One of the most interesting things about sport is how notions get stuck inside people’s heads and refuse to shift, regardless of the evidence available. A great example of this is the notion that the GAA is now ‘No Country For Old Men’.
By this analysis, the average age of players who play Gaelic games at inter-county level seems to continue to fall and fall. Usually, the analysis is underpinned with reference to the extraordinary sacrifices now being made by inter-county players, and usually surfaces around the retirement of celebrated players.
This is particularly the case when a player is a stellar talent who slips into retirement when there would appear to have been much more in the tank. Sometimes the retirements are drawn by injury (Richie Power being a case in point), or by a decision to do other things (another brilliant Kilkenny hurler, Cha Fitzpatrick, springs to mind.)
The chief executive of the GPA, Dessie Farrell, has noted what he believes is the decline in the number of players in their 30s playing at inter-county level. The All-Ireland championship, he said, could soon be “an U23 competition. There is a lot of experience, talent and wisdom being lost to the game”.
The extension of this logic is that there was once a time when it was somehow much different.
But when exactly was that time?
It has always been commonplace in society to consider that what we do now is more hectic, faster, somehow more crowded than at any time in the past.
In this instance, it is reflected in the notion the challenges facing modern players are somehow greater and, by consequence, they are being pushed to stop playing in ways that previous generations weren’t.
But it doesn’t wash. What it reflects, instead, is the fact the sporting world is filled with nostalgia, expressions of loss and longing for a past, some mythical ‘golden era’.
The reality is a little different.
A brilliant study of the ages of 332 players, who played at inter-county level in hurling and Gaelic in the years between 1886 and 1905, has been undertaken by Tom Hunt.
Hunt trawled painstakingly through census returns, manuscripts and other sources such as club histories.
In the course of this, he came across some extraordinary stories. There was, for example, Tom Healy, who played in the 1887 All-Ireland hurling final and scored the winning goal for Tipperary (who were represented by their champion team, Thurles).
Leap forward to the Twomileborris team that won the Tipperary championship of 1900; Healy was then 39 years of age.
The last days of Healy’s career came during the most successful time in the history of Tipperary GAA when they won five All-Ireland senior hurling titles and two All-Ireland senior football titles.
Another of the players from those years was Denis Walsh. He ended up with a total of five All-Ireland medals won over a 21-year period (the last when he was almost 40).
Ageing players was not a phenomenon restricted to Tipperary, of course. The Blackwater team who won Leinster championships for Wexford at the time were recorded as having two players who were 40 on their team.
The thing is that these men were entirely the exception.
Of the 332 men who were covered in Tom Hunt’s study, just 21 players were older than 30 years of age (that amounts to just 6.3% the total number of players).
The great bulk of players were in their 20s — these amounted to some 207 players (62.4%).
A further 104 players were 20 and under (31.3%).
There were other interesting aspects to the study:
1. Players tended to retire from football earlier than hurling. The rules for football had been tidied up - meaning, among other things, wrestling on the pitch while the game continued around you was no longer officially within the rules. But the game remained intensely physical and this may have encouraged men to retire more early from football. Getting injured was one thing when single, but entirely another when there was a family to provide. This was particularly the case in a time before state or organisational insurance-based income support.
2. The players who played both games were almost always single.
When reading Hunt’s work, perhaps the most fascinating piece of information was that the average age of players who played in these years was 23.2 years.
By the way, the GAA was not unique in this: a study of 55 Belfast soccer players in 1901 showed only seven were more than 25 years old and the average age of all the players was just 22.7 years.
So where does the perception of hordes of players playing into their dotage in a mythical past come from? Some of it must come from celebrated stars of the game such as the Down football Mickey Linden who played in an Ulster final at 39 years of age and was still playing Ulster club championship football at 45.
It also comes from the manner in which hugely successful teams age together. Modern examples of this would be the Tyrone hurlers and the Kilkenny footballers, many of whom played on into their 30s.
The idea of teams ageing together is not new. It was already clear more than 100 years ago. The great Tubberadora team that won Tipperary championships — and then went on to win All-Irelands representing Tipperary — in 1895, 1896 and 1898 is a prime example.
Drawn from just a couple of households, this was a fabled team whose fame transcends the decades. Such was their sense of themselves that they retired undefeated from competition after the 1898 All-Ireland Final on the premise that, like Alexander the Great, they had no known worlds left to conquer.
And their average age?
It was just 22 years in 1895, but by 1898 it had climbed all the way up to 24.5. Gaelic games at the highest level — ever and always games for young men.
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