Confessions of a Division 6 School Team Manager

Agam, agat, aige, aici, againn, agaibh, acu.

That’s what I had to keep in mind. The alternative. That the most important thing really about school sports for the kids involved, is the fact it takes place on school time. It’s a chance to lark about in the open air and a release from sitting at their desks learning off grammar. There’s no pressure and everyone gets gametime to see what they can do. Every lad from 3rd class up gets to wear the school jersey. 5th and 6th are guaranteed starters. No matter whether we win or lose, by the time we get back it’ll be too late for Ms. to give us homework! So it’s all gravy.

Still though, it would be nice to win the odd one.

~     ~    ~

There wasn’t exactly a long list of applicants, so for a few years I was the manager of the Ballycar N.S Cumann na mBunscol team. Though it’s a tiny school, it has produced many good hurlers, not least three lads who attended over a century ago and went on to win an All Ireland with Clare in 1914. Down along the main corridor there is something like a Hall of Fame, framed photos of school teams, hurling and camogie, that won or were finalists in years gone by. They are clustered around a golden era in the late 90’s and early 00’s. Several players from then would go on to play with distinction for club and county. Before then and since then, came many other fine hurlers but never quite enough at the same time. A decade passed with no new photograph on the wall.

In my first year as manager, we cruised through the group stages of Division 6. Largely this was courtesy of our Star Player, a lad with great skill and strength. The rest all played their part but in a 7-a-side game he was dominant, able to collect the ball in defence and carry to score a goal. We drew Bridgetown N.S. in the semi-final and the game was fixed for their school field. Our lad scored five goals in the first half and the opposition were shell-shocked. After the break however, things began to unravel. The ref began awarding Bridgetown sympathy frees for very little. I made substitutions which were not particularly effective. Our Star Player got tired.

With two minutes to go Bridgetown trailed by 5 points after scoring a free. The sliothar landed in a haggart of wild long grass and weeds. Our goalie ran down to retrieve then pucked it out. Normally he’d drive it over halfway but this time he muffed the strike only ten yards. A Bridgetown forward reacted first and walked it into the net. From the next puck out… precisely the same thing happened again. The ref blew his whistle and we had lost by a point. Initially disappointed, our team recovered their good humour quickly enough when the teacher produced soft drinks for everyone. Also there was definitely going to be no homework tonight.

Nevertheless, the goalie came to me later and explained what had happened. When the sliothar flew into the haggart he could not find it. Instead someone threw him another ball they came across buried underfoot. Lumpy and swollen, heavy with years of lying in rainwater. That was the ball he had attempted to puck out twice, rather than the light one he was used to.

~     ~    ~

Year Two we met Bridgetown again, this time in the group stages. Our Star Player had moved on to secondary school and now it was one of their lads who owned the game. We put up a decent resistance for a while but faded in the end.

~     ~  ~

I was telling anyone who would listen, especially the boys themselves, that Year Three would be our year. It was obvious. Usually in the past, there was at least two on the team who only hurled once a year. This time, between 5th and 6th, there were seven boys and all of them hurlers with the club. At the very least we were going to make the Final and in so doing justify a place in the Hall of Fame. All I had to do was lie awake, night after night considering which way to line them out. Eeny meeny miney mo.

In the group stages we were victorious and settled on positions. We had some handy players but the spread of talent was fairly even across the team.  Naturally it was Bridgetown who awaited us in the semi-final and this time the venue would be Tulla. Two days out, came the news that our centre forward had gotten a bang on his knee in an U12 game. Maybe he’d have to go in goals, maybe he couldn’t play at all.

On the morning of the semi-final he had improved significantly but wore strapping on the knee. We arrived in Tulla half an hour before the opposition and I immediately noticed that the junior sized goals were not in place for the game. I had done my research and knew the dimensions of pitch which were recommended for 7-a-side. So I set up the goals and cones accordingly. And then… with question marks over our centre forwards mobility… I made the pitch a little bit smaller on every side.

Over the hour that was to follow, on a scorching hot day, the Ballycar team played brilliantly. From #1 to #7, and both of our substitutes, they gave it absolutely everything they had. We had a keeper who saved bullets, a defence that withstood fierce pressure and midfield that tracked up and down tirelessly. The boy with the strapped knee scored 4:6. And every bit of that collective effort was needed. We won by just a few points against a decent team.

Afterwards the lads jumped around the pitch, slapping shoulders and laughing. Afterwards we would all go for 99s at the local Supervalu. Afterwards Ballycar N.S. would close for a day in June, as everyone attended the Cumann na mBunscol finals in Cusack Pk. We lost that game (against an amalgamation of 3 schools…ho hum) but it didn’t really matter. There was a cheering crowd, proud parents and silver medals. It was a day on the big stage and a full match report appeared in the Clare Champion and Clare People, who also printed the team photograph. A copy of that was framed and placed on the wall in the school corridor, alongside all the others.

chun a ra go raibh siad freisin anseo.

Leave a Reply