Kicking Out: Football doesn't last long - make the most of it
I’M not sure exactly what age I was. Old enough to remember I was there, young enough to forget when.
To the outside world it was a nondescript league game. To the people of Drum and the Foreglen, it was an annual war.
I can still see the high ball dropping in on Foreglen’s goalkeeper and Peter Blight, the ultimate goal-hanger, squeezing it across the line. The bragging rights stayed on our side of the Black Bush, a figment of imagination that represented the border between us and them.
At eight or nine years of age, senior football seems a lifetime away.
It’s like waiting to turn 18 so you can go out on a Saturday night and hand your ID to the bouncer without a bead of sweat rolling down your brow.
You wait all this time for it to happen and then when it does, time does its thing and goes on double-speed until your Saturday nights become lessons of diplomacy, bartering with toddlers over the balance between toast and Topsy and Tim.
Youth isn’t always wasted on the young. A lot of people use their youth well. Those that don’t just give the whole thing a bad name.
A football career goes past like a train. At first, it’s gradual, slow. It picks up pace. Next thing it’s hurtling at 120mph until, before you know it, you’re at the end of the line and you’ve no choice but to get off.
The trick in any successful GAA club is convincing its youth that they don’t want to be standing on that platform at 35 years of age looking back down the line for their fulfilment, wishing they’d chosen a different path.
When teams win in Gaelic football, we go mad looking for their secrets. What did they do that was so special and so different that made them champions?
This column could easily be about how some serious people in Watty Graham’s Glen met on October 13, 2007 and drew a map to glory. On Sunday, they found their ‘X’.
They did all that and they had to do it. All the work put in by men like Fergal P McCusker and Enda Gormley cannot be overstated. It was the genesis of joy.
But as McCusker recognised in an interview after the game, Glen’s underage successes have been light outside of that incredible spell of Ulster minor titles.
They won four of them between 2011 and 2014.
Goalkeeper Connlan Bradley was their oldest player at the weekend, followed by Emmett Bradley, Michael Warnock and Ciaran McFaul. By the time next season starts, Bradley and Warnock will be 29, and McFaul will be 28.
The rest are all in their early-to-mid 20s bar Ethan Doherty, a freakish, slaloming, bombing teenager who could wreak absolute havoc in a Derry jersey over the next decade.
As a team, they possess the quality and the age profile to win two, three, four county titles in the next few years.
And then time will catch up on them, just as it will on Slaughtneil, and on Naomh Conaill, and on Scotstown, and on Kilcoo.
For rural GAA teams, the window for success is more bathroom than bay.
Glen’s biggest success has been bucking the trend of townie teams.
Of the key components from those four minor successes, they’ve lost virtually nothing in the decade since.
The saying that there’s birth, there’s death and in between there’s maintenance applies across to football.
Football teams that aren’t given the proper development will flounder. And every team dies in the end. The key is in the maintenance, the keeping together of things.
Glen have maintained their resources brilliantly.
It’s all about the decisions those men make. Having Malachy O’Rourke at the head of the table has helped focus them too. Where football wavered in the list of priorities for some, he solidified it.
The message was simple: ‘Glen are going to win this championship and if you want to be part of it, football will be a big priority’.
Coming behind them are Lavey. It might take them a few years yet but they’ll start winning soon and then Glen will go off the radar and the cycle will refresh itself, with someone else coming in behind.
“All through history, the underage titles in Derry have been won by towns. Dungiven, Ballinascreen, Bellaghy, Glen, Magherafelt – generally speaking, and that’s who wins underage titles,” said Seamus Downey in this paper earlier this year.
“It’s not given out to the Glenullins, Laveys, Newbridges, Castledawsons, Slaughtneils. Now and again, yes you will, but Lavey don’t win a pile of underage titles and never will, regardless of how well we coach teams. That will be the domain of the big towns.”
You can have all the meetings and all the blueprints in the world but you need a whole lot of good fortune to win anything.
Coaches get tired. Committees get old and set in their ways. Players disappear. Other teams get better around you. That’s the way it goes.
The people of Maghera will always have what they achieved at the weekend. No man had ever brought John McLaughlin to them before Connor Carville did.
There are no guarantees that Glen will win any more. They only need to ask a few of their own clubmen which occupies more of their thoughts: The All-Ireland they did win in ’93, or the ones they didn’t in the years around it?
They could still get to 35 and leave the platform with regrets. There’s more for them to achieve but their maintenance has to be right.
Slaughtneil could feel the same if the All-Ireland they’ve been desperately close to disappears from view. For years the Ulster that Kilcoo craved evaded them and then they won it, only to miss out so heartbreakingly on an All-Ireland. Conor Laverty, a couple of the Branagans, Niall McEvoy, they’ll be big losses when they go.
Scotstown have had a decade of scratching at the Ulster Club title, but when the Hughes’ and Rory Beggan and Donal Morgan go, someone else will have their day.
What Glen achieved at the weekend was the result of 15 years of hard work.
Good teams don’t stop. They’ll fancy Ulster, and they’ll fancy Derry next year, and the year after. From having never won one, they’ll step off the train in five or six years’ time and feel disappointed if they haven’t added a fair bit more silverware.
Football is a very short, sharp journey that you don’t know the length of until you’re done.
And when you are, there’s no going back to fix it.
All those wondrous bright eyes with #UTW painted on their faces won’t remember the details of Sunday but when they’re the age of Emmett Bradley, they’ll recall the day they decided they wanted to play senior football and win championships.
Emmett will be long gone by then, as they all will.
Glen’s golden generation have not wasted their youth.
When they step off the train, that will keep them smiling into their old age.