Wednesday 17 July 2019

Unlikely lads unleashed

Kevin Kimmage

THIS afternoon in Parnell Park, the Celtic Tenors will belt out the national anthem. Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh will put the microphone to his lips and Bertie Ahern will throw in the ball. Over on the sidelines, Des Cahill will lead the cheering by interviewing a host of 'stars' from the broadcasting word led by Mary Kennnedy of Open House fame.

Between the cheesy grins and the corny jokes, we're promised that every swear word will be picked up on the sidelines by the microphones strapped to the chests of the visiting team mentors and at half time, the cameras will be accorded unprecedented access to the dressing room.

In case you didn't know, this afternoon Dublin, the team that once upon a time (ie: when they were good) everyone loved to hate, are taking on a fantasy football team which, over the last nine weeks, a steady audience on TG4 has grown to love.

Who knows, if things go really well, somewhere amid the circus act a football match may just break out.

Ten weeks ago, the Irish language station dipped its toes into the reality TV market, broadcasting a series (as Gaeilge) about a group of footballers - none of whom had played for their county beyond schoolboy level - plucked from every corner of the country, distiled through a series of national trials and brought together under guiding hands of three high profile mentors - Brian Mullins, Jarlath Burns and Mickey Ned O'Sullivan - to see if they could prove themselves good enough to hold their own against the 'might' of the Dubs in a challenge game.

If you have ever tuned in and found yourself struggling to take the programme seriously, then that's okay. The producers themselves frequently remind us that this is a show that doesn't take itself too seriously.

Last weekend, on the eve of their first game against a senior inter-county side (Wexford), we saw players receiving an update on their fitness before being sent off for an early night by Brian Mullins. Then, as the theme music of 'The Waltons' rolled in, the scene cut to the outside of the house. We saw the bedroom lights go out one by one as 'John Boy' Jarlath Burns wished Mickey Ned O'Sullivan an oiche mhaith, Mickey Ned returned the compliment which prompted Brian Mullins to bark at them both to go to sleep.

That humour, as much as the human drama, is what has given the show such remarkably high viewing figures - the makers claim 60 to 80,000 are tuning in - for an Irish language programme. Ironically, what the programme has yet to give us, is any real indication of how good a crew of footballers they have put together. And whether any of them really have what it takes to break into the county scene.

This fact is not lost on the principle participants. "There haven't been many phases of football shown (on the programme) which would illustrate our ability or otherwise and what you tend to see looks pretty clumsy," says one player. "That may be a fair reflection a lot of the time, but we've scored a few handy goals that weren't shown."

There's the rub for the players. While acutely aware that the programme is a piece of eye candy for Gaelic fanatics to nibble on over the winter famine, for the men involved, today's culmination is a deadly serious business.

Paddy Kelly had long since given up hope of wearing the Monaghan jersey, when a report about a new TV programme caught his eye in the Irish Star last March.

A 27-year-old self employed UPVC contractor from Emyvale Co Monaghan, what had rankled with him over the years wasn't so much the belief that he was good enough to play for his county, but the fact that he never got the chance to prove he wasn't.

"I remember going for a (county) U21 trial once," says Kelly "I was playing midfield and scored 1-2 from play. I'd say it was one of the best games of my life. I was coming off the field afterwards and the father of one of the other lads who was playing turned to my father and said 'no harm to your lad or anything, but it was a waste of his time coming here‘.

"My father asked him why. 'Because', said your man, 'that team has been picked since yesterday.' I never did get a call back."

It's the sort of story you'll hear about a player in every parish in the country. Usually about a fella who now spends his time propping up the local bar. But Kelly has never had the time or inclination to feel sorry for himself. As a youth, he grew up straddling his time between his passion for football and the individual challenge of athletics. His family are stalwarths of the Glaslough Harriers in Monaghan and over the years, Kelly represented club, county and province in athletics events, winning an Ulster U19 Cross Country medal.

The discipline instilled by individual sport shaped his approach to football. He hadn't been able to test those theories fully until he read about the Underdogs project. So he came home from work, asked his fiancee, Leonia, to e-mail the producers and by the time they heard word back about the Ulster trial, Mr and Mrs Kelly were en route to Thailand on their honeymoon.

No problem. The producers put him down for the Connacht trial a week later and here's where luck really played a part. The day before the trial was the final day of a three-month suspension. Kelly's time had come.

The Underdogs squad met for training fortnightly in the beginning, then every weekend. Midweek training was left up to the individuals to work on programmes handed out by the squad's exercise physiologist. Kelly took it upon himself to get extra coaching from former Tyrone star, Mattie McGleenan.

It's the sort of story you'll hear in every parish. Usually about a fella propping up the bar

Later he formed a training 'triangle' with two more Underdogs who lived close by - Donal McAnallen from Tyrone and Brian McGeary from Armagh.

Around the country, the other members formed similar geographical alliances, but Kelly became the hub of the contact network with regular text messages of suggestions and encouragement to his team mates.

"Jarlath Burns joked that he didn't feel part of the group because he never got any text messages," says Kelly. "So I sent him one at 5.30 the other morning on my way to work, just to make him feel better."

When the time came to nominate a captain, the players were given a vote. The procedure was academic. So you wonder how Captain Kelly would feel if the Dubs handed his team a 10-point drubbing today. His face is dead straight when he replies that the thought hasn't occurred to him.

Given all the side shows arranged, it is a prospect which has occurred to the organisers. But then, what the programme makers and the players want this afternoon aren't necessarily linked. Adare productions are hoping, perhaps optimistically, for record Sunday afternoon viewing figures - of 150 to 200,000 - the players themselves want to maintain the respect they have earned for themselves by their own diligent work over the last six months.

Regardless of what happens, the programme has been so successful that plans are already in the pipeline for another series next year - possibly with a hurling team. So has it been worth it for the guinea pigs? Would Kelly put himself through it again? He smiles broadly. I enjoyed it so much I'd pay to do it again."

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