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JUMPERS FOR GOALPOSTS - 03/11/2015

JUMPERS for goalposts.

For men of a certain era, the above phrase can immediately transport them to a different time and a different place.

In primary six and seven, we played a match every day. The ritual never changed. After the bell rang for lunch, the boys remained behind and our teacher Frank Mallon selected two captains who picked the teams. Lunch was hoovered up in seconds. Eating was an inconvenience. Food was merely fuel. The game was everything. And it was jumpers for goalposts. Or bricks. Or traffic cones. The fact is jumpers make terrible goalposts. Like many of my generation, I spent a substantial part of my youth arguing about the merits of a goal.

When the ball rolled directly over a jumper then, obviously, it ‘hit the post’. But when the ball skirted over a sleeve and across the line, it usually provided the grounds for a fiery debate. Cries of 'Post, post, it hit the post' would be rebutted with 'It went in off the post. It’s a goal. It’s a goal'. These pantomime arguments never lasted long. The unspoken sentiment, shared by everyone, was that the game had to go on. While every one of those lunchtime games was treated like a World Cup final, it was the playing which mattered. Whether winning or losing, the bell which sounded the end of lunchtime was always met with the enthusiasm of a bomb siren.

Those were different times. In those days, we played football all the time. We played in our back garden, a patch of grass smaller than a squash court. More often, we played at the side of the Downey house. I’m still reminded about the day I broke their kitchen window as they ate dinner. In true Downey style, no one left the table. Uncle Louis cracked a joke, everyone laughed and they calmly continued to eat their spuds.

When we weren’t playing in gardens, there were other locations in the town which hosted truly epic encounters. The old pitch on Fair Hill was my Wembley. On a summer night, an impromptu game might have started with eight players. As time wore on, the numbers would increase. Passers-by would join in. As twilight descended, there might be 20 people on the field and the ages of the participants could range from 11 to 51. I remember being bemused at the sight of the 'old men’ panting for breath. I pitied them.

Nowadays, a grown man would probably be hesitant to join a game of football being played by young lads. That’s a tragedy. The greater tragedy is young lads are no longer actually playing random, unstructured, purely recreational games of football.

Like the rest of Irish society, even sport has become manically organised. Everything has to have a purpose. Everything is designed to serve a particular function. It’s all about development. There is a constant, incessant and perpetual need to improve. It’s like America. And it’s a bit depressing.

Back in the day, Irish people visited each other’s houses. Pre-Facebook, WhatsApp and email, friends actually talked to each other. Back doors were left open. Gates were left unlocked. Not every social engagement required a plethora of text messages. People would just call with each other. That has all changed. The country is now like the city. There is no difference. All doors are locked. And as much as I like you, please don’t call unannounced. All visits need to be organised. Spontaneity has been banned – and the ban extends to sport.

While I appreciate this column isn’t going to make a jot of difference to the cultural shift which has occurred in this country, it’s still a source of grief that today’s youth are growing up in such a controlled, sterile environment. There is no such thing as play any more. Everything is structured. Whether it’s swimming or soccer or Gaelic football, the objective is to improve, develop, succeed.

Thankfully, I grew up in a different time. When we went to the swimming pool, the objective was to push as many people off the inflatable raft as was humanly possible. Not getting ejected from the premises by the centre attendant for running, or bombing, or diving into the shallow end was considered another major achievement. When we rode our bikes, we counted the number of pedals for which we could hold a wheelie. If I’m not mistaken, the record in Maghera - held by Raymond Convery - was 48. I could never get close to it.

Maybe I’m just being nostalgic, but it strikes me that a lot of the joy and freedom has gone out of children’s sport. For starters, you don’t even see young people playing on the streets any more. They don’t play. They train. And when they train, they’re driven to the venue by their parents. It’s little wonder football has become so slavishly robotic. The obsession with control and the minimisation of risk pervades everything.

I’m just glad I grew up when I did. Playing against the darkening light of a silvery sky. Playing until we couldn’t see or we could run no more. Then running home, fearful because you stayed out too late, but not regretting it for a moment. And now, years later, so glad that I did.

The glory and the fun of simply playing the game. There’s a lot to be said for it. Playing football just for the sheer unbridled pleasure of it.