Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t help wincing ever so slightly when officials stand-up and preach about the virtues of the GAA, writes Paddy Heaney.
You know the spin I’m talking about. Pride in the community. The selflessness of the volunteer. The love of the game. The woman who washes those jerseys and the man who cuts that bloody grass.
Time and time again, we are reminded that the GAA has been built on the back of good people who possess those admirable traits.
To an extent, it’s partly true. But, that’s the GAA as it is presented from a lectern. At the coalface, it’s different.
Raw, unbridled hatred, deep, festering envy, and decades of stored up resentment are the real qualities which lies behind the GAA’s extraordinary success.
Let me explain. This is how it works. A club decides to build a second pitch. They raise the money and get the job done.
The neighbouring club look at this new playing field. Naturally enough, they are jealous to the bone. So, not to be outdone, they too develop a second field. Then, their neighbours look at that pitch. They too get jealous. And so the cycle continues until every club in the county has two pitches.
Then some club will develop a third pitch.
Not convinced? Let me take you on a tour of my native Derry. My first memory of a Gaelic football match goes back to a game that was played on a field. By field, I mean that the playing surface was designed for cows and sheep — not football matches. Our club, Watty Graham’s Glen was playing. I have no recollection of the game. But I remember watching John J McKenna getting togged out alongside a hedge at the side of the road. There were no changing rooms.
In 1982, after purchasing and developing a new site of land, Watty Graham Park was officially opened by then GAA President Paddy Buggy. We got a new pitch and changing rooms. There was even a scoreboard. Yes, it was state of the art. Fast forward 32 years and there are now three pitches at Watty Graham Park. A covered stand was built in 2003. A new strength and conditioning suite was opened last year. A practice wall is the latest development.
The intensely competitive club scene in Derry is often trotted out as a reason for the county’s lack of success. That’s a fallacy. The rivalry is taken as a given. It’s accepted. It’s part of the culture.
Slaughtneil is the latest club to emerge from the south Derry cauldron. Slaughtneil are our nearest and ‘dearest’ neighbours. No Slaughtneil man worth his salt would respect me (or believe me) if I professed that I had derived any enjoyment from their recent successes in the Derry and Ulster Championship. That’s not the point.
In Derry and in the GAA, you are under no obligation to love your neighbour. But if they are any good, you’re duty bound to copy them.
Slaughtneil are proving to be a tough act to follow. Founded in 1953, they are a relatively young club but the Emmet’s have made extraordinary progress. In 2004, they won their first senior football championship. A dual club, this year they completed the double, winning the hurling and football titles with several players competing on both teams.
In an era when the dual player is supposed to be extinct, Slaughtneil have defied the odds. But the club has a history of being successful when failure looks like the more likely option.
A rural club situated on the slopes of the Sperrin Mountains, Slaughtneil isn’t the obvious setting for a teenage disco. But for years their clubhouse was packed to the gills every Friday night. For the average teenager in south Derry, ‘Slacknail’ on a Friday night may as well have been Studio 54.
As a Glen man, it’s difficult not be jealous of Slaughtneil. We have yet to win a senior championship. Back in the day, I would have begrudged any neighbouring club any success.
But my attitude has since changed. Mark Conway, one of key figures in Club Tyrone, used to visit other county boards to show them how to got their fund-raising organisations off the ground. Conway came to Derry, the Red Hand county’s arch-rivals. Conway’s logic was that if Derry were strong, it would help to keep Tyrone strong.
There is a lot of merit in that philosophy. Last year, our club won the Ulster minor championship for the third year in a row. But before winning Ulster, Glen had to get past Slaughtneil, and our arch-rivals proved to be the toughest obstacle of all.
Two years ago, Glen beat Slaughtneil in the county final by a point. After that win, they waltzed to an Ulster title. A similar scenario unfolded last year.
By raising themselves to the level which was required to beat Slaughtneil, our minor teams found that they could beat any club in Ulster.
The conclusion is obvious: the animosity and tension which lies between rival clubs should not be viewed in a negative light. It should be welcomed.
A successful neighbour is actually the best neighbour you can have.
And if you love your neighbour, then there is something seriously wrong.
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