Running to Stand Still

So after four or five months where we were struggling to fill the days for the kids, we have rapidly hit a situation where we need our own personal family organiser to manage our schedules (although maybe not for much longer given how things have gone recently in Dublin). Niki (my wife) has had to point out a few times that the role of family organiser clearly falls under my remit and to be honest it’s hard to argue with her (in general as well as relating to this particular point) so I have been plunged in at the deep end. You see in addition to the GAA training (which in fairness had continued for the bulk of the summer), we now have GAA matches at the weekend and more importantly, swimming lessons have returned with a vengeance. Well I say swimming lessons but that is only true for two of our three boys as Aaron (the eldest) is already a better swimmer than I ever was or will be, the term coaching is more apt in his case but technicalities aside, whether he is doggy-paddling or butterflying he still needs somebody to bring him there!

Now we have five trips to the swimming pool to manage each week in addition to the seven GAA matches / training sessions. As the cherry on this particularly appetising piece of cake, the Saturday swimming sessions are at 7am in the morning. That’s right, weekdays are actually the ones where we get to “lie-in”! I can remember one of my first appearances on the red-eye shift when one of the other parents greeted me with a knowing smile and the comment “the road to glory begins here!”. Did we think that we were doing this for our children’s health and well-being, or did we all secretly believe that an Olympic swimming pool lay at the end of this particularly watery rainbow?!

As the piece de resistance for 2020, Lochlan (my second boy) has decided that he wants to give football (soccer in addition to gaelic) a shot this year. He had been making overtures about doubling up between Na Fianna and local club Glasnevin FC for some time but the pressure was seriously ramped-up in late August early September, dates and times of training sessions were provided and lists of names of friends who were already on the team. Hey presto we have another three matches / training sessions to add to the mix (although this has mercifully dropped to two this week as the evenings start getting shorter). That’s 15 different events that we have to make sure our kids attend each week. Suddenly the weekly planner which Niki bought in Flying Tiger at the start of the year has become my best friend. Without it I wouldn’t know where I was supposed to be from one day to the next. There are no free days and Saturday usually involves five different excursions. Now sometimes you can be lucky and get a string of home matches at the weekend, on others you may not be so lucky and you can end up rushing from a windswept field in Balbriggan to a soccer pitch in Newcastle (south Dublin). Where’s my petrol allowance when I need one?

Of course back in my day, my parents would never take me to away matches (cue violins), you’d be dropped at the home pitch in Clontarf and get bundled into some mentor or parent’s car along with 4 or 5 team-mates for an exotic 20 minute trip to Donaghmede or Edenmore or somewhere similar! Nowadays with health and safety guidelines exacerbated by Covid restrictions it’s every man / child for themselves. Consequently Saturdays need to be planned out with a map and compass (in reality google maps). Who needs orienteering when I have my Friday night logistics sessions followed by a jog on Saturday to find where the correct pitch is. Who knew there were so many pitches in Dublin, one particular sprint (while suffering with tendinitis) to a match in Naomh Maurs following an errant trip to St Maurs Park (not an actual park) in one of the many identical housing estates in Rush was a particular low point! It is during these logistics sessions that Niki will usually throw something into the mix about having to buy food or clothes for the kids which will pile an extra layer of intrigue to the whole experience.

Of course despite my grumblings I’d like to point out that I’m actually delighted that my progeny are as excited about playing sport as I am (or at least was in my youth). I still find that I have to keep my emotions in check as I prowl the sidelines but definitely cannot contain my joy if Aaron scores 3-1 while putting my old club Clontarf to the sword or if Lochlan notches two goals on his debut for the aforementioned Glasnevin FC. Now all I have to do is wait for Ella (age 3) to make her appearance on the sporting pitches of the capital, what’s another few training sessions to add into the overcrowded mix. Who needs your own social life anyway?!

It’s not just about American Football. Last Chance U is back and you should watch it!

July 28 is a date that had been pencilled into my diary for a very long time, well it’s been there since Netflix helpfully sent me (and I presume a lot of other people) the trailer for the new season of Last Chance U. You see Last Chance U is my favourite type of Netflix programme, the docuseries, a genre which Netflix has taken to new heights. In fact I was going to write about my Top 5 Netflix docuseries but found that I had so much to say about Last Chance U that it will have to wait, sorry The Last Dance and Tiger King!

Last Chance U – Now in its 5th season, Last Chance U explores the gritty world of junior college football in the USA. Now we will all be aware of the high profile US third level institutions such as Harvard, Princeton, Yale and MIT and most people will have heard of the big US sporting colleges such as Auburn, Notre Dame, Boston College, Clemson, LSU and Ohio State, but I was completely unaware of a second tier of colleges in the USA called Junior Colleges (often referred to as community colleges) or JUCO for short. Last Chance U shines the spotlight on the american football teams and the surrounding drama in these Junior Colleges.

In the first season we are transported to Scooba, Mississippi, never heard of it, me neither and I’d say that goes for 99% of the people who don’t live within a 20 mile radius of the place. But Scooba is the home of the East Mississippi Lions, serial national champions and the most successful JUCO football team. In the middle of this tiny town of 732 people is a state of the art football stadium, all because of the sponsorship generated by the college’s sports programme. In fact the commercialisation of learning is one of the many themes explored throughout the series e.g. how can a small college afford a high tech, modern training facility but struggle to pay its teachers / professors? From Scooba, we are then transported to Independence, Kansas to take a look at the pressures associated with a less successful outfit and the new series leaves rural america behind as we head to Laney College in Oakland. Each college team has a larger than life head-coach who is full of Al Pacino “Any Given Sunday” type speeches but with a lot more swearing. Notably as the seasons have progressed and locations have changed the head coaches chosen have become a lot more likeable from the class A bully who gets results (Scooba seasons 1&2), to the loudmouth with the heart of gold (Independence seasons 3&4) to the straight talking local legend (Laney season 5). These alpha male types are off-set by prominent female teachers / guidance counsellors who provide the nurturing for these men-children looking to find their way in life. Not surprisingly, it is these heroines who get most of the plaudits from fans of the show.

You see the players who end up in JUCO are not your clean-cut Tommy Hilfiger types. They are typically from underprivileged (and in a large part african american) backgrounds or have been kicked back down from the division one colleges due to injuries or anti-social behaviour. For me the most interesting part of this series is how it explores the predominantly bleak backgrounds of these students / players in a tender yet realistic manner. A large portion of the show is spent interviewing family and friends to get a complete picture of where each individual player is coming from. The programme makers also get significant access to the players themselves and have obviously taken the time to build up a significant level of trust. So when the running-back opens up about his dysfunctional relationship with his father (another recurring theme throughout the show) it feels genuine and heartfelt. Behind all this is the knowledge that if success is not achieved on the football pitch (potentially leading to a scholarship at a division one college and for the exceptional, the NFL after that), then there is not a lot to fall back on (minimum wage in Walmart and a complete absence of a functioning social welfare system). In fact we learn in a follow-up programme that one of the players / students from East Mississippi ends up on murder charges relating to a drug deal gone wrong. Last Chance U also shines a light on the state of the general US education system where students can arrive at third level without the basics of reading, writing and math(s). The American Dream is for the large part noticeably absent.

Of course each episode is shot expertly with close-ups of agonised players’ faces contrasted with long shots of their surroundings (rural or urban), the music is excellent and everything builds towards the climactic episode ending which is the weekly match. It’s Friday Night Lights but it’s for real, even if you often get the feeling that it could be scripted, so yes the guy complaining about headaches beforehand is going to get hit high and could be concussed (the lack of head injury protocols is another noticeable factor) and the last minute replacement quarter-back is going to have a barnstorming match. But unlike a scripted drama, the featured teams don’t always win and in fact the season where Independence end up with a losing record is probably the most interesting, not least for the fact that the head coach keeps on firing his coaching staff in order to deflect blame from himself. He eventually ends up being fired himself for referring to a German player (what was he doing playing American football) as “the new Hitler”, although in reality this was probably just an excuse to get rid of someone whose ego had outgrown his surroundings.

I’m only halfway through the current (and last, wipes a tear from my eye) season and there is definitely a change of tone. This is principally due to the fact that the head coach seems to have an awareness of his duty towards the mental health of his players / students. That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of swearing and shouting from the sidelines (similar to that heard at a Junior A match in your local GAA club), it’s just that defeats are not the end of the world.

So if you want to learn about the real USA I would strongly recommend watching this programme and if (like me) you also a sucker for coming of age, redemption tales with a sporting angle then Last Chance U is definitely one for you.

Hallelujah, Kids GAA Training is Back!

The boys are back GAA training with our local club Na Fianna and it is a joy to behold. More importantly, it is a great to see my three boys playing with and against boys of their own age / size instead of constantly battling against each other. Now I’m all for a bit of sibling rivalry and I recognise that this has been around since Cain decided that he didn’t like the cut of Abel’s jib, but the last 3 months have been a never-ending competition (primarily football matches) between Team A, made up of myself and my youngest boy (Oscar 7), and Team B, my two other sons (Aaron 11 and Lochlan 9). This arrangement is far from ideal as it typically boils down to Aaron and / or Lochlan knocking Oscar over while trying to get to the ball and then daddy knocks Aaron and / or Lochlan over in retaliation (sometimes this retaliation is pre-emptive). Everybody gets grumpy about being repeatedly knocked-over which leads to “escalations” and daddy picks up the ball and brings everybody home! So much for the joy of spending more time with kids during lockdown. Ella (3) hasn’t really gotten involved in matches yet (apart from one unfortunate incident when she stood in the goal at the wrong time) and will occasionally take corners but I could sense that this wasn’t really cutting it in recent excursions to the park! Occasionally we would try something that is less contact based such as frisbee, but it would only be a matter of time before the elder boys would get jealous of Oscar’s impressive throwing technique (I think I may have found his niche) and fling the disc at his head from close range.

So it was with great excitement (for everybody) that the boys headed back to training last Monday. I didn’t even mind that the scheduled training times clashed with our usual dinner time (as an experienced chef, meal timings are very important to me) or that Aaron and Lochlan’s training times overlapped with each other meaning the family had to depart to different areas of Glasnevin simultaneously. In pre-covid days, this would have seen me sweating while continuously refreshing my friend / wife tracker app to see if Niki would make the trip from her office in Dublin city centre to the suburbs in time, but at least now that she is working from home I only have to track her coming down the stairs (working from home has some benefits). In the new normal, there are some extra requirements to complete before training such as hand washing and sanitising (much much sanitising), updating the boys’ health status on the GAA app and repeating the mantra not to share anything, in particular water bottles, but essentially it is back to boys running around a field, getting some exercise and having a good time. That definitely doesn’t take away from the huge level of organisation and commitment that comes from the mentors who make sure that everything is run like clockwork. From what I can see, the sessions over the past week have been some of the best, and after speaking with one of the mentors, he reckons that the boys are being really well behaved because they are afraid that training might be taken away from them if they don’t! Amazing how absence makes the heart grow fonder! Also the pitches are in the best condition that I have ever seen, with pristine lush grass that wouldn’t look out of place on the PGA golf tour in the US!

It is also noticeable how the boys all seem to have sprouted an inch or two, shoulders are broader, hair is longer or extremely short for those who have access to a barber’s razor! Most interestingly I have observed that some of the boys accents had changed during the past three months. Obviously spending more time with parents (many of whom have their origins outside of the greater Dublin area) meant that those with more musical ears now have a lilt that would be best described as rural or simply as culchie by us Dubs. It brought back memories to me of how after my year in Oz during my 20’s I came back with an intonation that would always go up at the end of a sentence as if every statement was a question (see “Australian Question Intonation”). Thus causing no end of amusement among my so-called friends!

Another advantage of the return to GAA training is that it provides a signpost as to what day of the week it is during summer! In my youth you could always tell what day it was by the programmes on the television, Glenroe on Sundays, Thursdays for Top of the Pops, etc., but with modern Netflix culture, programmes are watched randomly throughout the week and now with live football matches on every day, even the weekends are hard to distinguish! So double training means it is Monday, training for Lochlan equals Thursday, Aaron on Friday and Oscar on Saturday, at last the calendar has some meaning again.

Now I’m sure there will come a day when we will look outside and see those typical symbols of an Irish summer i.e. grey clouds and drizzle and the groaning about potential physical exercise will start. But for now I’m just basking in the joy of return to some sort of healthier normal. Thank you Na Fianna!


The Slippery Road To Becoming An Overly Competitive Parent

First and foremost let me make one thing clear, I know that I am a competitive person and always have been, so much so that my childhood nickname (and occasional adult one also) was “spoiler” because of my relentlessness towards every task or event which could be perceived (or even barely perceived) to have a competitive element to it. In this manner, I would wear down all and sundry and generally take the fun out of even the most trivial of pursuits, well actually in particular Trivial Pursuit, in which I remain unbeaten since before I developed the dexterity to place trickily shaped wedges in a relatively flat cylinder!

Now I’d like to think I have mellowed a bit over the years, so I have come to realise that eating my dinner at breakneck speed in order to be first, or acting like Usain Bolt to sprint to the car before everybody else, are not the most efficient uses of my energies. However there are certain occasions when my competitive streak overcomes me, in the same way that mild mannered David Banner is completely helpless to control his bouts of rage. At the lower end of the scale this can manifest itself through mutterings at the viewing area of a swimming pool while I urge one of my boys to overtake the child ahead of them as they complete another length of the local pool. Although there could be an element in this of just trying to combat mind-numbing boredom, I currently spend up to five and a half hours poolside each week so anything to liven things up is welcome. There is something surreal about watching countless youngsters attempting the breast-stroke without using their arms. Just a procession of bobbing heads in a pool.

By far the most common scene of this emergence of “competitive rage” is on the sidelines of the many fine GAA pitches on the northside of Dublin. In my mind, I am merely trying to pass down a certain level of wisdom which I have garnered over hundreds of matches, either as a participant or as a spectator, to help my offspring be the very best that they can be. Surely Aaron (10) should be informed that switching play from left to right is the best way to overcome a blanket defence in gaelic football, or that going in tight body-to-body is the best way to tackle in hurling (while also being the best way to avoid injury from a stray hurl). Well that’s what I thought until Aaron ventured over to the sideline on a cool and crisp Malahide morning and told me in quite a forthright and plain way to “shut it”. Now I was slightly taken aback by this, in my mind I was just being a supportive parent, but in hindsight I can see how the constant chatter / roaring from the sideline might become slightly irritating. So now we have an agreement that unless I am cheering on some positive play, he doesn’t want to hear my voice. I should point out there is a high level of irony here, given that the games in which my boys play are non-competitive i.e. nobody records the scorelines and there is no league at the end of it.

In fact I am always amazed at the amount of “medals” which my boys have accumulated in these non-competitive competitions. I mean the amount of single-use metal / plastic on display in their bedrooms would have Greta Thunberg on red alert in whatever bat cave she lives in. Hey I had to earn that faux-marble trophy for top player at the Dublin Millennium (1988 for those who can’t remember back that far) soft tennis tournament (Clontarf area), it wasn’t just a case of turning up! Try telling the youngsters that nowadays, “what, you actually had to win a match!”, bloody snowflakes.

So in order to find a safe release from my competitive parent syndrome I have had to turn inwards and take shelter behind the safety of the four walls I call home. Now I know the PS4 and gaming consoles of its ilk get a bad rep, but where else can a man in his mid forties compete against his children on a level playing field. You may point out that I have been playing these console type games for well over 20 years (indeed much longer if you could call the ZX Spectrum a pre-cursor for consoles) and that this gives me a slight advantage when I am zooming around some racing circuit in Japan or playing a deft one-two on the edge of the penalty box as Bohemians FC defeat Barcelona (see I am handicapping myself) once more. In my defense, I do often play collaborative games with my sons against the computer AI and will often go through detailed slow motion replays explaining where they invariably went wrong. Well they have to learn somewhere.

Those of you who are regular followers of the blog will know that last week I received a bean-to-cup coffee machine as a birthday present. Well this week Niki (who is also quite competitive by the way) struck back by purchasing a soda stream. Actually this nearly got me more excited than my own present. My childhood friend Conor had one of these amazing contraptions and it would be a veritable treat to see what wonderful concoctions we could make out of his available flavours, hmmm a lovely Canada Dry ginger ale and cherry cola melange! Niki says she bought it so she could stop buying plastic bottles of sparkling water but while the cat is away myself and Ella will be trying out some mixology!

If you enjoyed please give a like, follow or share. Thanks!

Surviving Easter (Part I)

So here it was, my first really big challenge, the Easter holidays, two weeks with just me and the kids. Sure my wife (Niki) would be around for the 4 day Easter weekend but that was just a minor breather in a fortnight of white-knuckle, hold on to your hats, let’s make sure they don’t break me, adventures. I was determined not to rely on the dreaded screen-time as an easy way out, I mean what kind of father would I be if I had to turn to external distractions every time there was a bump in the road. My opening tactic was to smother them with kindness so our first breakfast was pancakes, pancakes and more pancakes with a healthy / unhealthy dose of nutella, sugar and honey. I started making batter from our never ending supply of eggs, unsheathed my trusty copperstone pan (an unusually prescient Christmas present), and turned up the heat. This worked exceptionally well (even if I must say so myself) and I was complimented on my “restaurant standard” (their words not mine) pancakes. I was off to a great start but unfortunately the only way from here was down. The next day it was the cinema and McDonalds, the cinema went down well but I soon realised that the only reason my kids like McDs is because of the easy access to tablets which enables them to circumvent the “no screen-time” rule. I think they ate 2 portions of french fries between the 4 of them leaving yours truly to hoover up the remnants of their unhappy meals. The kids also became obsessed with the current monopoly promotion and spent a good part of our time in McDs scanning discarded food, the floor, the bins and pretty much everywhere else for leftover tokens. Never again I swore, not for the first or last time.

Tactic number 2 was to tire them out. Luckily the weather over the last fortnight has for the large part been exceptional for this time of year, so I was able to bring them to the local park without having to load up on rain gear. The two-on-two football matches are getting more and more competitive and soon the rule where I can only score with my weaker left foot will have to go out the window! Frisbee has also made a welcome entry into our outdoor games repertoire and with a bit of work the boys were soon making regulation 10 foot passes to each other albeit there was still the occasional moment when fear of frisbee finger (the smacking of a knuckle with hard plastic) would cause an elementary drop. Interestingly, while we were playing our games, an outdoor boot-camp was taking place within earshot. At one point Oscar (age 6) edged towards me and whispered in a secretive tone “that lady said a bad word”, I glanced over as she did another 10 burpees and gave her an understanding nod. The trip to the park was an unqualified success, so much so that I decided to take it up a level and try out something completely new, footgolf. For those of you not aware of footgolf, it is as the name suggests a cross between football and golf. It basically involves trying to kick a ball into a hole in as few attempts as possible. Following a bit of online research I decided to bring the gang to Deer Park in Howth which has an 18 hole footgolf course. Deer Park has many fond memories for me as it was the place where I learnt to play full blown golf, having honed my short game on the pitch and putt course at St Anne’s. Back in those days, a round of golf involved a dart trip to Howth station and then carrying my bag of overly heavy clubs up the exceptionally steep hill to the Deer Park ticket office. Getting to the first tee was already an achievement worthy of an army cadet, so no wonder my first tee shot back in the day ended up skewing off the toe of my wooden driver (remember those) and scattering bodies on the nearby putting green. Back to the present and the 9 hole golf course in Deer Park has been converted into 18 holes of very enjoyable footgolf. Well mainly enjoyable, though there were three negatives to the experience. First of all our footwear (runners / trainers) was nowhere near sufficiently water-proof to deal with the moisture on the course (particularly in the rough). Secondly Ella (age 2) got pretty fed up after about 9 holes when we had reached the lowest part of the course and had to be carried around the back 9 (coincidentally she’s probably a similar weight to my old golf clubs). And last but not least I managed to pull my quad muscle on the 14th hole trying to knock it onto the green of a par 4 in one!! I had been playing pretty well up until that point and may have even gone up in my kids estimations with a display of strength and accuracy from my trusty right foot. There was even talk that I could have been a professional footgolfer at one point before the high-pitched scream of anguish on the 14th hold brought me back down to earth!

It’s amazing how you only realise how often you use a particular muscle when you have injured it. The drive back from Howth to Glasnevin was a painful one with every switch from accelerator to break and vice versa causing a sharp intake of breath. So I ended up¬† back home feeling tired and upset while the gang were all wondering what Daddy had planned for them next. Despondently I threw them the remote control. We had reached Thursday of the first week!

They Don’t Know They Have It So Good

In the true spirit of the grumpy old man that I have become, I am constantly comparing my kids’ experiences with those of my own childhood. In particular I look back at the performances of the sports teams I supported in the 80s and 90s and compare it (enviously) to the very same teams in the present day who are now supported by my sons. Let’s start with the most obvious candidates for improvement, “The Dubs”. Now I have many great memories from my time supporting the Dubs in the 80s and 90s, and I still have a certain nostalgia for the old wooden benches in the Cusack Stand where you would be crunched up against god knows whoever. But the boys have never known what it is like for Dublin to lose a Leinster Football championship match, well technically Aaron was alive when Dublin last lost in 2010 but given he was just a year old I don’t think it has scarred him too severely. They recoil in horror when I recount year after year of defeat to Meath (and occasionally Kildare or even Westmeath) and the whoops that used to emanate from the Hogan Stand. Six All-Irelands in the last eight years compares to five in my previous thirty-six years (with three of those sandwiched into my first four years on the planet). They laugh when I say that the Jacks used to have “problems” defeating Kerry and that they had issues around taking penalties (I used to fear Dublin being awarded a penalty as it would inevitably lead to a switch of momentum in favour of the opposition) and generally closing games out. Since I started having kids, Dublin have gone from being a team that finds ways to lose when playing well to a team that finds ways to win when playing badly (maybe I should have started having kids earlier). Take last September’s All Ireland Final as an example, I spent the entire match fidgeting and fussing, a big bag of nerves, particularly at the start and the end (post the sending off) while the boys were calm as you like, sure Dublin always win Dad. Oh to be blessed with such a blase attitude towards winning Sam!

In relation to our other team in blue, Leinster, the contrast is even more pronounced. The inter-provincial rugby scene was very different back in the 80s, in fact you would be hard pressed to see a game involving Leinster from one end of the season to the next. The only footage to be seen would be on the BBC Norn Iron results show as part of the dregs of Final Score. Every year we would be treated to overly long highlights from a dull and dreary Ravenhill of Ulster triumphing as Nigel Carr, David Irwin and the boys laid down another marker showing who wanted it more. Quite often there would be a drop-goal scored by somebody I had never heard. But then the unbiased and indignant commentator would inform us that it was a travesty that the player in question had only received one Irish cap as a replacement on a tour to Canada the previous Summer. Ulster won or shared every Irish inter-provincial championship from 1985 to 1994 and boy were they proud of it. Fast forward to 2009 and the arrival of Aaron, Leinster win their first Heineken Cup and they are now the ones who invariably win trophies year in, year out. Add on to that fact, that they play a great brand of rugby in top quality facilities. No wonder I set an extra alarm for 12pm last Friday to get tickets for the semi-final vs. Toulouse!

Last but not least is the Irish rugby team. Now at least the 1980s had a couple of Triple Crowns to sustain the ardent Irish rugby fan, but by golly the 1990s were a grim time for the men in green and those who followed them. The main highlight of this period was the five minutes between Gordon Hamilton scoring his try vs Australia in the 1991 world cup and Michael Lynagh scoring at the opposite end at the death to defeat us. Five minutes of joy in an unrelenting period of dire results plagued by dire rugby. I was actually at the 1996 France vs Ireland match in Paris due to being on Erasmus at the time. It was our last game played at Parc des Princes and we got a thorough hammering, the only bright spot was Ed Morrison (the English referee) giving us a consolation penalty try at the end (mainly because he took pity on us at 45-3 down) thus becoming the first Irish / Englishman to score a try in Paris since year dot! The turnaround in fortunes since Aaron’s arrival is even more astounding. Now technically Aaron had yet to make his appearance into the world when we won the grand slam in 2009 but he was certainly kicking hard in his mum’s belly. The fact that in the 2009-19 period we have won four Six Nations championships including two grand slams is remarkable, not to mentions two victories over the All Blacks. I do however wonder if the fact that my boys expect Ireland to win means they don’t value success as much as somebody like yours truly. Take the grand slam match versus England last year as an example. I was a bundle of nerves throughout and was almost in tears by the end, the boys were just “ah sure we were never going to lose to England Dad”, no memories of Chris Oti to haunt them!

I suppose on the opposite end of the spectrum there is the Irish football team, I had a team full of talent from Liverpool, Man Utd, Arsenal, etc. McGrath, Whelan and Keane spring to mind. They have, well they have, hmm let’s leave it at that then.

Absolutely GAA GAA

As I have become more involved in the regimes and routines of my childrens’ lives I have had a chance to compare and contrast them with my own formative years. One of the things that really stands out for me is the huge jump in standards when it comes to underage GAA.

I was part of a fairly decent underage team in Clontarf back in the day. We didn’t produce any Dubs but we were always close to the top of the North Dublin league at under-10, under-11 and under-12 level. I can remember some epic battles on the pitches of St Anne’s against St Vincent’s and Fingallians, who were our main rivals at the time. But the thing is I didn’t start training until I was in third class, I can specifically remember the excitement of signing up to play in the prefab classroom in Belgrove (probably while shivering). And that was just gaelic football, I didn’t start hurling for another year or two. My eldest, Aaron, is now in third class and he already has well over a hundred training sessions under his belt in both codes. I can only wonder what type of player I could have been with that amount of tutelage, probably swinging points over with my weaker left boot from underneath the Hogan Stand, bringing success after success to the Dubs in those barren years between 1995 and 2011 (my peak athletic years) instead of trundling out playing substandard rugby at a substandard level on substandard pitches across the southside of Dublin. But hey I’m not bitter!

Anyway back to the kids, Aaron currently¬† has training twice a week and a match at the weekend, a routine which Lochlan (age 7) has now also begun. Oscar (6) is still at the “nursery” so it’s just Saturday mornings for him, although with a 9.30am start this can often be the biggest chore of the weekend. As for Ella (2) for the moment she can only chase after many of the spare footballs which seem to inhabit our house and are constantly spawning new offspring! Goodness knows how Niki and I will manage when all four of them are into the matches and training sequence. Even now we are often faced with a “2 into 3 doesn’t go” situation on Saturday mornings particularly as some Na Fianna home matches are played at Collinstown out by the airport which is c. 6km away and involves crossing the M50 which isn’t really appropriate by scooter (and I’m sorry for even suggesting it!)

I must of course say that I have nothing but admiration for the Na Fianna club and the countless mentors that make all the training and matches possible. Everything is organised with precision, from the fixture list right down to the countless training routines aimed at developing skills in a fun and enjoyable way. The sight of 200-300 kids down at Mobhi Road every Saturday morning is a wonder and it will never fail to impress me (even if occasionally I have to sneak back to the warmth of my car to allow me to regain some feeling in my fingers and toes). I have so far managed to evade the lure of the mentor siren song purely because I have always had a younger child hanging on to my ankles when the call for new blood has gone out. That’s not to say that I don’t give advice or the odd piece of constructive criticism when I am on the sideline. This generally gets aimed at Aaron who I try to control like one of my PS4 minions on FIFA or Madden. I’m not sure he appreciates my strategic know-how as I encourage him to make another dummy run to the right before spinning back to the centre. I can remember one windy day down at the pitches by Malahide Castle where he told me in no uncertain terms to keep quiet so that he could concentrate on his own game. This seemed to cause much merriment not only on the opposing sidelines but also on our own! Who can blame me for being enthusiastic!

I get my exuberance for such matters from my Dad who was never afraid to voice his opinion on the rights and / or wrongs of a situation in any of the many matches we attended over the years (mainly in Croke Park). Occasionally this good natured banter on the topic of why it was unfair for a Meathman (for it was usually a Meathman) to attempt to clothes-line the nearest Dub would spill over into something more heated but it never got out of hand. Well at least that was until we went to the 1984 FAI cup final replay in Tolka Park between Shamrock Rovers and UCD. I can remember sensing that the atmosphere was a little more edgy than anything I was used to and my Dad being an alumni of UCD was proudly showing his colours much to the annoyance of most of those in attendance in the old ground. My abiding memory is of me tugging at my Dad’s sleeve, pleading with him to sit down as he celebrated UCD scoring the winner. I was very aware that we weren’t in the Cusack Stand anymore!