A lament for those golden 5-a-side/indoor days…

‘Worst of all were those evenings when no ‘recognised’ goalie turned up, and we had to take it in turn to play in goals, patiently waiting for someone (usually winded) to give the sympathetic nod…’

It’s funny, some of the things you miss as you get older…

It was the mid-1990s, or thereabouts. Some of us arrived in the Convent Gym in Roscommon 15 minutes early, some of us cut it a bit more fine. Well over a  decade later, some of us didn’t arrive at all, which is why it finally ebbed away. Near the end – while not knowing we were near the end – most of us were well into our 40s…shuffling, panting, wheezing, our tackles occasionally arriving seconds after the ball had been whizzed on to someone else. As the old joke goes, when it came to some of those tackles, we got there as quickly as we could.

There was something wonderful about the old indoor/5-a-side, that refuge for so many slowing GAA and Junior Soccer players. Of course there were younger lads playing too, but in our circle it was almost all veterans, for whom the ‘indoor’ addressed our sporting fulfilment requirements…for as long as possible. We were ageing romantics who didn’t want to let go, even if our hips didn’t lie.

On arrival at the Convent Gym, a nod to the now sadly deceased Tom O’Connor, who had the keys, and a friendly word. Then, the wary wait to see if we’d have ten, or nine, or eight players. The sometimes strained debate if we only had seven. Do we play or not? The odd evening when there weren’t enough players to justify starting a game was an absolutely sickening anti-climax. The odd evening when 13 or 14 turned up could be a pain too. It meant either the dreaded (and seldom democratic) subbing or – just as frustrating – 12 or 13 playing at the one time, guaranteeing a lack of space, general chaos, and sore shins. Worst of all were those evenings when no ‘recognised’ goalie turned up, and we had to take it in turn to play in goals, patiently waiting for someone (usually winded) to give the sympathetic nod and release us back into the fray, where the real action was.

No evening followed the previous week’s script. You could score four, or you could have a stinker. It might be craic, or a row could break out. On the unforgiving indoor surface, we pounded away, in our element, turning the clock back, shouting, swearing, sweeping, scoring. Call it ‘indoor football’, call it ‘indoor soccer’, or call it ‘5-a-side’…it was brilliant. The worst thing was it ended without us knowing it was ending.

I was smitten from the first time I discovered ‘indoor’. For years, as a young man, I had plodded the outdoor pitches with Dynamo Rooskey, later with Strokestown United. I was an undistinguished player, but I loved it.

Then, around the mid to late 1980s, Strokestown United began hosting a 5-a-side indoor tournament. The excitement! Strokestown probably entered two teams each year, one of which was particularly good. If memory serves me correctly (and it may not), there was Michael Donlon (later to star on the Roscommon senior football team), Ronan McPhillips, Eamonn Tighe, Tom Corcoran, Stephen O’Connor, and others. I looked up to these guys, talented footballers across the codes.

The Strokestown hosts could always be relied upon to be involved at the business end of their own tournament. So too could the lads from the Longford and Ballymahon end of the Longford & District League. I remember Martin Stokes, a greying veteran, leading one of those Longford sides. Pretty sure he played with Longford Wanderers. He had a Bobby Charlton ‘comb-over’, and a relaxed style that was deceptive. Oozed class.

From Roscommon town came a serious team too. A class act. I checked their line-up with a friend this week. In goals: Des Boland. Also: Tony McManus (one of Roscommon’s greatest ever GAA players). John O’Gara. Mick Cleary. George Bannon. Noel Carr. They were deadly. It was a golden era for indoor soccer in the county.

It was a decade or so on from the Strokestown tournament heyday when we began those weekly games in the Convent Gym, after Tom O’Connor unlocked the door to our dreams. I was now working for the Roscommon Champion. When the final whistle silently sounded, the official reason was a lame ‘we’re not getting the numbers’. We let it lapse. The men who played for probably a decade or more during that middle-aged ‘latter career’ period know who they are; I won’t begin naming names.

The indoor years. They were wonderful, sore shins and all. Still miss it.