Belgium GAA were the team to represent Europe in the inaugural GAA World Games in Abu Dhabi. Here’s an account of how it went for the men.
Belgium GAA squad: Stephen Kearney, Dave Barrett, Johnny Phelan, David Kitchin, Niall Goodwin, Al Rowan, Louis Sexton, Kevin Kearey, Johnny O’Riordan, Colin Byrne, Richard Gardiner, Conor Mulvihal.
Belgium GAA management: Jody Quirke, Dermot Buttle, Damien
Biographer: Brendan Kearney
Belgium were drawn in a tough group, and were unique in the fact that we drew our players from one club, and one location – Belgium! The other teams were drawn from larger countries and even whole continents. Some of which ran trials to make the team and many teams featured inter county players!
2 – Day 1: Pre-tournament warm up & Marty Morrissey
Day 1 was all about acclimatising and getting to grips with the desert sun. Just like professional sports stars, the morning consisted of a hearty breakfast at the buffet, followed by a relaxing mid-morning dip in the pool. All the talk was of the teams we would be facing. We had done as much intelligence gathering as possible before the tournament, but how do you scout a New York team that had been only partially training in sub-zero wintery conditions? Not sure that twitter has a # for that. However, here and there you could see a New York crest or a pair of shorts with Raleigh, North Carolina logo so you knew the opposition was close at hand.
Despite the sun and the pool, there was still a tournament to be played, so Dave rallied the troops to go out to Zayed Sports City for a quick scout of the playing conditions and a warm up to get the muscles moving. It was a lightish session, with a few clatters here and there, not to mention more than one grumpy head leaving the drills after a belt or missed pass. But it was enough for the day before a game. The tournament would be 3 group games, 9 players on each team, with each game 9 minutes-a-side. This format opened things up for a frantic game of backs vs forwards. Belgium had a game plan, put together on PPT nonetheless (available on request), which we knew we had to execute. So despite the late tackles on Keary in the training match, we had to save our energy – if not for the next day, then for dinner later on with the Marty Morrisey!
Picture a clear Arab sky, a rooftop terrace, a decent spread of food, and then throw in the most sensual man in Irish media. This was the pre-game meal organised by the GAA World Games. Conor Mul managed to save a good spot for the Europeans where we would be centre stage to Marty’s antics. Not since the Rumble in the Jungle have front row tickets been in such demand. Once called from his dinner, Marty took up the microphone and moved throw the crowd like a veiled dancer threw a Persian nightclub! Marty is a man of few words, but each of them loaded and full of deeper meaning. He interviewed Collie and Nickie about the ins and outs of Belgium GAA. The usual where/why/when questions but Collie’s media prep paid off and the interview passed without major incident.
Special mention to Micheal O Muircheartaigh who was the first man to reach the buffet from a distance of about 30 yards. In doing so he beat at least half the Belgium back line which had about a 15 yard head start. Was this a bad omen for the games ahead? Not at all was the response, sure there’s no substitute for experience.
The kit arrives
After enough brushes with celebrities for one night, the final before the games was to hand out the football gear (which had finally arrived!). Unfortunately we could not line out in our patented red, black and yellow, but the powers that be had been kind enough to send over a European jersey, with added Longford/Wicklow socks for flavour.
While it didn’t have the same feel as the Belgium kit, there was something big about representing a whole continent. Most of the lads took their gear and went off to bed. Others immediately donned the kit, combed their hair and hit the town with Marty!
Day 2: Tournament Group Stages
All the GAA royalty was present for the opening of the games, which started with a parade around the pitch led by a marching band. Belgium GAA men and ladies marched behind the Belgium GAA banner and got ready for the games ahead.
We had 3 group games against Asia, New York and North America. All tough teams and under the Middle East sun! It was time to turn from the joking around and get serious, but most of all put in practice the then things were had gone through in the run up to the tournament: Green zone, red zone, ‘make complex simple’, and of course the three C’s: Concentration, Communication and Commitment
Game 1 vs Asia – BAPTISM OF FIRE
Europe (1-03) v Asia (3-08)
This was the first game of the tournament and the first taste of 9-a-side football. In short it was a baptism of fire! Asia were a very strong and powerful outfit. They would go on to easily top our group but not after a stern test from Belgium’s finest. Despite never having played this format before, we gave a solid account of ourselves. Defensively we were quite solid and kicked some great scores, notably from the outside of Dave’s boot and a 45 by Richie. At half time we said we would use the rolling subs more and try to go for short bursts to maximise our energy. This worked to the extent that Asia never really could shake us off. The word relentless was another buzz word for the tournament and a late goal from Niall was testament to the never say die spirit that we brought to the tournament. Al also chipped in drawing a yellow card to give us a numerical advantage for two minutes, but the game ended up with Asia on top. Overall the scoreboard was respectable given the perceived differences between the teams. In fact all the hard work in this game helped us further on when the final standings in the group came down to point’s difference. Just goes to show you never stop going, even when all seems lost!
Game 2 vs New York – CLUX ON THE RUN
Europe (1-02) v New York (2-09)
After the wakeup call from Asia, we had a better idea what we were up against. We went into this game with the message to stick to the game plan and to maximise the talk on the pitch. The score line reads worse than the first game against Asia, however that wasn’t the whole truth. We created more chances and played more attacking football in this game. The peak of this was the (almost) full length sprint up the pitch by Clux, which included a solo of the peak of his hat! This showed we weren’t afraid and we there to play football. Johnny O scored a lovely goal in the second half to give some life but as the game wore on we faded slightly under a very fit team and New York finished it out comfortably. We were also not helped by Niall’s sin binning (it what would become a theme throughout the weekend).
Looking back sitting in the tent covered in sweat, it was very easy to look at those first two games and question why we had come all the way out to the desert only to let in goals, kick wides and lose matches. It would have been very easy at this stage to drop the heads and head to the bar. But this is where credit has to be given to the Jody, Dave, Collie and others for picking us off the floor and telling us that all was not lost. Looking at it with a bit of perspective we were a one club team against entire continents playing a format we were not used to. So all we had to day was dig in, fight for each other, keep the game plan and believe we would get the breaks. We had two games where the game was tighter than the score suggests but we had to turn things around – and turn things around we did!
Game 3 vs North America – THE POWER OF MUL
Europe (1-04) v North America (1-04)
This was never a game for the purists. Puke football is what Spillane might call it, but then again he was training the Argentinian team on the far pitch, which by the way is a country with the worst disciplinary record in FIFA World Cup history – so it’s all relative I suppose! In this game both teams were looking to avoid the wooden spoon and make the long journey worth it. The game started and finished the same way, with a goal. North America started very brightly with a goal in the first minute to put the pressure on us.
Almost immediately it became backs to the wall job. However, we dug in and relentless defending saw them kick several wides after their goal under plenty of pressure. As the game moved in to the second half the game was slowly moving away from Europe despite our best efforts. There was a wide free kick at a crucial stage, which was then followed by a fantastic effort from Keary that forced one of the saves of the tournament from the keeper (a Texan born GAA keeper it must be said). As the second ticked away Europe need a goal to draw level and keep the tournament alive – enter Conor Mul.
A great move started by Al was almost lost when he inadvertently undid all his great play and hit a poor (some may say hospital pass) into Conor. Credit to Mul who did not give up, but bullied his way through 3 defenders to get a toe on the ball forcing it across the goal… and straight to a waiting Belgium player. In the blink of an eye the ball was scooped up and slotted into the back of the net. Some great defending from Belgium followed and the match ended a draw.
What did this result mean? Asia bullied their way through their other games and had scored goals for fun. Given our relatively tight result against Asia, we had a better points difference than North America and finished ahead of them in the Group in 3rd place. This would prove significant as 3rd and 4th place in both groups played off in the semi-final of the Plate competition. Therefore, Europe was drawn against Canada 2 the next day.
Day 3 – Men’s Etihad GAA World Games Plate Finals
Europe went into the semi-final of the Plate competition with Manager Jody sporting his lucky managerial cap! This was the knock out stages, do-or-die, the chance to make all the hard work and the long journey worth it by reaching a final! Up next were Canada 2, a team deemed to be in between New York and North America – so very tough, but also very winnable! So we moved our tent to the side-line and watched the European Ladies team overcome North America for inspiration. Now it was the Men’s turn…
Plate Semi Final vs Canada 2 – COLLIE ROLLS BACK THE YEARS
Europe (2-03) v Canada 2 (1-05)
This game was a slight change from the 3 games the day before as the semis were played at 12 mins per half. On top of this, Europe had decided to slightly alter (or evolve if you will) their tactics to keep a target man up front, and ensure we always had two men behind the ball to mind the house. All the rest of the principles remained the same and the ball was thrown in. It was a heated affair in the first half. Conor was on the end of some hefty abuse which saw the Canadian full back being out in the sin-bin for 2 minutes. Despite that Canada scored a goal on the break. However, the highlight of the first 12 minutes had to be the pre-worked ‘Davey Barrett trick shot 45’ (patent pending). It involves faking to fake, before faking the 45 and the passing short – genius! Having thrown the opposition completely out of kilter we scored a lovely point and went in 2 point s down at half time.
It was all to do for Europe in the second half – both in attack and defence. It was always going to be goals that would get us back into the game and during this tournament we had two men that stepped up when they were needed to power through a goal. The first man to step up was in this game Senor Colin Byrne. Some say that he rolled the back the years when he broke down the right, powered through a few defenders and drive the ball home. Others say he showed all his years of experience and hunger to make the break needed. Either way it was game on at this stage. Europe got another goal through a great ball from Niall into Richie to finish form close in. after that it was up to the defence to keep Canada out, and some great diving tackles on the goal line secured a 1 point win for Europe.
We now had a final to look forward to!
Plate Final vs Canada 1 – LIVE IN THE MOMENT!!!!!
Europe (2-05) vs Canada 1 (6-09)
Getting to a final is always something special, be it an All-Ireland or the sports day in your national school. All finals have the unique quality that there is no tomorrow – this is it! We had played 4 games so far and we all knew that we had spent nearly all our energy getting us to where we were. But our spiritual leader Dave had one last message for us to make sure we gave it our all – ‘Live in the moment’. This was our last game of the tournament, and for some the last game with Belgium GAA, so it was time to appreciate it, enjoy it, and live in the moment of it!
Canada 1 were a good strong team, very fit and very powerful. Europe were pinned back early and it was only thanks to some great defensive work that they didn’t pull away early on. Dave and Kitch kept them honest and kicking wides, which allowed a few advances up the field and few free kicks to keep us in touch the first half also saw possibly the score of the tournament from Europe. Why? It was a textbook ‘quarterback’ move! Tom Brady, Dan Marino, even Joe Montana would have enjoyed this. The ball was played wide to Mul who helped it up well but was struggling to advance. He got the call from Dave behind him to pass it back. Dave then switch quickly to Richie in the centre, who slung it wide right to the onrushing Collie who slotted a lovely point – textbook ‘quarterback’ move!
The second half was a very strange animal. Europe started to get back into things a little more in the second half but it was looking to a bit of a stalemate and the game was in danger of petering out – cue the second man to step up with an iconic goal – Louis Sexton. Clearly bored at the lack of attacking penetration, Louis took it upon himself to hit the left wing like a freight train, shrug off a few defenders and then rifle the ball into the top corner. Game on! Not satisfied with this, he then repeated the feat moments later, this time aiming low to score two goals in quick succession. The bench went crazy, Louis was clapped on the back, and Europe looked like they could get back into this game.
The final 5 minutes are a looked back on with some disappointment but nonetheless overwhelming pride. Europe’s goals had sprung Canada into life and they came at us with ferocious pace and power. They scored a couple of quick goals and we were dangerously close to knockout punch. However, credit to every man wearing blue that they didn’t give up and kept fighting until the bitter end. Right up the final whistle lads were busting off the bench to get involved, there were vires to get forward, there were words of encouragement/criticism/excitement. We played the last 5 minutes like we did the first 5 minutes a day earlier, with utter relentlessness and commitment. Everyone, players and management, lived in the moment!
When the final whistle blew Belgium GAA , representing Europe, had left everything on that pitch in Abu Dhabi. There were words of thanks and praise from senior players. Goodbyes from those moving on. And calls to remember this for as long as we could. Belgium GAA had reached a final at a World Games, playing far above itself, and no one doubted that the players had done themselves and the whole club proud!
Belgium GAA abu!
Belgium GAA (representing Europe) Men’s Etihad GAA World Games Plate – Runners Up
The final word….
A big thanks to all those who worked to bring Belgium GAA to the World Games in Abu Dhabi. From all those players who played in the 2014 European Championships, the trainers for getting us prepared, the club members for getting the sponsorship and taking care of the logistics!
On behalf of all those who went represented Belgium GAA in this tournament I would to thank the club for the opportunity. It was both a pleasure and a privilege to represent the club on the world stage!