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30 April 2012 Edition

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Variety is the spice of life

Between the Posts

Kevin Moran, Tommy Bowe and Ciara Mageean all cut their teeth on the Gaelic field before transferring their skills to other arenas

‘I used to play soccer – and Gaelic – with the new manager of the Six-County soccer side, Michael O’Neill’

GROWING UP, the only Dublin Gaelic footballer with whom I felt any affinity was Kevin Moran — although I have to admit that by that stage he was already wearing a red shirt. 

For the soccer team I followed in my boyhood was Manchester United. Kevin Moran had the special distinction of playing Gaelic football for his home county before being scouted for a career as a professional soccer player. None of that should overshadow the fact that he won two All-Ireland medals with the Dublin senior county football team. During his career with Manchester United, he went on to win two FA Cup medals. He was also capped for the 26-County soccer team 71 times. I know of no other Gaelic footballer who can boast such a record.

The ability to cross over from one sport to another is one which should be encouraged and applauded. Cumann Luthchleas Gael has been slowly adjusting and adapting to this philosophy. Until 1971, there was a ban under Rule 27 on members of the GAA playing non-Gaelic games such as soccer, rugby, cricket and hockey. Wisely, that has long since been repealed. 

In reality, to attempt to conscript players into any sport, especially young players, is counter-productive. Gaelic games have to survive and thrive because they become first choice. Like Kevin Moran, there are many others who have cut their teeth on the Gaelic field before transferring their skills and evident athletic ability to other arenas.

A case in point is Tommy Bowe. Playing rugby for Ulster and Ireland, he has displayed the same explosive sprint power and ball-handling skills that any Gaelic footballer would covet. Of course, he himself played Gaelic football at under-16 and minor level for his home county of Monaghan. His skills almost aided Ireland to victory in their Six Nations rugby international against France earlier this year. At one point, he kicked the ball forward out of his hands and charged past the French defenders to catch it on the bounce before spearing it into the grass for a try.

Another eye-catching athlete from the stable of Gaelic games is Ciara Mageean. Her prowess in middle-distance running may yet secure her a place in the Irish Olympic team even though she is barely 20 years old. She was silver medallist in the World Junior Athletics finals last year. Less well-known is the fact that between the World Juniors and the Commonwealth Games she captained Portaferry’s Minor camogie team to victory in the Down final. She also won an Ulster Colleges All-Star for school and club performances in camogie.

There are many other Gaelic players who have shown that they can straddle Gaelic games and other sports at the same time.

Antrim hurler Liam Watson was asked to try out for Donegal Celtic soccer club. Fortunately for Loughgiel, he came back soon enough to become the hat-trick hero of their All-Ireland victory in the club hurling final in Croke Park this year.

Cork women Juliet Murphy and Nollaig Ó Cleirigh have both played Gaelic football for their county and basketball for their country. In women’s Gaelic football, both have won All-Stars.

Every good coach knows that there is something that can be learned and applied from other sporting codes. Presumably, that’s why Liam Bradley brought in former Ulster and Ireland rugby player Andy Ward to help Antrim men’s Gaelic footballers.

It’s not just in Ireland that this pattern is seen. American football teams routinely encourage their players to find alternative sporting outlets in the off-season. Track and field is a favourite. 

In my own modest experience of coaching, I’ve found there are lessons to be drawn from a wide variety of sports. I’ve planned a Gaelic training session with components drawn from athletics, soccer and Australian football  (though not the tackles!).

In a recent meeting between Sinn Féin and the North’s  Irish Football Association, I mentioned something that the soccer boys (and for that matter most of my party colleagues) didn’t know. 

“I used to play soccer with your new manager of the Six-County soccer side, Michael O’Neill,” I chirped in.

We had played on the same soccer team during our time together at secondary school.

“That’s not all. We used to play Gaelic football and hurling together as well.” 

Whether Michael O’Neill’s experience gained on the Gaelic pitch will endear him to the soccer fans at Windsor Park remains to be seen. But don’t be surprised if he introduces Gaelic football drills to his training sessions.

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