GAA Football

Kicking Out: Heroes change but the game stays the same

When Derry played in our front garden at home, Anthony Tohill caught every kickout going. Now the boys up the line want to be Conor Glass or Paul Cassidy. Picture by Oliver McVeigh

Tohill makes the catch! He’s fouled.
Time’s almost up. One last attack.
Derry are still level with Galway in this All-Ireland semi-final.
Ten seconds left. Tohill kicks the ball low inside. Brolly wins it! Brolly taking on the Galway defence. Looking for the shot. He gives it to Downey. Downey, back to Tohill.
Tohill shoots…. wide!
But wait, time isn’t up. The ref says one more kickout.
Tohill makes the catch….

IN all the years that Derry games were played in our front garden and Jimmy Smyth did the commentary in an accent even Graeme McDowell would be embarrassed by, they never lost once.

Time had no end. When Anthony Tohill kicked it wide, the referee would always display a soft spot for the Oak Leaf and find it in his heart to locate an extra 30 seconds.

Derry always won the kickout. And if that shot went wide too and the ref’s impartiality was in danger of being called into question, sure hadn’t he counted the score wrong in the first place? A draw.

With the U12s not playing until Saturday morning in Ardmore, there was space in the calendar for a replay.

And with that, time just started over.

Poor Brian McGilligan hardly ever got a kick. Whereas now I’d be dosing people on Twitter with his unseen donkey work, throwing in a few possession stats and posting clips of his eight turnovers, the mind didn’t quite work that way as a seven-year-old.

Tohill kicked the frees. Tohill scored the goals. Tohill kicked off right and left. Tohill did the interviews and the real Jimmy Smyth would let his name out every other sentence. So in our garden, Tohill caught all the kickouts and delivered all the ball to Brolly. That’s just the way it was.

Joe Brolly was somebody and nobody. He was no pundit, no columnist, no political influencer, no barrister. He was the skinny lad from four mile in the road, whose house you could drive by at the head of the Station Road and know where it was. He was left-footed too, so he won all the ball.

There weren’t really half-forwards. A kick inside from midfield was always on, so Barton, Heaney and Cassidy didn’t exist.

It suited that Damian McCusker was a leftie as well. He’d come in and kick the ball as high as he could into the sky, so that by the time it was gathered, he’d magically caught up with it and become Tohill.

McCusker would have been a better fill for the various steel goalposts at the foot of the garden through the years, only replaced when the two ends of the thin, bent crossbar would hang down too far to join hands in the middle any more.

At one stage we constructed wooden posts. When I say ‘we’, I mean other people with real life skills.

They were made out of 4x2s, stood straight up on their end, no netting, with one stanchion dug into the rising grassy bank behind and the other nailed into a tree stump.

Those goals lasted for years. And then one day during a Champions League final at Stade Gortnaghico, one of the elder brothers took the ball around me and went to drive it through the net for badness so I’d have to go down the field and get it.

I felt like a superhero after making up the yards and straining every inch to get a toe on the ball, deflecting it up on to the crossbar. What a save, I thought.

The ball cannoned back into the garden and the goals literally split down the middle and fell in a heap. And he just looked at me and said “what the f*** did you do that for?”

Beyond broken goals, other threats to endless hours spent kicking were having a hawthorn hedge right up one side and a run of barbed wire fencing behind the goals. Some footballs lasted months. Others burst with the price tag still stuck to them.

There was something about a Cup Champions ball that just hit different. It would fly in such a way that an off-the-crossbar-and-in thunderbastard was a regular occurrence.

That said, when Beckham turned up for the odd game of soccer and seemed to get an inordinate amount of free-kicks slightly left of centre, 25 yards out (which he’d take with his bad foot, for whatever reason), he didn’t appreciate the ball’s disobedience for the law of instep aerodynamics.

Tohill and Brolly were only a handlin’ most days because to play Gaelic football meant you spent half the time climbing the fence and running through Henry Colgan’s field to retrieve the ball.

As the same brother took into the hurling more and more, I became a really rubbish Damien Fitzhenry instead. We’d scour Mickey Fox’s wee shed next door for a ‘keeper hurl that I could hardly more than swing. The ash would be the colour of November sky, the grip hanging on for dear life and the band loosened so that it would slice you open if you caught it wrong, but it was basically only a prop anyway.

He’d want to use a proper sliotar but I’d trade off the fact that I was no use with my hands and if he did damage to my head by hitting a hurling ball off it, I wouldn’t have much left to live off, so it was often downgraded to a tennis ball. It was that or he had nobody to fetch it for him, so I usually won and lost all at the same time.

Nobody ever had to do nets playing football because I would volunteer.

There’d be one-on-ones the length of the garden, two-on-ones, two-on-twos, knockout tournaments and many an afternoon’s headers and volleys when we couldn’t be bothered to walk a mile to the pitch.

Wrapped up in that childhood there was joy and enthusiasm and tranquility and love and war and peace and Tohill and Brolly.

It mightn’t have made us any better but it didn’t make us any worse. Those days passed in a blink.

Part of you thinks that the idea of it has been shot down by smartphones, that there aren’t children like that any more.

But my wife’s nephews live up the lane from us and seeing them is like being transported back in time.

From they were no age, when they’re not out on the quad helping their Granda, they’ve spent every waking hour in their own Croke Park at the back of the house.

Bellaghy U9s were playing Ballinderry last week. We called in a run.

Michael stood out a mile, looking up, kicking off both feet, running himself ragged with every ounce that he had. Joe is the same, and James hasn’t started yet but he’s in the mould too.

Their parents both have All-Ireland medals, the father with Ballinderry from 2002 and their mother at schools’ level with St Mary’s Magherafelt camogs.

The boys go outside after school and, half days dressed as Everton fans in Liverpool jerseys, the innocence and the joy they get out of endlessly kicking the ball around is a treasure rarely found now.

They were in Croke Park for the first time two weeks ago as Derry beat Clare. And now their garden is occupied by Paul Cassidy and Gareth McKinless and Conor Glass. And Mo Salah turns up the odd day.

Time changes, but it never ends.

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