THE INSIDE TRACK: BY MICHEÁL O'SULLIVAN
I’VE never forgotten the drive home from a West Cork U12 championship match in Leap back in 1989.
‘Towards the end of the game why did you tackle that boy so hard over under the hill where we were standing?’ my mother quizzed.
‘I was going for the ball, sure.’
I later learnt that things had started to get a little heated on the hill and my mother had got a poke of an umbrella from an opposition mother to tell her ‘to get her son under control.’ Neither mother took a step backwards. They both defended their sons, with mine firmly in my corner. It led to a heated argument. It struck me that, by God, if I have people like this caring so much and so consumed by their team’s performance on the pitch that I will be trying twice as hard the next day I go out with the club colours on my back.
Last Monday week, April 26th, saw the return to training for underage players, observing Covid regulations of course. These players have missed out on the bones of 12 months in their development as young footballers. There have been calls for the GAA to do more to promote our games since lockdown happened, in the fear of losing players to other sports or even altogether.
We all have a duty as lovers of the game to influence the young players around us, be you a parent, an aunt or uncle, a friend or a neighbour. We are all aware that the youth of today are living in a different world to what people my age grew up in. Back then football was the only sport in the parish and we were without the distractions of social media, other sports or the various gaming consoles.
I am helping out with Carbery Rangers U9s this year and when I was doing a little planning recently it got me thinking about what influences I had around that age – to help me progress to adult football with relative ease – that are still applicable today.
The U12 championship back then was a great competition, full of local rivalries and very well supported. We could have been pitted against all the local clubs like Kilmacabea, Castlehaven, Dohenys or Skibb. You could have been sitting in school beside the guy that you would be marking in the championship that evening.
We had the success of winning which brought attention and the approval of the parish. It added a great edge, it was character-building and a great introduction to competitive underage football. But it all depends on how you categorise success. Success for an underage footballer can be as simple as completing a punt kick against the wall and catching the return, as long as it is acknowledged and praised by those around them.
I remember one summer’s evening when I was around ten years old. My neighbour was passing by our house and shouted in to my father.
‘Are ye heading to Union Hall?’
‘For what?’ he replied.
‘Larry is making his debut for the Haven.’
I was intrigued. Who was this Larry guy that seemed to be held in such admiration? That day Larry Tompkins shot the lights out against the Barrs in front of a packed house. From then on I took any chance I got to go and see Larry playing, mostly facilitated by my father. I wanted to be like him. I wanted the success and admiration and the way people spoke about him. Sometimes, significant others around young GAA players can point you in the direction of a role model.
I read Darragh Ó Sé’s book a few years back and there was one particular excerpt that caught my attention. After the 1997 All-Ireland final, Darragh was asked who did he think he was having the biggest influence on when he was playing? His answer: the ten-year-old in the stand. This got me thinking.
Cork won the U17 and U20 All-Ireland football titles in 2017. The likes of Jack Lawton, Keelan Scannell, Ryan O’Donovan and Dan Peet would have been the ten-year-olds (give a year or two) in the stand in 2010 when Bantry man Graham Canty climbed the steps of the Hogan Stand to accept the Sam Maguire.
In 1987 I was ten years old myself when Cork really started taking centre stage in the All-Ireland senior football championship. Those years between ’87 and ’90 drove every young fella my age football mad. We couldn’t get enough of it. The ball was rarely out of our hands. Most often you don’t have to look outside your own club for idols to follow in sport. Carbery Rangers also reached the county junior final in 1987 and following their journey that year with my friends and family gave me my first experience of the pride in the parish. It’s an old adage, but success breeds success and having people to look up to and take example from is a very good starting point for any young footballer.
I was lucky to have had great Carbery Rangers football men coaching me right the way through my underage career. People like James and Michael Paul Hicks, Tony Murphy, Michael O’Rourke and Peter Creedon left a lasting imprint. These men gave up their own time to develop the young players at the club. The early focus was always on the fundamentals of the game and as we got older tactics became more prevalent. Being lucky enough to meet the right people with adequate coaching and communication skills impacted enormously on me as an impressionable young player.
Parents, you cannot overestimate the influence you are having on the sporting development of your son or daughter. It is important to generate enthusiasm around the game. Ask them about training. Go watch training from a distance. Ask them how it went afterwards, what they think they did well, what they felt was not so good, how they could improve on it. Bring them to club games. Make watching games on TV something to be looked forward to by the whole family. Point them in the direction of a hero and let the coach fill in the blanks.