Volunteering with my local football club is like plugging straight into the socket of the community

For me, going to a football match, any football match, is a place of inclusion and mindfulness

Being a volunteer in a north Dublin football club is one of the most challenging parts of my life but, against all odds, I love it. The first time I went to a football match was around the millennium when my friend Kirsty made me wait with her outside Lansdowne Road for the players’ bus because she fancied Damien Duff and she wanted to see him up close.

I don’t know if she got his autograph in the end, but I can still hear a girl’s ear-splitting repetitive scream of, “Spit on me Kinsella!” as the lads made their way, unsmiling, out of the stadium.

As far as I could tell, nothing exciting had happened during the match, the crowd was relentlessly cruel and the downtrodden players were unable to gather enough grace to interact properly with the few people in the stadium who weren’t calling them rude names.

The experience didn’t compel me to go back.

I had always admired the accessibility of football. I spent about half my life in different African and Asian countries and even in the most remote, dusty, deprived areas, you’d see children who have made a football by wrapping plastic bags over each other and forming a kickable sphere to bandy around in a place where there is no grass for a hundred miles.

Even if you have very little, you can still play football.

In 2012 we were living in Lusaka when Zambia won the African Cup of Nations. The electricity had gone just as the match was coming to an end, but we knew they had won because the city erupted. For a solid hour and into the night, the air was full of ululation, singing and rapturous cries, as loud as being in the stadium though we were far away from any densely populated neighbourhoods.

It was years later that I came close to anything football-related and now I am stuck in quicksand that I don’t think I’ll get out of for life.

“How’s he, ref? How’s he!” My friend Brian coaches me to shout deeply before my first Bohs match. It is a joy from start to finish, the crowd is buoyant, a mini remote-controlled Dublin Bus hurtles around the field like a mischievous toddler delivering the ball to the referee, and club legend Barry gets the crowd roaring. The players have ferocious energy and the game has everything you could hope for.

We go home happy.

Now, for me, going to a football match, any football match, is a place of inclusion and mindfulness.

The tides turned for me on football when I started volunteering with my local club. At a stranger’s kitchen table, I met one of those rare, inspirational people, a visionary who puts their arm around me and painted a picture of something that I wanted to be part of. This club was doing great things, he told me, and it was going places.

My children had been going to the academy on a Friday night for a couple of months at that stage, but I had not really registered by then how much sport, and the care, attention, and encouragement of a coach and team-mates can divert the course of a child’s life for the better. I had not thought about how getting a little dig in the ribs in a tackle can build resilience or being taught to pass the ball even when you want to take it all the way yourself will open something new in your brain.

One of my favourite sights is of a coach kneeling in the mud in the lashing rain to tie a child’s football boot. The child might have their arms inside their bib and their hands down their shorts or up their nose and is facing their own goal, but the coach still shows up day after day, week after week, year after year, swinging them around the pitch and building them up to be the best that they can be.

I wanted to be a part of that.

My first committee meeting was just short of explosive and it has bubbled along tensely like that for years as the club booms beyond all imagination. As anyone who has ever been on a committee knows, it’s a slog. What is progress to some is unnecessary change to others. What one person sees as setting standards is unwanted bureaucracy to another. What one person thinks is an important point means that you’re all still sitting ashen-faced under a strip light at 10 o’clock on a Monday night.

It’s like the parable of the blindfolded people feeling an elephant, someone said to me once, as one committee came to a bitter end. What does that mean? I asked. We’re all blindfolded and we only have one part of an elephant in front of us. One of us is feeling the side and saying it’s a wall, the other is feeling the tail and thinks it’s a rope. In the brief moments that we are all united, normally after a sh**storm, it is beautiful, honestly. I feel high.

We are gliding along together to make something really strong and reliable for our community.

There’s so much in it, with nearly 500 players and 100 or so volunteers and a neighbourhood and more to serve. Every day, there is something to be done. So much unbelievable stuff has happened. When something mind-boggling happens, that’s when there’s a meeting in the dressingroom – not the clubhouse – and I’ve been at a good few dressingroom meetings.

It can feel like the whole world is against us and the game.

It’s really hard to run a football club in Ireland. It often feels like we are adrift with very few floats to tether on to. So we have to be strong on our own, but we drive each other off the head and break each other’s hearts. We are here, trying, and we give each other credit for that. When I’m ready to give up, there’ll be a plastic bag full of chocolate bars on my door handle, a phone call to laugh about what some mad b*****d is after doing, or a text to say thank you or well done.

Even if I feel like giving someone a wedgie, I know they would be there for me when I needed them and vice versa.

What I like most about it is that being part of the football club is plugging straight into the socket of the community. I have moved around a lot, with 26 addresses listed on my Garda vetting form and I have always craved that sense of place. I can wrap up on a Sunday morning and walk around the corner, down the lane towards a man in his eighties at the gate who has been part of the place for his whole life. He is full of history and broken bones and love for the club and for the game. He greets me with affection and absent-mindedly brushes a strand of hair out of my face as we talk. When I get around to the pitch there’s a dozen faces that I am happy to see. I am bundled straight into warm hugs and chit-chat, the length of which depends on the mood and the match. The conversation can go from benign to extreme introspection.

In a match, someone might fight back the tears or cross their legs to hold back a leaky laugh as we stand side by side and talk.

I’ll drift down the barrier if someone is blasting the head off me and just watch quietly. Watch the players, the ball, the ref, the lines people, the spectators, the managers, the clouds. I don’t shout, “How’s he, ref?” because I’m not convinced I understand the offside rule. I’m not convinced I understand any of the rules, but I think of all the people on the pitch and around it and how we are all together here for this game, for these teams, these clubs, these communities, and for each other.

That is why I love football.

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