GAA Football

Cahair O'Kane: Saturday morning innocence is the GAA at its greatest

St Matthew's Drumsurn celebrate their All-Ireland Féile na nÓg Division Six success back in 2013 - a day when the very best of the GAA was on show. Picture: Mary K Burke

I COULDN’T believe my ears on Saturday morning when, driving past O’Donovan Rossa’s pitch on my way out of Magherafelt, my 19-month old daughter spoke up in the back of the car.

Previously restricted loosely to the words Mammy, Daddy, La La, Po and ‘no, no way’, with her ears and eyes caught by the buzz, she said: ‘Daddy, that looks like football on and since you’ve been off all week and haven’t really seen that much of it, do you want to call in?’

How could you say no to that?

As she pottered around the sunburnt grass between the two pitches, and twice tried to invade the pitch shouting ‘fudball’ as the young girls from Errigal Ciaran and Con Magee’s battled it out, the place was a haze of energetic colour.

Cars were parked out to the road. There were 30 teams there from across Derry, Antrim, Tyrone, Donegal and Down taking part in an Ulster club U12 development blitz.

There’s almost a jumpers-for-goalposts feel about it all, with three games taking part at once across each pitch, with the games divided by a line of back-to-back supporters, peering across each other, edging closer to the auxiliary sideline of training cones.

That half hour spent dandering around the perimeter of the two pitches were a timely reminder of what it’s really all about.

Gaelic football, hurling, camogie, they’re thriving one at youth level. Participation levels continue to rise.

Ladies’ football is enjoying a level of profile at adult level that, as Saturday morning displayed, is pushing the game to young girls the length and breadth of Ireland.

With Go Games and blitzes everywhere, Saturday morning remains the most joyous, soulful time the GAA has.

You could stop at any of the four wings of the province around 11am and you’d find a small festival of football. They don’t keep the score any more, and the policy is to give every player a game.

In almost 15 years covering GAA, I’d find it hard to go past a Division Six Féile na nÓg final as the best memory of all.

Drumsurn played St Rynagh’s of Offaly early on a Sunday morning in July 2013, and the north Derry lads came from five points down to win it with a fisted point by Jim McCartney after what seemed like an hour of injury-time.

There were a couple of hundred people congregated near the middle of the stand at Owenbeg, gasping for air as the referee basically let them play until there was a winner.

The afternoon before, Ballinascreen’s stand was packed to the gills as they faced Bellaghy in an ‘A’ semi-final. ‘Screen had been five up but were reeled in by a dramatic comeback as the Wolfe Tones reached their third All-Ireland Féile final.

Generations elder stood on the pitch that day recalling the Ballyboden boys’ full-grown moustaches in the ’97 final, and Michael McGoldrick’s man-marking job on Michael Meehan in the earlier stages.

It was the Wolfe Tones who won that 2013 semi-final but for as long as the players on both sides live, those memories of that day, that atmosphere, that occasion will never fade.

Those games, those days, every single Saturday morning – that’s the beating heart of the GAA.

And that’s where you find yourself in a quandary when you’re analysing the direction the organisation’s leadership has taken it in recent years.

More young players are engaging with the games than ever before. The quality of coaching has undeniably improved. Clubs are becoming stronger, more ambitious, better financed to the point of retaining self-sufficiency despite huge increases in running costs.

But within that, not all change has been progress. We’re too far down the path of investment to reverse trends now. The only way the payment of managers will end is if we report our own to the taxman.

Clubs will keep paying fortunes in the hunt for success, and that will mean the continuation of massive follow-on investment in underage.

With outside managers at county minor and under-20 level becoming a feature, it seems like only a matter of time until that filters down to club level.

A club’s volunteers expend huge energy to raise that capital and with its’ investment comes pressure.

Where that pressure weighs most heavily is on the balance between enjoyment and winning.

And, following the trend of inter-county development squads, clubs have begun to drive players competitively at earlier junctures.

You’d like to think that the introduction of under-8 and under-10 teams is about simply opening the door to more kids, but the reality is that they’re an invention of competition. Clubs want them in earlier so that they’re halfway through their development at the age of 12, rather than just starting it.

Some of the innocence has already been lost, what with some clubs bringing dieticians with them to Féile competitions and the like.

When you analyse the trends at the elder age groups, it will probably, in time, lead to the displacement of that Saturday morning freedom in favour of a must-win approach.

Perhaps it’s naïve to believe that the GAA can protect the innocence of its underage games in the society we live in.

Whether it’s an All-Ireland final or a game at the end of a training session, someone will always want to win, someone else will always want to copy them, and the rest will be left with a choice between sinking or swimming.

But we have to try. Because Saturday mornings are where the spirit is at its most pure, where the enjoyment is at its height, and where the GAA is at its greatest.

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