Declan Bogue: What’s happened to GAA's young talent?
The old dressing rooms at St Patrick’s Park, Tempo, had a woozy notion of ‘Welcome To Hell’ about them.
The room was too small. Every surface was tiled and sucked any heat away. The benches too narrow and hard to relax on. Showers leaked. Anybody in the parish could come in puffing a cigarette on matchday, have a quick look and leave without being reprimanded. If the senior team took a bad beating the room could be full of hangers-on, hunting for gossip first-hand.
This wasn’t an era of statistical analysis, it was a time of being accused of being fat and lazy, or most damagingly to a player’s reputation, ‘yella.’
Some years back a few forward-thinkers in the club felt that our players deserved better, and pursued a grant available through Sport NI for new facilities.
There were hoops to jump through and participation levels had to increase.
We already had a ladies’ team in operation and the appetite for hurling was already catered for elsewhere in the parish.
So they took a leap and established a thirds team — which became referred to as the Juniors Bs. Back then, the minor and under-16 sides were cleaning up with leagues and Championships.
This new side would cater for young lads coming off the underage teams, cutting their teeth for a season before moving into the senior ranks.
The first year was 2006 and although no wins were recorded, the achievement was to field in every game.
History was made on September 8, 2007 when the ‘Bs’ as they came to be known, beat Aghadrumsee on a long-forgotten Friday.
That started a roll that ended in defeat in the division four league final, to another club who fielded senior footballers while Tempo coach, Kevin King, remained loyal to those that got to the final. When he looked to the bench, there were 12 subs. Some joked that there might have to be a fourth team.
You will be glad to know that the Bs are still in operation, although under greatly altered circumstances.
A small number of the young turks that cleaned up underage silverware have graduated to senior ranks, but most have drifted away as life took them on different turns.
In 1996 as a 17-year-old, Brian McCaffrey first suggested that he and I should go and play with the junior team. His career peaked with a Senior Player of the Year Award four years later, while mine stalled a good distance beneath that.
Now, Brian is the Bs manager. He made me captain and apart from a Sheehanesque seven-from-nine record from free-kicks, I’m just about holding it together on the field, nonetheless delighted to be captaining a team for the first time and wringing every last drop of enjoyment out of playing.
A few weeks ago, we drew level with Aghadrumsee [them again!] midway through the second half but their fresh legs pushed on and they took the points. The week after, we met Erne Gaels and they beat us by seven points. In the corresponding fixture last year, we beat them and it sparked celebrations normally associated with All-Ireland winners.
The age profile of the Bs is not good. Nine of the side that played Erne Gaels were over 30.
Attracting underage players is not as easy as it once was, but this isn’t a problem restricted to Tempo. After another local club were knocked out of the senior Championship last year, one promising youngster prompted open-jawed disbelief from his clubmates when he informed them he would not be available for the rest of the league campaign.
His excuse was he wished to concentrate on weights before the following season.
I am open to correction, but three other clubs in Fermanagh had thirds teams over the last decade, and we are the last club standing.
A few years back, a ‘Social Gaelic’ scheme was launched, with informal tournaments and a ‘pick-up game’ feel. But social football, especially one with a reduced physicality, is an oxymoron.
Anyone who plays wants to wear their parish colours and do battle with those that dwell over the mountain.
Football and hurling are tough games and any efforts to sanitise them into a tag rugby model are always doomed to failure, no matter how worthy the intentions.
On page one of the GAA Official Guide is a paragraph that reads, ‘The primary purpose of the GAA is the organisation of native pastimes and the promotion of athletic fitness as a means to create a disciplined, self- reliant, national-minded manhood.’
With our raggle-taggle Dad’s Army, we manage to tick that box.
To be still playing at our age is a thing of beauty.