What a huge weekend of Gaelic club championship games in Tyrone but as this Rant is written from Friday Street, I am in no position to opine, gloat or begrudge regarding the outcomes. Let’s hope there was no controversy and we are all still friends.
There are lads around these parts like Dermy C, O’D and Mackers who think they are all it because they put an O’Neill Cup medal on the table. That’s not to mention Oz who pulls out a championship medal every time he reaches in his pocket for loose change. However they are not the real heroes of the GAA. Neither are the Tyrone players with their cashew nuts, bulging biceps and tubs of Greek yoghurt.
The true heroes are the club reserve players of all shapes and sizes, many who wore odd socks and used bailer twine to hold up their outsized shorts. The Reverses or ‘Stiffs’ as they are affectionately known, play their games before the ‘big’ match while supporters are still wolfing down their Sunday dinners. They pack into cars to travel across the county while the senior club players are having quaint pre-match team meetings in clubrooms while supping tea and eating scones laid on by female volunteers.
“Show me your medals,” George used to holler in the ‘Herald tea-room. There is a medal… the 1977 Division 4 reserve league with Gortin when I was but 17 years young. It was during the exile years. We were a motley crew in the best traditions of junior reserve football. Gortin were climbing their way up the ranks to senior status but we were determined to maintain the old traditions.
“Come here,” Brian groaned to me from the high stool the night before a game, “Henry needs to be stopped, he’s trying to get us to train twice a week.” Training comprised of ‘kicking in and out’ for 20 minutes, six laps of the field and an in-house game.
The reserve team was a mix of lads cutting their teeth for future senior football, boys in their 20s whose talents shall we say lay elsewhere, and retired seniors the bellies hanging out over their togs, taking the middle out of any cub who had the misfortune to turn into their path. Eddie was right; “When the chest joins the belly, it’s time to quit,” he blew, while struggling to tie his laces.
The team talk consisted of, “The big lads up the middle and the rest of yis scatter! …and gather, side-step and lash her up the field.” We gave all. Players threw up a mix of last night’s beer and chicken curry chip when the ball was at the other end of the field.
At half-time, hail, rain or shine the boss in his green wellies strolled over to the team laid out around the middle of the field and chatted to the full back about everything but football.
In recent years Tyrone players have a box-shaped monitor between their shoulders sewn under their jerseys. Reserves too had similar shaped objects inside their socks, packets of Embassy Regal for the half time break. The gaffer supplied the lighter at half-time. One fellow used to play with a long pair of black shorts stuffed with packets of 5p crisps for snacks during the game.
Rules! The goalkeeper was a confused soul. Against Drumquin he made an excellent save only to throw the ball to a defender. The referee awarded a penalty and our hero again stopped the ball, ran ten yards and threw it overarm this time the ref waving play on as he was as bewildered as the players.
‘Sideline’ was so named because he endeavoured to kick two sidelines in a row over the sideline, the first not entering the field of play.
We weren’t afraid to express ourselves unlike today’s county players stifled by horrible defensive tactics.
Peader was studying across the water and on visits home made his way straight onto the reserve team only to go around and around and up and down on never ending solo runs. His excuse, “I don’t get home too often and when I do I’m going to hold on to her for as long as possible.”
Neither does any die-hard reserve indulge in any of this sledging carry-on. We talked to our markers about the dance they were at the previous night, where the best weemen were to be found and the price of a set of spots for a Simca 1100.
It was a level playing field. I mean that metaphorically as the Gortin field was like playing up Pomeroy Main Street. The teams were well matched. A reserve player in Dregish wore welders’ gloves with the fingers cut off and played an entire game chewing a length of straw. Two of his team-mates shared a pair of football boots as one forgot his. Luckily the forward was right footed while the other kicked with the left.
We won the league. Think about it! What must the other teams have been like? Reserve teams don’t get reunions, halls of fame or huge photographs mounted on clubrooms. We don’t care. We know what we did and have the medal to prove it.
* Warning: Any similarity to a real person in this Rant is not coincidental. It probably is him.