'There's a completely different attitude towards Ballymun now'
Decades of work in the community have paid dividends for the Dublin champions, says Damian Lawlor
Ballymun Kickhams stand on the verge of an historic first All-Ireland senior title. They have reached this juncture through hard graft and vision. As recently as the early 1990s, for instance, they didn't even have a pitch, dressing room or clubhouse.
"We used to hire a pitch where DCU now stands," says Gerry Hargan, one of the most illustrious figures in their history. "We would get other pitches by hiring them from Dublin Corporation. I well remember togging out in an old truck container," he laughs. "The gas thing was we were pretty successful at the same time."
That they were. They landed Dublin senior titles in 1983 and '85 and only once were they relegated (albeit briefly) to Division 2 football – that slump coming almost 10 years later. Amid one of those successful Dublin championship campaigns, seven Ballymun players lined out for the county in an NFL tie against Armagh, including big names like Hargan, Barney Rock, Tommy Carr and Anto McCaul. Hargan reckons one or two others stood on the fringes.
"Having seven players on a Dublin senior team is no mean feat at any time," he muses. "It would rarely happen unless you were with St Vincent's or a club like that."
Around 1991, before the Celtic Tiger, they raised money to buy some land near Dublin Airport where they are to this day. Though it took a lot of financial planning they eventually got two fields on their books.
"The good thing was that we raised 80 per cent of the money ourselves," says Niall O'Connell, who has played and managed at every adult grade with the club. "I suppose we were taken a lot more seriously from then on. Because we were from Ballymun there was a perception of the area and we used to get a lot of flak – although none of it was too bad. But when we got our own patch that died down a bit. Until, of course, a game would turn niggly. Then it would be thrown right back in your face where you came from."
For many, Ballymun came to be defined by the towers. Originally built in the 1960s, and heralded then as a visionary development, the towers ultimately came to be seen as one of the worst planning fiascos in the State's history. Unemployment hit the flats hard and poverty, crime and drugs became the calling cards of the towers.
"The gas thing is that while a few of the lads lived in the flats, 85 per cent of the club and the team lived outside the heart of it. I lived a few minutes from there myself. Not that it mattered a bit; lads I played with who lived in the flats are the nicest fellas you could meet."
The club's long-serving treasurer David Quinlivan notes that because the flats became an iconic image of Irish culture there was simply no escaping labels and perception. So they just got on with it.
"What we were busy doing was providing an outlet for anyone who wanted to play sport," he says. "You can't be worried about what people think of you. We had enough on our plate getting juveniles out, buying land and pitches."
The clubhouse was built in 1997. Another landmark. Again, they raised funds and did what they had to do. Quinlivan reckons they were so engrossed in fundraising they took their eye off the ball in terms of developing young players. Thus, they found it hard to field teams and sometimes struggled to get underage managers or mentors. "Back then everyone was out seeding the pitch, rolling it, doing what it took."
Five years had passed when Val Andrews, whose family is steeped in the club, started a ground-breaking campaign to get the GAA's first full-sized all-weather pitch developed on their premises.
"It was Val's baby from day one," says Niall O'Connell. "I wasn't sure about it at all when it was first mentioned but there was no stopping him. He kept harping on about Nemo Rangers and Crossmaglen, stating how they were winning All-Irelands and wondered why Ballymun shouldn't think the same way. A few eyes were cast to the skies but in fairness he saw the club's full potential before anyone."
Hargan agrees: "You'd walk into a meeting with Val fully prepared to tell him how far-fetched the idea of an all-weather pitch was but after 10 minutes he'd nearly have you going home to get a shovel to start digging. The low point in our history was having no field, facilities or dressing room and that wasn't too far behind us. Suddenly, we were looking at an all-weather pitch at a huge cost. A lot of people just couldn't see it."
It cost around €1.4m and after years of haranguing, they finally got some money from the Government, €400,000, much of which they have since paid back through VAT and other taxes. The GAA rowed in too and Andrews spent years researching the project and visited similar facilities in the UK and France to get a heads-up.
They got lucky too. As they were the first GAA club to seek such a surface they were deemed a guinea pig and secured the project at a reasonable rate. They also got in before the booming economy raised prices.
"Val was a great man for ideas but this turned out to be the best," Hargan smiles. "The pitch we got is one of the biggest in Europe and we got in there before anyone. Within a short time everyone in Dublin was following suit. They all have them now."
"It was funny," O'Connell laughs, "we used to have no pitch and suddenly, especially in bad weather, teams were looking to come and play in our venue. That did a lot to change the perception of the club."
The all-weather pitch now caters for thousands of kids annually and brings in rental revenue too. Andrews was ahead of everyone. Ballymun were lucky he was one of their own.
With their structures and amenities improving, they needed to lift the playing side of things too. Declan Small got the ball rolling with underage nurseries before Paddy Christie took on a team of under 10s and brought them all the way up the ranks.
The likes of Philly McMahon, Davy Byrne, Ted Furman and Eddie Christie (Paddy's brother) were involved in that journey but they lost almost every final they played in as they climbed the ladder until they got to under 21 level and brought home the title. It's been said that the most important thing you can give a child is your time. That certainly rings through for this particular group. Today, you'll see 13 of them involved in trying to deliver that first All-Ireland senior title.
"We're trying to win this for everyone who has worked hard for the club down through the years," says Dean Rock (pictured). "We know the hard work that has gone into this club through the likes of Niall, Gerry, Anto, Val, Declan Sheehan and Ian Robertson. Many more too. A win would be a huge compliment to those fellas."
"It would be massive," Hargan notes. "Because as good as things are at the moment I could nearly write down the names of the people we'd contact if we needed a job done in the club tomorrow. It's still the same 100 or so that we always look to. That will surely change because of today. Hopefully.
"There's a lot of work being done in the underage structure in the last few years," Rock adds. "There's been a huge increase in the numbers in the nurseries and we've done well in the Féile (they enjoyed national success in 2011). That can only be good for the future of Ballymun.
"I would say there's a completely different attitude towards Ballymun now," he continues. "There is respect amongst every club for what we have achieved. We're an example to every club in Dublin of what can be done with a bit of hard work and honesty. A lot of similar clubs would look up to us now. They want to beat us but it can only be good for everybody else the example we have set."
The Ballymun name may always come with a certain prejudice against it. Like every town and village, the area may have had its problems but those preconceptions should be buried forever – just like the towers finally were.