How a speculative Facebook post brought Gaelic Football back to the city of Sheffield
By Damian Dolan
An eight-month journey came to fruition on Sunday when St Vincent’s GAA club played its first-ever competitive match – the culmination of the hard work of many, and one individual’s inquisitiveness.
Turn Moss in Manchester was the setting with St Lawrence’s the opposition in the Pennine League Division 3. St Vincent’s emerged victorious, 2-11 to 0-6, to cap a historic day for the fledgling club, but even that was dwarfed by the sense of achievement and pride felt by those who’d put a team from Sheffield out onto the pitch for the first time since the 1950s.
Chairperson Niall Murphy, whose speculative Facebook post last summer was the catalyst for the chain of events which culminated in last Sunday’s little piece of history, admits he had no previous experience of setting up a club.
“If I knew then what I know now I definitely would have given it more consideration as to whether it was possible,” Niall told the Irish World.
“When I look back on the last eight months I can’t believe what the seven people on the club’s committee have achieved. It takes a lot to get a club up and running.”
But up and running they are and while “there’s lots more to do” as Niall points out, Sunday was the time for a moment of quiet satisfaction at a job well done.
“We’re just really excited to get out there and enjoy the summer now that all the hard work is done,” Niall added.
“I wouldn’t say it’s been a hard slog because that makes it sound like it’s been arduous. It hasn’t, it’s been really enjoyable. But a lot of work has gone into getting where we are.
“We’re now just excited to play football, because at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about.”
In the preceding eight months, St Vincent’s has elected a committee, become a full affiliated member of the Yorkshire County Board, picked club colours and a crest, got sponsors on board for both the men’s and ladies teams, got a website up and running, appointed a fixtures committee, held fundraising nights and acquired goalposts and members, as well as navigating the pitfalls of insurance.
The club has also secured a pitch from the local council at the Concord Sports Centre, north-east of Sheffield city centre. Dressing rooms will be rented out from the centre. St Vincent’s will play its home matches there, while training will continue to take place at various open parks across the city.
The club’s name is a respectful nod to Sheffield’s ‘Irish’ past. When Irish people first started emigrating to the city, they settled in an area south of the city centre called St Vincent’s. It still exists today.
It’s fair to say it’s been a busy few months.
“I’ve played in a club which was very well run, but when you don’t have to do it you don’t realise how much work is involved,” said Niall, who moved to Sheffield six years ago from Wexford.
Disappointed to learn that the city didn’t have a GAA club, he looked further afield, to Nottingham and Huddersfield. But travelling time of an hour and a half each way to attend training led to him putting GAA on the “back-burner”.
So last August, after coming back from holiday, he decided to take matters into his own hands and set up Sheffield’s first GAA club since St Catherine’s in the 1950s.
South Yorkshire had previously also given rise to St Vincent’s in Matlock in Derbyshire, St William’s (Derby), St Finbarrs in Alferton in Derbyshire, St Flannan’s (Chesterfield), Wolfe Tones in Doncaster and St Bedes (Rotherham).
Niall was unsure what response his “total shot in the dark” would receive, having not integrated himself in the city’s Irish societies since his arrival. He needn’t have worried.
The response was “phenomenal”. He duly invited everyone who expressed an interest to a meeting at the Grapes, an Irish pub in Sheffield City Centre. The turn out was such, they couldn’t all squeeze into the one room. St Vincent’s were on their way.
“Lots of people showed an interest in helping to set the club up and run it, and lots an interest in playing. It just grew organically from there,” he said.
Since then it’s “gone from strength-to-strength” and Niall hopes it will continue to be a “fulcrum’ to bring people “closer together”.
The club’s first training session took place in the middle of September, although it was more of a “get together” and a “kick about” than a proper beasting, and served for people to get to know each other and for Niall to convey what the club was all about.
They’ve been training in “anger” twice a week since mid-February in preparation for the challenges ahead.
News spread, attracting welcome media attention from BBC Radio Sheffield and the Sheffield Star, intrigued to learn more about this sport called Gaelic Football.
Less than 20 attended that first training session, but the club now has more than 70 players who’ve expressed an interest in turning out, for either its men’s or ladies teams. The ladies side will compete in the new Ladies Yorkshire County and will play their first competitive fixture next month.
The club has one committee, which covers both the men’s and ladies teams, with Niall chairperson of the club and the men’s team. The ladies team has its own chairperson.
Its player group is diverse. Students from local universities, Irish who’ve settled in the city, second generation Irish and English people who just want to “try something different”.
The men’s and ladies teams had been training together up until the last month. They’ll train separately on Tuesdays going forwards to allow both to focus on more “game specific drills”. Thursday, however, will remain a mixed session.
The club needs to be “viable” before it looks at setting up an underage structure, but Niall is fully aware that youth is key to keeping it “sustainable”. Hopes are to stage some blitzes this summer with a “shift in focus” to underage in 2019.
“[This year] we just want to be competitive and have a bit of fun. We want to get the name out there so that everyone is aware that there is a Gaelic football team in Sheffield,” he said.
“Every week someone is bringing along a friend and we’ve already had five new players in the last month. The longer it goes on the more we become sustainable and the club starts to run itself, and the bigger and more successful it will become.”
History starts here for St Vincent’s GAA Club.