Tuesday 13 November 2018

My sideline supporter: Joanne Cantwell looks back fondly on her dad's support

Joanne Cantwell looks back fondly on her dad's unwavering, if very vocal, support for her women's football team

Joanne Cantwell

They're often one of the unspoken aspects of a team, but they almost always have an effect. They come in all sorts of guises and play a variety of roles, whether they're supposed to or not.

I'm talking about the parent.

There are those who are directly involved -- the coach or the mentor -- and they can often come in their own separate categories, most of whom just want to be there for their son/daughter; others who took over simply because no one else would.

Most parents, though, fall into the supporter category.

There are those who know the game inside out and those who barely know the rules, but still give it their all in terms of encouragement, supplying cheers and, let's be honest, a good slating of the referee when necessary (knowledge of the rules is never essential in this respect).

There are those who can see only their own child on the pitch and can't understand why every strategy doesn't revolve around them.

And there are those who, instead of simply supplying encouragement, feel it's their place to instruct, regardless of the coach's game plan -- sometimes passing on their wisdom not only to their son/daughter, but to everyone else's as well.

Quite often, you'll find that the parents who are the most critical are the ones you tend to see only at county finals and vital matches, but are rarely spotted for the division-six league game away in Ballywhatchamacallit many, many miles away.

You always see the same few cars at meeting places, and the same players who have been dropped off and left for someone else to ferry to pitches in the back of beyond.

Of course, if for some reason one or two of the regular cars aren't able to make it, problems arise.

In the pre-safety-belts-in- the-backs-of-cars days, many a transport law was broken during match-day travel.

In fact, my husband's family has a story that has become the stuff of legend. His father, who happened to be the coach, turned up for an under-10 game against Clonsilla with the entire team squeezed into his Morris Minor.

We're talking 15-a-side Gaelic football here.

There are so many different types of parents -- some of whom fall into neat and tidy categories, some of whom are once-offs.

Then there's my dad.

My father, now happily retired, spent most of his life as a PE teacher, teaching everything from basketball to badminton to goodness-knows-what after school hours, and setting up a gymnastics club in the local area.

But he was still ever-present when it came to every one of his five daughters and their activities -- and when it came to me, that meant football. My father could always be seen on the sidelines at my matches; could always be heard is probably more accurate.

It's never been in his nature to stand quietly by.

But there was never any haughty instruction given, never any shouted criticism; just good-natured, very, very vocal support.

When I was 16, I got the call-up to train with the senior Dublin team. A couple of players from my club got the same call, but after a few months, I was the last one standing.

Not only was I the only one from my club, but also the only one from my area and practically the only one coming from north of the Liffey at the time.

Making it to the Phoenix Park for training proved doable initially, but when training was switched to the Thomas Davis Club on Kiltipper Road in Tallaght, making sessions became an issue for 16-year-old me.

Or at least it should have become an issue. But it didn't. Every Tuesday and Thursday, and many Saturdays, my father would drive me across the M50.

It was too far for him to drop me off and come back, so I'd get out of the car, run off to my training session, which could often be very lengthy, and then come back to the same car, which hadn't moved an inch.

Inside, the seat on the driver's side would be reclined all the way back, my father's eyes would be closed and BBC Five Live would be blaring, with a background of white noise, a sound familiar to any dedicated sports fan in this country.

That was how my father spent at least two nights of every week.

And when Sundays came along, he'd drop me at the Foxhunter in Lucan, where I'd be collected by the team bus to be taken to whatever match we had that week.

And when we arrived and got kitted out, warmed up and on to the field, there, on the side of the pitch up in Donegal, or over in Mayo, or down in Cork, would be my father.

I may not have seen him straight away, but I always heard him. Everybody heard him. And he knew every name -- not just those given by their parents, but those given by our coach, Alan Byrne, who had a way with nicknames.

There was Solo, Rambo, Bangers, Roger, Shifty, Shaft and many more.

My father shouted support to them all, and they all appreciated that there was always someone there, on the side of a pitch somewhere in the middle of the country, who cared whether the team won or lost.

Women's football in Dublin is in a glistening state at the moment, but back then it was about hard slogging and very little else.

When people like my father and our captain Christina McGinty's parents made long treks all over the country, it wasn't to witness potential All-Ireland champions, and they knew that only too well.

The greatest feat of my team was going from division three to division two to division one in the National League in successive years, and then winning Dublin's first-ever senior Leinster championship game, before making the county's first provincial final (where we lost by a single point after Meath scored a fluky goal in the final minute -- yes, it still hurts).

But the same few faces were ever-present, regardless of success or lack of it.

I haven't played for Dublin in more than 10 years, and in that time the county has made strides of such magnitude that in 2010 they were finally crowned senior All-Ireland champions.

I don't often get to see the women with whom I fought side by side in torrential rain, trained with in the darkness of car parks when nobody would let us use their pitches, and giggled with for hours on long coach journeys back from National League matches in the middle of nowhere.

But there are rare occasions when I do bump into them and get to reminisce about those days, and when I do, every one of them always asks the same question: how's your dad?

Well, he's the same as ever -- barking mad and one of a kind.

My father, my hero.

Joanne Cantwell's piece appears in 'My Great Sporting Memories' by 72 sportspersons and sports journalists. All profits from the sale of the book go to Adi Roche's Chernobyl Children International

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