Lockdown is robbing youth of important life experiences
Memory is funny; a smell, a sound, a sight can trigger it into action. The other day, I saw an old white Peugeot 205 van on the road. I didn’t catch the reg but this thing was ancient.
And suddenly, I was 12 years old again, outside a shop in Belturbet, climbing out of our football trainer Paddy Minagh’s identical little van. There were seven of us in the back and a couple more in the passenger seat.
As we scampered into the shop to fill up on penny sweets, I caught a snatch of conversation between Paddy, God rest him, and the driver of a mini bus who had parked up beside us.
“You’ve a bigger load than me,” the bus man was laughing.
We were coming from playing a challenge game on the old Drumlane pitch in Stag Hall, where the ground had a trampoline-like quality and the midges would eat you alive in the summer. Glorious, innocent days.
Stopping at the shop was a tradition. Win or lose, you’d fill up on sweets and minerals. It was part of the fun.
A couple of days before the Junior Championship semi-final in 2004, we were in the dressing-room when someone announced that we were getting a bus to this game. This was serious stuff now, we were adults. No more driving your own cars, we were told, lads are arriving late and things are too scattered. Any questions?
Brendan Leddy’s hand shot up (Brendan was in his 20s, probably our best player).
“Can we stop at the shop?” he joked. The room erupted.
As a juvenile player, the night before a match, I’d be awake till all hours, writing little essays in a copy book about how the game would go or drawing cartoons or ads for football boots, with myself cast in the role of the icon wearing them.
We had small numbers but we won three tournaments that year when we were U12s. To me, it was as good as winning three All-Irelands. For the Jimmy Reilly tournament in Redhills, we got a little gold medal. The Ballyhaise one was a small plaque – that was a one-off game. The Belturbet tournament was a nice medal, gold with ‘U12 BELTURBET ‘96’ on the back. I’m looking at it here as I write.
The following winter, I was in school and sprained two fingers playing handball on a Friday evening in November. Never one to play down an injury, I came home really pouring it on; I think I may even have developed a limp. The plan was to somehow try to work it that I would get Monday off school, maybe on account of having to go to John James North for the cure.
Just as I was lying up licking my wounds, selling this catastrophic injury as best I could to my mother, the house phone rang. It was Chris Smith, our U14 manager, to say that we were playing Ballyhaise in his father Mattie’s memorial tournament on the Sunday.
I jumped off the couch and announced myself match-fit. “I thought you were in bits with your fingers?” my mother said dubiously.
“No! I’m fine!” I said, as I displayed how I could bend them freely. A football match on a Sunday or a day off school on Monday? There was no competition.
That summer, Cavan had won the Ulster Championship. I watched it from the O’Duffy Terrace. When we went back to school, some of the players came round with the cup. Bernard Morris came into our classroom with the silverware and, as far as I can remember, everyone was too shy and star-struck to ask him a question when prompted by the teacher.
In St Pat’s at the time, football was almost all we talked about. Even though the school teams weren’t doing much, there were brilliant players there. In fact, almost everyone played.
Cavan Gaels had a stranglehold over underage football in the county back then – there were years where they won the Division 1 title in every grade, from U12 to minor – and most of thheirose lads went through our school.
And St Pat’s drew in players from football-mad parishes like Crosserlough, Mullahoran and Lacken too among others and there were a cohort of boarders from Leitrim and a good few from Kingscourt who were all mad into the game as well.
In my class alone, we had Nicholas Walsh and Daryl McConnell, two of the best not just in the county but the country at the time.
When we were in fourth year, Nicholas ended up leaving after signing a contract to play Aussie Rules with a team in Melbourne. Later that year, I was sitting beside Daryl one Friday in May and he told me he took 10 45s the night before at Cavan minor training and scored every one of them. Why do I remember this? Because these were important conversations.
On the Sunday, they played Derry. McConnell was brilliant and, true to form, stroked over two 45s. With a minute or two to go, Derry got a penalty but missed it. Cavan were two points up. Safe, surely.
But with the last kick, a high ball was sent in, someone got a touch on it and it ended up in the net. I can still see Daryl, behind the goals (he had been sent off near the end), punching the ground in frustration.
Cavan teams seemed to always suffer unlucky defeats like that at the time but it didn’t lessen the appetite for the game. We adored it. In terms of actually playing, other sports were satellites; handball, athletics, soccer were like the moon, football was the sun and the earth.
I wonder does it mean the same to kids these days, with so many other distractions. It probably does. And if it does, they must be really missing it at the moment.
The country is in an unprecedented situation, with the population essentially confined to their homes. There is no end in sight and our leaders are offering no real hope either, with Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan already having ruled out the possibility of overseas travel this summer.
For people like me, in their 30s, it’s an irritation. For older and vulnerable people, it is a time of real fear and for those whose livelihoods have been affected, it must be devastating.
But young people, adolescents particularly, are the ones who are missing out on the most. For older teenagers, the rites of passage into adulthood – the Leaving Cert, the Debs, living away from home in college for the first time – have been denied them. There is no socialising – and at that age, that’s such a massive part of life.
And for the younger ones, in their early teens, it is just cruel. The pace of life slows down as you get older and you can adjust to whatever is thrown at you. There is no pause button for children of that age, entering their teenage years and getting to know the world properly for the first time. What they have lost, they cannot get back.
Denying them outdoor sport, the chance to meet their friends, exercise, have fun and form habits that will last for years and shape their outlook into adulthood, would have seemed unconscionable a short time ago.
Yet here we are, in this mad situation, where the world is viewed in black and white and all nuance is lost amid the wailing and gnashing of teeth. Would the benefits of allowing children to play sport out-weigh the dangers? We are told not and that’s that.
I stopped playing football when I was about 20 or 21. I was in Dublin then, out every night I could afford it and my priorities had changed. But the love of the game never left me or my friends and it’s a beautiful thing to have in life.
Once, when I would think back to Paddy’s van and those tournaments and the little medal that still sits on my desk, it was with a warm sense of reminiscing and gratitude.
Now, when I think about it, I feel blessed to have had those days and shudder at the thought of what we are taking away from the next generation.