ONE of the small tragedies of childhood is the day you realise you’re never going to be anywhere near good enough to be a superstar footballer.
A similar humdrum catastrophe of middle age, like noticing your hair thinning, is when you realise players far younger than you are retiring.
The latest year to slip by will be remembered for Kerry making fools of us all – or at least this columnist – and Donegal’s victory for the ages against Dublin.
More poignantly, it could be noted the year where it seemed we lost a cruel number of heroes who have made the past 15 years far less dull than they might have been.
Tomas Ó Sé called it quits more than a year ago, but the realisation we would not see that great spirit sprinting forward again only hit home in summer.
The year also brought the standing down of Paul Galvin and Declan O’Sullivan.
Thus we are without one of the greatest warriors to come out of West Kerry, one of the most creative footballers to emerge from South Kerry, and one of the most stubborn men to spring from the north of the county, all of which is saying something.
That would be enough to absorb in one season, but they were only the forerunners in a legion of players now past.
Stephen O’Neill must be ranked a peer of the Kingdom’s timeless trio.
Cork shed almost half of their 2010 champions – none of them will go down as outright greats but their spirit was always above reproach. The Rebels’ abject surrender in Pairc Ui Chaoimh underlined that point.
At least they all departed with a Celtic cross. The year past also brought the curtain down on the careers of Benny Coulter, John Doyle, Barry Owens and Dessie Dolan, men who were left to perform great deeds away from the limelight too often.
At least most of the men mentioned so far were at a reasonable age for a footballer to call it quits, even if O’Sullivan (31) and Coulter (32) showed this summer they would have had plenty still to offer if only their bodies would comply.
More sobering was the news of players still 30 or less who had seen enough.
We do not blink at this phenomenon any more but when research suggests that players in sports from baseball to soccer peak at 27, and when you consider that 14 players have won footballer of the year aged 30 or more, is it not a clear warning signal that the balance of demands on our best players is askew?
Aaron Kernan, 30 years of age, is the most notable of this brigade, and he was joined by compatriot Brian Mallon who is just a year older.
Martin Penrose, to our mind unfairly maligned at times, was 30 when he announced his departure.
Last week James Kavanagh, the mercurial Kildare and Galway forward, hung up his boots at 29 and it was a shock to be reminded that Brian Flanagan, another good Lilywhite gone, is the same age.
Louth’s Paddy Keenan was not yet 30 either and drew plenty of tributes when he called time. Without meaning to offend Keenan, we always though his team-mate Shane Lennon was the more dangerous player.
Maybe we caught Lennon on his best days but Lennon often seemed to us one of the most gifted attackers in the country. It was sad to read of how two hip operations left him unable to train between games. He is 28.
Thirteen months ago, Cork’s Alan O’Connor was also 28 when he retired. Aidan Walsh’s case is different, considering he is hurling’s gain, but it is sobering to think he might have played his last game of inter-county football at age 24.
These men are far from alone and while there is no great sadness when players in their mid-30s go – Brendan McVeigh, Seamus Kenny, Karol Mannion and Damien Sheridan are others in this category – something is rotten when we lose good footballers at a time when they should be barely past peak performance.
It might feel less of a waste if their careers had been filled with football played at the point when the sun is at its highest.
As we pointed out in this column before, however, that is not the case. It took more than twice as long to complete a turkey-shoot of a Leinster championship, with the grand total of 11 games, than it did to run off the soccer World Cup.
That will be the other abiding memory of 2014 – the dire scheduling of the season.
By the end of May, the national league has done plenty to whet our appetite, only for the championship to leave us without meaningful sustenance until August.
It only amplifies the disquiet felt at the risks posed to the long-term wellbeing of players such as Lennon, O’Sullivan and Coulter that they stake so much to play so rarely.
We have seen all too little of all the players listed here. It is too late to hope for anything different in 2015 but beyond that, the GAA must start addressing a schedule that has its roots in the 19th century being applied to serious athletes in the 21st.