Master Joe and the St Colmcille’s Gaelic Football Team

Master Joe

Master Joe

When I was at St Colmcille’s Primary School in Omagh, I got an education in gaelic football that was taken for granted, but which I know now to have been invaluable. In fact, it is the stuff of legend round Omagh, if anyone ever stopped to think about it. For that, take a bow Joe McElholm, as the pundits would say. More of Master Joe later.

Probably nowadays some of what we did would be frowned upon. Fifteen-a-side matches on a full size pitch for example. Intra school tournaments of four six or eight teams. Hawks, Eagles, Falcons, or Harps, Shamrocks, etc. God there must have been some craic in the classroom picking the teams when us boys were signed up.

The first competition I ever played in I was in P4. Being tall I was put in goal. I remember still vividly standing in the goalmouth at the Gortin Road end of the Christian Brothers Park. The goalmouth was deep in water and the hardier souls, usually boys from O’Kane Park and Strule Park would rush in splashing ferociously through the water to try to score.

I remember coming for one high ball, catching it and hoofing it out the field as far as my good left foot would let me. The teacher told me well done. It might have been the late Master Harkin or Master Foley. I disliked doing goal intensely and hoped that I would be put out the field as promised the next day. That didn’t happen. And having shipped a few scores I pulled a sickie for the third match so I didn’t have to do goals. I remember telling my mother I was afraid of getting hit with the ball and she tried to help me furnish shin pads out of corrugated cardboard for a Gaelic match for Chrissakes!

I have no memory of my father taking any interest or involvement in anything to do with myself and football. For all the fanaticism among my brothers and I, he seemed uninterested, the only time he showed much enthusiasm was when Armagh got to the All Ireland in 1977, which was not that long before he passed away. I remember that summer listening to the commentary of Armagh v Roscommon in the All Ireland semi final in the car wherever it was we were going.

These competitions would be run off two or three times a year over a series of weeks. The games were played down at St Patrick’s Park and the Brothers Park. To get to St Pat’s we would leave St Colmcille’s and head over past the Hogshead. Then we would slip down by the banks of the Strule, over a wall and along the side of the river before climbing back through a gap in the wall in to the pitch. Nowadays it just wouldn’t happen.

When you got there the teachers would appear with a duffle bag of jerseys, often encrusted with the detritus, muck and stench of the previous days hostilities. One strip was an old-style vintage Man Utd yellow away strip complete with badge and triangular collar as worn by George Best et al. Forget about wearing gear from foreign games, we were just pleased to get a strip and away we would go, Gaelic-footballed to the nines. Managed by a teacher, all of whom seemed as mad and as mad for it as we were. Some were better than others. You knew if you got Dominic McElholm he was great craic. Master Farry was a hard ass. Master Foley I think smoked a pipe and was too much of a dilettante to know much about Gaelic football. Master Harkin was a tough enough coach I recall.I’m sure the staff room rivalry and slagging would have been red hot at times, I can see the value these men would have had, looking back now through the fugue of years!

Top man was Master Joe, Joe McElholm, brother of the aforementioned Dominic. Joe was a studious looking man, glasses perched on his nose, serious looking. He has a shock of curly black hair, and what I would describe a short stocky physique. In terms of technical coaching he was on a parallel with some of the best coaches I have come across or listened to. In us boys he embedded, ingrained and imbued a foundation knowledge of Gaelic football that is still relevant today. Its skills. How to kick the ball. Where to position yourself for any given eventuality. It was indeed a football education.

He taught us how to kick dead balls off the ground – head down over the ball, standing foot planted, kicking through the ball. On the subject of the opponent. Don’t talk to him. A simple rule. On lifting the ball, catching to the chest; catching above the head, the fist pass. He burned it in with enthusiasm, strictness and an authority that we all respected and slightly feared.

In our last year at St Colmcille’s our duty was to play in the Rice Cup. It was the McRory Cup for P7 Christian Brothers Schools and although the Brothers had left St Colmcille’s, we were still a mainstay of the competition. Yes we played local primary schools in challenges, usually in P6, and for some reason seemed to lose, but we looked on them with a certain disdain because WE were in the Rice Cup.

I recall in the Spring before P7 we played in a blitz that featured the Rice Cup teams – Abbey CBS, Armagh CBS, Turf Lodge and St Aidan’s. It was held up on a windswept pitch on the Glen Road that I now know to be St Mary’s. We lost a final or semi final on penalties believe it or not, but I remember the highlight being allowed to wear the school’s Rice Cup kit, the sky blue and dark blue as worn by the Dubs with three stripes down the arms. It was magic.

When it came to the Rice Cup the routine was simple to us, but in retrospect a logistical nightmare most likely for the teachers concerned. Master Joe and a few other colleagues would take their cars to the match. We set off to play St Aidan’s in our first game on the all weather pitch at Glen Road CBS, West Belfast. I remember our opponents had several large, loud skinheads on show who ruled the roost. I was a sub that day, the only game I didn’t start, and even then I felt the injustice and made a poor pine rider, before coming on and playing, I thought, a decent enough game. Not so Joe.

He picked out a smattering of players who he felt had done well enough to qualify for post match sandwiches, crisps and juice and after giving the remainder of us a bollocking, he said we didn’t deserve anything to eat. Eventually he relented so that we could get fed. When I think back it was some adventure in 1979 to drive a squad of players from Omagh to Belfast for a match. And then to refuse to feed them! But I suspect he was toying with us in the manner of a Master psychologist and strategist. The SunTzu of St Colmcille’s!

We played matches in Newry on the Pat Jennings pitch, in Armagh on the All weather pitch at the CBS, and at the College grounds in Armagh. I remember we played in one other competition whose name escapes me (McGreevey Cup possibly I am told) and upon reaching the semi finals the game was scheduled for Armagh at the College grounds. As we waited along the side of the road before we got togged out – for there were no dressing rooms and lads just changed in the car – a couple of helicopters began to hover ominously over the pitch.

This being the late Seventies the Brits obviously wondered what several carloads were doing stopped together on the side of the road. Suddenly they swooped down and from the chopper emerged squads of heavily armed troopers who took up cover positions whilst an Officer chap in face camouflage approached Master Joe for some interrogation.

One of our lads, a tough nut (he reckoned himself anyway) started to cry as he felt the Brit was pointing a large Bren gun in his direction. Master Joe reassured the oppressors that we were the St Colmcille’s Gaelic Football team and that we were there to play a match, rather than fight for Irish freedom with a load of ten and eleven year olds.

Although we won that battle we lost the match, right enough it is one of two games for that team that I recall playing particularly well in. On each occasion my own self-assessment was confirmed by Master Joe, which was more than a man could ask for. I went home ten feet tall. The other was I think a Rice Cup semi final that we lost to a St Aidan’s team still featuring the big lads with the skin heads. Our performance since the first match had obviously improved, as never again did Master Joe threaten to deprive us of our sandwiches, crisps and juice. I thank him for that. In terms of post match nutrition, he was ahead of his time.

When I look back I marvel at those men. The legion of teachers in that school that pure loved gaelic football and organised those blitzes year in, year out. To Master Joe and the teachers that drove us the length and breadth of the country, in times when the roads were worse, the cars less good and the distances much longer than they would seem now. Mad craic looking back.

And the things we learned. Don’t talk to your man, don’t even look at him, you can shake his hand after the game is over. Kick passing. High catching. We were disappointed when we lost matches. And I’m sure we got bollocked for not playing well. Master Joe wasn’t afraid to make the hard calls and boys got dropped and subbed for not doing the business. But boys like Don McAuley, the late Pete McCloskey, Eddie McEnhill, Tommy McGovern, Tommy Sloan, Raymond Blaney, Liam McSorley, Paul Crossley, Jarlath McElholm, Neil O’Hagan, to name a few, we played some ball.

Thirty years on, I still have fond memories of Master Joe and his football team. Now that’s an example of damn good coaching. If someone remembers something I’ve taught them in half a lifetime I’ll be a very happy man. I may even let them eat the sandwiches.

A Career in Management

I have been involved coaching and managing teams since I was about eight years old. The first team I managed was Romania, followed by Bulgaria.

I took great interest in the teams’ tactics and how the players interacted with one another on the pitch. It was great to get this international experience at such a young age. I remember Santa Claus duly brought me a book about tactics when I was about ten. I never looked back.

It was easy enough to implement the formations and line outs onto the Subbuteo pitch. And in comparison to my later experiences with players, you didn’t really have to worry whether they understood what you were talking about or whether they could handle the nuances of the position. They were just slotted into a particular position on the green baize and told to play there.

One of the great frustrations was the lack of replays: brilliant goals were fleeting moments never to be repeated. I could easily get my team to score from frees the ball crashing through or over the wall but when the ball hit the net that was it. Sadly the world would never see these moments.

Occasionally there would be problems with injury. Sometime an adult would enter the living room and clumsily stand on the pitch sending the silky midfield playmaker into smithereens and a long period of rehab. A few players had their careers ended this way. It was as bad as the cruciate ligament tear in those days.

Often some teams lacked a player or two – on my pitch although Argentina had just won the World Cup they weren’t just as good. The reach of the ruling Junta didn’t extend to the Living Room stadium.

My strongest team was Uruguay, with a number 8 called Santelli. In the real world he was just another fairly anonymous attacking midfielder. But I was able to get the best out of him and I played him in a sort of attacking inside left role. He was a real handful and led my Uruguay team to numerous successes. It was a great example of man management.

My sister got me Peru for Christmas – for some reason she took a shine to them and their white strip with the red sash after the Argentina World Cup. They were good but lacked that little something extra.

I hunted down other teams. I had a grá for teams from behind the Iron Curtain but the manufacturers didn’t seem to share my enthusiasm. Maybe it was the cold war. I managed to get East Germany, in the real world they were for nothing but I turned them into world beaters. Using the tiny numbers and a few extra players I’d sourced I was able to make up a few tournament-sized squads and I tried to make sure everyone got a run out in a fashion the exponents of positive coaching would endorse wholeheartedly.

I searched for Haiti and Zaire but could never find them – I always fancied a shot at managing either team, I reckoned I could get the best out of them with a bit of organisation and tactical nous.

The players got loads of games. I organised a series of international tournaments. Some were run on a worldwide basis, others within Europe or South America. I recorded the scorers and the group stages meticulously. There was no danger of anyone querying a result.
I remember one particular momentous family occasion when my brother was involved in a heated discussion with my parents, my role was to keep the players focused on their match.

A few times using spare rods that formed part of the pitch side fencing we erected Gaelic posts and were able to run off an All Ireland series of sorts. My players weren’t happy with the unfamiliar rules and it died a bit of a death.

Picking teams. Formations. Tactics. How to counteract particular players. Dealing with success. And failure. It was great preparation.
I watch on now as my own sons play Football on their wii. They pick their own teams and set their stall out. They haven’t yet learned to park the bus. They are too focused on all out attack but they’ll learn.

The other day, I picked up a sheet of paper and saw that Leo had made out a rudimentary tournament. It brought a smile to my face.
I am proud to have managed players over a number of years with varying degrees of success and failure.

Perhaps in their own time, the boys will too.

Hands Across the Border

So Martin McGuinness is planning to shake hands with Queen Elizabeth.

My problem with the British Royal Family is more to do with being born into privilege than the fact they represent such unrelenting Britishness which I always abhored but more frequently nowadays ignore.

My father had an apt saying for people that did not merit coming under his notice. Don’t even ignore them he would say.

“By the lonely prison wall I heard a young girl calling, Michael, they are taking you away”

For her part the Queen of England has shaken hands with some fairly distasteful people. Distasteful to me. To her perhaps. To others. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. Saudi Princes, Augusto Pinochet, George Bush, Robert Mugabe, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa.

“For you stole Trevelyn’s corn, So the young might see the morn, Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay”

My daughter sings a wee song the refrain of which goes ‘So let us shine, you in your small corner and I in mine.’ Some day next week in a small corner of the Lyric Theatre this minor drama will play itself out. Martin, the alleged former commander of Oglaigh na hÉireann will shake hands with the Commander in Chief of the British Forces.

Last year when the House of Windsor descended on Ireland, the southerners couldn’t have been more sycophantic fawning over a British Queen. Since then Martin made his own pitch for Head of State and realised in the process that he was probably less popular in the Country whose freedom he has dedicated his life to, than the Monarch from whose chains he wished to unshackle his countrymen.

“By a lonely prison wall I heard a young man calling, Nothing matters Mary when you’re free”

Somewhere along the election road did Martin realise the futility of it? Today’s statement by Gerry Adams was interlaced with the sort of coded language designed assuage his more militant comrades. Sinn Fein are still sticking to their task. A United Ireland is still on the cards. Such is their sensitivity, that Martin rubbing hands with QE II won’t be photographed. That is a clinch too far.

How far we have come in the last few years. The pride of the Irish nation is at rock bottom after the bankers and the developers and the gobshites and the planners were let loose on the country. Truth be told they did more damage to Ireland than Martin and his comrades. The place has never been worse.

In the last week we have had a former Republican Hunger Striker turned developer assert his British identity in the bankruptcy court. Did he foresee that day would come on the blanket in the Kesh. The Irish soccer team’s abject capitulation caused a salvo of navel gazing not seen since Saipan as we asked are we a nation of competitors or cheerleaders cum beer leaders. Toasting every defeat with another pint of booze as the latest disaster befalls our hapless people.

“Against the Famine and the Crown, I rebelled they ran me down”

And the anthem that plays behind this farrago of faded green is the dirge-fest funereal Fields of Athenry that laments the single biggest disaster to befall our nation. Still it could be worse, I suppose it could be the dreaded Ireland’s Call, the Shoulder Song as my brother in law calls it.

Still, for Martin and Elizabeth Windsor, to give her republican name, Ireland is Calling.

“Now you must raise our child with dignity.”

Get on with it, behind closed doors if necessary, so we can all move on with the real business in hand.

Sing Then You’re Winning?

So Ireland were outclassed and outplayed by a superior Spanish team, who are after all reigning European Champions and World Cup Winners.

No-one seriously can have expected a different outcome can they? The performance and result were disappointing, particularly given what we’ve seen before from Trapp’s team with its defensive organisation and ability to frustrate.

In the aftermath of last night’s game, many commentators have commented on the tremendous support for the Boys in Green coming from the stands. The support was unconditional, the chanting designed to get the faintest of hearts pumping and the rendition of the Fields of Athenry that reverberated round Gdansk, well it was a thing of wonder.

Or was it? Was this, as John Delaney of the FAI described it, the ‘Abiding Memory’ of Poland? Or should we be looking for something more. Maybe something on the pitch? Are we as Irish people starting to become weary of this stereotype that we’ll go along for the sing song and the party and enjoy ourselves irrespective of the result.

Or are we accepting of results, win lose or draw so long as we can have a good time, sinking a few pints and having the craic with the locals and the other fans. Harmless and roaming free with the wife’s permission and the Credit Union’s cash?

There is no denying the gulf in class between Trappatoni’s Ireland and the likes of Spain. The personnel just aren’t there to go toe to toe with the likes of the better teams. Really once qualified, are we just going along for the craic? Are our expectations too high?

And as one academic commented last night, are we also content to leave as our abiding legacy at this tournament a lamentable dirge about the biggest single catastrophe to befall the Irish people.

To hell with Trevelyn and his bloody corn.