Wednesday 28 September 2016

Clublife: Your club is a statement of who you are and what you are, says Colm O'Rourke

Published 01/02/2016 | 22:25

Colm O'Rourke
Colm O'Rourke

The ball came across the goal. I pulled on it first time and it took off in a great loop and into the corner of the net. I was up and running, a club player.

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The fact that this was almost 50 years ago has not dulled the moment. It was the only time I got near the ball in the game and I was only about 10 years old but that kick gained me instant respectability among my peers. I had just found out, at a very young age, the only thing I could be really good at for the next 30 years.

After that it was a case of have boots will travel. Every game, every training session, every day at home on the farm was a case of practice, practice, practice. No cones, ladders, bibs. Man and ball or boy and ball.

Playing for Skryne was all-important and with seven older brothers who all played too, there were always games at home and training sessions in the 'field', the accepted version of the club grounds. My youth was a blur of football activity that was sometimes interrupted by school homework, (not often) and farm work (more often).

When I started playing senior football for Skryne in the early 197os, it came after several championship defeats to Kilbride, the great enemy of the time. Things did not change much in my early career, either; it was always close but no cigar.

Then, after five final defeats, a championship finally came back to Skryne in 1992 and I was glad I had stuck around. It was 18 years after I had first played senior championship. Great things come to those who wait. A drink from the Keegan Cup was the great prize. This was after supporter Paddy Hogge had almost emptied it with one long drink and refilled most on the blowback.

After surviving that, things improved and Skryne kept winning at regular intervals, even if the locals occasionally worry about losing senior status, but having stayed senior since 1937 there is no obvious sign to me that the empire is about to crumble.

But the club was about far more than championships. The tournament games in the '70s were adventures. This was before I was playing and there were tournaments in places like Oldtown, Rush and Garristown. The only guarantee was that they would end - or sometimes even begin - with a fight. The Dubs were trying to bully the Meath boys back then as well! There were no sidelines or nets and the referees took a liberal view of tackling. It was often a case of forgetting about the ball and getting on with the game.

I remember once we played a friendly game against Gracefield from Offaly. It turned out to be a bit unfriendly, with all-out war at the end. One player had to be smuggled onto the bus while someone sent for a United Nations peacekeeper. After a while, order was restored and we ate and drank together. Why should a bit of blood being spilled spoil a good day out?

The pick-up van on the sideline for these sort of games was the mobile ambulance. The driver's reply once on being asked why he was not taking an injured player to hospital was that he was waiting for a load. And there were plenty of loads. No cruciate knee injuries, hamstrings or stress fractures in these matches. The hospitals treated cuts to the eyes and dentists pulled dislodged teeth. Broken fingers or thumbs came from giving punches or catching the old leather ball that weighed a ton when wet. When you hear the old-timers talking about kicking points from 60 yards on a wet day, you can be certain of one thing: it is all lies.

In rural areas the club was the centre of all activity. Members collected at Mass, they did the same for all the charities, dug graves, buried the dead with great dignity, organised the sports and ran dances. This was before discos or raves. The parish priest made sure all dances were run in a certain way. He was doorman on the way out to ensure no couples sneaked off to parked cars. Once, a certain gentleman was seen leaving with a blonde bombshell and the padre moved swiftly into action to check all the cars. After an exhaustive search he came up with nothing. Later in the night he confronted the said man and wondered where he was as he had gone around all the vehicles. "You forgot to check you own car, Father," was the reply. No more GAA dances.

Clubs nowadays are more civilised, or sanitised, or whatever you want to call it. Players train hard now and you will never see a man with a fag lit in his pocket in the dressing room before a game. Games start on time and generally finish but the passions remain the same.

A club is a place for love and war, for triumph and certainly tragedy too, for loyalty and bravery, for victory but more often defeat and disappointment, for people, which gives us all a deep sense of place and belonging. The savage should never lose his love of his native shore as all clubs, no matter how big or small, are the same. They are your statement of who you are and what you are.

The best breeding ground for a political career is most definetly a GAA club. There is more intrigue and back stabbing there than anywhere else. Like the Mafia it is nothing personal, just business. There is nothing to beat the tension of an AGM when there is a takeover bid by a new group. Anyone who could survive that will have no trouble negotiating Leinster House. And, for club officials and politicians there is a similar ending. Both are generally rejected by their own.

My club career will hopefully last a long time as supporter and ordinary member.

I was lucky to play with a great club and with fantastic men like Trevor Giles, John McDermott, Liam Hayes and many, many more who may not have won with Meath but are heroes in their community.

Now I am involved with Simonstown Gaels in Navan, another club on a voyage to win a first championship and I hope to be part of the management group when that day comes.

My two clubs, every club, a beaming face of liberal ideas to the world, shared values and a striving for excellence while protecting parochialism at the same time.

Sunday Independent

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