"They are under so much pressure now," Gerry Fahy says of Irish teenagers and young adults nowadays, a generation that, he feels, bears a dizzying burden of invulnerability.
He shakes his head at the comparative simplicity of being young and living on the Galway-Roscommon hinterland in the early 1980s. Fahy’s life involves guiding young people at both ends of the spectrum. On Saturday, he will manage Galway in what is an historic U-21 All-Ireland final against Dublin because it will be the last ever final played at the grade.
But in his day job as a Garda specialising in helping young offenders, he meets teenagers for whom the crowd never roars and who are, for a thousand different reasons, lost.
“These are kids under the age of 18 who are referred to me rather than go through the court system, which would have serious repercussions for them later in life,” he explains on a bright day in Oranmore.
“It could be for anything. Drink and drugs related offences; road traffic offences, assault. It sounds dramatic but the majority are for relatively minor things and once they accept responsibility and are steered onto a different path, they are fine.
“Sometimes very serious issues arise and you have to devote yourself to giving them all the support you can. And to their families, too, because they are often the people I feel sorriest for. Sometimes through no fault of their own, they just can’t cope with what is going on.
“It is so unusual for them to have this suddenly cast upon them. These kids come from all walks of life and all backgrounds. The saddest thing is when you come in and you see the disconnect between the child and parents. The trust is gone. The respect is gone. And it’s often nobody’s fault.
“So to get the child to buy back into that takes a lot of time and effort. But when they do, it is hugely rewarding.”
Over the decades, Fahy has acquired a high reputation for low-key coaching excellence: an independent thinker within a sport and culture which often follows conformist lines.
His Galway team’s progress to this stage has, for its followers, been thrillingly erratic: up 18 points against Leitrim after an electrifying start; down 1-8 to 0-2 against Sligo just six days after a coveted win over All-Ireland champions Mayo and then, on Easter Saturday, that famous sacking of Kerry.
They have made a pilgrim’s progress and all Fahy can say with any certainty is that when the road ends on Saturday, one team will be ecstatic and the other heartbroken and that both of those extremes are only part of the story.
“They are at a crucial time in their lives,” Fahy says of the group of players under his care. “When you are minor, club mentors and parents are advocating that you go play. But at 19 and 20 they are making these decisions themselves.
“And I think any player in any county who puts their hand up and goes to a trial deserves tremendous credit. We had about 90 young lads coming in for trials at the start of this and we are down to about 30 now. I would be so admiring of them.
“Some of our lads have yet to tog out but they keep showing up. That takes character. We will have eight guys the next day who are not even togging out. They are good footballers . . . it’s just that, in our wisdom, we are putting others ahead of them.
“They are not inferior beings or players. And it is a matter of them having the resilience and patience to wait and hopefully that chance will come. The most important thing is that they see the environment as fair and honest.”
In one way, the players he works with are the privileged ones. On the surface, they are thriving in life. They are, by definition, the strongest athletically among their friends and peers, probably lauded within their own neighbourhoods and clubs, accustomed to success, sufficiently confident to try out and achieve their ambition of making a county squad and secure within a system and structure designed to help them progress and excel.
But that doesn’t make them immune to the kinds of everyday pressures and concerns which Fahy has seen derail many teenagers.
He can talk about the white noise and low-grade anxiety caused by the ubiquity of mobile phone technology – “it’s ironic that I don’t have a smart phone,” he laughs – or the pressure on appearance or about the level of covert bullying experienced by countless kids or about the rush for college, for career, for success.
He can talk about the pressure for more. He counselled a group of teenage girls not so long ago who had been caught stealing. Cosmetics. After a series of meetings with the girls and their parents, they said that they felt under a horrible pressure to look a certain way.
“Their parents were gobsmacked that this was happening to their children without their knowing. But you know, it wasn’t something they were likely to go home and discuss that with their parents. It was scandalous that they felt like this. But it’s real and happening all the time.
“And even the pressure to be in that world all the time is just constant. Young people seldom have a chance to stand back and just talk. You go out to dinner and you see people stuck into phones across the table from one another. I always ask that players pick up the phone and talk rather than text. Or if they have no credit to text and I call back.”
Equally, he can talk about how the GAA can offer some refuge from external pressure and a sense of belonging without believing that the association is a cure-all. When he grew up in Glinsk – a border parish which was actually aligned to the Roscommon County Board – he played minor for Roscommon and U-21 for Galway. Mattie McDonagh was his national school teacher. He was schooled, in other words, by a walking god.
Fahy thrived through the GAA but he understands that because it has such a dominant voice and role in Irish society, it can make those outside its realm feel very much on the outside. Kids who don’t feel as if they belong or who don’t get picked for teams or who didn’t have the confidence to put themselves forward: he knows a lot of kids fall through the cracks in the association. And he wonders sometimes how they feel about it all.
“Very much so. It does happen. And look, even with the Galway U-21s, we started with 90 who wanted to play. So we have rejected over 50 lads. I am guilty of that. Not in a malicious way but still, they presented themselves and said: I want to play for Galway. And we had to say, Jesus, sorry now. We would have given them four or five chances but in our wisdom we would have felt others were stronger.
So how is the guy who walks away being told he is not good enough going to cope with that? Is there a support network for him? Even within the confines of the GAA there is rejection. And are we coping with that properly?”
He doesn’t claim to have the answers but he does feel that all GAA clubs have a moral responsibility not to judge kids purely on ability. As young GAA players progress through the age brackets, the thirst for competition becomes more intense and the numbers of youngsters falling away grows.
“That is the balance. Kids are naturally competitive too. They will want to push on further but it is important the coach understands the bigger picture. Yeah, you are catering for the naturally competitive kids. But all these other young lads and girls . . . you have to bring them with you too. They are just as entitled. They are enjoying this. And they need to be catered for.”
Sometimes, he has succeeded in reintroducing youngsters he meets in his Garda life to sport. Others have no interest in sport and that’s fine. He often wonders about the path Irish society sends its youngsters down. Sport is just one element of life. He feels certain there are many kids who just aren’t suited to the school system and whose potential to excel in other areas is obscured. Sometimes he obtains work for kids under his jurisdiction with businesses and their response is immediate.
“I’ve a friend, for instance, who is a panel beater and he has helped me out. And you see lads who are interested in that work and suddenly they have a reason to get up and have a structure.”
So he wonders if kids who know school and academia is not for them wouldn’t thrive in similar circumstances.
“They are struggling and don’t want to be there. And I know a lot of people who would love to take on a young fella and give him a chance, but employment laws debar them from it. Surely we could devise a system where they could go in for six months and see if that is the direction they wanted to go in life?”
Fahy believes conversation, at least, is one of the best ways to prevent adolescents or young adults from feeling marginalised or isolated. Talking is what his job requires. He often starts from a disadvantage: a Garda is about the last person a youngster in a bleak place is likely to trust.
“It takes time. I need to be able to talk their language and to make them know I won’t bluff them. To be honest with them, even if what they’re hearing isn’t easy. At least that way there is a chance they will think: well, he hasn’t misled me so far.”
He feels the same is true in his coaching world. It’s impossible to be all things to all people.
“I’m not fooling myself into thinking I can relate to every one of those players. Some, I am sure, can take or leave me.”
But his hope is that if they can’t go to him, they might trust Barry Cullinane or Tomás Mannion enough to sit down and talk with them. His hope is that between them all, they can make sure nobody feels irrelevant or on the edge of things.
Fahy started for Galway in the Connacht U-21 championship of 1981 against Sligo. He was, he says, “rightly” dropped to the bench and replaced by a superior player for the next match. He could handle the disappointment. “But it gave me a sense of the importance of everyone in the squad.”
He makes no secret about the fact he finds the prevailing orthodoxy at senior inter-county football level dreary and restrictive. In the 1990s, he served as a selector with Val Daly and later managed Offaly, guiding them to promotion in Division One and losing by a point to Páidí Ó Sé’s Westmeath team which won that year’s Leinster championship. He’s not sure if his view of football is in fashion with the burgeoning think-tank, nor does he care.
“You see a team win an All-Ireland and suddenly everyone is copying what they do. It spirals throughout the country. I think it is a question of having the courage of saying: I don’t want to play that way.”
For Galway in the last U-21 season, that has meant exploring who they are and what they are about. He identifies that eclectic opening game against Leitrim as a day when they discovered that they had “a bit of heart and personality about us”. They’ve been following that ever since and learning about it and he believes his Galway team are ready for all of the experiences contained within Saturday’s All-Ireland final.
“They have serious ambition and are driven and they want to succeed. And our job is to help them.”
He hopes there has been a bit of joy along the way and is as keen as any Galway man that the county claim the last U-21 title on offer. But even now, he refuses to see it as the be all and end all.
“If we can leave these young men in a better place as people and as footballers then we will have achieved success.”