Sport

All-Ireland finals are EXACTLY the place for eight-year-olds

Dick Clerkin's assertion that an All-Ireland final is 'no place for an eight-year-old' misses a very important foundation of the GAA, the building of dreams of the organisation's youngest members

WHEN I was a kid, my brothers, neighbours and I congregated at our house every Sunday for the weekly three-hour match.

My father forbade us to play on the lawn. He had it manicured/cut every Saturday (by us, might I add) and a sliding tackle would have destroyed the perfectly-shaped grass.

It never stopped us when he wasn’t there. We always carefully replaced the divots when the games finished, something which we perfected to such an extent that it would have made any groundsman proud.

We managed to destroy every tree branch and every flowerbed my father ever created in the garden and he was left wondering how he never managed to grow trees vertically as opposed to the horizontal profile they now assumed.

He was a teacher. A biologist. He took his job desperately serious, but football was always at the front and centre of academia in lots of ways.

When A-levels were one-off exams, the spring and early summer meant 30 lads congregating at our house for extra tuition from my Dad, an A-level biology teacher, to prepare for the exam.

On their break from studies, his entire A-level class on a Saturday and a Sunday played a match in the yard and, nearly out of embarrassment sometimes, we managed to convince Dad that the lawn could be used for these spectacles.

John and Tony McEntee, Enda McNulty, Justin McNulty, Gavin ‘Sparky’ Trainor, Brendan and Gareth Loughran, all county minor players at the time. They were Gods to us kids.

Later in life, I played at club and county level with and against some of these guys. Not only did you continue to revere them, but the games took on added significance for me, having experienced that informal setting in our own back yard as a seven- or eight-year-old kid.

This made the reality of playing on the same field as some of these guys much more special.

I was also lucky to have attended and witnessed two All-Ireland finals as a boy. Obviously as a nine-year-old in 1991 and three years later as a 12-year-old.

I later witnessed some of my other school heroes win an

All-Ireland for Armagh in 2002 and, despite our rivalry and the red and black blood in my veins, I appreciated how much hurt they had experienced over the years and understood and admired their absolute commitment to pursuing an All-Ireland title.

Those Down victories in the ’90s, in particular, shaped my aspirational goals within the game.

Even in those darker moments of my football career, when I missed out on county minor squads, I remained convinced that if I worked hard enough, I would get there.

In 1999, Down won an All-Ireland minor title. A lot of my close friends from school starred throughout the campaign. Again, I watched on in envy from the stand. At that time, I was considered too light and small for the panel.

It was ironic in a way that only the great Benny Coulter and John Clarke from the starting team in 1999 actually lined out in the All-Ireland final in 2010.

There were players from the minor team of 1999 who made the transition onto the senior panel in 2010, but were not starting.

Indeed, there were a significant number of minor players from that era who no longer actually played football, even at club level in Down, which is a sad reflection of how they drifted away from the game since ’99.

To this day, I often wonder whether early success for any sportsperson is a fair indication of the potential for future success.

Perhaps I favour the school of hard knocks, of rejection, of being told that it won’t happen.

I think, from memory, Conor Laverty (Kilcoo) experienced a similar trajectory, always fighting against those who considered him too small and too light. Conor McManus too.

It’s not rocket science and it is a recurring theme in sport often centred on the ‘nature versus nurture’ argument.

But it is generally accepted that a child’s life and behaviours are critically determined at key ages in their upbringing. And, of course, this includes sport and their experiences of success and failure.

This brings me to a point. Before vilifying Dick Clerkin for stating that eight-year-olds ‘have no business at All-Ireland finals for €90’, we perhaps need to put his comments into some context.

Monaghan have been starved of success for many years and, when Ulster football was at its peak in the 1990s, Down, Derry, Donegal and even Cavan (1997) had their time.

Dick would not have experienced too many big days out growing up with Monaghan. His experiences as an underage and aspiring footballer was completely different to my experience.

What Dick perhaps meant was a €90 charge for a ticket is too costly for a child and perhaps the fact that these are highly-sought-after events, the seat should be reserved for ‘true’ supporters of the game and for the supporters of the two finalists.

I understand that in the context of a studio or a piece ‘live’ on radio, things can sometimes be misconstrued. Dick probably stated his opinion without thinking about potential ramifications.

The old argument over entitlement to something is certainly one which has no right or wrong answer.

We tend not to like grey areas. However, unfortunately, there is a large one in this instance.

My attendance at the two All-Ireland finals in 1991 and 1994 as a child shaped my career in Gaelic football and gave me the insatiable appetite to play for Down. My experience as a nine- and 12- year-old during those two Down wins nurtured and abetted an already naturally obsessive love for football.

Mickey Linden and James McCartan were my heroes then. Ross Carr attending prize nights and presenting you with medals was the equivalent of meeting the Pope for devout Catholics.

For the current crop of Armagh players now, their memories of the 2002 team probably inspires and drives them on today and this approach carries the same resonance from a career-defining perspective as it did for me.

My point is that All-Ireland finals, semi-finals, Ulster finals and all inter-county matches are exactly the places where eight-year-olds need to be. Instead of being charged, it should be free in a perfect GAA world, or if a nominal £2 should be the cost of entry then surely it is price worth paying.

Children should be facilitated as ‘special’ for All-Ireland final day in the same way as those fans who are not as mobile as they once were should be catered for much better than they are currently.

But occasions like these shape a future in football (and hurling). They are the breeding ground for future crops of players.

I am no fan of the prawn sandwich brigade getting tickets on All-Ireland final day either. However, unfortunately these people are directly or indirectly providing the funding (sponsorship) which helps the association, which in turn helps the grassroots. I think this is called a ‘necessary evil’.

Dick’s comments were wide of the mark. But let’s not be too harsh as it’s probably down to Monaghan’s lack of success over the years and Dick not having his day at Croke Park as a kid.

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