It’s Thursday night in early January and the rain is lashing down on a small group of Copany Rovers players who are back in training after the Christmas break.
The numbers aren’t great. The team went into Christmas bottom of the CT Ball Division Two of the Donegal League with only one point for their efforts from a possible 30.
After an hour and a half of football on the astro-turf facility of Four Masters GAA club, the players say their goodbyes. Next up on Sunday is a home game against promotion-chasing Eany Celtic.
It’s not easy playing for a club where getting a team together for a Sunday is almost a weekly challenge. But Thomas Given wouldn’t have it any other way.
At 46, he’s one of the oldest players still turning out in the Donegal League. And when it comes to loyalty to his home club, his record will surely never be matched.
Thomas has lined out for Copany Rovers in every single season that they’ve played in the Donegal League. Of those 29 seasons, he has scored in 27.
Indeed his overall scoring record for Copany is pretty impressive. Going into last Sunday’s game with Eany, he’d scored 153 goals in his career. He now stands only four short of Copany great Francie Johnston’s record of 157.
“I enjoy staying fit and I just love playing football,” Thomas pointed out.
“Even out there the other night at training, it was pissing the rain on us. But just to get out there and kick a ball, you have to be grateful for it.”
Thomas made his debut for Copany Rovers in the Donegal League back in 1988 as a 17-year-old. Over the years, he has experienced the ups and downs of a club which at times has struggled to survive, but has always played such an important part in the fabric of the local community.
The club has always put a strong emphasis on its underage structure and Copany have teams playing in the South Donegal Schoolboys League from U-8 up to U-16 level. Not surprisingly, Thomas is involved in underage coaching and his wife Georgina even washes some of the underage team kits.
The Givens live at Golard and the family home overlooks Copany’s Killowen Park. Thomas and Georgina have three sons, Gary 14, Luke 11 and Darren 7.
“Gary said to me last week, ‘Daddy, is there any chance you could play for a couple more seasons so that we can play in the same team’. He was playing with the U-14s and is up to the U-16s now.”
Thomas has given little thought to hanging up the boots just yet. Next year will mark his 30th season playing in the Donegal League which will be a major milestone. He probably hasn’t ruled out playing until he’s 50.
“I’m still enjoying it and I’m still in good shape,” he said. “I’ll take it one season at a time.”
Thomas penned a lovely article for a special commemorative publication in 2013 which marked Copany Rovers’ 25 years in the Donegal League. He spoke of his pride at being club captain that season and recalled some of the memorable league successes enjoyed by Copany, including the league win in 1990/91 when they went the entire season unbeaten.
At the celebrations afterwards, “The cup did the rounds and ended up with Terence Kilpatrick who finished it off, slammed it down on the counter and shouted ‘the same again’.”
They were good times, and there were plenty more memorable days. Thomas has made many friends in the game, not just his team-mates and club members who did so much over the years for Copany, but across the county too. He recalls training with Letterkenny Rovers when he was at college in the town and still has great time for Rovers stalwart Michael Duffy.
He mentions Vinny McGroary, a former striker with Donegal Town, with fondness and remembers playing against Jessie Purtell from Letterkenny - “a class player”.
The best player he came up against? “I’d have to say, Seamie Cannon of Eany Celtic. He scored a hat-trick on me one day when I was playing at the back. He was brilliant, he could score goals for fun.”
Thomas played the majority of his career in midfield. These days, he lines out as a striker and continues to be an important player for the team.
Copany might be struggling at the bottom of the table, but their veteran forward refuses to look at the glass half empty.
“We’ve been competitive, there have been no great hammerings,” he pointed out. The players are good enough, if we could put in the effort. But we’re missing five or six players to gaelic and they would help you if you had them.
He added: “At times it’s not easy, but it’s still nice to play football with the young fellows.
“You’re trying to bring them on. They are good young fellows and there’s good football in them. It’s nice to be able to help them along.”
Footballer, marathon runner and fundraiser
Even though he turned 46 after Christmas, Thomas Given remains in pretty good shape.
He puts his fitness down to plenty of training and watching his diet.
Away from the football, he enjoys running and has completed four marathons (he finished the Dublin Marathon in 3.30.59 back in 2008).
“I was kicking myself because I didn’t break 3.30,” he said. A trip to the capital in October for a crack at breaking 3.30 is now on the cards.
Just to prove that he doesn’t mind a challenge, Thomas and his friend, Joe Coyle from Mountcharles took part in a unique 3-day event last year to raise funds for Pieta House North West.
On Day 1, the pair cycled from Mountcharles to Burtonport. Day 2 saw them walk the islands of Arranmore, Gola and Tory before they overnighted in Downings.
From there, Day 3 saw them walk for 24 hours from Downings back to Mountcharles.
“It was an incredible experience, an amazing few days,” Thomas said.
The sudden passing of former Copany Rovers player, Aaron Scott, in December 2012, left a massive void within the club. Thomas chose to remember his friend and former team-mate by raising some much needed funds for Pieta House and along with Joe Coyle, they collected an incredible €54,000.