Andy Watters: If you don’t use them you’ll lose them

Charlie Smyth story shows how we can never take players for granted in the GAA

New Orleans Saints star Charlie Smyth and Leader Kicking coaches with a group of young hopefuls at St Colman's College last week
New Orleans Saints star Charlie Smyth and Leader Kicking coaches with a group of young hopefuls at St Colman's College last week

THE story of Charlie Smyth’s rise from warming the bench at Mayobridge last year to (I hope) fame, fortune and the Super Bowl with New Orleans Saints is an inspirational one.

It’s also a reminder of how we can never take any player for granted in the GAA because there’s no guarantee they’ll hang around if they don’t feel wanted and appreciated.

Monaghan manager Vinny Corey rightly pointed out recently how GAA players are “ripe for the picking” for professional sports outlets. New doors are opening all the time for our super-fit, disciplined, amateur athletes whether it’s to soccer, or Aussie Rules, athletics like Ciara Mageean and even boxing where former Armagh players James Freeman and Fearghus Quinn are both pushing on with professional careers.

Meanwhile, the old trapdoors like drink or drugs, or just settling for the quiet life on the sofa are all still there.

When they left him on the bench last year, Smyth’s managers at club and county level couldn’t have known that the athletic young teacher with the right foot like a traction engine would make such a meteoric rise from nowhere to signing a three-year contract at the New Orleans Saints in the space of a few months.

Smyth couldn’t have known it himself but he says that if he been first choice with Down – and even if he been playing with his club - he would probably never have felt the urge to take the first step on a journey that led to the NFL.

Charlie Smyth smiling at the camera
Charlie Smyth has signed with the NFL's New Orleans Saints, who play in the NFC South division. PICTURE: NFL UK

If he’d some Mystic Meg instinct he might lose the lad he helped to nuture in his first Ulster U20 Championship winning side, Down manager Conor Laverty might have acted differently and kept him in his team. But Laverty doesn’t have a crystal ball (as far as I know) and, in all fairness, no-one had ever done what Charlie Smyth has before!

The Mournemen had an encouraging season last year – narrowly missing out on promotion, beating Donegal in the Ulster Championship and getting to the final of the Tailteann Cup. If Laverty had persisted with Smyth would Down have done better? We’ll never know.

Would Smyth have been Down’s first-choice this season if the NFL opportunity hadn’t come along? Again, we’ll never know.

That Smyth couldn’t get a game with Mayobridge is harder to fathom but, then again, goalkeeping is a specialist position with intricate kickout strategies to devise and a defence to organise etc. Because he was training with Down and not at club sessions, manager Stephen Poacher obviously decided to go with someone else. Again he couldn’t have known what was around the corner.

Whatever the reasons, the fact is that a very bright talent has been lost and that is a shame for the GAA in general and Down and Mayobridge in particular because Smyth obviously could have developed into a shining star in the game.

He saw doors closed to him but he had the resilience, strength of character, determination and, of course, the talent to find a different path for himself and when the NFL opportunity came his way he absolutely grabbed it.

Charlie Smyth was playing senior inter-county and senior championship football last year so that is serious stuff.

In the GAA, and in all other sports, we have to remember that it’s not all so serious particularly at underage level where we have to see the big picture and keep the doors open for all of our young players with an eye to the future.

Unfortunately there are too many examples of where that doesn’t happen and the one that follows really puzzles me.

A young lad was looking forward to a primary school blitz a few weeks ago. A good player in a class of talented youngsters, you would rarely see him without the gear on him and football was never far away from any conversation.

When I heard he was going to the tournament I fully expected him to get on well – to have a go and try his best. Then I heard he didn’t get on. At all.

He spent the whole tournament (which his school didn’t win) standing on the sideline watching and didn’t get a minute of action. Not a single minute.

Take a step back and get it in perspective: It was a primary school blitz.

What do you get for winning that? A cup, a few tin medals, a picture in the paper…

So that’s more important than giving all the kids a chance?

You can imagine the scene when the disappointed lad got home. His parents would have suspected something was up the minute they heard him come through the door and the look on his face would have confirmed it.

Surely we need to build them up, not knock them down? You might gain a cup but you risk losing a player and you miss out on the opportunity to lock them in with an experience they might never forget.

Talking of experiences youngsters will never forget, Charlie Smyth and some of the Leader Kicking coaches held a taster session at St Colman’s College in Newry during the Easter Holidays. The session was free and it was booked out in a flash by eager youngsters who got to meet their new hero and have a go at kicking an American Football over the bar a few times.

We’ve lost Charlie but the GAA can feel proud that one of our own is boldly going where no Gael has gone before.

He’s a reminder of the talent that is all around us - we can never take it for granted.