The Summer of ‘99

Ben Dillon
6 min readOct 21, 2021

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This story was originally published in The Kerryman, regional paper of The Independent, in October 2021.

“The teams are up,” he said.

“Where?” I asked. Even if the next words out of his mouth were the coordinates to a tribe in Papua New Guinea, I was running there.

“On the wall outside sixth class.”

I was gone while he was still saying “cla”.

There were less than two hundred students in our primary school but at that moment there were thousands huddled around the notice board. I crowd surfed my way through and touched down outside sixth class. From there I stood in front of something I had fantasised about for most of my nine years. It was the most beautiful use of tree fibres I’d ever seen; one solitary sheet of paper with the words ‘Gaelic Football Parish League 1999’ printed on top. Listed underneath were four teams from A to D. From that moment on, we would refer to them solely by their captain’s name.

“Yes,” I said to no one. “I’m on Gearoid’s team.”

I spent the next few minutes mentally downloading every morsel of information. By the time I had wrung it dry, I knew what team every player worth their salt was on. I knew which of my friends were threats and which were doomed to failure.

As predicted, Gearoid and Tomás had the best teams. They were the star midfielders who stood head and shoulders, both literally and metaphorically, above everyone else. They were the best 12-year-olds. They had landed the best 11-year-olds and the best of the under 10’s. I put myself in the latter category. For the umpteenth time, I confirmed one other vital piece of information — my next-door neighbour, best friend and arch-nemesis was on Tomas’s team. Perfect.

The parish league was, up until that point, the pinnacle of my existence. Every boy in the community from ages eight to twelve was randomly divided into four groups. Over five consecutive Wednesdays, these divinely-chosen teams clashed. The first three weeks were round-robin, followed by semi-finals and finals.

At age nine, my sense of perspective was completely distorted. To me, 12-year-olds were full-blown adults who owned land, tipped hairdressers and handled their own taxes. When Gearoid opened his mouth to speak, I’d swear it was Morgan Freeman’s voice that came out. I, on the other hand, made Michael Jackson sound like the world’s most powerful orator.

My view of landmark events was also slightly skewed. To my mind, the parish league was something that adults worldwide would discuss ad nauseam for months. The biggest cultural divides on the planet would no longer be based on socioeconomic structures, political affiliations or religious ideologies. All it really boiled down to was whether you were Team Gearoid or Team Tomás. There were also those who supported Team Ger or Team Simon but…come on?

The last bit of distorted reality was my interpretation of the final. The A final would draw bigger crowds than the Pope’s visit and far more hysterical. People would literally line the pitch. How could it possibly get any bigger?

The competition was perfectly poised. Like Federer and Nadal, the two titans were on a collision course. Tomás and Gearoid’s teams would meet on the first night. Whatever the outcome, the two would then be left to steamroll all in front of them until they’d meet again in the final. Children would cry, and many did. Homework would go undone. Wives would leave husbands and neighbours would cease talking. A nervous tension would fill the air until it all played out.

Besides the obvious ones like Maurice Fitzgerald and Seamus Moynihan, I barely knew of any footballers who were over twelve or lived outside my parish. My world was very small. But still, there were superstars within it. One player from my community had achieved near-mythical status, and just so happened to be on Team Gearoid.

Justin was the bleached blonde phenom who had buckets of flair and actual girlfriends. He could kick perfectly with both feet and make statues fall for his dummy solos. At the age of 10 he was already togging out for the U14s. Still to this day when reading about child prodigies, I expect to see Justin’s name nestled between Picasso, Mozart and Tiger Woods.

The following weeks were Hollywood-scripted. Questions were left unanswered when the two top contenders collided and fought out a draw. The results that followed set up the mouth-watering final the world was waiting for. It was destined to be the greatest night in the parish’s history.

For the duration of the tournament, a carnival atmosphere encapsulated the local GAA pitch. We didn’t play in the full-size pitch, rather a smaller one within it, like Michael Cusack’s take on a Russian doll. Our playing field started and ended on the 21-metre-line, leaving plenty room for pageantry and hysteria in the unplayed outskirts.

There was a makeshift shop selling all manner of jellies and sticky bars. I suspect the local dentist supplied these in order to drive business. There was a brown Toyota parked on the grass. From it, a speaker blared the theme song of The Sunday Game. The tune bellowing around the pitch made us all feel like rockstars. If social media was around, #parishleague would have been trending and Superstar Justin’s inbox flooded with requests for brand endorsements.

There was drama and controversy throughout. Ger, one of the captains, missed a game because of a misjudged high tide. The water covered a sandbar which provided the only exit off his home on Fenit Island.

There was romance and danger. With the girls we fancied looking on, us hormone-fuelled boys battled for their adoration. Parents got caught up in the moment and hurled abuse at volunteer referees, and kids. Local high stool experts dissected and analysed games for days. The final say went to the local newspaper where the eight-inch section ‘Churchill Notes’ laid it all in black and white. ‘Team Gearoid and Team Tomás to Meet in the A Final — next-door neighbours to mark each other in a gripping subplot.’ The second part was visible only to me.

In 2020, COVID-19 put amateur sport on ice. But it wasn’t the adults I felt sorry for. I pitied the underage players. Someone out there was missing out on their own version of the parish league. And those memories grow in value.

At age nine my sense of perspective was completely distorted. But it’s nothing compared to how skewed my memories have become. With each passing year, my younger self gets a bit more talented. The glory days shine that bit brighter. False recollections become more and more vivid.

The big night started with a twenty-minute firework display and Enya sang the national anthem. I signed several autographs on my way into the dressing room and shook hands with Mary Robinson. Inside, Gearoid took me aside and told me that victory was down to me. In my strong, clear Morgan-Freeman-voice I told him that it was a team game and not just about me. He nodded and gave a look of pure admiration.

Throw-in for the game was delayed because of crowd congestion and a man behind the goals held a massive sign with the words ‘John 3–7’ on it. Superstar Justin’s stock rose significantly during the game and the intense clash went to extra time. As the match progressed, Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh became more and more hard-pressed to find the right superlatives.

The clash between my next-door neighbour and I was fiercer than I’d expected. He had his moments, I had mine. I could hear my parent’s roars over all else. It was the greatest battle of all time.

Some of these memories may, or may not, be warped. But that doesn’t even matter. What matters is that, for one evening in May, we were the talk of the parish and made to feel like giants. There were no winners or losers. How could there be? We created cherished memories together. That meant that no one could lose.

Well, that’s not technically true. Some of us lost a whole lot more than others.

Eh Gary?

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Ben Dillon

Everything I write is half nonsense. The other half is pure gold. Not on InstaTwitBook but please connect on LinkedIn — /dillon-ben