GAA Football

Kicking Out: GAA owes it to Paul McKeever to keep lighting up communities

Brothers Conor (number 12) and Ryan McKeever (right in the grey jumper) embrace after the younger sibling captained Portglenone to victory in the U10 cup at an event held in memory of their father, Paul, at the weekend. Picture by Colleen Webb

AT exactly 7.30pm on Saturday evening, autumnal skies from New York to Glasgow to the fringes of Lough Neagh were lit up by GAA clubs standing alongside the McKeevers of Portglenone and making a symbolic gesture in a battle that affects us all.

There are very few people that haven’t had cancer force its way into their life. A cruel disease that cares not for age nor creed, it has come for many the way it came for Paul McKeever.

He was just 39 when he died last November. A former Antrim and Portglenone footballer, he’d moved on in his retirement from playing to become a respected referee and a loved underage coach.

The current Portglenone under-10s were his team. He’d brought them up from Fundamentals and would have carried them up through to adult football if he’d been afforded the chance.

His motto as a coach was: "Do your best - that is all we ask". He knew the value of people and community and friendship, and he tried to instil them in the young lads at his command.

Watching his son Conor come back to his team-mates with the cup that Portglenone had beaten Glen to win on their own patch on Saturday evening would bring a tear to a glass eye.

They are only boys, who should be too young to have been dealt such a hand. In a way, you’d nearly hope they’re too young to comprehend the full scale of sadness that surrounds them.

But the maturity in the heartfelt way they greeted their team-mate’s arrival with the trophy, draping him in a collective, lasting, loving hug, shows an awareness beyond their years.

The young boys sobbed as though they’d been holding it in for 10 months. In an impromptu reaction, the Portglenone senior footballers created a ring around them and applauded.

The whole village went to Ballymena last night hoping that the act would be reversed and that the U10s would flood the field having seen their seniors reach a first county final in a decade.

Paul and Nicola’s three children all felt the warmth of the community’s support at the weekend. Erin led the symbolic switching on of the lights at the Roger Casement’s club, while Conor played in the U10 tournament and Ryan in the U12s.

Beyond what he offered around the club, Paul McKeever was a husband, a father, a son, a brother, an uncle, a friend.

It’s on days like Saturday that you see the real value of the GAA. The community in Portglenone and around Ulster wrapped its arms around the McKeevers and offered them a few hours of solace.

Young footballers don’t realise they’re doing it. All they see is a ball and a set of posts. But in their innocence, they can lift the spirits of entire villages and towns.

Watching them doesn’t make troubles disappear, but it can lift the fog for a while.

In an Ireland that monetises and commercialises and moves every day away from the great traits that once defined it, adult football has always offered a rare extension of that childhood simplicity.

For a couple of hours, you get to step into the safe haven of the changing room and remove yourself from the real world.

Pressures within football have been allowed to grow, and while that has led to an improved spectacle and greater levels of skill and fitness, it’s the craic that often suffers.

Stepping into a changing room where the drill sergeant tells you to hurry up and get changed, because training starts at 7.30 and not a second later. You get out and you’re not allowed to have a shot at goal until you’ve done a proper warm-up. You do that in silence. The only words heard for the next hour fall into line with the regiment.

Half the team only goes inside at the end to lift their gear and get straight into the car. Where football was once a 90-minute window where social interaction was half the point of going, it’s become such a serious business now that it’s almost self-defeating.

It’s supposed to be a form of escapism. It’s within the changing room that the community has its roots. A group of footballers, hurlers, camogs find a bond and develop friendships that everything else grows out from.

In rural hubs like Portglenone, the sense of community comes more naturally. Where the GAA has always struggled is in bigger towns and cities. And yet in a lot of cases, whatever enclaves exist in urban areas do still largely rely on the GAA’s influence.

Speaking to The Irish News recently, presidential nominee Jarlath Burns accused the Irish government of disrespecting the organisation and taking them for granted.

When the government undertook its most recent national strategic plan, it didn’t enlist the help of the GAA. That was unlike in the early 2000s, when the GAA were asked to pitch in.

At that time, they planned to develop nine hub towns. They were all medium-sized towns whose “population can be drawn on to support the economic activity of the gateways”.

It was a 20-year plan unveiled in 2002. But in recent years, they’ve gone the other way and practically abandoned the rural towns and villages that were once its greatest strength.

The further west you go, the deeper you have to dig for hope. Barring the good fortune of having a nice rock face or a famous son on whom you can hinge a cottage tourism industry, there isn’t much to sustain the population.

In so many cases, the only thing that prevents communities from eroding completely away is the GAA.

Croke Park is far from blameless itself, though. This week alone, they showed a disdain for their own members and the communities they’d accuse the government of neglecting by refusing to take part in a TV debate on RTÉ with regards the fixtures situation.

It’s one they created the illusion of wanting to fix by building a fixtures task force earlier this year, with voices from all the various stakeholders, but are actually completely undermining by forcing through a second tier championship.

It’s all the one big pot. If the GAA doesn’t make meaningful change to the fixture issues, then rural clubs are going to find the struggle to stay going ever greater.

If the club doesn’t survive, the community doesn’t survive, and everything that ‘community’ means is lost.

And if that doesn’t survive, then who or what is left to wrap their arms around a grieving house and give it the strength to go on?

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