Belfast Telegraph

Small clubs can stand tall

By Declan Bogue

Last weekend, I found myself at the home of the newly-crowned Down Junior champions, marvelling at the modest grounds of St Mary's, Glasdrumman.

As you enter the premises, a clubhouse leads onto their pitch. On the left sideline, the summits of the Mournes yawn skywards. If you are defending the clubhouse goals, your perspective is skewed as there is nothing from the back goals to the Isle of Man, bar the deep blue sea.

When you translate the placename from its Gaelic origins - Án Ghlásdromainn - it becomes 'The green small hill'. The highly unusual club colours reflect those of their location. Maroon is for the heather on the Mournes. Green represents where Percy French tells us the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea, and the blue is for the sea. They are St Mary's because she is the lady of the sea. Everything has a meaning, everything has a purpose.

You can imagine the pioneers of GAA in this area, clearing a field of rock and building the stone walls around the pitch. It takes hard men and women to survive and thrive in a place like this.

Glasdrumman are the only unbeaten side in Down this season. They have talented players such as Ryan Doran, Cormac Murphy and the Harrison brothers, Shane and Connaire, who have both represented Down at senior level.

There is no great surprise in their own county that they beat Ardglass to seal the Down Junior title as they would have been regarded as a perennial Intermediate side ever since they last won Junior honours in 1997.

Featuring as the winners of RTÉ's 2009 edition of 'Celebrity Bainisteoir' - with the late Derek Davis their guest manager - has kept their profile up, but in reality, they are just another club struggling to fend off the threats of emigration, fixture mismanagement and the rising costs associated with running a GAA club in the 21st Century.

They are remarkable and unremarkable, all at once. And they get another taste of the big time this Sunday when they get to represent their county at Pairc Esler when they face Davitts from Antrim in the Ulster Club Championship.

Just like Coa O'Dwyer's. They are another Junior team who line out in their second game of the tournament on Sunday, facing Monaghan's Rockcorry at Brewster Park, having seen off Tullysaran of Armagh in the preliminary round.

Coa might just be the smallest club, in terms of playing resources, in the country. When I was in my mid-teens and playing for my local club reserves, Coa was our big derby.

Some of my earliest memories of football involves them.

The first time I saw a man break his leg was against Coa. It was accidental, but while he reeled in agony on the ground waiting for an ambulance, his team-mates threw their denim jackets over him to keep him warm and fed him a steady stream of cigarettes.

The problem for Coa was, and still is, is that their players also happen to be accomplished soccer players and hurlers. They had to spread their talents and there never seemed to be much coming through.

As a result, men played well into their 40s to field a team. The club constantly seemed to be in grave danger of folding.

One clubman, Dermot McCann, spent his Saturdays loading waifs and strays into his Austin Maestro in order to fulfil underage fixtures. I have played against Coa players wearing runners, running spikes and on one occasion, Doctor Marten boots.

But this Sunday, the footballers of Coa and Glasdrumman and others just like them get their moment in the sun, their chance to unite a county.

Something special occurs during these months of winter football. Most people feel that the GAA season winds down in the autumn. It becomes a time, as Christy Moore describes, as when we become "supine on the couches of the nation, hypnotised by football, X Factor and Downton Abbey".

Step outside, however, and into the world of GAA at this level, and you soon realise that the day is the whole show.

What you get are communities experiencing awakenings. Big breakfasts and sponsored car washes and all sorts of fundraisers help finance these runs, but also add social capital to the villages and towns of Ulster.

In the meantime, clubs themselves recruit new members, galvanised and attracted by their own success.

Before 2004, All-Ireland Championships at Junior and Intermediate level did not exist. It's a good time to remind ourselves that the establishment of these tournaments remains a triumph of the GAA, one of the genuine moves that gives clubs enormous boosts of self-esteem.

Belfast Telegraph


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