GAA Football

From Brother Christopher to Burren... GAA is a way of life for Antrim's Gearóid Adams

Antrim's Gearóid Adams leaves Tyrone's Brian McGuigan in his wake in an Ulster Championship at Casement Park. Picture: Ann McManus
Andy Watters

WHETHER you support both, either, or neither, you can’t deny that commitment to a cause is an Adams family trait.

Like his father before him, Gerry Adams’s path took him to the Republican movement and then into politics but his son Gearóid gravitated towards sport and the GAA has become a way of life for him.

“Well, he’s my favourite son,” jokes Adams senior of his only child.

“Everybody is proud of their children and he’s a great Gael. I’m a great believer in sport and we were all reared in that ambience of Gaelic Games. It’s such a wonderful community to be part of, such a great organisation and Gearóid is part of all of that.

“The Antrim team that he was involved with was a good side. Anto Finnegan, and big Joe Quinn, Kevin Madden… To be in Casement and watch Gearóid play for Antrim, there was always a great sense of pride no matter what the result.

“There’s no way to spend a Saturday or a Sunday than watching GAA and for Gearóid to represent our county, and to do so for so long, from minors right through to the 30s, was a real achievement.”

YEARS pass in the blink of an eye. One minute you’re pulling your boots on alongside Quinn, Madden and Finnegan and going out to chase James McCartan or Oisin McConville around Casement Park (or make them chase you), the next...

“A click of the fingers and it’s gone,” says Gearóid.

Of course he misses those days and, sadly, he’ll always miss his friend Anto who passed away last month after a long battle with Motor Neurone disease. He tells a story about manager PJ O’Hare walking into the room on an Antrim training weekend to find Anto performing ‘the worm’ (a breakdance move). That was Anto – larger than life – and they shared a few famous victories and lots of laughs over many years with ‘the Saffs’.

“People talk about Anto and they remember the matches,” says Gearóid.

“But there was much more craic with him when you’re playing and training and going to away matches and sneaking out for a pint or whatever.

“We’re the same age and me and him and a few others did that from we were 19 until we were 32. He was a character.”

After 13 years playing for Antrim and two decades for Belfast’s St John’s, Gearóid moved into coaching and management – first with his club and then, after two spells with his county, as part of the Down management team. The connection to the Mourne county has endured and this weekend he’ll be on the line alongside Jim McCorry as Burren face Clonduff (another former club) in the Down senior championship semi-finals.

Add in school (he’s a PE teacher at Rathmore), his role as Antrim’s Director of Football and his commitments to underage teams at his club - all four of his kids play - and it’s plain to see that Gearóid is as committed a GAA man as you’ll meet.

A minor, U21 and senior (1998) championship winner with ‘the Johnnies’, he captained a promising Antrim minor team in the early part of the decade and was promoted to the senior panel in 1993. Two years later, he’d nailed down a place in the starting line-up. Managers and team-mates came and went and there were many more losses than wins but, until the end of his career, Adams was ever-present through League and Championship campaigns – he didn’t miss a single game.

Despite the best efforts of capable players like Charlie McStravick, Kieran Donnelly, Locky McCurdy, Joe Kennedy, Paul McErlean, Stephen Mulvenna and others, Antrim had gone 13 years without winning in Ulster when Gearóid made his Championship debut again Cavan in ’95.

That drought went on and on but in 1999 Antrim won the All-Ireland ‘B’ competition and the confidence gained from that was the catalyst for the Ulster breakthrough which finally came against Down at Casement Park in 2000.

Suddenly a pent-up Saffron wave burst over a county that sprang out of the doldrums and welcomed Derry to a Casement Park bear pit for the semi-final.

“You could see the buzz in Antrim,” says Gearóid.

“You could see what it would be like if we were successful. That was the first time I ever felt that Casement was tiny – it was a big stadium but there was no space anywhere, the whole thing was enclosed and it was like you were in the colosseum.”

Shenny McQuillan had a chance to win it with a late free but Anthony Tohill’s fingertips and the width of the goalpost denied Antrim a place in the final.

Derry escaped with a draw and won the replay in front of over 30,000 but the Saffrons had shown they could be a force to be reckoned with, except… they didn’t kick on.

“Did we build on it?” asks Gearóid who answers his own question with a blunt: “No.”

He won many individual battles – he prided himself on that – but for the remainder of his career, Antrim slipped back into the alsoran box. The end for him came in 2005. Despite playing well, he was subbed at half-time in the drawn Ulster Championship clash with Cavan and, although he returned for the replay and the subsequent Qualifier loss to Meath, he knew right then, as he sat alone in the changingrooms, that his watch was over.

HE’S not the first loyal county servant who deserved a better send-off and, unfortunately, he probably won’t be the last but the fire will always burn in his belly when it comes to Antrim. Just give him a nudge and he’ll give you chapter and verse on senior teams, club teams, promising players, underage structures, schools, facilities, grounds…

Is a future county chairman? No, he rules that out. He likes being on the pitch, hands on, he’s not a committee room guy and there is so much untapped potential he wants to see improve and develop.

For that to happen a steady stream of talent has to be coming through to senior level and it’s a surprise when he explains that his club St John’s – Ulster champions in the 1970s – hasn’t been able to field their own minor team this year. You imagine that city clubs would be teeming with potential players but, given the way the GAA clubs sit cheek by jowl in west Belfast, maybe that’s not such a shock.

“From U14 down we’re good but at U16 and minor we’re struggling for numbers,” he says.

“Maybe we took our eye off the ball because we always had numbers but playing hurling and football is hard in a city with so many clubs.

“We’re all in small communities in Belfast. It’s not like the country thing where if you live in Burren, you’re Burren, or if you’re from Kilcoo, you’re Kilcoo or the way it is in Crossmaglen or whatever. In the city it’s more about family ties and just getting kids interested. You have to go looking for people and that’s something we need to do more - all clubs need to go into primary schools and try to develop that link.

“Yes, we’re a big club still and we’ll probably rectify what we’re doing with numbers but there are a lot of amalgamations in Belfast now because of the lack of numbers.”

Why is that? What about the Gaelfast programme – wasn’t that supposed to sort out the city’s issues? Hopefully that programme will make a difference down the line but Gearóid admits that an old enemy is playing its part.

“Soccer has definitely had an impact,” he says.

“There are a lot of soccer teams who have moved up a level and they’re also throwing a wee bit of money at it, so if I’m 50-50 between Gaelic Football-soccer and I’m getting money for one then I’m going to pick soccer.

“The competitions seem well organised and they run smoothly whereas you have to have a real grá for Gaelic Games because you’re getting nothing from it and the training is harder. The amount of training the modern player does is completely different from when I started.”

That slave-to-the-wheel seriousness is another issue. GAA was once based around having the craic with your friends and team-mates but that has been replaced by an admirable, but ultimately dull, devotion to training regimes, nutrition and early nights.

“When I started at St John’s, everybody went into the social club for a pint after training,” says Gearóid.

“We had an in-house game between the reserves and the seniors on the Thursday night and we battered each other and then went into the club and waited for the manager to pick the team. He put the team up on the board and if you weren’t on you got blocked!

“If you didn’t drink you still went in and had a bit of craic and a game of pool or whatever. Now everybody just goes home after training. That social thing is missing.”

While he is concerned about numbers playing the game in Belfast he insists that the county “isn’t in any sort of emergency or catastrophe” but there are serious issues. Antrim continue to rely on under-developed natural talent and so the county is a long way behind their Ulster neighbours in terms of providing the infrastructure that is required to produce sustained success in the modern era.

“Club football in Antrim is decent but it’s just getting that progression,” he says.

“There’s still loads of GAA going on, we’re not in any sort of emergency or catastrophe but Antrim are still Division Three-Four-Three for the last how many years?

“Getting to Division Three is great for the footballers but there’s been no Casement now for a good few years and that centre needs to be built again.”

HIS father played at Casement as a youngster. The redevelopment of the stadium was heralded as the dawn of a new era for Antrim GAA but now, eight years and counting since it closed, it remains an overgrown eyesore.

“It is very disappointing and very unfortunate that it has been derelict now for such a long time,” says Gerry Adams.

“I’m just very hopeful that, with the effort of everyone involved, it will be rebuilt and it will prosper once again and we’ll be able to spectate there and that youngsters from the county will be able to go to their county ground.

“It will be good for the local community as well in terms of being a first class facility sensitive to the needs of its nearest neighbours but also a boost for the economy of west Belfast and Belfast generally.”

The Casement Park saga has dragged on far too long but Casement is the tip of the iceberg.

“We’re still years behind all the major counties,” says Gearóid.

“Go to any club in Down and they have a floodlit pitch but they aren’t there in Belfast unless you’re going to a 4G or a school. Clubs don’t have them in the city you have to go to Ballymena, or Cargin, or Portglenone.

“Lamh Dhearg have lights but they’re not match-fit and St John’s don’t have lights at Corrigan Park, the county ground. So there’s a need for more infrastructure in Antrim and in Belfast.”

Recently he took a role as director of football in Antrim with a brief to identify talented young players and equip them with the tools required to play county football. Again, Antrim are lagging behind other counties in that aspect.

“We had a teenage lad last year who had already played county football but hadn’t done any strength and conditioning,” he says.

“That wouldn’t happen in other counties. County footballers now are pure athletes so for a kid to have played county football and not to have experienced any S&C work is symptomatic of how far we’re behind. Young players need the proper nutritional advice, the proper S&C programme and the proper mental advice as well. You’re looking for that package to try and get the conveyor belt moving with a bit more quality coming through.

“There are some excellent footballers in Antrim but you have to be unearthing the next Tomas McCann, the next CJ McGourty or Mick McCann at an early age and bring them through.”

YOU can expect the lads he’ll work with to begin coming through over the next two or three years. That’s the future, the present is trying to win a championship with Burren and the St Mary’s club is Gearóid’s third sample of Down football.

The first was a season with Clonduff which came to premature end when he was enticed to manage Antrim. The next was an invite, extended by Cathal Murray, to join the late Eamonn Burns’s backroom team with the Down senior team.

He enjoys the cut-and-thrust nature of Down football and working alongside vastly-experienced manager Jim McCorry at Burren.

“Burren have loads of talent and, if they get their act together, they’re a match for anybody,” he says.

“Down club football is as good as there is but there just seems to be something missing at the moment. They need the right man to come in at senior level and over the next couple of years you’ll see Down getting back to where they used to be.

“I like the set-up in Down and the football is always tight, it’s always good.”

Burren play Clonduff in the semi-finals this weekend and if they get over that it’s… Well, let’s wait and see.

The lad who started out in Brother Christopher’s team at St Finian’s Primary School has learned to cross bridges when he comes to them.

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