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Soccer holds sway in GAA wastelands of Dundalk and Drogheda

The Louth county final brings together teams from two of the biggest towns in Ireland

The Louth county final will take place in the 7,000 capacity Drogheda Park.

Love in a cold climate.

When Newtown Blues of Drogheda meet Dundalk Gaels in the Louth county final tomorrow, it will be a clash of teams from two of the biggest towns in Ireland.

According to the 2016 census, Dundalk and Drogheda have a combined population of just over 80,000, more or less evenly split between them.

Only Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford have more residents than Drogheda, which is sixth on the national population list. Dundalk is eighth, with only Swords between it and its neighbour down the M1.

With all that in mind, you’d imagine they might need a hefty-sized stadium to host the final. Not so – rickety old Drogheda Park, home to the O’Raghallaigh’s club and the smallest inter-county venue in the land, will open its gates and nobody expects the 7,000 capacity to be seriously threatened. Anything above 3,000 will be considered a decent crowd. This is the cold reality of life for the GAA enclaves of two predominantly soccer towns.

Colm Nally moved to Drogheda from Balbriggan in the mid-90s and took up with Newtown Blues in the usual way, looking for a foothold in his new community.

He went on to play for Louth and was a selector under Colin Kelly for the past couple of seasons. His son Ross will play in his first county final tomorrow, a few years on from trials with Celtic across the water. He’s better placed than most to talk about the struggle.

“Dundalk Gaels are very close to Oriel Park and Newtown Blues are a stone’s throw away from United Park. We share a lot of our underage players with Drogheda Town who then go onto Drogheda Boys and later Drogheda United under-19s and Dundalk are the same.

“I coached the Newtown minors for the last three years and a huge part of our job was working hand in hand with the soccer lads to share players. What happens is, they’ll all follow the dream to a point and when the dream doesn’t come to fruition, they play what they love. That’s what I always encourage, regardless of how it affects us. We get some of them back but for a lot of them, soccer is what they stay with.”

Culture is culture.

Louth is the only county outside Dublin and Cork that sustains two League of Ireland clubs. Dundalk and Drogheda are soccer towns with soccer histories.

The Dundalk Democrat had a piece recently with Steve Staunton recalling a goal he scored in a county final as a 16-year-old. Ian Harte will have his day made for him if Newtown come through tomorrow, as they were his underage club before his pro career came calling. In the cocktail mix between the two sports, the aftertaste of soccer lasts far longer on the palate.

Regular games

In a lot of cases, Nally reckons the battle is lost early.

For all the sneering at the way soccer is run in Ireland, he sees underage games that are never less than professionally staged.

“Every time you turn up at an underage soccer match, even under-10s in our local Drogheda league here, the nets are up, the pitch is lined, the referee is kitted out in black and yellow and it feels official.

“The games are run well, in that there’s a game guaranteed every week. In GAA, sometimes the whole thing is fractured. Kids are drawn to regular games that feel structured. Whereas with Go Games or whatever, there might be a young person reffing, there may or may not be nets, stuff like that.”

At the September meeting of the Louth County Board, a row broke out over the number of kids who attended GAA Cúl Camps during the summer. Of the 41 clubs in the county, 34 ran camps – but none of the top five in terms of attendance figures were based in Dundalk or Drogheda.

The Dundalk Democrat reported that when one of the Clan na Gael club delegates pointed out this was a nationwide issue in urban areas, he got short shrift from county chairman Des Halpenny, who point out that Clan na Gael were one of the clubs that didn’t hold a camp at all.

“The children are there, they want to play football and clubs need to take responsibility,” said one delegate. “If Louth needs to be where it needs to be, both towns need to be stronger,” said another.

Thing is, at the coalface it’s not like there aren’t enough GAA clubs to go around. Drogheda has nine clubs and, depending on where you set Dundalk’s hinterland, you could claim anything up to a further dozen clubs there.

But a big problem is that the traditional link-up between schools and clubs that sustains the GAA across the country isn’t as strong as it needs to be.

“It’s a struggle,” says Nally. “No doubt about it. It’s something that we’re looking at, trying to get more Games Promotion Officers into the schools. We have a few GPOs working in schools in Drogheda and they would go in and coach GAA to primary schools kids but the big issue there is a lot of the kids aren’t associated with any club. They’re finding that they get kids playing and see a bit of talent in them but when they ask them what club they’re with, they don’t have one.

“If people haven’t got an association with the club and they’re not active GAA members, they won’t bring their children down. So we have to bring the club to them. We have to ensure that they know these clubs are on their doorstep.

“We’re finding more and more kids who just haven’t been pointed in the direction of a club and, of course, clubs are only delighted to have them. So that’s an area we need to improve on.”

On county final weekend, it’s a worry for another day, certainly. But a worry all the same. The GAA has spent a lot of time and money fighting for elbow room in the urban sprawl of the capital. Surely untapped populations like those of Dundalk and Drogheda have to be the next frontier.