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Cahair O'Kane: Cherish players like Muldoon and Moran - they won't be around forever

Derry and Ballinderry legend Enda Muldoon is still going strong at 40. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin.

A FORTNIGHT ago, for maybe the first time ever as a neutral at a football match, I left Owenbeg saddened by the result.

It was nothing to do with the fact that Slaughtneil had won or that Ballinderry had lost in a Derry championship quarter-final.

Rather it was the by-product that for every year the Shamrocks go out, it’s a winter spent living with the fear of not seeing Enda Muldoon playing championship football again.

At the age of 39 (he turned 40 yesterday), he still stood out a mile. There were so many things about his performance. The one-handed catches. The delivery of umpteen gloriously-weighted kick passes. The intelligence to know where to be and what to do at all times.

But what most impressed was his boundless energy. Marked by Chrissy McKaigue, he pulled the Derry captain, a superb athlete, a former professional no less, from wing to wing on kickouts.

Ten minutes from time of an absorbing battle, there he was setting off from the middle of the pitch to head for the terrace side, giving Ben McKinless an option.

With the Shamrocks down to 13 men, you’d have expected the pace to catch up on him but Muldoon was the best player on the pitch for the full hour.

Like any Derry man, Muldoon has always been one of my favourite players. Ulster’s answer to Maurice Fitzgerald, it was the apparent effortlessness with which he played.

On days where you’re surrounded by the whirlpools of negativity around Gaelic football now, it’s always a tonic to watch his goal against Galway in 2001.

Gary Coleman gets the ball 45 yards out and Muldoon, at this time a full-forward, hangs back three yards behind Gary Fahy. As the delivery starts its ascent, he manoeuvres his body into position.

Taking the ball in the air on the half-turn is one of the best skills in Gaelic football, and Enda Muldoon was one of the best at it. Muldoon jumped from behind and came down facing the net, his right foot triggered. By the time Fahy realises the ball hasn’t reached his hands, it’s already in the roof of the net.

He was a torment for defences in the 2004 campaign that saw Derry reach another semi-final, burdening the Kerry defence that day in the 20 opening minutes during which the Oak Leafers saw a bit of the ball.

Muldoon had scored a screamer in the quarter-final win over Westmeath as well. And while he played most of his football at midfield from there on, there was always that knowledge that he could be absolutely deadly at full-forward.

When Ballinderry met first-time finalists Kilrea in the 2011 county final, Martin McKinless threw the curveball by sending him straight to the edge of the square.

Inside 43 seconds a long ball dropped in, Muldoon got up and Raymond Wilkinson capitalised. There was never a shred of doubt about the result for the rest of the day.

The year after, it was Slaughtneil in the final. Midfield his berth. Collie Devlin shapes to run and then drops in behind Francis McEldowney. Like a drop shot in tennis, Muldoon gets the backspin right and lands it over McEldowney’s head and into Devlin’s chest from 50 yards away.

“When Enda’s got the ball, you know you can hold your run, hold your run, and then run to where you want to go basically. Because you know he’ll hold it and he knows where you want to go so you’re on the same wavelength,” Devlin said afterwards.

You’d love for there to be some great secret to Muldoon’s longevity but it seems not. He doesn’t do the gym work. Doesn’t do yoga. His job as a Gaelic Games coach for the county board is perfect for him and those benefiting from his wisdom.

At 39, with a fair history of broken bones too, you’d think he would be training six times a week to keep himself in shape but, alas, no. Outside of Ballinderry’s pitch sessions, very little.

The secret is not a secret. Eats well. Drinks little. Trains hard when he trains. A natural greyhound that just loves football.

That tonic wouldn’t work for everyone.

On Sunday in Croke Park another of my favourite players will be on show, potentially (but hopefully not) for the last time.

Andy Moran’s powers looked to be on the wane in 2013. He had recovered from a torn cruciate ligament the previous year but struggled in the All-Ireland final against Dublin. That afternoon seemed to suggest the end was nigh.

Heading to that same stage four years on, he is arguably better than ever. Since he set up a gym in Castlebar two years ago, he has seemingly reversed the irreversible biological clock and is one big game away from being named Footballer of the Year.

He will be 34 in November but his ferocious appetite for work and fitness has enabled his body to continue matching what is clearly one of the most intelligent footballing brains in Ireland.

The cleverness of Moran’s movement is astonishing. When Sky Sports showed the map of his touches in the drawn game against Kerry, it was no surprise that only one of them was outside the scoring zone.

In a straight foot-race, he probably wouldn’t outstrip too many of the country’s best man-markers. But he’s made it a battle of the head instead with his ability to push off either foot and make the ball stick.

The real skill, though, is in the timing of the run. He has it down to the split-second and there are very few, if any, better at it.

Only the best have that ability to adapt and reinvent themselves. Venus Williams began to shorten points and really utilise her power in her later years, resulting in a Wimbledon final appearance this summer at the age of 37.

Michael Jordan completely changed the way he played in the latter part of his career. Ryan Giggs moved from electrifying winger to probing central midfielder.

Tom Brady knew himself at school he was slow but he will retire with just about every NFL passing record it’s possible to go out with.

“When I suck, I’ll retire,” Brady once said.

Take note, Enda.

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