Monday 24 September 2018

Dick Clerkin: Forget the All-Stars and Croke Park, club game is where heart is

Cillian Buckley of Dicksboro celebrates with team physio Tommy Bawle. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Cillian Buckley of Dicksboro celebrates with team physio Tommy Bawle. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Dick Clerkin

All-Stars, Super 8s, Hurling Round Robins and Dublin's Blue Wave. They are all that anyone is talking about these days. Only they aren't. Such considerations, reserved for the elite minority, don't linger on the minds of the ordinary grassroots Gael.

Yet, you could be fooled into thinking the GAA calendar starts and finishes with the inter-county season. Our national broadcaster certainly thinks so.

This year eir Sport joined TG4 as sole advocates of the club championships, and have made a laudable attempt to bring us even closer to the club scene.

While some commentators scoffed at the Gooch making fun of his ill-equipped counterparts with a quickly-taken free in Killarney, we then witnessed Dean Rock being reduced to the ordinary in Donnycarney.

Whatever rough edges these contests might have in terms of quality, they are adequately smoothed over by the unrivalled passion and dedication of its protagonists.

Entertainment and success are all relative concepts at the end of the day. Whereas 82,243 patrons attended the All-Ireland football final this year, hundreds of thousands of grassroots followers have collectively watched their respective county finals across all levels over the past few months.

For many of these patrons, the events surrounding Croke Park are merely a passing interest. The county final is the pinnacle of their season, where the displays of passion and emotion are unrivalled.

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Watching the Anthony Foley tribute documentary this week, the overwhelming sense of identity and passion he had for his club and place, undoubtedly, fuelled the extraordinary outpouring of emotion in the aftermath of his tragic passing.

The people of Munster and Killaloe didn't lose a past player, or a coach, they lost of member of their family, and a friend.

Shannon was Anthony's club, and the place from which he forged his reputation and loyalty to his team-mates and supporters. Carrying that through to Munster, he then built a franchise with his like-minded team-mates on that same foundation of loyalty and trust, which permeated through the Thomond terraces.

For all the talk of elitism in Gaelic games at present, what is undeniable is that we still hold onto that impassioned connection within our clubs and communities. The evidence of which has been clear to see all across the country's county finals in recent weeks.

My own club Currin had our own memorable day out a few weeks back, after we won our first Junior Championship title in 45 years. When the final whistle went, the scenes of emotion were something I have never seen on a football field.

Men and women of all generations crying their eyes out. Four McCaffrey brothers, three of which manned the full-back line, embraced their father who had played on the 1972 team.

My mother, after narrowly escaping a nervous breakdown, embraced myself and my brother Ben, who had been playing for over 20 years, as if we had just returned home from a tour of duty in the Middle East. It was overwhelming.

Amidst all the scenes of emotion, I then finally found a man who had played on my mind since the previous Friday night's training session.

John Smith, the club's kitman for my whole playing career, and long before, had a tear in his eye. Sadly, it was an expression many of us had become accustomed to seeing far too often recently. Just under two years ago, John's wife Margaret - who had washed the club's jerseys for all the years that John had been handing them out - passed away after a short, unexpected illness.

A life partner in the truest sense, John would struggle to hide his sense of loss and loneliness in conversations since. This time however there was no mistaking the origin of John's tears, as we embraced each other in our moment of joy.

The scenes on the pitch afterwards and in the local that night won't be forgotten for a long time. Yet what we experienced is nothing that you won't see all around the country, every year, as clubs and communities achieve successes comparable in their minds to anything you might witness in Croke Park in September.

In Multyfarnham, Westmeath after they won their first junior football championship in 61 years. In Kilcar, Donegal, senior football champions for the first time in 24 years. In Lámh Dearg, senior champions in Antrim after a 25-year gap. In Dicksboro, Kilkenny hurling champions for the first time in 24 years, made all the more memorable by beating 'Village' rivals James Stephens in the final.

The list goes on; the scenes are all the same. Similar scenes that peppered that poignant documentary remembering Anthony Foley. Tears in victory, tears in defeat, tears in loss.

A river of tears that rises from communities wrapped around their family and friends. These scenes will rarely make it onto our screens in the way our inter-county game is flaunted.

Regardless, what Currin, Dicksboro, Multyfarnham et al achieved this year will be the main topic of conversation on the respective barstools this winter.

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