Gerard O'Kane reflects on Major Moments #GAAThisIsMajor
"I was in awe because Martin McGuinness had taken the time out to write me a letter. He told me that, 'no matter what, you can say in two weeks' time you're a Derry man who's led your generation'.”
The power of sport and in particular GAA has the unique ability to unlock hidden talents and prepare us for the biggest challenges that lie ahead. And that’s why Electric Ireland champions minor hurlers and footballers.
Whether it’s scoring high on your A-Levels, landing your first job, passing your driving test or coping with an unexpected challenge, accomplishing life’s most important milestones can prove a daunting task for any one of us.
This stage represents a crucial juncture not just for young prodigies’ playing careers - but for laying down the foundations for the person they’re going to be.
For Gerard O’Kane, an All-Ireland minor winner in 2002 with Derry before representing his county at senior level for 15 years, his spell as minor captain helped instil discipline, build resilience and define him and his future.
The experience gained with the minors paved the way for him to go on and play with distinction on the big occasion - sometimes in front of 80,000 people at an All-Ireland semi-final.
But the thought of public speaking in front of just a mere 200 people was even more daunting.
“Talking in front of a packed room with a couple of hundred people was nerve-wrecking, but sport and GAA gave me the belief and courage to overcome those nerves and I got used to it,” said the Glenullin man.
“My time as a minor helped me improve my communication and become a leader on and off the pitch.
“Gaelic football was my life. It gave me the confidence to push myself further and take on tough challenges outside my comfort zone.”
Gerard had become accustomed to performing at the highest level - not only did GAA equip him to tackle important milestones, it gave him the mental strength to cope with unexpected pressures at critical moments in his young adult life.
“I broke my hand when I was studying for my A-Levels,” he recalled.
“Exams had to be put back to the summer, around the time I was preparing for the All-Ireland semi-final in 2004. Derry hadn’t reached that stage in a long time so I had to prepare for what was a massive game with a lot of pressure while studying for my A-Levels.
“That was the type of experience that made me stronger. Sport gave me a platform to meet those mental challenges.”
One of the undoubted highlights of Gerard’s career was Derry’s triumph two years prior in the All-Ireland Minor Championship final, as the Oak Leafs saw off the challenge of Meath.
Although the season ended in glory, there were tough hurdles for Derry to overcome.
In the Ulster final, Derry were trailing by five with 10 minutes left, but six unanswered points, including a Barry McGoldrick free with the last kick of the game, turned the tables on the Red Hands.
After that, there was no stopping the Oak Leafs. They easily saw off Tipperary in the All-Ireland quarter-final and trounced Longford in the semis as anticipation grew in the Sperrins.
“We had won our All-Ireland semi-final and we were back at school [St Pat’s, Maghera] two days after it and it was sort of a hot topic,” Gerard said.
“We went back into upper sixth and we had a standard assembly for the first day back and the first thing that was mentioned was that we had 11 boys from our school in that squad.”
As Derry minors were in the process of making history, Gerard recalled how a letter from one of Derry’s most historical figures proved to be significant as expectation levels increased.
“I remember one day, a teacher came into my biology class with a letter for me. I didn’t know what it was, but the teacher knew and she asked me to open it on the spot and read it out and it was from the then Minister for Education Martin McGuinness, another Derry man. And he’d sent me an official government letter on government-headed paper and I was still only 17 at the time, and I had to sit in class and read this out.
“I was in awe because Martin McGuinness had taken the time out to write me a letter, I still have it at home. He talked about how he’d followed the Derry minors through the summer and he’d been at Clones for the Ulster final and he was wishing us luck, that we were doing our school and our families proud. And he told me that, ‘no matter what, you can say in two weeks’ time you’re a Derry man who’s led your generation,” Gerard recalls of the letter.
As it turned out, Gerard could say something not many Derry natives could - that he was an All-Ireland minor winning captain. In the aftermath of that victorious final in September 2002, it was now obvious the young Glenullin man had led his generation with distinction.
Victory culminated with Gerard standing side-by-side with Kieran McGeeney, Armagh’s All-Ireland title winning captain from the seniors. The pair held their respective trophies aloft in front of over 10,000 people. Gerard O’Kane was on top of the world. Well, on top of the Carrickdale Hotel anyway.
He remembers the day well: “We stayed in Dublin on the Sunday night, in the Burlington, and we had a big massive banquet,” he said of the day the Oak Leafs beat Meath.
“We left on the Monday and we came up the road and it took us about five hours to get up. I remember standing at the Carrickdale [in county Louth] and you’re talking about 10,000 people because they were waiting on Armagh.
“When Armagh arrived, they went berserk and because I was captain they brought myself and Kieran McGeeney up to the roof of the hotel and I remember standing with 10,000 people below me, now there was only about 1,000 Derry people, but the Armagh people didn’t care.”
For Gerard and other players like him, it’s easy to see there is nothing minor about being a Minor.
Recent research had shown that a group of minor players felt they were playing in the shadow of their senior counterparts, despite the added pressures of juggling sporting ambitions with the pressures of young adult life.
The perception for many was that minors had a much lesser role to play than seniors, even though minors’ commitment was the equal of any athlete.
Electric Ireland wants to recognise the pivotal role minors play and the challenges they face as they come of age; not only through continued sponsorship of the GAA Minor Championships, but by focusing on the real insights of younger players as they attempt to impose themselves on the pitch and in everyday life.
This growing partnership between Electric Ireland and the GAA will enable more young players to produce the creative spark to fulfil their playing potential and make the leap from minor to senior level - and from their teenage years to adulthood.
You can support your Minor team through the Electric Ireland Minor Player of the Week poll. You can cast your ballot every week on the Electric Ireland's Twitter page, and get involved in the conversation through #GAAThisIsMajor