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Declan Bogue: Long may Kilcoo's kids pitch in on Down's big day while health and safety hijacks other childhoods

Fun time: young Kilcoo fans at the Down Final at Pairc Esler, Newry last year
Fun time: young Kilcoo fans at the Down Final at Pairc Esler, Newry last year
Sean O'Neill
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

There was a moment at half-time of the Down county final that was almost poignant in its symbolism.

The Down team of the 1968 All-Ireland win were there - or, at the least, representatives of players who have since passed on - being honoured at half-time in front of a frankly staggering crowd of 6,526.

What was slightly awkward was the way it was done. With jubilee teams in Clones on Ulster final day or Croke Park for All-Ireland finals, the drill remains the same - a few steps out, wave, beaming smile, applause.

Here, their names were called out with a brief synopsis of their achievements but, instead of milking the applause, they had the county board chairman shaking their hand. Still, they are Down and they insist on doing things their way.

They do like a good anniversary in Down, don't they? Looking through the line-up on the pitch the thought occurred that next year's county final will be paying homage to the 1994 team and their 25 year silver anniversary of winning the All-Ireland.

Nostalgia never loses its seduction. The matchday programme - an excellent production, as is becoming the norm across the counties for their showpiece day - had a fantastic 'Twenty Things You Didn't Know About Down in 1968' feature.

Now, some of these things you may well have known. It was an ambitious feature which would have sounded brilliant for the first 13 entries or so, but when you are down to 'Sean O'Neill's ball control was immaculate and he had devastating ability to leave any opposing defender standing', you suspect that it started to sag a little.

However, the early ones were clinkers, such as 'Danny Kelly's late goalkeeping save against Derry's Sean O'Connell kept Down's chances of a big treble alive and he became a celebrity. Two weeks later he was selected 'Mr Adonis' at a dance in the Central Ballroom Newcastle and the band played The Star of the County Down'.

There was also another account of the night of the '68 final, with the victorious Down team billeted in Powers Hotel. Corner-back Tom O'Hare sang his version of Among The Wicklow Hills and a lot of Down supporters said it was every bit as good as Larry Cunningham's. Sean O'Neill played a borrowed guitar.

Changed times. There are some uncharitable souls who would maintain today's players would be more likely to seek an extra blast of the sun bed before an All-Ireland banquet rather than look to borrow a mouldy guitar to strum along to a dirge like that.

Talking of Sean O'Neill, he was standing at the end of the line when it happened. A rolling maul of Kilcoo children were in pursuit of a football when they almost barrelled into the great man's Achilles.

This, in the most literal sense, was Down's glorious past colliding with their potential future. Those children hadn't the first idea who this stately figure with the shin-length coat was, only that he was in the road of them getting another few kicks of the ball.

They are the children in Seamus Heaney's 'Markings' - "We marked the pitch: four jackets for four goalposts. That was all. The corners and the squares."

The Down county final is always a joy to go along to because over the last number of years, the children of Kilcoo have made it so by taking the pitch over at half-time and simply hoofing a ball around, tackling each other, wrestling or rolling about on the turf.

Wikipedia tells us that Kilcoo has a population of 1415 people. After Sunday, I am convinced that 1,300 of them are under the age of 10 and that their upcoming Christmas order for gear will have at least 1,300 Kilcoo hoodies. To see them enjoying their day out as they were, in the fine autumn sunshine, was to wring the last goodness out of the summer.

Over in Dungannon at O'Neill Park, an alickadoo of the organising body for the Ulster Intermediate Hurling Championship informed the volunteers at the ground that under no circumstances were children allowed to enter the pitch at half time.

There was even an embarrassing moment when a person operating the scoreboard was accosted for not wearing a hi-vis jacket.

The scourge of health and safety is threatening to rear a generation afraid of their own bodies. A lot of schools, for example, rule out playing in the yard at breaktime when the opposite should be encouraged.

But evidence disputes this sly practice.

St Ninian's school in Stirling, Scotland, will at some point of the day call 'daily mile' to their pupils and they set down their pencils and either run or walk a mile. Obesity levels have been virtually eradicated and teachers are delighted at how concentration levels are no problem and they settle into lessons faster.

We cannot lose the innocence of child's play. Or, to return to Heaney and 'Markings' - "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."

Belfast Telegraph


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