When I was growing up as a young lad, like most other chaps, I played every sport that came my way. Football, hurling, soccer, golf.. You name it, no such thing as ‘player burn out’ when you’re a fresh gosson!
One day, not long after my 10th birthday all the lads I hung around with were going to sign for the local soccer club ‘Ashbourne United’. So I said I would ask my father to sign the form and pay the joining fee for me. Now my auld man is from a very rural part of Offaly, where it’s nothing but hurling and Football, a place where let’s just say soccer is the forbidden fruit! I doubt half of his local parish have even heard of Lionel Messi, proud GAA countrymen down that neck of the woods, the way it should be in my own opinion. Ah sure I said I would chance my arm anyhow and see what he’d said,
“Daa, all the lads are joining Ashbourne United soccer club, will you sign my form for me? I reckon I’d be handy enough at it, the joining fee is £100!”
“Rory, there isn’t a chance in hell a son of mine is playing a foreign sport, so don’t be annoying me” as he stuck his head back into the latest edition of ‘Irelands own’.
“ Da, pleaaase”..
“Rory I’d give you a bottle of whisky and 20 cigarettes before I will let you play soccer, go join the hurling like every normal chap!”..
“Feck sake da!”
So that was the end of me playing soccer for a few years anyway. I was at the time playing plenty of football for Donaghmore/Ashbourne, we played every Saturday morning in the North County Dublin League (Meath had nothing set up for that age group at the time!) I loved it. So I decided to take my aul man’s advice and give the small ball game a rattle. Now you must remember I’m from Meath, so hurling was never that strong, especially during the late 90s when the Royal county footballers were ever present in Croker during the latter end of the Championship. Well myself and 2 of my buddies, whose fathers were big GAA men as well, said we would head down to hurling training one evening with the u10s to see what the craic was.
I remember it well, it was a lovely summers evening, fresh cut grass, nettles all along the side of the pitch just waiting in the long grass to pounce on a young lad who had over hit a sliotar! When we got there we gave our names and were handed a hurl each and told to spread out 40 yards apart and puck the ball to each other. This seemed to come very natural to everyone around us but we were all typical young townie chaps, who were used to playing soccer around by the shops, where the craic was whoever had jumpers on their backs had to sacrifice them as goalposts!
Well we were finding the going very tough, at least two ‘fresh-airs’ before we even connected with the sliotar and even when we did connect, god knows how far the ball would travel, one could go off over a lad’s head and the other would skim off the stick and go about 7 yards in front of you “a feck sake” as you walked up to give it another whack.
This went on for a while and then we were called into a huddle, our manager at the time – ‘Big Pat’, was the biggest brut of a man you can imagine, he was from the heart of Kilkenny, had a voice that would scare the bejesus out of you, he’d a pair of hands on him like two big IKEA frying pans and has never been seen with a clean pair of trousers on - RAW.
“Right lads, we have a few new boys joining the team today, Rory John and Eric, Welcome lads..” At the time we would have been considered the ‘bold boys’ at school so a few lads were a bit intimidated by us showing up.
Pat turns around and says “right men, I need to find a goalie, who wants to play in goals!?” ..Of course nobody put their hand up – sure for the love of god who wanted to be a goalie in hurling, only the maddest of the mad survive between the sticks on a hurling pitch! “Ok so, I’ll do it my way” says Pat, so he picked out the 3 biggest lads in the group, I was one of them, “Right chaps, says he “We have to find a goalie for this team so I need to test yee out” … “holy god what does he mean by that” I says to myself, as I looked on with a dog shit of a hurl in my hand and a Celtic jersey on me.
So this lad called, ‘Mark’ was up first, standing there, big tall gangly gosson, with a pair of Argos shin pads on and an old raggedy aul Wexford jersey on his back. Pat stands about 15 yards out from goals with a Goalies shovel in his hand and 3 sliotars at his feet.
“Right boys… I’ll hit three balls at ye each and whoever saves the most is our goalie, it’s as simple as that!”
“Holy mother of god, he can’t be serious” I thought, as I stood in line already starting to regret beginning a hurling career.
So Pat flicked up the first sliotar with his hurl and absolutely launches it at poor owl Mark, Mark dived out of the way and Pat ate the head off him “ lord jayyyysus gosson, you’re meant to save the ball not jump out of the way” he did the same with the next two balls, “Right Mark, well it’s safe to say you won’t be our goalie, stand aside there..” then up stepped Tommy, He did the exact same to Tommy.. “God lads have we any goalies at all?? Did yee ever see Davy Fitz jump out of the way of the ball? Never! Bunch of pansies I have here...” and we all 10 years of age, with barely a hair on our legs!!
“Right, in goals there with ya Rory.” I was shitting it altogether, I had bad asthma at the time and could feel my chest tighten up with nerves, because here I was at my first ever hurling training session and I was being asked to stand in front of a beast of a man with a massive hurl in his hands and I was expected to save the sliotar he was going to launch at my head!
The first two balls I managed to jump out of the way of, but I wasn’t so lucky with the last Sliotar! I didn’t manage to dive out of the way quick enough and it caught me right on my shinbone.. “Ahhh me fecking shin” as I dived onto the ground! Pat stood there with a big grin on his Face and says “Right Young O’ Connor, you’ll be the goalie so!”
After that mini nightmare was over it got worse, Pat then had us paired off in groups of 4, Pulling the shins off each other for the next 15 minutes while shouting at us, “I’m telling yee men, this might be sore now but your legs will learn to get used to wild pulls, so we’ll be more than ready when we come across a dirty shower from north Meath!!”
When that bit of torture was over we spent the last 15 minutes trying to puck the ball over the bar, every one of us absolutely bolloxed from pulling the shins off each other. The session ended soon after that and we all gathered around the back of Pat’s working van as he handed us a bottle of ‘score’ and a bag of ‘Tayto’.
“There ya go young chaps, great session, twill be the same again next Tuesday evening”.
I’ll tell you if anyone was going to make men out of us it was Big Pat!