“Last year, whoever was on the sideline was acting as manager,” Tony explained.
“I did a lot of training at the start of the year and I wanted to play but I said to the lads that if they couldn’t get anybody I would step in.”
The Down dressingroom was packed and the peppermint whiff of udder cream (it’s used by ageing footballers for all manner of muscular aches) hung thick in the air as the players tramped out – mostly in classic no-nonsense old school Puma Kings or Adidas Predators – for a game that was hammer-and-tongs, albeit at Masters’ pace, from the throw-in.
There was snow on a lot of roofs, or nothing at all in many cases, but the lads still had plenty of fire in their bellies (these men are over 40 so that’s allowed) and it was a terrific contest.
“Ah, be Jaysus!” roared the Cavan manager in protest after one of his players was emptied near the touchline.
He wasn’t so vocal when one of his boys left a Down man in a heap shortly afterwards and the visitors, who were an hour late for the game, recovered from a slow start to lead by a point (1-6 to 1-5) at half-time.
Down, who’d had a man sent off, needed a win to keep their season alive and they regained the lead with a penalty and kept their noses in front thanks partly to their accuracy and partly to Cavan’s wayward shooting.
“Feckin’ Jaysus,” roared the Cavan boss as another effort drifted wide and when the final whistle blew the Mournemen were 2-9 to 1-10 ahead and delighted with their win.
Yes, the result mattered but in most cases it isn’t the be-all and end-all. After the game, both sides congregated in Gorman’s Bar for some refreshments and amid the hustle and bustle, a few of the Down players explained how Masters football has become an important focus and outlet in their lives.
“I never thought I’d be sitting in a pub with dirty knees again” (Italics)
HE comes from a GAA-mad area but he preferred soccer as a youngster and only got into Gaelic Football in his 30s. It was an itch he had to scratch and now, at 45 and with a family of his own, the man is still a club and county regular.
“It was something I never got out of my system first time around,” he explained.
“The confidence you don’t have as a young fella – what you can or can’t do with the ball - when you’re older you have nothing to lose, you’re one man against another man.”
One of the many things these Masters players have in common is that they were brought up in an era when any discussion of personal issues was taboo. Perhaps as much by accident as design, the group has created an open environment where sharing experiences and asking for support is encouraged. Everyone feels the benefit.
“Mental health-wise you need balance in life,” he says.
“It can be work-kids-work-kids and Mass on a Saturday night is the height the drama. You do need something else that is you and a fella came out there and posted on the WhatsApp group about his struggles with alcoholism… To think that he could put that up on a chat to 35 other lads he didn’t know a year before! It’s nice to think that, if that’s all he is, at least he has that.
“By the time you get to your mid-40s, everybody has a brave bit of baggage and whether you get it out by running around a field and getting it physically out of your system, or by coming out afterwards and telling one of the boys that things haven’t been great at home or whatever… It’s an avenue you might never have expected to get again.”
“Getting involved with the football again turned my life around.” (Italics)
SEAN was in a bad place and football hauled him out of it. Now he has what he needed – motivation, a fresh focus for weekends and regular contact with like-minded people. He’s on the “straight and narrow” again and he intends to stay on it.
“I think it’s great for anybody,” he says.
“This gives you a lift and gets you out. It’s a great help to all the boys.
“I got involved last year and Tony (Wilson, the manager) would say to you: ‘What do you think?’ See for him to say that, it gives you such a lift. You feel involved.
“I do think that the GAA is unbelievable for mental health. It definitely helped me, big time.
“I was drinking too much at night and getting into trouble and getting myself locked up. I quit it, I had to and getting involved with the football again turned my life around. It gave me something to do.”
“When I got to my mid-30s I was drinking heavily and it was knowing that you’re coming to an end of playing and thinking you won’t be able to play again.” (Italics)
WE take sport for granted as youngsters but those carefree days don’t last. There comes a time when you start to slow up and the next batch of eager youngsters takes your place. Without that place, who are you? That reality can hit some people very hard and it hit Jim (not his real name) harder than most.
“I started drinking heavier and heavier, I was drinking flat-out five or six days a week and it nearly killed me,” he says.
“I haven’t touched it since last year. I need this (the football), I need the buzz or else I’m going to be looking for a drink. It’s a release for me.
“If I get took off I’m raging, I’m ready to have a go at Tony. When I go out onto that pitch I’m doing anything to win the game. If my da’s on the other team, I’m busting him if it means we win. I want to win.”
“We’re all over 40 years of age but see getting a score… You’re like a child again. (Italics)
THE competitive sporting drive doesn’t just evaporate when your boots begin their journey to the bin via stop-offs under the stairs and in the garden shed. It needs a release and many men miss the camaraderie of the dressing room without even realising it.
“You don’t know how much you miss football until you finish,” said Michael (not his real name).
“I never thought I’d kick a ball again and now I’m in there with boys I played against for years and we’re out as a team, team-mates socialising together and it’s brilliant mentally for the lads.
“I know things about boys I never thought I’d know about and I’ve spoke about things I never told anybody else. I’ve noticed over the last couple of years that men are starting to talk to each other, opening up instead of bottling things up.
“I have a wee lad and I scored a goal in a game– it was the first goal I’d scored in 15 or 20 years – I went over to him after: ‘What did you think of that?’ You get a bit of craic in the house about it all.”
“Apart from my son, football would be the be-all and end-all.” (Italics)
THE big man had played football for 30 years from primary school to senior level for his club and county. He thought that retirement meant the door closed and there was nothing else but old age and an expanding waist. Playing for the Masters gave him the incentive to get fit again.
“I’ve lost two and-a-half stone from last year,” he says.
“I’ve met boys I hadn’t seen for 15 years and made new friends. It’s good craic, a bit of banter and slagging and it keeps you ticking over at the football.
“Personally, once the football was over there was nothing else for me. I tried to play golf but it wasn’t the same.
“One of our players texted me last Saturday. ‘You seem a wee bit low. Did anybody say anything to you at the football? If it’s personal, tell me to bugger off.’
“I didn’t think it was noticeable, I thought I was still my bubbly self, I was having a bit of craic but he picked up on it.”
“Nine of us turned up the first night against Antrim and we have a 40-man squad now” (Italics)
WHEN the idea of a Down Masters team was first put out there Dan (not his real name) was all over it. He was one of nine men who turned up for a game against Antrim. The Saffrons lent them a few players, the ball was thrown-in and now Down could probably field a reserve team too.
“It’s routine, that’s the first thing,” he said.
“You’re out training one night and you’ve something to look forward to at the weekend.
“It keeps you active and sport has always been my thing. Even if it’s coaching or working with the club… The GAA is great for that and to get back into it pulls everybody together again and gets you that bit of craic that you miss.
“I’ve gone through dips in life and been really, really low. I’ve been having counselling and that chat – whether it’s about your personal situation or a boxing match or whatever – means everything.
“We have a 40-man squad now. There are boys taking the huff today because they didn’t get on but that’s good because people will have to fight for their places and that gives it a bit of a spark.”
“When you’re young you have the talent but you don’t use it.” (Italics)
HE’S still fresh-faced for 40 but he gave up competitive football before he got near his peak. Partying took over and he has grabbed this second chance to play the game.
“I quit when I was 23,” he says.
“I came back and started playing thirds football.
“I went to the gym and the manager of Burren mistook me for my younger brother. He says: ‘We need you for a match’. I hadn’t played football for years but I went and I’ve been playing since.
“I got player of the year for the second year and then I heard about this and away I went. It’s good craic.
“When I was young I never missed training but at the weekends I was too fond of the drink. I enjoyed myself but you wise up then and realise you wasted your talent. When you’re young you have the talent but you don’t use it.”
After a good game of football, then a drink and a sandwich with dirty knees in the pub they headed off home with smiles on their faces.
The Down Masters are meeting their issues, on the field and off it, head on so this is a success story. The message is straightforward for men over 40: Whether it’s GAA, or soccer, a fitness class, a walk or whatever – get out and give it a go.
It’s nice to get the call-up but you don’t have to wait for it.