Playing my first Gaelic football match at 25

Niamh Towey: Playing my first football match made me feel more alive than ever

'I’ll never be the competitive, sporty type. I don’t think I’ll ever shed a tear over a game, or go on a beer ban – but I can see now why people do it.' Photograph: Alan Betson

'I’ll never be the competitive, sporty type. I don’t think I’ll ever shed a tear over a game, or go on a beer ban – but I can see now why people do it.' Photograph: Alan Betson

 

I played my first ever football match recently and I have never felt so alive in all my life.

It was daunting, signing up to a sport I had never played before, at the age of 25.

The GAA is so embedded in the fabric of our society that not many people make it to that age without having played a game. I’ve always loved watching it and supporting club and county teams; so many Sundays were spent discussing tactics, cheering on friends and family and complete strangers who became household names.

For so many years I looked on at club nights out with envy, wishing for a team of girls I could call my own. But I never quite had the courage to give it a go myself.

That changed this year though, with a little note at the back of my diary under the heading "Things to do in 2018".

There was no pretentiousness, nobody taking it too seriously and bucket-loads of patience for the girl with two left feet

Joining a football team has languished under that masthead for many years, but when I saw St Brigid’s in Castleknock were looking for junior players, I knew my time for procrastination was up.

I bought incredibly expensive, completely unnecessary football boots so that I couldn’t justify backing out. I came so close to giving it up a couple of times that I cannot recommend this trick enough.

“Sure I’ve bought the boots now” really did work wonders.

I was so self-conscious and lacking in confidence at those first few training sessions – though I didn’t need to be. I was welcomed by the players and management with open arms; constant encouragement and endless laughs.

No pretentiousness

There was no pretentiousness, nobody taking it too seriously and bucket-loads of patience for the girl with two left feet. After a shaky start, a month of giving up and another month of going back again (“sure you’ve bought the boots now”) I played my first match on a dusky hot evening in July, and I’ll never look back.

After so many years of fear, embarrassment and chickening out, I was finally here, mullocking about in a jersey with a number on it for the first time in my life.

It didn’t matter that I forgot to handpass and threw the ball instead. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t solo, and was a long way off learning. It didn’t matter that I forgot to mould my mouthguard and it was now jammed into my mouth like a horse’s bit.

None of that mattered, because in that moment, I felt so alive.

I was puce in the face, my headband was covered in sweat and I had no intention, or desire, to stop running because finally, I had something to chase.

There is a photograph taken of us after the game, which we lost spectacularly, and I look like the happiest woman who ever put on a pair of boots.

I made great friends with the girl I was marking; we complimented each other on running pace and I always said sorry if I bumped into her. I don’t think you’re supposed to do that.

I’ll never be the competitive, sporty type. I don’t think I’ll ever shed a tear over a game, or go on a beer ban – but I can see now why people do it. It was a complete tonic to the cushioned, careful, timetabled lives we live.

So much of our day is taken up with routine and obligation; methodical process. It is about meeting deadlines and expectations; repetitive, predictable procedure.

Absolute limit

But playing that game, I felt like I was right at the edge of my own world, pushing myself to my absolute limit, with no game-plan, no foresight, no procedure.

It was such a release. It was like being out in the wild with no map, no compass and no fear.

I wasn’t just running to say I had gone for a run. I wasn’t lifting weights to reach a calorie deficit. I wasn’t stretching at a Pilates class just because it was good for me. I was exercising because I wanted to, because it felt good, because it was invigorating and exciting.

That is what sport does, I’ve realised. It gives purpose, and meaning, to your pain. You don’t trudge through it just for the sake of it. You don’t count minutes, or calories, or kgs.

You are free of all those boring, repetitive obligations.

It is wild, unbridled and thrilling. It was terrifying taking the leap into the unknown, but I’ll never be so scared to try something new again.

Besides, I’ve bought the boots now.

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