Brendan Crossan: Age is just a number to some club players still pursuing excellence

Cargin’s Kieran Close celebrates with his family after last Sunday's epic penalty shoot-out win over Naomh Conaill Picture Mark Marlow
Cargin’s Kieran Close celebrates with his family after last Sunday's epic penalty shoot-out win over Naomh Conaill Picture Mark Marlow Cargin’s Kieran Close celebrates with his family after last Sunday's epic penalty shoot-out win over Naomh Conaill Picture Mark Marlow

WHILE there are many pros and cons to the GAA’s split season and perhaps a few nips and tucks required going forward, there is something in it for everyone.

It’s absolutely true there is no place to rival Croke Park in summer time – the Galway and Armagh footballers and the Kilkenny and Limerick hurlers spring to mind – but there is still a wonderful romance about a rainy November day in Brewster Park watching an Ulster Junior Football Championship match where there's oceans of space in the carpark and press box and the Sunday traffic can go about its business.

Before the split season was conceived never in a million years could the Irish News have afforded to send a staff reporter to a Junior Championship quarter-final.

The inter-county season was the kind of monster whose tentacles had reached and taken a firm grip of every sports department’s senses.

We all got carried away a bit with McKenna Cups, McGrath Cups, O’Byrne Cups, Kehoe Cups – we even got carried away with the crucial significance of the pre-Christmas O Fiaidh Cup and the lofty ramifications it could have on the destination of the Anglo-Celt Cup and Sam Maguire.

In some ways, we should be thankful to the split season for secularising pre-season competitions.

The great thing about going to different grounds in November is you never know who you’ll bump into.

Granted, I never gave it much thought before but I never expected to see Ryan Carson on a football field again until I surveyed the Newtownbutler team-sheet for their provincial tie with Pearse’s of Belfast with the former Fermanagh forward wearing number 14.

For a couple of seasons during the ‘Noughties’, Carson was a trusted foot soldier of Malachy O’Rourke’s when he was in charge of the Erne footballers.

Through the rain and sodden pitch, Carson’s gait was unmistakable. Slightly hunched shoulders, now bald, his left foot remains as cultured as I remember it to be in and around 2008 and ’09.

Maybe it was something to do with his ungainly running style, but he looked the oldest guy on the pitch that day. And also the best.

Before throw-in, you wondered what this 41-year-old version could contribute to the game in 2022.

Everything, as it happens.

Carson hit 2-3 from play before half-time. He’d ruined Pearse’s day before they’d even broken sweat. His economy of movement, spatial awareness, shooting accuracy and composure in front of goal were the undisputed highlights of the opening half hour.

Carson’s second goal was a thing of a beauty. It was one of those situations where the forward had time to do absolutely anything he wanted with the ball. Just sometimes in those circumstances that same forward can be caught in two minds and their composure can slip.

Carson saw Niall Largey advancing, and with the deftest of touches, the Newtownbutler veteran dinked the ball over the Pearse’s keeper and into the net.

If Messi dinks the ball to the net in Qatar this month, it’ll go viral.

But Carson’s finish was on a rainy November day at Brewster Park in front of a few hundred hard-bitten souls from north Belfast and the Fermanagh village.

Once you reconcile the fact that some of the football on view isn’t of elite inter-county standard, you will be enthralled by so many aspects of the club scene.

The split season gives more space to rainy days like Brewster – and there’s still pride of place in club football for players in their mid-to-late 30s, and in Carson’s case, early 40s.

Because, for the last few months and charting the club championship scene, a lot of the best players in games I’ve covered have been those of a more experienced vintage.

Eoin ‘Skinner’ Bradley has always been a freakish talent – a truly brilliant forward in both Gaelic football and soccer.

In Derry’s Intermediate final against Drumsurn a couple of weeks ago, he hit 0-4 to help Glenullin win their first championship in 15 years.

The previous day, he was leading the line for Irish Premiership side Glenavon and scoring in their 4-2 win over Carrick Rangers.

Bradley is 38 and is still producing age-defying performances when many of his peers are nursing hip, knee and back injuries in painful retirement.

Later that afternoon at Celtic Park, Slaughtneil’s Patsy Bradley, now in the twilight of his career, raged against the dying of the light against Glen.

It seems an age ago a fresh-faced Paul Finlay was slinging over eight points and seeing off defending All-Ireland champions Armagh in an unforgettable Ulster Championship clash at Clones in 2003.

Fast-forward 19 years and the former Monaghan playmaker was pulling strings for Ballybay and running the show against Crossmaglen Rangers in the Ulster series.

Everywhere you look, there are evergreen artisans still wooing the crowd behind the wire and doing things with a size 5 O’Neill’s football or a sloitar and hurl their younger team-mates can only dream about.

Another case-study of ageless excellence is Dunloy hurler Paul ‘Shorty’ Shiels.

Very few hear about the surgeries, the endless hours of rehab and prehab, the boring hours of foam-rolling, stretching those aching muscles an extra centimetre just so they can produce another archive and make retirement that bit more palatable.

'Shorty' has been there, and is still producing brilliance from his back catalogue.

Last Sunday, Cargin won their first Ulster match since 1999. They achieved this magnificent victory over Naomh Conaill of Donegal with a generous sprinkling of men deep in their 30s – 40, if you’re Kieran Close.

Over the past few seasons, the Cargin attacker has intervened to win numerous championship matches. He mightn't play a full hour these days but Close has never been more relevant.

Ronan Devlin threw him into the action after 51 minutes of their provincial quarter-final at Corrigan Park.

Close left the field with 1-1 against his name and was a big reason why the Antrim champions are going deeper into this year’s Ulster series.

Cargin’s warrior spirit is epitomised by the likes of Tomas McCann, Mick McCann, Gerard McCann, James Laverty, Kevin O’Boyle and Justin Crozier – all card-carrying members of the 30-club.

It’s only when the younger members of these high-achieving squads reach that age that they’ll fully appreciate the epic lengths these men go to.

The inter-county scene gets younger and younger with each passing year and the brain drain continues.

But the cerebral footballer or hurler or camogie player who is willing to put his or her body through the mill to extend their playing careers will always be welcomed with open arms by the club, where the gains are there for all to see.