MANY Irish kids will have had some sort of GAA involvement as a part of their upbringing. Growing up in Letterkenny, I was no different. After all, people around my age would’ve started playing in the early 1990s. Owing to the fact that Donegal had won the 1992 All-Ireland, we had no shortage of heroes to look up to and emulate.
Football has changed a lot since those days. This was a time when the jerseys we wore were made out of cotton which, when they got soaked in the rain, became unusually heavy and difficult to run around in. Collars seemed to protrude up as far as your ears if you happened to go for that Eric Cantona-look while our gloves were itchy yellow-coloured woollen things with sticky black velcro dots. The Mikasa gloves, as you might recall.
In those days, being a Donegal supporter, my early heroes were the likes of Manus Boyle, Anthony Molloy, Tony Boyle, Charlie Mulgrew and Declan Bonner to name but a few. In the back garden of my family home in Gortlee, it wasn’t uncommon for me to pretend I was playing in the forward-line for the county team alongside these guys.
My youthful imagination would transform it into Croke Park on All-Ireland Final day where I’d be providing my services as a commentator too. Of course, a sprinkling of drama had to be thrown in just to add to the occasion. Usually it was a scenario where my invisible opponent—mainly Dublin—were two points up and within touching distance of a victory going into stoppage time. “Foley in possession.. plays a one-two with Boyle [in reality, off the oil tank]… and Foley has it back and there’s the shot! There’s the goal! (Yaaassss!!) Johnny Foley scores the goal that will surely see the Sam Maguire cup go back to Donegal! What a moment for this young man. Foley is the Hero!” Then I’d run around in celebration. Taking in the raucous applause from the adoring fans all waving their green and gold flags [in reality, the garage] before raising the decorated trophy aloft [some random generic sports day trophy that had been left lying about the house].
The players we looked up to in those days often seemed to be of a stockier build and frame than today’s more athletic-looking lads. The sort of people you’d imagine when you’d hear the phrase: “Back when men were men… and sheep were nervous!”
At underage level, I remember some of the coaches even then, being somewhat bemused to the idea of players even wearing gloves, while anything other than a black pair of boots would run the risk of having you tagged as something of a ‘Fancy Dan.’
The first GAA club I joined as a kid of about eight years of age was St Eunan’s. Nowadays they have a state of the art facility at their O’Donnell Park grounds on the outskirts of the town. It looks fantastic and very fitting with the modern day. Hundreds of kids take part in the Sunday Morning Academy where all coaches are properly trained and experienced. That wasn’t always the case back in my day. The training area was often knee-deep with rushes which had sprouted up out of the ground. Behind the goalposts, there was a splattering of stingy nettles. This meant that retrieving a ball—as per the rules of ‘hits it, gets it—entailed rolling up your socks to your knees and maybe having a docking leaf to hand just in case the worst happened. Ouch!
Owing to the fact that my dad took on a voluntary coaching role with the Letterkenny Gaels, when they were founded as a club in 1996, I found myself playing there for a season-and-a-bit at under-12s. “Sure there’s not much point in me driving you to Eunan’s and then me heading across town to the Gaels, now is there?” was his philosophy on the matter. I didn’t really mind what club I was playing for, to be honest. When you’re that age, you’re content enough just to be outside in the fresh air, running around and kicking ball with your friends from school.
One of my earliest recollections from the Gaels was that so many of the grown-ups at the club were ‘blow-ins,’ usually from more midwestern and southern parts of Ireland. Granted, my parents were too, but when compared to St Eunan’s—where everyone spoke more like a true Townie—I quickly had to familiraise myself with more southern-sounding terminology. “Now, yer sucking diesel,” was one and “schtick de feckin’ ball over de feckin bar!” was a more midwestern/Connaught one. It goes without saying that when I hear these phrases now, I take no notice, but you have to remember that this was a time when—outside of my parents and relatives—I’d never really heard any accents that came from areas much further past Bundoran.
Team buses weren’t a regular feature on our matchdays either. Generally, it was assumed the parents would all chip in and help out with the driving. Sometimes it wasn’t uncommon to see about seven or eight youngsters piled into a modestly-sized Ford Mondeo or, for the kid who was running late, to be pulling his socks and boots on while still in the backseat of a moving car.
In my first year, and pretty much only proper full year at the Gaels, we reached a County Final. We got beat, but my abiding memory from that day was looking around after the final whistle and just being in awe of how mesmerising it was to have togged out at MacCumhaill Park in Ballybofey; even if I was only thrown on to play for the last few minutes. After all, this was the county team’s ground where my heroes had played. The County Ground! In those days, the main stand was more of a terrace and just one big slab of gray steps and concrete. I very much doubt that floodlights were even a thing at the time. Nowadays, of course, that stand is much more impressive-looking with its green and gold seating which the lights reflect and bounce off perfectly. Still though, at the time, it was just wonderful to have played there for the first time.
In some capacity or another, I’ve been pretty much with St Eunan’s ever since—bar my tenure with the Dunedin Connollys club when I lived in Edinburgh—but no matter what team or club you’re with, there’s so many things that remain common across the board.
Anyone who’s ever played gaelic games at underage level will likely tell you about the pungent whiff of Deep Heat pain-relief cream when you enter the dressing room. They might even tell you about the time they mouthed off at the team manager before being quickly reminded that the manager is also their father.
As you get a little bit older and into your teens, there’s a possibility that the innocence of your under-12 days has faded and you developed a bit more of a ‘win at all cost’ mentality. Like, for example, the lad you’re marking might kindly enquire “So have ye been training long?” and you’d just completely blank the question without uttering a single word back. ‘That sure showed him!’
When you scored a point or a goal as a child, it was hard to contain the excitement of it all. You’d leap about in a circle embracing the hugs and cheers from all your friends and team-mates but now that you’re older, a simple punch-of-the-air and a nonchalant jog back to your position does the job. I suppose you have to remember that, at this stage, we were in our teens and sometimes we’d girls to impress on the rare occasion they’d have come along to watch one of our Saturday evening games. Usually, because they’d taken a shine to the cool dude who scored points for fun, but that didn’t mean that a half-back like me wasn’t looking to get myself known to them.
Gaelic football has changed a lot, even since the days when I was growing up and I’m still only in my thirties. Aerodynamic-nylon jerseys have replaced the heavy-when-wet cotton ones which, thankfully, means the club badge doesn’t cut into your nipples anymore. Under-Armor fitted gear has taken the place of the old reliable white thermal vest that your mother demanded you wore. Mouthguards are pretty much mandatory. A huge part of the players’ training incorporates prescribed strength-and-conditioning and nutritional advice and fair play to them, but I’m still glad to have gathered the memories that I did from back in the not-too-distant past.
Follow Johnny Foley on Twitter: @JohnnyFoley1984. Keep up to date with his new podcast on Twitter too: @ArmchairFanatic