Fast-paced and growing rapidly – behind the scenes at Sheffield’s most little known football club
A Sheffield sports club is in the middle of intense planning for a final showdown- but you’ve probably never heard of them.
The team has received international press coverage and a visit from a Premier League footballer, even though the sport is still relatively unknown in the UK.
The Star visited Sheffield’s first official Gaelic football team at a training session in Norton this week, and caught up with club secretary and manager, Michael McIvor.
St Vincent's GAA club was the brainchild of chairman Niall Murphy when he put a call out asking if there was any interest in forming the city’s first team.
“The next thing we met in the Irish pub in town, The Grapes, and quite a few of us showed up and within the month we had a committee formed", said Michael.
The club, who celebrated their two year anniversary a matter of weeks ago, have come a long way since then.
“And here we are in two years, our ladies are in the Shield final in two weeks’ time and the lads won the first round of the senior championship last week. If they win their next game they will also be in the final”, he added.
A number of the group training tonight, a mix of men and women, are Irish by birth, including Michael, from Derry, who arrived in Sheffield six years ago. He notes how important the sport is to natives and the Irish diaspora. “The second you're big enough to kick a ball you start playing. The biggest honour you can have is to play for your county. And, because its an amateur sport, no one actually gets paid for it.”
One person that is passionate about the game is Ireland international and Sheffield United Premier League footballer John Egan, who visited a St Vincent's training session and even got involved himself.
“He's a Cork man but his father was a very famous Kerry footballer”, said Michael.
“So John grew up with that in Cork and always wanted to play for Kerry… but the Premiership came calling.”
The club gained international recognition because of Egan’s appearance, featuring on TalkSport, Sky Sports News and in the Irish press.“It’s getting good traction, which is good. It is all about growing the game.”
And the game is growing.
It is not solely the Sheffield’s Irish-contingent that are benefiting from the game’s presence in the city. Numerous members of the group are from Sheffield or the surrounding areas.
Two of them, Connor and Jimmy, had never played before, but because of their footballing background, they have found it relatively easy to pick up the skills.
Michael even wants to get the ball rolling when it comes to implementing a youth setup, both at the club and in schools:
“Everyone here is over 18, so they are seniors. But we are looking at starting a youth system from under-eight upwards. Four or five secondary schools are now playing it. It's not actually on the GCSE curriculum so it is up to the school”.
One of these schools is Birley Academy in Sheffield, where “Dublin lad” PE teacher Keith Cronin has got the students ‘solo-ing’.
“We did a youth tournament last year, with teams from Leeds and Manchester and it went really well. The foundations are there for us to build a youth team, but it takes a long time”, Michael said.
The game is played on a pitch larger than a football-sized one, with 15 players on each team, including a goalkeeper who defends the hybrid football-rugby net and posts.
Over the posts is one point, and in the net is three, so “you can get quite high scoring games to make it interesting”
It is a contact sport, but tackles can only be made shoulder to shoulder. It doesn’t take-away from the physicality or intensity, however.
“Rules-wise its a cross between rugby and soccer, or Aussie rules, which is actually adapted from Gaelic football. You can hold the ball in your hands, you can kick it off the ground, if you are running with the ball every four steps you have to bounce the ball or kick it up to yourself”, Michael said.The game is fast-paced and interesting, with a free-flowing formation and the opportunity to be skilful in numerous areas, eclipsing the possible one-dimensional nature of a solely kicking or handling sport.
It is also great for fitness. As it is mainly a summer sport, the season comes to a close in October, it is good for rugby or football players to utilise the pre-season by staying active playing Gaelic football. Albeit a summer sport, it is not weather dependant.“Being an Irish sport we are always playing in the rain anyway”, laughs Michael.
Last year St Vincent’s struggled for players, but this year has seen a consistently amazing turnout, with up to 30 people at weekends.
He recommends coming down to see what the game has to offer, whether you have ever played or not:
“We have got a tight-knit club. We do a lot of socials as a club, quizzes and club dinners. We are planning a club trip away at the beginning of next season, maybe go back to Ireland for a weekend. its a really friendly atmosphere - the social side helps with that.”
On quizzing Michael about his training methods before he got his managerial head on, he said: “We go into a match-scenario with a few little tactics I have got planned for the final. And then a lot of running.”
Clearly there’s little let-up for Gaelic footballers.