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Colm O'Rourke: 'Junior finals represent the GAA's beating heart and must be treasured'


There was a time when a junior final could not finish without an all-in melee. Stock photo

There was a time when a junior final could not finish without an all-in melee. Stock photo

There was a time when a junior final could not finish without an all-in melee. Stock photo

This is club time. Not the artificially contrived month of April when the Junior B man has not surfaced after the winter. Those men of the world need temperatures to climb above 15 degrees before risking a training session.

For these men, pulling hamstrings are not a concern. There are only two gears, slow and stopped. They run in straight lines and are not interested in fancy drills, but when summer comes and progress is being made, there are changes in lifestyle. After all, the chance of a junior championship win does not come around too often. If there is a bit of timber to be lost then it is by degrees, no need to rush into anything. It is easier to buy a bigger pair of togs than lose a half stone.

Perhaps I write about times past, but the most pure type of football is at Junior B level. Some counties have Junior C and even D. The reason they play at Junior D level is because there is nothing lower. However, the letter does not matter, it is a junior championship.

This world is inhabited by two types of player. If it is a senior club, there are young players on the way up and others, like ships in the night, passing on the way down. A club with one team is hoping to escape the lower regions and dream of bigger things. Yet as the Chinese proverb says, the longest journey can start with the shortest step and the hardest step of all is to win the junior championship.

Of course things change and preparation for championship finals has moved on. Players are in the gym and look after their diet. There are not many left who would feast on rashers, sausages and a pound of black pudding before a big game. One junior club some years ago decided to have their pre-match meal in the pub, the sponsors, mainly because a half dozen of the team were the main customers. The publican, with the best of intentions, threw in a pint of porter as the rashers were a bit salty. One turned into a few and the poor chairman was waiting in the dressing room for the team who stumbled in with only a few minutes to spare. They were all very happy and the preparations were noisy.

Soon after the match started a high ball into the square was misjudged by the goalkeeper and ended up in the net. Needless to say the match did not end well but once safely back at home base the keeper was being questioned, over a pint naturally, about the early goal. His response was that he saw two balls coming and he had the wrong one covered.

I had experience once around the word 'sacrifice'. I was trying to extol the virtues of sacrifice to a very good young player who I considered should be able to make a much bigger contribution to the team. He took serious umbrage at this and brought a whole new meaning to what a man was willing to sacrifice for his team. He told me, without even a hint of a smile, that he used to have a Chinese takeaway every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night but since the team started doing well he was only having it on Fridays and Saturdays. At that stage I knew we were doomed.

The football at this level is different too. You will not see a passage of play like the All-Ireland final where Dublin held on to the ball for almost three minutes before scoring a point. There is much more kicking of the ball and there is no need to be too concerned with kicking it away as the opposition will do the same about 20 seconds later. So the game resembles what football was originally about. Players win their own ball and feel they have the right to kick it and let God direct it.

Unstructured play is the order of the day and in many respects it is all the more enjoyable for that. The sanitised version of risk avoidance which we see at county level does not apply. The players appear as completely human, warts and all. They laugh, roar, abuse the referee and each other but nobody is supposed to take offence. Good referees know when they are told to eff off it's not personal. Only an expression of frustration - best to play on quick.

There was a time when a junior final could not finish without an all-in melee. Again a sensible referee would know it was just getting rid of a bit of steam and if there was a bit of blood spilt then he might have to give a few players a warning. A sending off was never a consideration. Now yellows and red are common.

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And then the celebrations. A sight to behold. The immediate pitch invasion after a junior final is one of the eight wonders of the world, slightly behind the Leaning Tower of Pisa but way in front of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. An outpouring of emotion in the same category as births, marriages and deaths. An old timer in a state of high excitement on the pitch after his club won the junior championship for the first time declared that he could die happy now. He promptly did. With a massive heart attack. It muted the celebrations a little but only a little. And there was another big day at the funeral.

So today, wherever you are, if your team is in a junior final, enjoy this wonderfully unique GAA and Irish occasion. It is about people and pride and place. Human emotions exposed, passion, frustration, joy and sorrow. Far removed from Croke Park but the beating heart of the GAA.

* * * * *

Fintan Ginnity has passed on. The name may not mean much to GAA people outside of Meath, but he was county board chairman during a period when Meath had a golden era. During his 20-year reign Meath played in nine All-Ireland senior finals, with four wins, three losses and two draws. There were also a couple of minor and under 21 All-Ireland wins as well as eight Leinsters and three League titles.

Like all good administrators, he stayed in the background. Running the club scene efficiently was just as important to him as big days in Croke Park. He took no messing at meetings and the county board ran smoothly, even if it was on his terms. He would be a useful man to have around at the moment as he set a course and brooked no dissent.

As players we had plenty of rows with him, but they never seemed to last very long. The welfare of Meath was always first and foremost and he provided the sort of support that Seán Boylan needed to get the job done. Maybe he came into the job at the right time but Napoleon always looked for a lucky general. Fintan Ginnity was not just lucky, he was a great administrator and, with Liam Creavin as the secretary, they made a formidable team.

Everything had to be straight up. When we were having a 25-year celebration for winning the All-Ireland we all agreed that there was only one man to look after the selling of tables, it had to be Fintan. At the time I was involved in the organisation with him and asked him for the tickets for my own table and that I would give him the cheque the following day. The response was quick and sharp, I would get the tickets like everyone else when I produced the money. The Pope would not get anything from him unless he too had a cheque in hand. That is why things worked well on his watch. He was blunt, but straight. We were lucky to have him at that time in our history.

May the long sleep be peaceful.

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