It was Friday, June 5 in 2009 and the watching Loup manager John Brennan’s mind was made up. He saw the player who would lead his attack.
The guru of club championship football was running his eye over Paul McFlynn acting chief in the reserve final.
Two goals from a 16-year-old half-time substitute Ciaran Devlin, one of which was a volley, saw the reserve silverware secured.
In contrast, last year’s final was played at the heel of the year, a week after the intermediate version. Both of which ended up with a bout of fisticuffs.
Like every year, it’s rolled out as an afterthought. Players are fed up training and frustration brews. The season is over and red cards count for nothing.
When Loup won the 2009 version, it unravelled over four consecutive Friday nights in pristine weather. A shop window for fringe players ahead of the championship.
“Managers would call three of four of the better performers ashore early on with the view to a cameo appearance in the main event that would follow. Being asked to stay togged out was an elevation of status.”
And McFlynn, who had hung up his boots after the previous season, was coaxed back a month before the reserve championship as the final piece of Brennan’s masterplan to get his hands on the John McLaughlin Cup.
Also part of the reserve team was Enda McQuillan. A man Brennan would add to the ‘matchday 24’ on the back of a training game the Tuesday before the SFC Final. It was his first appearance in the ‘24’ all season. He could be ‘good for a goal’ Brennan confided in McFlynn, as they trotted off the training pitch.
It was a hunch almost. It paid off. It was McQuillan who flicked the ball over advancing Dungiven goalkeeper Peter McCaul for the decisive winning goal.
A fairytale story it most certainly is, but it is living proof of the benefit of reserve football which has manifested into the GAA’s latest epic fail.
STAYING TOGGED OUT
We crave those days again, when reserves games were always played. They were an essential piece of the club scene’s fabric. From the start of the second-half cars would stream in the lanes of pitches across Derry, with people analysing every move.
Who would cut the mustard at senior level? Managers would call three or four of the better performers ashore early on with the view to a cameo appearance in the main event that would follow. Being asked to stay togged out was an elevation of status.
For everyone else – most were happy enough. They had got an hour of football. If not acting as umpire or linesman for the senior game, they would watch the senior players they trained with during the week go into battle.
For some of those reserves not chosen, they would be spitting fire and come to training the following Tuesday hell bent on proving the manager wrong.
They were the halcyon days of club football. When you had to train to be selected for the reserve team.
Now you just need to reply to a What’s App ‘can you pull us out today, we’re short’ plea.
This column last week highlighted the stark reality. From the previous four rounds (two weekends and two midweek) of club football, 55 reserve games were fixed but only 17 were played.
The rocketing number of conceded reserve games highlights a huge weakness in the association. The damage may be irreversible but it needs to be addressed.
Aside from Coleraine in 2010, who pick from a small base, any team who wins major honours does so with the help of a reserve team pushing the seniors on.
Two weeks ago Claudy had, from what I could see, four subs for their senior team. Whereas ‘Screen landed with an army of men. The result – no reserve game.
Liam Bradley used six subs, with a combined game time of 53 minutes. Sean Doyle got 18 minutes. Eamon ‘Blondie’ Murray, a regular for Draperstown Celtic, got one minute. At a guess they had another five or six players who got nothing only a half-time kick around.
Blondie will be guaranteed 90 minutes with ‘DC’ every Saturday of the season. Many are like him.
Dungiven, another club from a sizeable catchment area, played their second competitive reserve game since May 6 on Sunday.
One Wednesday night, the students in the Dungiven reserve team travelled home from Belfast for a game with Greenlough – to be played at 8.45 after the senior game – only to find their game was among four of six that didn’t take place.
During the week, I stumbled across a tweet from the GPA – stressing players to ensure they have a fully furnished CV and polished interview skills to assist when applying for a ‘chosen position’ within a company.
I am not saying they don’t deserve recognition, but as the cream of our games are given every helping hand in the hamster wheel, the vast majority are scrimping and hoping to get a kick of the leather or sample the clash of the ash.
Scratch the surface below and the grassroots are on their knees.
A club looking to function fully needs 40 players to support senior and reserve teams. On any weekend there will be at least one injury and suspension. One player might go on the beer or head away for a romantic weekend with the other half. The total of 40 will be able to absorb this.
Most clubs don’t have these numbers. A reserve player replied to Castledawson manager Willie McAteer two seasons ago when he enquired about his non-attendance at training – ‘there are no games for me to play’ to which McAteer had no answer. His hands were tied.
Emigration. U17s ruled out of club senior football. Summer ball in America. Boring systematic football. The amount of time required to even play at club level. A change in mentality where the GAA is not as important as it once was.
All reasons for the decline in numbers. And once the reserve panel drops to 11 or 12, the problems begin. Soon the manager will no longer be able to cajole another five or six men to stay out of the pub on a Saturday night to come along on a Sunday to fill out a team.
Three or four concessions later and men will decide to pull the pin. They will take up cycling or soccer or rugby the following season.
The next thing the senior squad will no longer have the depth it requires to ensure the fringe players need to fight for their place and everything stagnates.
Gone are the training games where players like Enda McQuillan can show the manager he has what it takes – no matter how far down they pecking order they might think they are.
The time has come to move senior and intermediate games to a Saturday evening, with a 6.00 and 7.30 throw-in. Maybe pick the most attractive game every week and put it on a Sunday and boost the coffers of the home club with an inflated attendance.
With junior clubs not having reserve teams – move their games to Friday nights. Players can have a life at the weekend before returning to training on Monday and Wednesdays. If men want to play Saturday soccer they can.
Aside from fixing mid-week double headers, it isn’t the CCC’s fault. Clubs need to help themselves. Senior managers need to think outside their own circle of importance.
Are young boys being brought in too early, with older players thrown on the scrapheap? Is there any point in keeping a senior panel of 20, when you might not use any more than one sub and you have buckled the reserve team for the weekend?
No matter how much of a win culture your club has, there needs to be a place at senior training for everyone. A haven of banter that people want to be a part of and keep returning to.
The Anthony O’Neills and the Eoghan Browns – at the top of the club football food chain – have their value to the GAA.
But we can’t forget the rest. If our reserve teams disappear, the number of players coming in the gate will evaporate. Who will be the next generation of U12 managers? The next band of club officials?
If things don’t change, it’ll not be long until the gates are padlocked and pitches are no longer needed.
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