RICHARD BULLICK: Age is nothing but a number... even in sport

Roy of the Swifts!

Roy Carroll, 43, has joined Dungannon Swifts on a short-term deal.

Richard Bullick

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Richard Bullick

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WHEN Serena Williams was knocked out of the Australian Open tennis this week, there was speculation as to whether this might have been her last appearance at the tournament.

That was fuelled by what was interpreted as a farewell gesture from the 39-year-old as she left court, but she sidestepped the subject during a short and emotional press conference.

The American has had remarkable longevity in the sport and been incredibly dominant for most of an exceptional career but a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title is proving elusive.

Given her advanced years and the lack of fresh success for a while, the debate around retirement is inevitable but the obsession with age must irritate top sportspeople at times.

It can vary between sports but, beyond 30, it feels like there are increased calls for players in teams to be pensioned off in favour of younger alternatives with an eye to the future.

Teams must plan to some degree in terms of, for example, World Cup cycles and refreshing sides is important so an element of future planning is not unreasonable.

Moreover, the sporting shelf-life is a lot shorter than most careers, with a player perhaps losing a little pace, reflexes slowing or a cricket batsman’s eyesight fading slightly.

At elite level, with such small margins, those factors can make a considerable difference, while injuries start taking longer to heal and there may also be an eventual loss of hunger.

However much they love their chosen code, and in spite of an exceptionally competitive nature and strong self-belief, most sportspeople know themselves when it’s time to go.

Our sentimental sense of loss at seeing the greats go is balanced with not wanting to see legacies tarnished by stars hanging around as fading forces long past their best.

That particular affliction in boxing can also leave the old champion open to sustaining lasting damage to their health, but otherwise the stakes aren’t as high in those terms.

Serena Williams and the remarkable Roger Federer have continued to dominate tennis into their late-30s, while two 43-year-olds have hit the headlines local and further afield recently.

The apparently timeless Tom Brady dominated the Super Bowl in American football while former Northern Ireland goalkeeper Roy Carroll returned to action with Dungannon Swifts.

The two warrior captains for the recent Wales against Ireland Six Nations opener, Alun Wyn Jones and Johnny Sexton, are both 35 but their fire burns as bright as ever.

Inevitably Ireland’s loss, although largely down to a first quarter red card, led to knee-jerk demands for everyone over the age of 30 to be binned with an eye to the 2023 World Cup.

Our own Rory Best bore the brunt of similar ageism for long enough before finishing international rugby at 37, but he was still superior to the coach’s other options at that time.

Another local sporting great, Bessbrook’s Caroline O’Hanlon, was asked about her future in a recent interview with a Newry newspaper ahead of netball’s British SuperLeague starting.

Now 36, O’Hanlon has played international netball since 2002 and is set to embark upon a 20th consecutive season for the Armagh gaelic county team when the pandemic permits.

However, she keeps performing strongly, her hunger and drive remain unquestioned and, a medical doctor by profession, Caroline isn’t the only golden oldie in the 2021 SuperLeague.

England’s most capped player of all time, Jade Clarke, has been brilliant so far for the new Leeds Rhinos franchise aged 37 and Kiwi Liana Leota is captaining Severn Stars.

Rachel Dunn, selected for England’s 2019 World Cup squad, is still shooting for Wasps aged 38 and Irene van Dyk only stopped playing for New Zealand the month she turned 42!

Closer to home, Sacred Heart Newry’s Head of PE Bronagh McAfee played alongside O’Hanlon in Larkfield’s NI Premier League-winning team last season at the age of 45.

Former Dublin gaelic footballer Lindsay Peat is set to continue packing down in the front row for Ireland if the delayed women’s Six Nations gets underway next month.

Peat turned 40 in November while ex-Mayo ace Cora Staunton has also recovered from serious injury late in her career to be starring in the AFLW Down Under aged 39.

Ireland had a fairly ill-fated campaign at the 2017 women’s rugby World Cup but one of the few players to hit the heights, literally and metaphorically, was 37-year-old lock Maz Reilly.

James Anderson is still bowling brilliantly for the England cricket team at 38, along with fellow veteran Stuart Broad, while Misbah-ul-Haq captained Pakistan until he was nearly 43.

Football goalkeepers go on longer than most in various codes, from Pat Jennings and Peter Shilton at international level and ex-Irish League legend Mickey Keenan, to Carroll now.

Some outfield players have defied gravity too, notably grandfather Glenn Ferguson, who was a prolific goal-scorer in the Irish League, and Manchester United great Ryan Giggs.

British runner Jo Pavey has excelled at the highest level well into her 40s while Newcastle steeplechaser Kerry O’Flaherty will have a big birthday before the Tokyo Olympics.

Dungannon golfer Darren Clarke finally won his only major aged 42, and we remember American Tom Watson being in real contention to win the 2009 Open Championship at 60!

Two of Northern Ireland’s greatest sportspeople of all time, motorcyclist Joey Dunlop and jockey Tony McCoy, never lost their desire or edge in spite of all they had already achieved.

The same applies to managers, with Roy Hodgson still taking charge of Crystal Palace at 73 during the pandemic in spite of being in the high-risk age group for coronavirus.

When Eamonn Ryan, who passed away recently aged 79, stood down after steering Cork to a 10th All Ireland ladies gaelic title in 2015 it was just to take up a role with the county’s men!

Concluding with gaelic games, a mention must go to Harps goalkeeper Paula Powell Enright who won Player of the Match in last September’s county final just ahead of turning 41.

So let’s hear it for sporting oldies everywhere and, while throwing babies out with bathwater isn’t an age-appropriate term, stop wishing the greats gone before their time!

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