IF you believe even half of what you read then you could be forgiven for thinking that Gaelic football is now a young man’s game.
Secondary school students are now the norm in junior dressing-rooms right across the country and no senior team worth its salt doesn’t have a handful of third-level students in the US during high Summer.
And it’s the same at Intermediate level. A fresh-faced teenager here, a young single male there, and all the while the veterans get shunted towards the exit.
But two men who beg to differ are Martin ‘Ginger’ McLoughlin from Parke and Tony Morley from Ballyhaunis, two hale and hearty midfielders who can’t wait for next Sunday’s semi-final.
GINGER’S BALL Parke’s Martin ‘Ginger’ McLoughlin soars to the skies for the Mayo O40’s against Kerry earlier this year.
Ginger is 42, the memories of his Intermediate Championship win with Parke back in 1983 fading fast. He works five days a week in the construction business from 7.30am to 6.30pm and trains twice a week with some men half his age.
“I’m still enjoying it and my wife Miriam has been really supportive,” he says. “Without her behind me I wouldn’t be still playing. I suppose I keep thinking at this stage that every game will be my last. The training is harder now than when I started, the game is faster, and you have to be so much physically fitter. “I feel I still have an hour in me but, unfortunately, some other people don’t agree!”
McLoughlin did play the full 60 minutes last month when Mayo won the All-Ireland Masters title. He successfully operated as a third midfield in Mullingar as the Dubs were put to the sword.
“The pace of the game was the big difference,” he says of his time with the Over-40s. “Playing alongside someone like Pat Fallon was great and then you have Noel Stagg who is still going like a 20 year old. His secret? It could be the packet of Major he keeps in his top pocket!
“There was a lovely family atmosphere around the place the day we beat Dublin. My wife only had a baby the week before. All the wives and children were taking photographs together and it was a nice way to finish the year.”
Parke have certainly got the rub of the relic this year. Seven points down against Davitts with six minutes remaining, they snatched victory with three late goals. Pat Dunne’s ‘major’ did the trick against Kilmeena.
“We’ve had to dig it out of the bag a few times this year and it’s fair to say that lady luck has really been on our side,” McLoughlin acknowledges. “Hopefully we haven’t used it all up yet. In this Parke team there are no superstars, no big names. We have a small panel of players who all work hard.”
McLoughlin spent time working in England and the US but has been playing “non-stop” with Parke since 1994. He feels they’ve been “underachievers” for much of that time, and is anxious that Parke “make the most” of their semi-final appearance. He’s anxious to play his part in what he expects will be a tough, physical game.
“I’d love to have a crack at Fergal Kelly,” he says. “I’ve had a few battles with him in the past, he’s a big, strong footballer, and I’d love to renew acquaintances again.
“It’s very important for our club to get into the final. We have a lot of young fellas playing now and a few of the older lads might not get the chance to play in a final again.”
Tony Morley will be hoping to disappoint him. According to the former Mayo star (“37 at Christmas”), a place in the last four was something they’ve targeted for a while now.
“I think it’s something for everyone in Ballyhaunis to look forward to,” he said. “We have a lot of young guys who have never been involved in a county semi-final before and so it’s a new experience for them.
“I think at the start of the year this is what we were working towards. We have a few lads around the 30 mark that have a lot of experience and they won’t be around forever.”
Like McLoughlin, Morley suggests that his side have “underachieved in recent years”. This year has been about turning “a good team to paper” to one that’s successful on grass. Having come through a group which included Mayo Gaels, Kilmaine and Tourmakeady, they got the better of local rivals Aghamore in the quarter-final.
“I feel we might have performed better in last year’s championship but got no luck at all,” he says. “Then you take this year and our last game against Aghamore. We looked dead and buried in that game but the lads never gave up, kept playing to the very end, and got that bit of luck that can make the difference.”
Ballyhaunis will be looking to the likes of Keith Higgins, Paul Prenty and John Prenty (just back from injury) to deliver the goods on Sunday. The aforementioned Fergal Kelly is combining his role as manager with playing duties.
“I never imagined that I’d be playing football for Ballyhaunis with Fergal as my manager but I honestly believe that it doesn’t really matter who’s in charge if the attitude of lads is right,” says Morley, who is equally philosophical about the depth of experience in the squad.
“I don’t think it’s any harm top have a few lads knocking around who are long in the tooth. We’re always likely to win a free at the right time and we won’t give the ball away cheaply.
“If I get in I get in,” he concludes. “I might not have the full hour in me anymore. But I’d like to think I have a few more years in me yet. A few of our lads might be contemplating packing it in but we have a lot of young guys coming through.”
Breaffy House Resort Mayo IFC Semi-Final
AT last these two sides come face to face. The epic that was the Ballyhaunis Tooreen Senior hurling semi-final put this game on the back burner but with the County Senior Hurling final now in the rear-view mirror for Ballyhaunis, their dual contingent can switch their focus to the football.
Keith Higgins is, of course, their most significant dual star but players like Christy McCrudden, Derek McConn and Hughie Carney are all key men too.
Fergal Kelly and Tony Morley form an experienced midfield unit while much of the scoring burden will fall to cousins Paul and John Prenty. The latter is just making a return after a shoulder injury.
Parke had made a habit this year of coming through from what have looked like irreversible positions. Seven points down with six minutes to go in their do-or-die group game against Davitts, Tommy O’Boyle’s men completed an amazing turnout to strike 3-1 to 0-2 in the closing stages.
They trailed by two points in injury time against Kilmeena in the quarter-final only for Pat Dunne to snatch victory for them with a late goal. Those results have given Parke a huge momentum.
Simon Cloherty remains their main man but the input of the likes of Anthony Dunne, Michael and Tom Walsh, Kevin and Declan Neary and Richard O’Boyle among others is not to be discounted.
Parke will enter this game, which is doubling up with the sides Division 3 League tie, as underdogs but you can never rule them out. However Ballyhaunis have slightly more about them, especially in attack.
Breaffy House Resort Mayo IFC Semi-Final
Parke v Ballyhaunis
Sunday, October 29, 1.30pm
Referee: Charlie Collins (Lacken).