How GAA can give everyone their big moment
If you are tired of the cynicism, the red-card controversies and debates over the perceived biases of referees appointed to All-Ireland finals, then something occurring today in a quiet Antrim village will restore your sense of all that can be achieved within the GAA.
The Kickhams club in Creggan are hosting their third 'Special Championship', with sides representing Antrim and Derry made up of players, male and female, with learning disabilities or Down's syndrome.
With full rules, an official referee and a bumper crowd expected, it represents another enormous gesture by the ambitious club, who also host the annual Ulster Under-21 Club Football Championship every winter.
The club PRO is Conor McCann - himself the Antrim hurling captain - and he explained: "The idea was started by our chairman at the time, Tony McCollum, and this is the third year of it.
"We would have three or four, possibly five, players that take part in it so that was the motivation. He thought it would be a good idea to get them involved."
Not only are players coming from both counties, but Rebekah Keane of Listowel, County Kerry will be making the long journey to compete. She is a cousin of Kickhams' juvenile coach Justin Keane and couldn't pass up such an opportunity, much to the delight of her Antrim connections.
The concept has been brilliantly promoted over the last decade by the Ulster Council, who have featured exhibition matches at half-time of Ulster Senior Football Championship games.
It has been taken further by the likes of Ashleen McCaul, who works with Derry GAA's coaching and games and looks after their 'GAA For All' programme that arranges regular matches and Friday evening training sessions. They even have a summer camp coming next week.
"It's an initiative Kickhams Creggan have taken on themselves," explained McCaul.
"They have been doing it the past couple of years and just inviting us along to it. Before they would have started that, we have had our own 'GAA For All' team. Derry GAA started that on their own and it has been going maybe eight years.
"At the start it was very low-key, there were children around the local area with Down's syndrome.
"As the years have gone on, we revamped the name, called it 'GAA For All' and it's just any child or adult with any kind of learning or physical disability are more than welcome to come along."
They now boast numbers around the 20 mark. There is a south Derry Down's syndrome group which would cater for ages of 18-plus, and the 'GAA For All' programme caters for the younger players. They merge together for games like these, with each group playing their own separate matches.
McCann has been there for the two previous years.
"The first year was pretty small," he said.
"The families last year in particular were over the moon, telling you how well it was run. We were lucky we had a great day last year and even just thinking about it, people don't get a chance to do this with any time.
"Even after it when the game is all done, there is a presentation for the players. They get jerseys and photos taken, small things like that. We do a guard of honour for them coming out and everyone gets clapped onto the field. It's a good feeling."
The positivity it has engendered is infectious.
McCaul said: "When we started it, I would say people were maybe a bit apprehensive about it and thinking if they wanted their little boys and girls to go.
"But as the thing has grown, even in Dungiven there is one wee girl who goes to it. If I meet her mum and dad on the street, they say, 'You know what Ashleen, Cara-Rose just lives for this. She is buzzing because her older brothers have training to go to on a Friday. Cara never had anything, but now she has her training to go to on a Friday and is away with her wee kitbag'.
"Now, she is telling people, 'I'm playing for Derry'.
"It's brilliant for the parents because it is like a wee network. We are all getting to talk and it is a social aspect for the parents so everyone benefits from it."
The game starts at 5pm this evening at the Kickhams' ground, and will last between 15 to 20 minutes. Everyone is welcome to attend.