Tuesday 21 January 2020

Passion of Ballymun their tower of strength

Paddy Christie tells Marie Crowe how a phoenix-like rise from ashes has given club incredible spirit

WHEN Dublin claimed the All-Ireland football title in 1995, it seemed on the surface that the GAA was thriving in the capital. But the rising tide of that victory didn't lift all boats.

"We were close to shutting up shop back then," recalls Ballymun Kickhams stalwart Paddy Christie. "It was a dark, dark time for us. In a way it was like an eternity; it seemed there was no light at the end of the tunnel. We couldn't field a team in most underage categories; we were struggling to find mentors. The set-up was worse than atrocious."

At the time Christie was still a teenager, a physics and maths student at DCU and a new addition to the Dublin senior team. Like nowadays, it was common back then for young county players to spend their summer holidays coaching at GAA camps. Christie was no different; he took a job coaching in his local club Ballymun Kickhams.

Although his interest in passing on the skills of the game was almost non-existent at the time, the camps were a handy way to make a few bob. To his surprise, Christie loved the job, so much so that he realised teaching kids was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He finished his degree and enrolled in St Pat's College in Drumcondra, Dublin, to do primary school teaching. In the meantime, he took over the Ballymun Kickhams under 10 team and got to work on getting his club back on track.

As the Ballymun regeneration project got under way, so the rebuilding of the GAA club cranked into gear. And both were to prove long and difficult tasks.

"When you have success at senior level, the underage structures are often forgotten. It's happened in clubs and counties all over the country. In every club there are key people working behind the scenes driving the whole thing. Usually only a small number and when you lose one or two of those, the wheels can fall off. That's what happened in Ballymun, the driving forces all either retired, passed away or moved out of the area and the whole thing came crashing down," Christie says.

"You usually don't see the effects immediately. It takes a bit of time to notice that things are falling apart, maybe a year or two but then it's like there's been a nuclear explosion, a club can turn into a wasteland."

As the old tower blocks began to disappear from the Dublin skyline, Christie got to work with his under 10s. It was a good place to start, with Philly McMahon, Davy Byrne, Ted Furman and Eddie Christie (Paddy's brother) among the ranks.

People told him he was mad, tried to talk him out of getting involved, but he didn't listen. Instead he put his heart and soul into the team and closed his ears to the people who regularly told him he was wasting his time.

"Some fellas had difficult backgrounds, they didn't always behave that well, they could get messy, but some of those lads were our best players. You have to try and keep these fellas involved; the easy thing would have been to throw them out because they were causing hassle."

So Christie kept at it. Whenever he could he tried to channel the aggression that was in his players into positive energy. He had a team of players who weren't afraid of very much, their instinct was to go hard for the ball and that can be a plus in Gaelic football.

Indeed, plenty of teams spent years trying to instill a bit of aggression into their players, so the young Dubliner knew he could use it to his advantage.

And that team had spirit along with the right attitude, so slowly but surely the club began to emerge from the dark. They didn't win much to start with – in fact they lost every final they played in – until they reached under 21 level. But the lack of trophies didn't matter; Christie and his team stood for a whole lot more. There was no team of note ahead of them but they ploughed on and unknowingly inspired a new generation of players and, ultimately, a whole club.

"The team eventually started to get on well; they were a bit like a lone post in the club, out on their own. Then a group of parents got together, one in particular who didn't want his son playing for Na Fianna, and decided to form a nursery. Although plenty of other clubs were doing it for years, for us it was a novel concept.

"It was run on Saturday mornings on the local green ,which was great. We'd lost that for a while, but now football was back in the heart of the community. It was a lot more accessible for the families who didn't have transport and from there we started to consistently field under 9 and under 10 teams."

Christie was playing senior football as these lads were coming through the ranks but the age profile of the squad was pushing on. Seeing the quality coming through kept the young manager and his team-mates motivated. They knew it wouldn't be long before they had fresh legs to take over but until then they had a cause to serve. They fought relegation several times but never quit.

And while the footballers were doing their part on the field, there was a big fundraising drive taking place within the community. For years the club didn't have much of a base, they'd played their home games in several different locations before settling on the old Airport Road.

A group spearheaded by Val Andrews worked hard to raise money to build an all-weather GAA pitch – one of the first in the country – giving the club's teams a place to train and play all year round. This new facility also helped get the club back where it wanted to be.

Another major development came two years ago when Paul Curran took the reins as senior manager, giving the team a further boost. Curran (pictured inset) played against Ballymun regularly during his time with Thomas Davis and has some lasting memories from those days.

"They were a very honest team and I say that in inverted commas," explains Curran. "They were always a tough team to play against; you knew you'd be in a battle especially when you played them in Ballymun. It was difficult to go there and get a couple of points. But they've provided some outstanding players to the county, even when the club wasn't going well."

When Curran took over the senior team the club was on the way up, the team had already won a Division 1 league a few years previously, the talent was there and it just needed direction.

"I hadn't a lot to work with. It was just a matter of bringing them together, putting in the commitment that's needed to win a Dublin championship, it was a good dressing room to come into," says Curran. "We got very close last year but I don't think we were ready. This year we went at it, we trained very hard and everything started well for us and we kept going."

When they regrouped on December 19 for the 2012 season, they didn't discuss the year gone by. They'd reached the county semi-final but narrowly lost to St Brigid's, the eventual champions. Instead they got down to hard training, they hit the ground running and focused on winning every match they played. And as they year went on their confidence increased and their hard work paid off.

Last month, when they beat Kilmacud Crokes in the county final, 13 of Christie's under 21 team started the game. They followed that victory with a win over Mullingar Shamrocks to earn a spot in today's Leinster semi-final against Sarsfields.

The club's underage set-up is thriving too. On the same day they won the senior title, the under 15 team won their first county championship, beating local rivals Na Fianna. It's been a long and rocky road back to the top, but they've succeeded where so many others failed.

"When I look at where we started and at the relative success we've had recently, I think people who are around now have no idea where we came from," concludes Christie.

Like Ballymun itself, the club has risen from the rubble.

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