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Sun 05-Jan-2003 22:29
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It could only happen to a Junior Footballer.
In the modern world of the GAA much space and media coverage is devoted to the kings of our sport, those god-like possessors of mental and physical strength, skill and endurance, who grace the green sod of Croke Park with their majestic and decisive presence as summer warms around us…
There’s Fitzgerald, Carey, Giles, Leahy, Tohill, Whelehan, Canavan, Cloonan and Donnellan. Sporting Gods who fill the headlines on the back pages with their latest attempt at deity; an on, (or off) field indiscretion or photos that reveal our heroes cutting through the air ball in hand, their Spartan bodies a testament to years of physical conditioning and denial.
They are household names, faces recognizable almost anywhere in the thirty two counties. They are the heroes to whom our children look for inspiration, the elite of our wonderful games.
Yet they all began on roughly the same level as the rest of us. Into the back of the Master’s Datsun estate on a Saturday morning for coaching down at the park. Endless hand-passing drills, tedious practice of picking the ball up properly and your first attempt at a solo run, more an exercise in ‘catch and kick’ than anything else, as the ball rose high above your head before the loving cradle on the chest. Patiently following the Master’s instructions, awaiting the hallowed call of ‘Right lads, pick two teams!
And then those training games which seemed to last forever, amidst shouts of ‘Pull on it!’, ‘On your chest!’ or ‘Use your toe!’ No video to capture your finest hour, but sure who needed it when you could replay that winning score in your head or against the gable wall for the rest of the week. Great days and great memories. Maurice did it, DJ did it and Trevor did it, just as surely as you or I. And just as surely as the entire cast of our Junior C football squad at home.
Did you ever wonder how it happened? DJ probably got the exact same opportunities at nine years of age as the rest of the lads down in Gowran, yet for every DJ, there’s someone ploughing a lonely furrow at corner back on a Junior C team. These boys will never grace Croke Park, they won’t even get a mention in the Club notes in the local paper, let alone the back page of the Star. Yet they are the heartbeat of the GAA. They are the ones who play it for the sheer hell of it, for the craic, for the beer, for the slagging and often, just so they won’t let the parish down.
A few years ago An tImreoir received an injury before the start of the county football championship. He didn’t play for six months and by the time the new season kicked off, he discovered (to his horror I might add) that he was in fact eligible for the Junior C team for that year’s league. Did we have a Junior C team? Damned if I knew. Anyway, thus it was that on a typically wet and blustery Saturday evening in March your scribe found himself joining the underbelly of the GAA world as he sampled first hand the life of a junior C footballer.
Now there are many types of junior C footballer. At the high end of the scale, there are the young bucks who have just graduated from the U-16 team and are hopeful of promotion to at least the Junior A ranks, while some harbour dreams of a place on the Senior Panel itself. They usually keep to their own corner of the dressing room, tog out in the sponsored togs and socks from the local secondary school, and chat loudly among themselves on topics as varied as Robbie Williams, Friends or who Spots Flanagan is asking to The Debs. They usually play in the forward line, are annoyingly keen and possess a NIKE kitbag which boasts of hair gel, deodorant, flip flops and a freshly washed towel.
At the middle end of the age scale, there are three distinct groups. Group one still live in the area and are not particularly well possessed of the finer footballing skills. Opportunities for enhancement were severely curtailed by their decision to make the farm first love and football second. Quiet but amiable, they are mechanically minded, can drink for Ireland (Guinness only), and will walk out of the pub after twelve pints as erect and dignified as when they first entered. Restricted to corner or occasionally wing back, they won’t let you down and possess the mental strength more usually found at the higher end of the footballing scale. In sharp contrast to the U-16 graduates, they do not possess a kit bag per se, but arrive with boots in a Mace plastic bag and the same damp towel that served at last week’s game.
Group number two are the Boozers. These boys anecdotally have talent to burn and all have scored six goals in an U-14 game against someone or other in the distant past. They live their lives to the tune of “if only”, are always at full or corner forward and can easily score three or four points a game One of their number will be the free taker, and after a good performance, they can frequently be heard in the pub threatening a comeback to training on Tuesday night.
However. this never happens and the Boozers chances of being the next DJ or Micheal Donnellan ended the day God created women and put screw off caps on bottles of vodka. Despite both reputation and name, the Boozer could never drink as much as the Farmer in his wildest dreams, but he talks a good game and dressing room banter will inevitably focus on how “scuttered” said individual was at the previous night’s disco.
The final group of the twenty somethings no longer lives in the area. They sampled the bright lights of Dublin/London/New York many moons ago and are now only occasional visitors to the area. These may have been promising players as minors, and misfortune at losing their services will regularly be cursed in the local. They are not possessed of a kit bag at all and are only at the game because Bernie Micheal met them in the pub last night and asked them if they’d fancy a game.
Whilst togging out they will speak fondly of the old days and reminisce with the Boozers and the Farmers about “the time we played this crowd that yer man got sent off and the game was abandoned”. May be deployed literally anywhere on the field. Will impress for twenty minutes before pulling a muscle and signaling wildly to the line that they need replacing. Afterwards will regale the Farmers with wonderful tales of the night life in Dublin/London/New York and the money that can be made if they ever fancy a start.
Finally there are the Boys of the Old Brigade. These lads first pulled on the club colours sometime in the 60’s and there are team photos of long haired youngsters in the pub to prove it. They do not take part in the pre-match banter and every game is treated in the same no nonsense manner, as though they were taking the field in Croke Park itself. They are all selectors on the team and speak only to each other, and occasionally in grunts to their fellow team mates. If they don’t have a son among the U-16 graduates it’s only a matter of time until they do.
Their drinking habits most closely resemble those of the Farmer, and they resent the boastings of the Boozers, occasionally commenting that they “often spilt more on me tie than they’d drink in a night”. Are easily identified on the playing pitch due to their lack of hair, unmatched socks and a unique style of leg bandaging which requires the dressing to gradually peel away from the leg as the game wears on, giving them an even more fierce some look, as if that were required. Their best days are behind them and they usually retire at least half a dozen times before the decision takes effect.
Thus it was as I took the field for the Junior C’s, and thus I’m, sure it is for Junior B and C teams all over the country. They really are the heartbeat of the association. Unwittingly they combine the dual aims of social and sporting enjoyment that make Gaelic culture so special. Unwittingly they manage to reflect the whole male cross section of an area.
Who knows, had Maurice broken the pledge he mig
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