Can a soccer player learn to play GAA in a week?
I have never touched an O’Neills ball in my life, but how hard can Gaelic football be? I drop down to my local GAA club in London for a game
James Martin (left) on the ball. Photograph: Malcolm McNally
Legs feel weak and heavy. Arms full of burning lactic acid. Chest feels tight and lungs ache. Eyes filled with hard, driving rain. When the hell is the final whistle coming?
It’s 4pm on a wet Saturday out in a field in Reading, home of St Anthony’s GAA club. I’m in the middle of my first Gaelic football game.
The Tuesday before, I arrive at Mitcham Rugby Club in south London, training ground of Round Towers GFC for my first session with a GAA club. I’ve never picked up a ball with “O’Neills” written on it before.
I’ve seen only a handful of games, most of them featuring London during their heroic performances in this year’s Connacht championship. But both sides of my family represented their counties, including my grandfather, William “Spider” Kelly, who was an accomplished footballer for Wexford.
So there’s some ability in the blood. Born and raised in London, I’ve played soccer since I was five, as a centre-half who switched to goalkeeper in my teens. I also played rugby at school, so I can catch, kick and throw myself about a bit.
The first drill is a simple exercise I’ve done countless times in football (sorry, soccer) practice, involving passing techniques. Then comes my first attempted hand-pass. It sprays wildly over the head of the player less than 10 yards away. Over-compensating, my next effort dies with a whimper, dropping short to the bemusement of my new teammate.
I hold my own in a mid-range kicking exercise, which increases my confidence slowly. However, any new-found belief is shattered soon after the coaches call a practice match. I’m ordered to mark a lively guy called JP. He gets away from me three times in as many opening minutes, and his pace leaves me chasing shadows as he racks up point after point.
I get my boot to the ball a couple of times, complete a few hand-passes and, somehow, even get a goal after a deft chip over the onrushing keeper. Maybe Saturday won’t be too bad. How hard can it be?
Seriously hard, it turns out. On Saturday, I’m drafted into Round Towers’ squad as one of two subs. In the second half I’m thrown on at right corner forward. I don’t get anywhere near the ball for about the first 10 minutes. The most action I get is after a look over at our photographer Malcolm, who nods towards the heart of the action as if to say: “You made me come out early in the rain for this? Get stuck in!”
Then a few minutes later I’m forced to do just that. My first touch is unsuccessful, as I try to pick up a loose ball rolling towards me in open play. I’ve learnt at training that a ball on the ground has to be scooped up by bending down and deftly using the foot and the hands in unison. It isn’t as easy as it looks, and with my 6ft 5in frame, such a movement leaves me vulnerable to nearby opponents – like a spindly-legged deer being caught by lions in the African savannahs.