Tuesday 16 January 2018


Tony Ward

Tony Ward

On Thursday, I fulfilled a lifetime ambition, one that I thought I would never achieve. At about 4.0 on a beautiful October afternoon in Dublin 3, Pat Gilroy gave me the nod to replace Pat Spillane at left half-forward on the Dublin team!

The event was the Alan Kerins Project's challenge match at Croke Park between selected squads representing Dublin and Galway. The sides were littered with Irish sporting stars past and present, featuring some of the great Gaelic footballers of our times.

The game took place on the same day as the presidential election, and for me, running out at Croke Park was akin to making it to the Aras. It might have taken me 57-and-a-bit years to make it to the high altar of Irish sport, but it was worth the wait.

I doubt I touched the ball a half-dozen times, but who cares? I had trodden the hallowed turf that is Croke Park. And I write this as someone who had to wait until his schooldays were over before truly discovering the alien culture that was Gaelic games, growing up in south county Dublin in the swinging '60s.

Perhaps it was the fact that Dublin had fallen on lean times between the late '50s and early '70s. My newfound love and appreciation of the sport coincided with the breakthrough of Heffo's army in the summer of '74.

I had started attending the National College of Physical Education (NCPE), now the University of Limerick, in the autumn of that year. Suddenly Brian Mullins, John Tobin, Fran Ryder, Brian Talty, Declan Smyth -- Dublin and Galway stars of the time -- were fellow PE students at the sporting utopia that was the Plassey campus.

Also there were the Spillanes (Pat and Mick), Jimmy Deenihan, 'Ogie' Moran, Denis O'Boyle, Richie Bell, Jimmy Dunne, Eddie Mahon, Joe Mulligan, Paud Moriarty, Anthony Harkin, Hugo Clerkin and Denis O'Keeffe -- all inter-county stars.

Little wonder that under Dave Weldrick they went on to take the All-Ireland club title, beating Eugene McGee's UCD after a marathon series (when third-level colleges were allowed to compete).

Up to that period, the perception on the south side of Dublin -- where we were unwittingly products of our upbringing -- was that Gaelic games were for culchies anywhere beyond the Naas Road.

Never did Gaelic games enter our sporting psyche, never mind fire our imaginations. It was the way it was then. You went to a certain type of school on one side of the city and you played a certain type of football. There were exceptions, but they were few and far between.

On the north side it was Gaelic games, on the south side it was rugby. Outside of school there was soccer, which was my own passion at the time. Indeed it was only on the Dublin soccer pitches where -- despite 'the Ban' -- the paths of rugby players and Gaelic footballers crossed.

I feel I was deprived of the opportunity to partake in Gaelic games. Apart from attending one of the Galway three-in-a-row finals of the '60s (one of my schoolmates' dads was from the west and he brought us along), my trips north of the Liffey as a schoolboy were to Tolka and to Dalymount Park to see Drumcondra, Shels, Bohs and Ireland, although I did hit Croker once a year for the annual primary school sports day held there.

Later, Pat Spillane (probably our greatest all-round footballer) used to support me in going along to my big games in Thomond Park, Musgrave Park, Lansdowne Road etc. In turn I would support Pat as a regular in the discount section of the Nally Stand throughout the '70s.

Even now when Spillane goes to rugby matches he draws that 'what the hell are you doing here?' look from me. He looks at me in the same way whenever he sees me at Croker.

I was extremely fortunate to attend both the All-Ireland hurling and football finals and I felt I might as well have had two heads.

Isn't it sad that if you are associated with rugby or soccer you are perceived still as some sort of 'West Brit'? This 'fiorghael' mentality stinks to high heaven.

I am as proud an Irishman as any and I bow to no dyed-in-the-wool GAA follower on that count. The main point I am trying to make is that, looking back, I feel I was denied a sporting chance. I loved soccer and rugby, but certainly I wish I had had the opportunity to at least have tried our native games when I was 15 or 16.

Today the system still isn't perfect, but young boys and girls do get to at least try out the various sporting codes through much the more broadly-based PE programmes. That is as it should be.

The greater the variety of sports youngsters experience the better, certainly until they get to senior school.

When I was teaching in St Andrew's I introduced GAA as part of the transition-year programme. It proved to be the most popular module at the time.

The GAA could not have been more committed or more accommodating in their involvement with the course, culminating in every student being invited along as guests of the GAA to the Ladies All-Ireland final, one in which Sue Ramsbottom of Laois provided a footballing masterclass.

My sole memory of playing as a schoolboy was in my final year at St Mary's when we participated in a Templeogue College-organised Gaelic football blitz. Isn't that sad?

Beyond that, I lined out in Parnell Park in a GOAL challenge match for the Irish rugby team against the mighty Dublin footballers of the '70s when, wearing No 15, Gay O'Driscoll taught me a thing or two about the nuances of close marking!

My one other attempt was for Jimmy Magee's All Stars against Moses Coffey and Wicklow in another fundraiser, this time in Ashford some time in the '80s.

Two of the greatest sporting events it has been my privilege to attend were in Croker. For passion and pride nothing comes close to the day England came to Jones' Road. It was the day we showed the watching world how we had grown and come of age as a nation.

And for sheer drama, what I am sure will become in time the 'Stephen Cluxton Final' was without peer. I sat behind the goal at the Canal End in almost the same position I had stood when Sean Doherty all but decapitated Mickey Ned O'Sullivan in the final of '75.

As a coach, I encourage as many boys as possible to play for their local GAA clubs in the summer season. Show me a talented Gaelic footballer and I'll show you a rugby player of immense potential.

It is fantastic that clubs like Kilmacud Crokes, Cuala and Ballyboden St Endas to name but three are making the impact and spreading the net the way they now are in south county Dublin.

I think Pat Gilroy told me that as many as eight of his Dublin panel are from so-called rugby-playing schools. Long may this trend continue -- and in reverse.

For this old fogey it may have come a little late in life, but it was better late than never. Come on the Dubs!

Irish Independent

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