School games make a welcome return
By Kevin Egan
On paper, it should have been a fantastic battle between two leading championship contenders. With no competitions played in the 2020/2021 academic year, St. Joseph’s Secondary School of Rochfortbridge remain the Leinster Post Primary Schools Senior “A” champions, while pitted against them in the first round of this year’s senior league were Marist College of Athlone, who were many people’s clear favourites for the championship that never was.
Yet, when these two Westmeath schools clashed on Tuesday afternoon at Páirc Chiaráin in Athlone, it had the feel of one of those games where just getting two teams onto the field represented a shared victory.
The intercounty season is done and dusted, while all across Ireland, club seasons are reaching fever pitch, and underage football and hurling has thrived over the course of a warm summer. The pandemic is still very much a part of our everyday lives, but for ordinary GAA players, members and supporters who are driven by life on the field of play, it feels like something close to normality has resumed.
Not so in schools’ GAA, where caution has remained the watchword, and only now is gaelic games returning to the heart of secondary school life.
In Connacht, Munster and Ulster, schools are beginning to get back onto the training field, or else looking ahead towards league competitions getting underway in the coming weeks. Leinster however was first out of the blocks, and so two heavy-hitters took to the field at Athlone GAA club.
As it happened, the action was more one-sided than might have been expected. Marist College were pretty much full strength, which meant that players like Conor Hand (named on the 2020 Electric Ireland minor team of the year) and Senan Baker (Westmeath U-20 this year) were on the field and ready to exert their influence, which they did in some style.
For St. Joseph’s, Alex Ajeigbe worked hard to stem the tide at midfield while Jack Quinn worked hard close to goal. In between the posts, Stephen McNevin was called upon to protect his net on a couple of occasions and he delivered, but by the end of the game there was no doubt that St. Joseph’s have a lot of work to do to retain the Brother Bosco Cup.
Their manager, John Rouse, couldn’t be happier at the prospect of taking on the task. The Tullamore native, who was part of his brother Paul’s management team when Paul took over the Offaly senior footballers in 2018, was delighted just to see a vital part of school life return for his students.
“It’s just great to be back. Schools football is great football” he said after the game.
“I feel very sorry for last year’s sixth years, they didn’t get to wear the school jersey and that’s very sad for them because it’s every lad’s dream to represent your school. We had a great crowd here today, we had 45 lads who wanted to play for their school and while it didn’t go the way we wanted on the pitch, we’re delighted to get back out there”.
The manner of the game wasn’t a huge concern, as Rouse felt that the year off means that his group – and every other school team in the country – has to put in some hard yards just to get to what would normally be the starting point.
“Because we didn’t have lads last year, it’s been difficult for us because we don’t know the players as well as we’d like. Normally you’d know them well, so for the last couple of weeks we’ve been training twice a week to try and get to know the names and to play football. Because there’s so much club stuff going on, our sessions would have a few missing every day but the lads are just delighted to be back, as are we delighted to be back looking after teams!”
For Eoin Jordan and the Marist, the sheer joy of getting out on the field overshadowed the niggling sense of disappointment that would have lingered all summer.
The feeling of ‘what might have been’ can only have grown as he and the rest of the country watched 2021 Leaving Cert students Rúaidhrí Fallon and Ben O’Carroll play scintillating football for the Roscommon U-20s in their run to the All-Ireland final at Croke Park. They, along with several other key players, were part of a golden generation that was expected to finally secure the big prize.
The Athlone school have played in five Leinster senior “A” finals but have yet to end up on the right side of the result in one of those deciders. Jordan was part of the management team for the most recent three defeats in 2014, 2016 and 2018, each of which went the wrong way by just two scores.
“We felt we had a great chance last year, we lost the 2018 junior final to Knockbeg (Carlow) by a point and some of our main players had an off-day in the final, and then they went on to lose the All-Ireland by a single point, so it was a pity we never got to play. But for the younger players, or for myself and the lads on the sideline beside me, we have another chance. It’s the players that never got to kick a ball that really missed out”.
Jordan explained how there have been slight tweaks to their approach. Normally they train in the mornings but that’s not realistic now as players would be unable to shower before classes, but aside from some modifications to their schedule, it’s full steam ahead.
“We’ve actually got a bit of a run at it this year that wouldn’t normally be the case. The Westmeath minor championship finished up there in the last week or so, St. Brigid’s are out of contention in Roscommon which wouldn’t usually be the case, so it’s only the lads playing with their adult teams that aren’t able to fully commit to us,” he said.
“There’s a great sporting ethos in the school across a wide variety of sports so we get all the support we need and more, and the Athlone club have been very good to us accommodating our training, so we’re in a good place. It’s just a great feeling to be back at it, it feels a lot more like how school life should be, with academic work and extra-curricular activity, whether that’s sport or something else, all going hand in hand”.
On the field, it was easy to see that these teams were both laden with quality, while at the same time, somewhat disjointed and ring-rusty. Moments of real skill and class, such as a fantastic run and powerful finish from a tight angle by Conor Fox for the St. Joseph’s goal, were interspersed with some poor execution and poor decision making.
Yet players were clearly learning from playing alongside colleagues that in club football, would normally be lined up on the opposite side. Indeed in some cases, since St. Joseph’s draws players from bother Westmeath and Offaly, while both Westmeath and Roscommon are strongly represented on Marist teams, some of the players might never share a field outside of their school. Over the hour’s action, the bonds started to grow, and despite the fact that the lead crept out to a point where it became clear that the Marist weren’t going to be reeled in, the competitive edge was evident.
The presence of an intercounty panel referee, Keith O’Brien of the Moate All Whites club, helped to ensure that this edge was kept in check, without restricting the instincts of the players any more than was necessary. As one St. Joseph’s player went down injured, there were protests from the Marist side about how they should have been allowed carry on their attack since it wasn’t a head injury.
“It’s a bit early in the year for that lads, we’re not going to have anyone get hurt” was O’Brien’s reply, one of several occasions when he was happy to chat to players to help ease them back into what once would have been the most normal environment in the world for them.
His point about it being early in the year was well made. At this stage in the school season, every team is entitled to dream about the glory that’s there for the taking over the next six months. Given what we’ve all come through however, it felt somewhat glorious just to be there and to be part of it.
“Last year was awful, it really was” said John Rouse.
“Lads like to get that jersey and to represent their school, and they can always then say ‘where did you play on the school team?’
“It just made schools less of a fun place to be at times, because lads like to get out, to all sports. Being stuck indoors all the time, doing purely academic work, that’s not how it’s meant to be. The life of a school is so much more than the academics”.
By outgrowing the school buildings and extending back onto the playing fields, it certainly felt a lot like school life took a big step on the road to recovery last Tuesday in Athlone.