Full Metal Jersey | Tribulations of an Underage Footballer

APRIL, 1998

They got me when I was nine.

We were in Ms Kilduff’s class, when she announced that the training for the U-10’s would be starting that Tuesday evening up in the Old Park with Mick Ryan. While it wasn’t stated implicitly that attendance was mandatory, as soon as break time arrived, it became clear that anyone who didn’t show up would be unanimously regarded as a “softboy”.

I hadn’t played much Gaelic up to that point. Instead, I’d devoted nearly all of my spare time to playing soccer, endlessly smacking an old plastic ball against the garage door and attempting to learn how to bend it like Dennis Irwin. My father was a devoted Manchester United fan and this coupled with the fact that my taking interest in soccer coincided with the rise of Roy Keane, Irish captain and at the time an unwavering symbol of masculinity and general hardiness, only served to cement my passion for the game. Gaelic was more foreign to me than the so-called “foreign game”.

I would sometimes go to watch Longford play in Pearse Park, on the rare occasion that we advanced past the first round of the Leinster, but even when I was at those matches, I spent most of my time running around with my friends and paid little attention to the game itself. I always treated Gaelic with great respect though, this was a lesson learned through sitting in Fay’s, our local pub, listening to the old men reciting their tales of exploits on the GAA pitch with a fervour usually reserved for Baptist ministers. I recognised that there was something about Gaelic football that made it different from other sports. I wasn’t familiar with what that was just yet.

That Tuesday, Mam dropped me off at the old park at quarter to six. I went down to the “clubhouse”, which was really a caravan with no wheels and got togged out. I made my first mistake by putting shin guards on under my socks.
‘What are you doing with those yokes on?’ Tom Smith laughed.
I shrugged and took them off. Over the next thirteen years I would receive so many kicks and whacks across the shins I am convinced that my eight year old self would have been vindicated in refusing to remove the shields.

I jogged out onto the pitch where the rest of the lads had already formed a circle and were doing various stretches. Mick Ryan, our trainer, was standing in the middle shouting out which muscles to stretch. He was a short man with a red face and grey hair and was always attired in his signature O’Neill’s navy tracksuit. He had us run a few laps of the pitch, just one or two, not the radical “run till’ you can run no more” methods that would be implemented by later coaches. That initial training session was relaxed and carefree. We practiced kicking points and at the end we had a big six-on-six match with the little football goals and a small pitch lined out with bright orange cones. Afterwards we all sat around on the freshly cut grass while Mick held sermon in the middle. He explained the competition that we were playing in. It consisted of the six different schools within the parish. Our first game would be the following week against Bunlahy, Podge Clarke knew a few lads from that direction through his cousins and he reckoned that we’d be able to take them.

The season started with a bang. I was paired up front with my cousin Patrick. We had a field day against Bunlahy. The problem with the Granard U-10 league was that the parish was very small. There weren’t really enough pupils in the schools to put out six separate teams. Bunlahy were a particularly small school and as a result had to field a team chiefly consisting of girls who had no interest whatsoever in playing underage Gaelic football. Bunlahy had only one dangerous player, Conan Sullivan, who much like his barbarian namesake, was a rather tough fella, but he was so overcrowded by our lads, he could do little damage. I gave the nine year old girl marking me a torrid time. Myself and Patrick helped ourselves to three goals and three points apiece. We eagerly looked ahead to our next fixture against Aughnagahern. What we didn’t know then was we were in for a tough lesson.

Aughnagahern primary school had a notorious principal known simply as “The Master”. The Master was a GAA fanatic who had his young boys drilled to an inch of their lives. They had positional awareness that the rest of us would not learn until we were at least eleven or twelve. We were annihilated. I failed to score, blazing my sole chance wide of the gaping goal. Mick shook his head in despair as their goal tally moved towards double digits while the Master gleefully watched and rubbed his hands, like a dictator watching his army pillage a small country. We needed to take stock after this humiliating defeat.

At the next training session, Mick suggested that I move into full back. I found that I was much more comfortable there, and as long as I made sure to hit my marker plenty of shoulders and slaps, everyone would be happy.

The next two matches went well and we recorded morale boosting victories over Mullinaughta and Abbey. A big test lay ahead however. Our next match was scheduled to be against the town. We knew we were in for a kicking. As their name suggested, the town consisted of all the townies, who hated anyone who wasn’t a townie. They weren’t particularly good footballers, but they excelled at both physical and mental intimidation. They were led by their enigmatic midfielder Willie Brady. Willie was a celebrity around town, Granard’s answer to Huckleberry Finn. He had allegedly started smoking fags at the age of seven and had peroxide blonde highlights in his hair. There were plenty of worried faces in the dressing room beforehand, but somehow we managed to scrape a win in the match, ensuring a second place finish and a showdown in the final with Aughnagahern. In the dressing rooms after the match, word got through to us that our opponents were eager for some form of street fight outside the clubhouse. Luckily for us, Mick got wind of this and stayed in the car park until each of us had our lift home, while the town boys stood around clenching their fists.

With the final quickly approaching, we launched ourselves into training, eager to avoid the thumping we had received in our previous meeting. I was nervous for nearly a full week before the match. Eddie was a firm believer in positive thinking, but we knew what was coming to us.

The day of the final arrived and a sizeable crowd gathered down at the New Park to watch the destruction up close. We were being thrown to the lions. We managed to maintain a slightly more respectable score line than in the last game, but we were glad of the final whistle. The Master had won again. At the end of the game, a man I didn’t recognise came up to me and told me I had played well. He told me that he would be coaching the U-10’s that was starting the following week.
‘You’ll come in and tog out next week?’
I agreed, not realising what I was getting myself into.

The next week training started and our opponents were now our teammates. The boys who had wanted to beat us up were now the fellas we were expecting to watch our backs and the Aughnagahern boys who had twice demolished us were now our pals. I had no idea what I had just signed up for.