AT the start of this season, Newcastle man Ray Kendall met with the man he calls Mr Tollymore, Andy Hall, to talk about the year ahead. The question that Ray asks at the start of every season is should he continue playing for the junior club. He’s now 61: many of his contemporaries hung their boots up long ago. “I have gone out and played against sons of people I have played with. It is a wee bit strange.” But Ray says he is keen to play, and this year Andy Hall yet again told Ray he wanted him to continue playing for Tollymore. “He says basically he will tell me when I can quit. “My problem is that I love it. “You need to love the game (to keep on playing in your sixties). You have to want to go out and play in the rain.” So how is it that a 61-year-old footballer still manages to turn out and compete in junior football? Ray has his own personal training regime. “My training is based on doing 5k runs in Donard Park on my own.” “I don’t always train at Tollymore, Andy Hall gives me free rein to do my runs, or play with the veterans (Ray plays for the Northern Ireland Veterans team) and still he puts me on.”
Ray came to realise that the best approach for him to avoid any serious injury was to limit the full contact football to actual game time. He said: “You have to find a way to keep a level of fitness. “When I go to pre-season I try to train. That’s where I went wrong last year. I went to pre-season and I tore my knee and had to get the knee repaired. “I put more effort in than I should have. I wasn’t using my head. When you are training with the 18 to 20 year olds you can’t compete with them. I was trying to. You make silly mistakes.” Despite that injury, Ray is back playing this season and is fit and well. “I am more often in defence because I can win more with my head than by running. “I go on the field and I look for the speed merchants, and they look at me and they think it is in their best interests to play against me because they can get past me. “I’ve always got a few goals in me. Andy says I never score a bad goal. I always hit shots from outside the box. Or chips from 35 yards. I don’t need to go too far up the pitch to score. “When I do score one they look quite impressive. It might be the one good moment in the match. It is worth being on for that one moment.” In his 40-plus years he has learned a number of ways to make sure that he can compete being older than opponents. He’s learnt a lot from playing veterans’ football for Northern Ireland.
Ray said: “I have learned how to take ice baths. “When we play weekend tournaments (which means two or three games in one weekend for the players) we try to do something so that we can go out and play the next day. “Dessie Edgar will buy a bag of ice and fill a bath and we will all get in. Or we will go to the sauna. “Northern Ireland are also renowned for using Uddermint. It is like Deep Heat. When you come into our changing rooms, it would take the eyes out of you because it is really strong. “Every time anyone plays us – the English or Welsh – they come into our changing room and they groan because of the smell. But it helps with muscles and pain relief. “We use it quite a lot. It is an experience to be had.” He explained that he has had to go under the knife for a knee injury. “I had my right knee done in June of this year. I have been waiting since 2016 to get it done. But now my left knee is giving me gyp so I am going for a scan on it.” Perhaps one of the most important elements is support at home. “My wife is very considerate and is a great supporter. “Karen gives me that free space. She knows that I will come back from playing football and I will be ready to do what needs to be done at home.” So the explanation for how the 61- year-old can still compete on the pitch is clear, but perhaps the question ‘Why?’ is more important.
Is it simply the love of the game that would make Ray endure ice baths and the loneliness of solitary long distance runs? He said: “People ask me what keeps me playing, and why I still stick at it. I work in a stressful job, playing football is a de-stresser. It improves my mental health. Running around chasing the ball, even when you don’t catch it, is still of benefit. It helps destress. You do need some sort of activity or sport.” De-stressing is one reason but based on what Ray says football is more important to him now than it has ever been. “I play more football now than I did when I was in my 30s and 40s.
I never envisaged that I would still be doing this now.” So, can it only be about stress? A deeper look at Ray’s life suggests that he is rooted in the local game. “Growing up I was always told by everyone locally that if I was half as good as my dad I would be an alright player. My dad played junior football for Newcastle. “He won a junior shield with Moneydarragh and played for Portadown. “From the very beginning I felt that I had a lot to live up to. “I managed to get his genes, and the interest was there that he had.” So growing up, Ray’s family life revolved around football.
He has two brothers and they spent every waking moment playing the game. Sometimes, according to Ray, when he should have been doing other things. He tells the story of how he would spend school days playing football at primary school. He said: “A couple of years later my mum went to school to a parent teacher meeting. My brother was due to do his 11-plus. “My mother was told that there are after school 11-plus lessons. She said: ‘It is a pity that our Ray didn’t get an opportunity to do those for his 11- plus.’ “Of course, they let me down and told her that they were there when I was present, but that I had chosen to go outside and play football. “I did get rebuked that evening when she came home because I didn’t let on that there were after school lessons.”
It didn’t seem to bother Ray. He loved football and dreamed of playing professionally like his hero George Best. Ray remembers the one and only time that he saw the great Manchester United and Northern Ireland player line out at Windsor Park. “I was at the game that he played against England at Windsor Park. “My father brought me. It was my first time at a live match. It was brilliant. “I was right behind the goal, where ‘the goal that never was’ happened, when Gordon Banks saved. We all thought it was a goal. “The fact that we were right behind the goal was great. I was quite small. I remember jumping up and down when he scored it.
Then we were disappointed when the goal was ruled out.” Ray said the atmosphere was hard to believe. “You felt the presence of all those people, all wanting the same thing. That is to watch their team and hoping that they win.” It was an intoxicating experience for a young player who felt like he was on the start of his own sporting journey.
MEMORIES His experience was rooted in the local game, and his earliest memories were of playing in the old Newcastle youth leagues. “The old Newcastle Youth Leagues were about in the 1970s. You had Tullybrannigan, Ballaghbeg, Dunwellan who took part in a competition over the summer. “All the local guys played against each other. I played for Tullybrannigan, and they did fairly well. I got to play with footballers who are fairly well known. Scott McCaughey, Bob Smart and Brendan O’Hare. Those people were all in the Newcastle set up. We all played together and developed a friendship during that league. “There used to be summer festivals in Newcastle. All the teams took part in the Looney Moon festival.
All the teams had to be represented. I was one of the ones who held the plaque for Tullybrannigan going up the main street that day.” That tournament was particularly important for Ray because it set in motion his journey to getting involved with Linfield. Tom McWort was the manager of Tullybrannigan but also a local scout. He was able to put Linfield on to Ray after that tournament, and Ray signed for the Blues. Ray said it was an exciting time: “At that point I felt that I was at my best, and I had aspirations and was thinking about whether I could be a footballer, as you would. Not only being asked to go up the road to play for an Irish League team.” Ray had to go and train at Windsor Park every Tuesday. He’d get a bus from Newcastle to the Donegall Pass in Belfast, then walk from there to Windsor Park.
Then in the evening after training Tom McWort would come and collect him. “What they did was to put me into Roy Coyle’s office, I stayed in there every Tuesday while he carried out his business. It was a bit surreal. I used to sit there and watch what he was doing and then Tom McWort would come and collect me.” It was an odd experience but a compelling one for Ray. “I pursued it because I wanted to be part of it. We trained in the same place as the first team and everyone went into the changing room with the first team. If I was not the youngest I was one of the youngest. I felt a wee bit like I was on my own, coming from the country.”
But any hope of a bigger career in football did not pan out because Ray and his family felt that the challenges were too great. “Being 15 it was coming up to the time when I was to start doing my exams. “There were difficult aspects because there were the Troubles rising around Donegall Pass, I was communicating those to my mum. There was always great apprehension getting off the bus.” Ray said he has mixed emotions about the experience. He was at the mercy of circumstances. “At that stage when I was 15 I was at my best. I was winning with teams I was playing with in the local league. “I had some skills but I don’t know if they were standout skills. I am always described as the quiet man, and Mr Consistency because I always give the same level of performance. I am also described as someone with a good footballing brain, but what does that mean? “I am a fairly average player. I have had the opportunity to play with people I admire.
I enjoy the game to the point where I am still able to play the game longer than I thought I would. I may not have got anywhere with Linfield.” In his late teens, after the Linfield experience, Ray played for a number of teams. He was with Annalong, Maghera and Newcastle. When he went to do his nursing training in Dundonald in 1982 he took a break from football, partly because he didn’t drive. But, in another illustration of the hold that football has over Ray, he returned to action. “In my second year of nursing I suddenly went back to football. “I used to work a split shift. I used to work to one, get a lift and went and played, then came back into work for quarter past five and then went back on duty. I did that off and on for a while. I was younger then and I didn’t feel like it was a challenge. I couldn’t do it now.” So back in the game, he soon made a connection with Tollymore, the club which he is connected to to this very day. Andy Hall was his lead-in. Ray has known Andy since they were 11 and ran into each other on the playing field of the youth leagues. Andy was one of those who welcomed Ray into the club.
Ray has played on every winning team that Tollymore had from 1993 to 2004. There was one cup that stood out. Ray said: “Just before the millennium, in 1999, we won the Bobby Dalzell Cup. I was 39. I got one of the winning goals in the final. “That was surreal because I used to live next door to Bobby Dalzell when I was growing up. Up until I was 13 I was his neighbour.
On occasion he would have been kicking the ball with me in the street. So it was surreal for me to lift the cup in 1999 after he had died. “I kind of wanted to win it. It had an added importance.” As the noughties wore on, Ray was in his 40s and perhaps thinking about where his playing career was going. In 2010 he and a few other local players were approached by Mark Hughes and asked to play for the Northern Ireland Veterans. Ray was interested straight away. “I was over 45 and I was playing, so I suited. I got asked to play. It was nice because there were guys that I had played along with at youth level. There was a guy Angus McCulloch who had played against me for years. “We lined out against England in the first game in 2010, and we drew 1- 1. It was over-45s. That was the start of the veterans in Northern Ireland. It has been ongoing from that day till now.” At that stage, Northern Ireland did not have a representation at the veterans tournaments that happen most years.
OCCASION On that first occasion the team was mostly made up of players from South Down, who played in the Amateur League. Twelve years on and Northern Ireland are a force at the tournament every year. Ray said: “Northern Ireland has won it the most. Northern Ireland won four out of the first five veterans’ tournaments. “There is very little recognition for it, but we don’t play for recognition. We play for the joy of playing football. The only thing that matters when playing for Northern Ireland is that when you go onto the pitch and you give 100 per cent. We are a mixed bag of different levels of skills.” For Ray, the veterans gave him a new lease of life. “Having played most of my football in junior football, I am now playing against guys who were all Irish League players, or some were even English league players. Some of the Scotland players we play against played for Rangers, so we are getting an opportunity to play against players who have played at a high level. “I played in Cardiff’s stadium. When Cardiff were promoted to the Premier League, we played in their stadium that year. “We played in Kilmarnock’s ground. You get to play in venues that are, well, different than Donard Park. “When we do home internationals the English like to specifically play against Northern Ireland in Donard Park rather than go elsewhere because they like going to the Slieve (Donard hotel) with their wives. It is a nice recommendation that they keep wanting to come back here.” Ray said his proudest moment was when he scored two against England in 2013. In many ways the veterans’ football is one of the main reasons that Ray wants to keep playing. He takes great pride in being part of a team of committed players. “We have some great ambassadors of football for Northern Ireland, like Marty Tabb, Seamus Heath, Des Edgar. “If you talk to the likes of Marty Tabb, he is such a good mentor in terms of how you play the game of football. It is all down to effort. If you all give 100 per cent effort then you will get some results. “Even if you lose, you lose together. “I don’t believe you should ever put your head down. Some young ones do. If they are getting defeated they want to get out. But I like that challenge. I try to lift the intensity. “On some occasions that happens. That is not a rule for all. I would like to see more effort made. “If I train with the veterans there is not one person who doesn’t give 100 per cent. It is so competitive. “The older age group who play at a high level, they win because they never give up.”
WINNING Ray believes that the Northern Ireland veterans’ teams can keep on winning. “Over the ten years of playing there has been a nucleus of us who have been in the over 50s who are now going into the over-60s. We have been the team that has won consistently. “In the last tournament for the over-60s we beat England 8-0. It didn’t get the publicity. I don’t think they even put it on their web site. Though to be fair they did have a few Covid issues.” The veterans also provides a clue to the goal that Ray has set for himself. “England have an over-70s team. I am still playing and I am 61 and a bit. So you can see where I am going with this. “I just want to keep going.” So how long can he keep going? He thinks as long as he retains his training regime then he can reach that goal of playing till he is 70. “I do feel I have a few more years in me now that I have the right knee done. “Every game is a bonus. I don’t take anything for granted. I understand that I may have an issue medically or otherwise.” He points out that there are more overage players in the leagues than we might think. He mentioned players such as Angus McCullough and Alan McConnell who are still lining out for their clubs. “You see familiar faces that you have been up against. They win some years, you win some years. But there is that camaraderie. We always shake hands. He is a similar person to me in that he always gives 100 per cent.”
LATER He says that more players should try to play into their later years. “Hopefully more will join us (playing into their 60s). “My encouragement would be that more should do it. It is actually very good for your head and wellbeing. “Your mental wellbeing is part of the big picture.” He just has the one proviso. “One thing is that I don’t want to play if there is a young player on the side line (for Tollymore). Quite often I fill a gap when they don’t have someone. “I always used to say, if I was too slow and I was making bad challenges and hurting people then I wouldn’t play. But that hasn’t happened. To date I only have had two bookings. They were for hand ball.” But he thinks that he will know when the time to stop arrives “I think it is important to play fair. If I was starting to give bookings away or injure someone then that would be the sign to hang up the boots. “So far I have been lucky.” And if he doesn’t realise it he knows who will tell him. “Andy Hall will tell me when it is time to go. I will wait till he tells me. “I won’t be knocked out (surprised or hurt). I’d rather someone tell me.”