Saturday 24 August 2019

Ewan MacKenna: The beautiful game at its beautiful best - an inspirational tale of a man, a ball and jumpers for goalposts

Action for a recent Jumpers For Goalposts game
Action for a recent Jumpers For Goalposts game
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

To those in the area, the family were always known as the Madness Kellys.

It wasn't to do with any psychological slur, rather their music and fashion of choice back then.

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Basically there was a strong hint of ska coming from them, and from Keith Kelly there arguably still is. That area was Ballybrack, one of the last major council-housing projects undertaken by the Fianna Fail government in the late 1970s, when such initiatives were a true priority.

The problem was, while roofs were put over heads, the notion of any real community was left for later as it was all thrown up without shops, without a church and without schools.

Keith Kelly (ball in hands) is pictured with, among others, Richie Parsons (centre) who went on to star in the League of Ireland.
Keith Kelly (ball in hands) is pictured with, among others, Richie Parsons (centre) who went on to star in the League of Ireland.

It made Keith Kelly's home a tough place. It arguably still is. But crucially it is his place.

Now 50, while many old friends and neighbours moved away, and many more got away, he's looked out over this patch with a sense of duty and care and pride.

This is the tale of the unsung hero. The story of one of those that makes the world a better place.

It was back in 2017 that he was staring out at the field next to his house. "It got me thinking," he recalls. "It's where I played football as a kid yet this was a summer's day and not a sinner out there. It made me really sad.

"I do a bit of writing so I jotted down stuff from my childhood. There was always a game somewhere. You didn't need a phone, everyone heard it was on and went.

"I loved that. It was a time in my life I didn't know about meditation or being mindful but you're really present when playing a game with jumpers for goalposts. So I wrote a poem with that name and it went bananas."

'No more jumpers thrown down, such a pity, such a shame. It's just a field now, not a ball to be seen.'

Little acorns were soon to show the true meaning and the real power of sport. 

Former League of Ireland star Richie Parsons (centre) at a recent Jumpers For Goalposts event
Former League of Ireland star Richie Parsons (centre) at a recent Jumpers For Goalposts event

* * *

Keith Kelly has always been nostalgic. Some parts of his past he never wanted to let go of.

For a long time some parts of his life he couldn't let go of. One night in 2008 he heard a noise on the stairs so he hopped out of bed in his boxers and, without glasses, met a guy coming up to the top floor of his home.

Adrenaline kicked in and a scuffle ensued as he wrestled the intruder down, only he never once realised the guy had a knife until too late.

Stabbed repeatedly in the torso, his lung was punctured with one of the many blows. The grave very nearly followed during a stint in hospital.

Instead though, inspiration eventually did. His physical health somehow recovered and it was then he learned about mental health.

"I felt a lot of shame and guilt that I didn't deal with well," he says. "This guy came into my castle and I couldn't protect my family. I went on a spiral of self-destruction.

A big turn-out at a Jumpers For Goalposts game recently
A big turn-out at a Jumpers For Goalposts game recently

"I was trying to show people life didn't change too much but inside I felt such a burden, I felt useless.

"Constantly down on myself. I didn't know but I'd post-traumatic stress disorder and when you have that you take huge risks.

"Gambling, drink, drugs - all to bury the pain. I'm 6'3 and I'm not saying I'm a big man around here but I played ball and was tough enough so I didn't want anyone to see my vulnerability. That nearly killed me."

Kelly admits that when his wife would go out, even during the day, he'd go upstairs and put a chest of drawers against the bedroom door as a barricade. He became hugely afraid of the dark.

Unable to sleep, his dog became his best friend, lying beside him as he wept across any and many nights.

"I wanted to kill that chap, kill his family, I'd so much rage," he continues.

Keith Kelly of Jumpers For Goalposts is pictured with author Paul Howard at a recent kick about in Ballybrack
Keith Kelly of Jumpers For Goalposts is pictured with author Paul Howard at a recent kick about in Ballybrack

"For five years I sort of destroyed myself. I couldn't let him go. I sat him down for my dinner. He slept with me. He was in the car with me. He was with me every f***ing day and I tried to take my life. I couldn't cope. I hated myself.

"That's where I ended up until I accepted it and let go of that rage. I ended up going to Suicide or Survive. They're a charity nearby and I actually started doing voluntary work.

"With that I found my voice and I now facilitate mental health programmes. And life is good but I started looking at others. Going for a stroll with the dog, so many barely lift their heads from phones.

"People like Facebook and it's fine, but I was isolated and didn't know the true value of connection and that hurt me for a long time.

"Now I really value connecting with people. I saw that empty field and wrote that poem and started thinking nothing brings us together like football."

From paper to grass. From near-death to the very best of life. Jumpers For Goalposts was born.

Kieran Kelly and his Jumpers For Goalposts friends played at half-time of the Shamrock Rovers v Brann Europa League tie at Tallaght Stadium recently
Kieran Kelly and his Jumpers For Goalposts friends played at half-time of the Shamrock Rovers v Brann Europa League tie at Tallaght Stadium recently

* * *

For those from certain generations, childhood memories have a similar seam running through them.

The long directionless games of football where the teams that finished bore no resemblance to the ones that started; lads going in for tea replaced by those sprinting back from tea; the two arriving late going on the weaker side despite adding to that numerical advantage; the rows over whether a ball passing over the jumper would have bounced in off a wooden post being settled with a penalty; the 10 giant steps taken to measure that penalty causing an inevitable roar of "it's not your birthday"; at some point a call of "next goal wins" despite a lead of 10 already.

It was this that Kelly remembered. Turns out it was this that others had silently yearned for.

The first time he called a group of adults out for a child-like kick-about in 2018 was really as a social experiment.

He says that having given up the drink, the only occasions he met people tended to be at funerals and, with the body sunk and prayers said, the crowd usually headed for a pub leaving him all alone at home. He can't have been the only one, he thought. He wasn't.

A total of 50 showed up for a game that doesn't have a referee and doesn't keep proper score and doesn't make anyone feel uncomfortable. Exactly as it used to be.

Keith Kelly at a Jumpers For Goalposts game in Shankill
Keith Kelly at a Jumpers For Goalposts game in Shankill

"After that I put it on the back burner as I was doing other stuff," Kelly continues. "But this year for Men's Health Week, the last day coincided with Father's Day. I said we'd do it again on the Sunday morning. Kick off 11am. And over 70 came.

"People were buzzing. For me it gives people an opportunity just to come down and have a laugh. There's not enough laughing in the world.

"I found there's a huge appetite to get together. Football is the hook, everyone loves football. There were people there who never played in their life and guys who'd been in the League of Ireland."

His old manager Joe McCormack came down and at 66 was out being a young boy again for a morning when Kelly took a break. Beside him on the grass, a man he didn't know said he was having huge drink issues.

"The release," he notes of that moment. "Men don't talk. This provides a safe environment".

Graham Merrigan has been one of those with him since the start of this adventure and saw others looking to reach out as well.

From down the road, he'd been born with spina bifida and talks about being a kid, hopping out of the wheelchair and going in goals, as it was the one place everyone was the same.

But post-leaving cert all that gave way to real life and suddenly it was owned by the past. Thus this appealed and he comes down now and helps pick teams.

"We play for 25 minutes, have a chat, go back out again and then talk some more. On the back of that first match I know five or six lads that actually reached out to Keith for help and he's put them in programmes and stuff like that," says Graham.

"Others might be out of work and someone might know where they can get a few hours. We had another game last week and 70 came down and it means a lot to people.

"Lads aren't good at talking and this is a good way to make it comfortable."

If the key is simplicity, it's little wonder there's growth. Recently for a morning one person came from Galway as they wanted to bring back the idea with them.

There've already been get-togethers in Kildare and Wexford too. There'll be one in Laois on Sunday week. It's hardly surprising, says Paul Bishop, who held a game in Sallynoggin.

What brought it all home to him was the sudden death of an old friend Andy Rice a handful of months back. For years they'd hung out but families came and they drifted apart.

That ate at Bishop, brought huge regret, and caused him to act.

"It was a real wake-up call. I went, 'Jesus, you're not here for a long time and why didn't we have a knock-about these last few years?' This makes sure you do.

"You don't see people as much as you used to and there aren't the outlets. But lads I hadn't seen in years, they came down and the banter, a fabulous idea.

"I often bore my kids with stories of playing for six or seven hours on the street. Now, they tell me a player is good because he is 92 on FIFA.

"And if they do get out and play, it's organised where the whole focus is about who can be best. But football is for everyone and needs to be about getting together for the love of the game rather than that love of success."

'You're in goals,' someone said. 'No, it's nearest to the net'. Not a whistle in sight, barely time to get set. 'I'll get in for one, but you're in next.' Totally free as kids, no phones or text.'

* * *

For different people, it's meant different experiences.

Last week in Ballybrack, Paul Howard togged out. The author of Ross O'Carroll Kelly, he reckons he hadn't played a game of football since 1990 and those watching on joked that it quickly showed.

"We'd about 25 per team. Loads of faces from childhood. All about four stone heavier, three jeans sizes bigger, all greyer in the temple. But it's exactly the same thrill you remember," says Paul.

"You find the place on the pitch where you used to go, whether a goal-hanger or a fancy-Dan winger.

"You could see the lads who had a bit of skill hoping to get more time on the ball out wide, with all the hard men gravitating towards the centre.

"One or two thinking they could play a pass. I hadn't laughed as much in years."

If it took him back, for others it was about looking forward. Where a smile is a step in the right direction.

Take Ciáran Stafford from Ringsend. Now 24, in his teens he played underage with Shamrock Rovers but by the time he and his mates went to Ibiza three years ago, he'd to come home due to crippling depression.

"Some people have a traumatic incident that sends them on a spiral," he explains. "I didn't have that. Great family and friends, good in school, great social life.

"For so long I told myself I've nothing to be down about and to use depression, I felt was an insult to others.

"That holiday was supposed to be about having a great time. Within 48 hours I was back at home."

He couldn't bring himself to get out of bed in the morning and by night wished he wouldn't wake up. The sole constant and small bit of energy was brought about by supporting Rovers on a Friday night. Home or away.

"I'd fallen out of love with playing football, I'd dropped out of college and that was the only place I got joy," Ciarán said.

"When I look back, it was only when I heard the whole Jumpers For Goalposts thing, I realised football was a major influence on my road to recovery.

"I realised then that football means a lot to me and this initiative incorporated a mental health aspect which also means a lot to me."

His first taste? Shamrock Rovers had gotten wind of Jumpers For Goalposts and said they'd let a game take place at half-time in Tallaght Stadium.

Turned out they went beyond themselves and had it during the Europa League victory against Brann, as a massive crowd got a glimpse of what it's about and Stafford felt a release.

"What shocked me in a really nice way, the reception from the fans. It was at that point I said this was a big part of how I got back on the right road," he said.

And all this from Kelly's own suffering and that deserted field. What next for Jumpers For Goalposts?

More of the same he hopes, as back in Ballybrack he mentions a ripple effect. For while there might be games in leisure centres and so on locally every week, people forget not everyone can afford a fiver and this solves that problem and brings about something very different.

"Ten a week die of suicide, and eight are men," he concludes. "I've lost two brother-in-laws. We are afraid to say out loud, 'I'm f***ed and need a dig out'.

"That's it, like. If I'd reached out I wouldn't have spent five years tormenting myself. Jumpers For Goalposts gives that space if you want it.

"So next year I imagine a game in every community at 11 o'clock some Sunday.

"But please don't think and please stress it's not just about mental health. It's for anyone and everyone.

"It's about getting together again, about laughing again together, about having fun again together. We've lost all that."

'So many friendships, born outta the beautiful game. No more jumpers thrown down, such a pity, such a shame.'

Nostalgia? No more.

Find out more about the initiative at

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