It's All in the Game

Pat Hughes from Coalisland remembers Gaelic football when men were men

A couple of months have passed since the all Ireland final and Sam has returned home to the Kingdom for the umpteenth time. It was quite a day in Paric An Chrocaigh for all Gaels – those who had a ticket, that is, and as I watched the match on TV I couldn’t help thinking how far the game had progressed in terms of sophistication, hype, public relations and facilities.

The pre-match entertainment included a parade of past champions, two Artane Boys Bands, one tenor, multi-coloured motifs on the pitch, Japanese flags, British Government Ministers and herself, the Uachtaran na hEireann.

It was all heady stuff, so modern, so slick, a load of total rubbish. Then there were the antics on the field - gaelic football is a tough sport. However, lately, it seems that the physical part of the game is being watered down. It appeared to me that many fair shoulder charges and body check’s were ‘blown up’ by the referee within seconds. Quite a few players took advantage of the ref’s interpretation of the rules and went down ‘injured’ if their man as much as looked at them.

It all made sad viewing and I couldn’t help thinking that all that happened before my very eyes was a far cry from the days, good days, when a footballer took his knocks like a man, handed a few back and got on with the game. I wonder what those tough hardmen who played Gaelic football in the fifties and sixties in our neck of the woods think of the present crop of players, not much, I’ll bet.

Forty odd years ago there was no mollycoddling of footballers. If you were picked to play, you turned up, stripped behind the nearest hedge and played your heart out for the full hour. A few punches and heavy tackles were taken and given but once the final whistle went all was forgotten, that’s the way things were handled then.

Talking about changing behind a hedge reminds me of something which happened to me a long time ago. I never was much of a footballer, reason being, I weighed just under nine stone. I was also very skinny and suffered from a shortness of breath through smoking about 30 full strength Capstain cigarettes a day.  That plus too many late nights skipping around the dance halls of Maghery, Edendork, Dungannon and Cookstown, which at the age of 19 had reduced me to a breathless wreck and to cap it all I was a totally committed coward.

During those days there were two teams, Na Fianna and Owenroes in Coalisland.  It was hard to make the Na Fianna team because of their policy of playing ‘blow-ins’ in the shape of school teachers, and doctors, etc and of course the boarders of St. Patrick’s College, Armagh.

If you attended that school you were a ‘penalty kick’ to get your place. My short two and a half years at Dungannon Academy, didn’t qualify me for ‘The Blues’ so it was to Brackville Owenroes that I looked to for fame. I had to wait a long time before I was picked to play my first game and oh boy, what a baptism!

We drew the mighty Moortown in a tournament game at Na Fiannas, MacCrory Park.  It is a match I’ll never forget, for most of the game I avoided going anywhere near the ball for obvious reasons and as the final whistle approached, I was thanking God I was still in one piece.

At this stage Moortown were miles ahead on the scoreboard and the crowd were drifting away and then it happened. A big Moortown guy inadvertently punched the ball about twenty yards the wrong way. It landed at my feet and I foolishly bent to pick it up, the whole sky suddenly lit up.

What appeared to be the entire heavenly galaxy seemed to explode before my very eyes. When I came round I was propped up against a goal post. Here was some guy pouring water over me and I asked him what had happened, he told me I had buckled under a fair shoulder tackle which wasn’t surprising given my state of health.

Back to that story about changing behind the hedge. There was a man called Paddy Jackson, who was, manager selection and strip minder for Brackaville Owenores; Paddy was a great man for detail and also possessed a very sharp eye. He knew what everyone wore on the day of a match.

On this particular day, I was having a poor game and when half time arrived I spotted the bold Paddy heading towards the hedge and I immediately knew what was going so happen. I closed my eyes and counted to ten and when I opened them there was Paddy walking towards me shaking my trousers, I was being replaced.

The shame of it all, being handed your trousers at half time. Paddy continued this practise for a long time and it became a standing joke around town and many a poor soul was greeted on a Monday morning with ‘I saw you got your trousers yesterday’.

The prevailing theory in the 1960’s about how to win the ball was condensed into six words ‘go through him not around him’. I’m sure some of the hard men I knew then would also advise you to ‘take him off in the long grass’. I think Gaelic football was more enjoyable all those years ago.  A bit rougher, maybe, but at least we played football not basketball, which the game resembles today.

By Pat Hughes
Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation