By Shaun Casey
TYRONE have led the way and Armagh are about to follow their near neighbours with the creation of an over-40s team to compete in the GAA Masters competition.
The Red Hands are the current back-to-back All-Ireland champions and much as it might pain some wearing orange and white tinted glasses, they are the inspiration behind Armagh’s new venture.
Austin McKenna, born on the Armagh side of the Blackwater river, was a member of the Tyrone panel last season and got an insight into the Masters set up.
He’s brought those ideas and concepts back to his native county and is one of the main driving forces behind Armagh’s new over-40s team.
“I ended up coming into Tyrone halfway through last season. I got a text from the manager asking would I be interested in playing,” said McKenna, who featured against Clare in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final.
“At the start I was thinking, Tyrone? Nah. But then I thought about it and got back to him and ended up going out to train in Garvaghey one night and loved it.
“They were really good training sessions, really competitive, a good standard of football. You had Stephen O’Neill, Conor Gormley and Ciaran Gourley, they were the three big names, but they had a lot of really good club footballers that I wouldn’t have really known.
“The training was class. There were usually at least 30 players so you could get a good in-house game going at the end of every session and the games were really good as well.
“It’s competitive but it was all about numbers at the end of the day. Some would join and some would drift away, and the chairman of the Masters told us you need 45 players signed up before we could join.
“People have commitments, with children and whatever else, so there could have been days where there were maybe 20 players missing for a game, but you still had 20 odd available.
“It was brilliant to be involved but I wanted to play for Armagh, so I started making a few phone calls and talking to different people to see if there was any interest and it just started to gather momentum.
“Ideally, we would want about 40 players and that way you should be covered for a few players missing training or matches due to other commitments.”
McKenna got an insight into the Tyrone set up and while the game is much more relaxed than at inter-county level and even club, there’s still a driving ambition to be the best.
“The warm-ups were brilliant, it was 15 minutes, then into a couple of drills and even if I didn’t play in the games, I definitely enjoyed the training. Even the changing rooms, there’s such a brilliant atmosphere. That was something I really enjoyed, the camaraderie of it all, everyone is on the same wavelength but still wanted to win. Tyrone and Dublin have probably taken it to another level, they’re looking to win it.
“When I pulled the Tyrone jersey on and we were all sitting in the changing rooms, it didn’t really occur to me that it was over-40s, it just felt like we were going out for a championship game. We played in a couple of county grounds as well and some of the games were being videoed, I really enjoyed it.
“From what I can saw, the first year is probably the year to really go at it when the buzz is there, and everyone is really into it.
“Kerry only entered last year, and they lost to Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final by a point.
“Tyrone beat Dublin by a point then in the final so Kerry were that close after just entering so hopefully we can do something similar. Even to play Tyrone in a big knockout game would be massive.”
It all started for McKenna during a conversation with former Pearse Óg midfielder, and current Grange manage,r Chris Rafferty, that sparked the idea of bringing masters football to the Orchard County.
“We had an underage tournament one day and Chris Rafferty was down, the Ógs were playing An Port Mór and we got chatting. His father-in-law is on the Armagh County Board so that was someone that could go straight to Armagh and get an answer.
“Brian McGeary (Collegeland), I spoke to him about it and the three of us sort of got together and organised a training session one night and tried to spread the word. Ten showed up that night and we just took it from there.
“We had to get a committee together to get us registered for this year so now the interest is just flying.
“There are 40 players in the WhatsApp group and that’s mostly mid-Armagh.
“The plan will be, once we get up and running and the season starts, we might play a few of the clubs’ reserves teams or maybe a few junior teams, just games around the county against different clubs. I think that should be handily enough done.
“We’re open to all players, anyone who turns 40 this year is eligible to play. We train in Sherry’s Field on a Wednesday night, and it’ll only be once a week for the next while.
“We’re training in Sherry’s Field for now because it’s central and we’d hope to get on the grass at some stage as well, we’re on the 3G at the minute. But that’s the problem at this stage because most of the club pitches are closed at this time of year.
“What Tyrone done, any of the pitch openings would have been Tyrone over-40s against whoever, so any real excuse to get the team in and play some games.
“When Armagh play Roscommon (in the National Football League towards the end of February), maybe we could get a challenge game with Roscommon’s over-40 team on the Saturday or something, that could be an idea.
“We’d be trying to feed into the buzz in the county because there’s a deadly buzz at the minute.
“My two young lads, when I was a child, I’d have wanted the Man United strip or whatever but now the soccer strips are at the back and all the young ones want is the Armagh gear.”
It’s almost 20 years since Armagh won their first and only u-21 All-Ireland title and McKenna hopes that a number of those players may join the panel, including the captain of the team and current Armagh coach Ciaran McKeever.
“That Armagh u-21 team, they should be chomping at the bit. Ideally, it’s the players that have only recently retired from playing, it would be very difficult for someone who retired a few years ago to just jump straight back into it.
“With Tyrone, I thought it would have been mostly 39 and 40-year-olds but it wasn’t, their team was really from 49-year-olds down and I’d say the majority of their team was between 43 and 49-years of age. But the lads that were that age were flying, you need a couple of them because they can mark the other teams main men.”
It’s an exciting prospect for the Orchard County, with the Masters league set to begin in April time. There’s still the hope of getting more players on board and a manager as well, but for the meantime, McKenna and his team are building nicely.