For many people in Ireland and even abroad the GAA club is the most important place for them. This is where we all have a real sense of belonging and we all know we are part of something really special. Quite simply, the club is the hub of everything that is good within the community. I often think about what life would be like without our clubs and the GAA in it. It’s not a pretty thought and one that I could never really imagine.
I have been really lucky that I have been a member of my own club Killeavy since I was 8 years old. That’s 25 years that I can proudly say have been spent being a part of something great. When we think of our clubs, we think of the volunteers, the managers and coaches of all the teams, the bus drivers, the parents, the various committees that keep the club running smoothly. We think of the players that dedicate themselves on countless nights throughout the year just to have the honour of wearing that jersey with pride. You think of the whole community and what it represents. You think of the personalities. Every club has them. This is what it is all about.
Over the last couple of years I often thought about retiring from the county scene at a stage in my career when I knew I was still capable of playing at a high level. More importantly, I thought about doing it when I knew I could still give my club at least one or two good seasons of football, as I had missed a lot down through the years because of county commitments. I was fortunate in one sense in that most of the years I played for Armagh, we got an extended run in the All-Ireland championship. At the same time, this meant that the amount of game time I was getting with Killeavy was minimal.
This was certainly one part of playing county football that I never really enjoyed and most county players will back me up on this. You want to play as many games as you possibly can, and for most of us, representing our club is just as important as playing for our county.
Some people don’t always see it that way though. In Killeavy, I know there were lads who would often have said that I was not committed to the team because of my involvement with Armagh. But I was lucky down the years with my club managers as they always allowed me the leeway that is required to commit properly to county football. They understood what was needed.
But every club has their knockers and critics and we are no different. In terms of the criticism I have got, I have heard it regularly said down the years that I am someone who has never done things for the club. I heard it said that while I was a great ambassador for the club as a result of playing for Armagh, I wasn’t a great club person. It is a shame that there are people in clubs with those kinds of narrow views, but I believe they are always outweighed by the fantastic achievers that we have.
They are outweighed by the true club people who commit to something and go and get it done and don’t just criticise it. There are so many people in that category in Killeavy, but at the same time, it would be wrong to say that I was always happy with the club and some of the things that went on. For example, this time last year I went to Australia to play for Ireland and I never even got as much as a good luck card before I left from the club. Now I’m not saying that I wanted some kind of big deal made, but a small acknowledgement from my club of the fact that I was going to represent Ireland would have meant a lot to me. I know it was nothing personal against me, but I think that it was a case of the club maybe taking something and someone for granted and not being aware of it.
So when our chairman asked me to bring the Cormac McAnallen Cup to the club for our 125 celebrations, I let him know exactly how I felt, and I didn’t bring the cup to the club. As I said, I felt that I had been a bit taken for granted at times and this should never happen in a club when a player is representing their county, or their province or their country. As long as I am involved with Killeavy, no county player representing us will be taken for granted again. Why should they be when they bring so much honour and pride to the area?
You have to look at it every way though. When you think of people like Colm Cooper, Henry Shefflin, Cora Staunton and Bernard Brogan, they are the marquee names within the GAA at present but they would never have been able to make it to the top without the unrivalled dedication from all of their coaches from a very early age. It is the volunteers throughout all of our clubs that ultimately make the superstars out of our players. I can remember all of my managers from every age group I played at and each and every one of them taught me something that has always stuck. That could be anything from toe-tapping to making space.
I remember my first ever match. I started at left half back against Silverbridge in an U10 league game which was played in Killeavy. We won and I could not believe I got playing even though it was in defence. I did not care a damn about that though. I actually played in defence for two years until one of my managers finally realised that this was not the place for me and I slowly but surely made my way up to the full forward line. When I look back at my first ever match, the real achievement from it is that I still remain good mates with most of the boys I played with that day. That is what is really special about our clubs. The togetherness and the bonds formed. The unique friendships that are with you forever.
You often hear it said that being successful and winning silverware with your club is a uniquely special feeling. This is because you win with the guys that you have grown up playing with and that you know so well. I now know that this is the case. Last weekend I captained our team to the Armagh Intermediate Championship. This was my first ever final for our senior team and the sense of relief and satisfaction when the final whistle went was immense. James Duffy, Paul Watters and myself have dedicated a combined total of 51 years to our senior team and this was our first victory at this level.
Other members of our team are lucky to get to taste success so early in their senior careers. Guys like Caolan Mone, Eugene Coogan, David Markey and James Donnelly. But the good thing about this win is that now that they have tasted success, it will hopefully drive them on to strive for even more. I realised this year that regardless of whether you are playing county football or club football, if you want to be successful you must dedicate a huge amount of time and effort to the cause. That is one of the reasons why it is extremely difficult to balance playing both club and county football. It is actually almost impossible.
I can only speak for Killeavy on this, but I am sure most clubs are the same. Club training is gradually getting up to the demands and standards of senior intercounty training. The same standards are being set and because of this, what we now have are teams that are fitter, stronger and more skilful than what went before them. We also get our food after training together and spend hours doing recovery sessions, such as going to the sea.
A lot of club managers are learning so much now from intercounty set ups and that is the reason why we are all benefitting from it. The demands of our games are getting greater and greater but so are the expectations of achieving. Not only are the managers learning a lot from the intercounty set ups but the players are buying into what is happening and what it takes to achieve silverware. This is the way forward.
Fundraising events are always fantastic occasions in clubs. It is these events that help our clubs financially and without them most clubs would struggle. You have the usual events such as the X-Factor, Strictly Come Dancing, quizzes and even things like breakfast mornings. It is at these functions that you see the real community spirit coming to the fore. We held a breakfast morning two weeks ago and over 400 people from the area and beyond attended. They wanted to lend their support and the atmosphere in our hall at 10am on a Sunday morning was just fantastic. We are also holding a Strictly Come Dancing event in December and I have no doubt at all that it will receive the same amount of support, perhaps even more than all of our other events have.
The real future for all of our clubs though, is the kids. They are vital for the development of every club in the country. Every Sunday morning we have almost 100 kids down in the park developing their skills. They are even as young as four, which already gives them a four year head start on me when I started playing. I know my own neighbouring club Dromintee spend their Friday evenings coaching their youngsters. This is going on all over the place and yet it is the volunteers’ work in this area that often goes unnoticed. Almost every weekend there is a blitz of some sort going on. These are fantastic for the kids as they just want to pull on a jersey and really feel part of a team. This offers them that opportunity and you can see the enjoyment they get out of it. You see the jerseys hanging off them and the shorts looking like a pair of tracksuit bottoms on them. This is all brilliant and is one of the main reasons why we all love our clubs.
My own kids are very much part of the Killeavy set up now. I hope they always will be as I have had fantastic opportunities in my own life because of the club. Life now is all about our kids and the future of our games need our kids to be involved. Don’t ever be afraid to get involved yourself. Remember, without our clubs, where would we be and what would we be doing? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
This is the latest of Steven McDonnell's exclusive 'Point Taken' football columns, which have featured on GAA.ie throughout the summer. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and are not necessarily those of the Association.
Click here to read Steven's earlier columns for GAA.ie