At half-time in Sunday’s Ulster semi-final in Newry, something wonderful broke out. Having gone a man down, the players of Maghery marched to their dressing rooms fuming. Up at the top end of the pitch — the Newry River end — the all blacks of Kilcoo huddled up and settled their heart rates.
s they left the field, it was swarmed with dozens of children, some barely more than toddlers, the vast majority from Kilcoo.
They took over the pitch with their footballs, kicking, catching and running in all directions. Those parents that had their children in Kilcoo tracksuits would have been feeling smug at their foresight.
Other children, dressed as if coming directly from Mass, gave their parents some anxious moments as little Micheál threatened to put the knee out of his new chinos.
If this is indeed the PlayStation Generation, then we can only guess that game consoles are banned in the Kilcoo parish. Instead, I sat transfixed by the rosy-cheeked innocence of it all, thinking of my own toddler at home with a temperature that crept over 40 degrees all weekend and how transfixed he would have been at this sight.
It brought to life the words of Seamus Heaney;
‘We marked the pitch: four jackets for four goalposts…
Youngsters shouting their heads off in a field.
Youngsters shouting their heads off in a field
As the light died and they kept on playing
Because by then they were playing in their heads’.
And then, to our own childhood and the memories of kickabouts that punctuated nondescript league games.
Half-time of any game was a clarion call for people of all ages to take a pitch over. Back then, clubs were less precious about the matchday ball. The last player in possession would toss it to the nearest child and off they went.
Weans haring after a ball, just for the thrill of giving it a kick.
To be wearing your Sunday shoes was a tremendous disappointment when the action broke out. As well as running the risk of a scolding when returning home caked in mud, there was a grave danger of slipping and ending up with a damp ass.
The joy of ‘The Half-time Show’ was not exclusively the preserve of youngsters.
Characters of all ages would join in, such as ‘Toots’ Brennan in my own club, who manned the goalmouth, putting plenty of elevation on his kickouts to determine which youngsters had the courage to catch a wet ball dropping from the skies like a comet.
A quick digression. Twenty years ago, I worked in a double-glazing factory and one of my colleagues was a gloriously colourful man who everyone referred to as ‘Daddy’.
In the weekly Friday evening games of indoor soccer, one sideline of the court was fringed with a curtain. To venture down that flank with the ball in the proximity of Daddy was to risk being crumpled on the floor chewing a mouthful of local council-grade curtain, with eight other players laughing hard at your embarrassment.
Character-forming, some call it.
But Daddy made his reputation by entering the field of play during a long-forgotten Championship game in the early-90s, when the half-time show was the preserve of substitutes, and joined in, wearing a fashionable pair of slip-on shoes.
The people of Kilcoo leave their children — supposedly the children who interact only in digital form — to run and kick and play on the same pitch where they can see their clubmen Jerome and Ryan Johnston, Paul Devlin, Darragh O’Hanlon and Conor Laverty playing in the red and black of Down on the biggest days of them all.
By allowing them the run of the place, rather than enforcing some non-existent Health and Safety dogma (one Kilcoo source told me that this once was the case, but the children themselves are fairly bullish), the hosts, Down County Board, are planting a seed of the GAA in young minds.
Which contrasts with their mean stance in awarding the league title to Castlewellan, after Kilcoo could not fulfil the original fixture.
In this situation, both Kilcoo’s and Castlewellan’s youngsters denied another big day out.
And you can be damn sure nobody in Castlewellan will feel anything other than embarrassed by that league title in the record books.