If you are tired of the cynicism, the red-card controversies and debates over the perceived biases of referees appointed to an All-Ireland final, then something occurring this Saturday in a quiet Antrim village will restore your sense of all that can be achieved within the GAA.
The Kickhams club in Creggan are hosting their third ‘Special Championship’, with teams representing Antrim and Derry made up of teams of players, male and female with learning disabilities or Down’s Syndrome.
With full rules, an official referee and a bumper crowd expected, it represents another enormous gesture by the ambitious club, who also host the annual Ulster under-21 club football championship every winter.
The club PRO is Conor McCann – the Antrim hurling captain – who explains how it came about.
“The idea was started by our chairman at the time, Tony McCollum, and this is the third year of it. We would have three or four, possibly five players that take part in it so that was the motivation. He thought it would be a good idea to get them involved.”
Not only are players coming from both counties, but Rebekah Keane of Listowel, Co Kerry, will be making the long journey to compete. She is a cousin of Kickham's juvenile coach Justin Keane and couldn't pass up such an opportunity, much to the delight of her Antrim connections.
The concept has been brilliantly promoted over the last decade by the Ulster Council, who have featured exhibition matches at half-time of Ulster senior football championship games.
It has been taken further by the likes of Ashleen McCaul who works with Derry GAA’s coaching and games and looks after their ‘GAA For All’ programme that arranges regular games and Friday evening training sessions. They even have a summer camp coming next week.
“It’s an initiative Kickhams Creggan have taken on themselves,” explains McCaul. “They have been doing it the past couple of years and just inviting us along to it. Before they would have started that, we have had our own ‘GAA For All’ team. Derry GAA started that on their own and it is going maybe eight years.
“At the start it was very low-key, there were people around the local area with Down Syndrome children. As the years have went on, we revamped the name, called it ‘GAA for All’ and it’s just any child or adult with any kind of learning or physical disability are more than welcome to come along.”
They now boast numbers around the 20 mark. There is a south Derry Down Syndrome group which would cater for ages of 18-plus, and the ‘GAA For All’ programme caters for the younger players. They merge together for games like these, with each group playing their own separate games.
McCann has been there for the two previous years.
“The first year was pretty small,” he says. “The last year we promoted it a fair bit more and the interest was great from everybody involved. People were really keen to get players to play in it. It has really taken off this time, the interest is massive.
“The families last year in particular were over the moon, telling you how well it was run. We were lucky we had a great day last year and even just thinking about it, people don’t get a chance to do this with any time.
“Half-time games at Clones or some league games, time can be tight. This is the only sole event they have arranged for them that supporters can come and support them, rather than being on for 10 minutes at half-time.
“Even after it when the game is all done, there is a presentation to players, they get jerseys and photos taken, small things like that. We do a guard of honour for them coming out and everyone gets clapped onto the field. It’s a good feeling.”
The positivity it has engendered is infectious.
McCaul tells the story. “When we started it, I would say people were maybe a bit apprehensive about it and thinking if they wanted their little boys and girls to go.
“But as the thing has grown, even in Dungiven there is one wee girl who goes to it. If I meet her mum and dad on the street, they say, ‘You know what Ashleen, Cara-Rose just lives for this. She is buzzing because her older brothers have training to go to on a Friday. Cara never had anything, but now she has her training to go to on a Friday and is away with her wee kitbag’.
“Now, she is telling people, ‘I’m playing for Derry’. It’s brilliant for the parents because it is like a wee network for us as well. We are all getting to talk and it is a social aspect for the parents so everyone benefits from it.”
The game starts at 5pm on Saturday at the Kickhams’ ground, and will last between 15 to 20 minutes.