‘The sing songs and cans is where lads go from team-mates to family. A band of brothers’

A LITTLE BIT of GAA history will be created this weekend.

Amsterdam GAC will become the first side from the mainland of Europe to play a competitive GAA game in Ireland when they face St Finians, Newcastle tomorrow afternoon at 2pm.

They’ll take on the Dublin champions in the Leinster JFC quarter-final in Abbottstown and excitement levels are reaching fever-pitch as the tight-knit Irish community in the Dutch capital prepare for their big day out.

They’re here on merit. Amsterdam have been the dominant force of European GAA in recent years, having lifted the 15-aside title four times since 2014. They represented Europe in the competition in 2014, 2015 and 2016, but all three of those games took place on home soil in Maastricht, Netherlands.

Last month’s European final against Dutch rivals Eindhoven in the final had an  extra incentive. The winners would play on home soil at the GAA’s National Development Centre in Abbotstown.

20 counties are represented on the Amsterdam team, with a handful from each of Cork, Dublin and Galway, while Ulster players fill the spine of the side.

“It’s the first time something like this has happened,” club chairman John Murphy tells The42.

The GAA National Games Development Centre Abbotstown, where tomorrow’s game will take place.

Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

“In 2014, 15 and 16 we hosted the Longford, Dublin and Kildare champions here in Maastricht in the Netherlands.

“This is the first time we’re actually going home. Last year there was no European representatives, this year it’s back on the calendar. We want to make the most of it. We want to make a big effort to justify our inclusion. 

“We’ve 91 clubs in Europe, but we’re not taken very seriously. You see the respect New York and London are getting, and clubs in American because they’re pumping in the money. There are still some very good footballers in Europe, it’s just we’ve never had the exposure of those other places.

“We came over for jobs or to study and stayed because it’s a good city. The opportunity to play GAA has really connected us with an Irish community here. We’ve lads that have played the whole time or lads like myself who picked it up when we moved away again.

Murphy continues: “I played underage but you move over here and it’s a way of connecting with the Irish community, making friends and curbing the homesickness.

“The boys are absolutely buzzing. There will be buses from all parts of the country coming down. We’ve one lad from Armagh that’s bringing a dozen if not more alone. The opportunity for our fans and friends to see us play is a big honour.

“It’s junior football so it’s not the most glamorous of ties but we’ve trained from February until now and we work as hard as probably any junior team at home. Their families get to see them week-in, week-out whereas for our families it’s a real occasion.

“I think we’ve 20 counties on the team so you’re talking about 20 counties being represented on the panel and in the stand in Abbotstown. It’s going to be fantastic.”

Despite the obvious social temptations for players living in a city like Amsterdam, the GAA club has grown and thrived in recent years.

“We’re a bit more lax in Europe in terms of the commitment expected. We realise lads have full-time jobs, girlfriends and other commitments.

“We don’t have a pool of players to be as stringent as clubs from home or even in England, where they seem to be getting a bit stricter. We appreciate that boys aren’t here to play professional GAA, they do have a life and they do have to work.

Amsterdam GAC after their recent victory.

“You’ll get boys who’ll turn up for one training and never come back. You’ll always have them. We’d have a lot more one-offs than clubs from home. But for every one-off lad, you’ll get a lad who’s like, ‘Jesus, I do miss it. Fuck it, these boys seem like a bit of craic.’”

The diaspora work in a range of fields, but the majority operate in tech or are engineers.

“Now, they’re grand until you’ve actually asked them to do something engineering-wise,” laughs Murphy.

With just one club team accommodating the entire city, it’s a significant time commitment for those involved and it’s a two-hour round-trip for most players to make training each night.

“It’s not parochial. It’s not like your next door neighbour and yourself get a lift to training.”

Amsterdam regularly compete in tournaments across Europe, which means weekend trips away are a frequent thing. Often times they’ll hop on a bus after work on a Friday evening and stay a couple of nights in Germany, Spain or France, not returning until the Sunday evening.

As well as the football, they have plenty of craic along the way and Murphy feels those trips have brought the group even tighter.

“Because we play in Europe we end up having to go away for the full weekend so you’re talking about driving the Friday night after work or Saturday morning to tournaments,” he says.

“Doing the tournaments is a good team bonding because you’re playing together and you’re having a few pints afterwards and just the whole road trip. So I think that’s been good. 

“Coming up the road after the 15s and 11s, the sing songs and cans is where lads go from team-mates to family. A band of brothers.

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“We’ve had a lot of new lads come in this year and we’ve had success. Some of the regional tournaments, we’ve won in both hurling and football. Winning the European 15s three weeks ago was our aim all year, which allows you to go home and play. 

The Amsterdam GAC squad.

“Then last weekend we won the European 11s. Because we don’t have the population of home, we tend to play a standard 11-aside blitz. There were 50 teams and we won the senior.

“On Monday night we had training. There were 20 lads, most of whom played the blitz last Saturday, absolutely tearing up and down the pitch in expectation for Saturday. Winning helps, being honest. Having a successful year builds the positivity.

“A lot of lads have moved out on their own, rather than as part of a group. I think we’ve a good bunch of lads. Were all in the same boat, we’re all emigrants. ”

In recent times, the club have opened their arms to all Irish in the city, whether or not they’re into GAA, through various social events and fundraisers.

“We’re sponsored by a local Irish bar Dan Murphy’s and it’s become an epicentre for the social aspect. We try to have social events outside of GAA. We had a big event the week before Paddy’s Day open for all open for all the Irish in Amsterdam. 

“The club put some money towards an open bar and we invited anyone, it was just to expand into the Irish community. I could see how it would be perceived as clickish, ‘Oh I don’t play Gah I’ve no interest.’ It’s as much a social club as anything else. We did a boat party in July, that was a good success.

The Amsterdam GAC squad pictured after a recent tournament.

“And we organised a charity cycle for Pieta House two weeks ago. We cycled from Amsterdam to Brussels, which is 240km. It was a great idea until you’re on the bloody bike and you’re 100km in!

“We raised €12,000 so we’re going to split it between suicide awareness in Ireland, and Dutch and Belgian charities for suicide awareness as well.

“It was us and a Belgian club that came together. That’s another social thing for a good cause. We’re trying to be more open to social events because we realise lads could be homesick but have no interest in football.” 

As good an achievement it has been to reach this stage, Amsterdam are not arriving in Dublin to make up the numbers. 

“There’s a couple of success marks,” says Murphy. “One is to get back to Ireland and the next is to be the first European team to actually win a game. The difference is probably that teams at home are used to playing with one another at 15-aside.

“We play mostly 11-aside here so the step up in logistics is having 15 lads on the pitch. We’re not here to have the craic. Nobody is going out Friday night on the tear in Dublin. We’re going to not let ourselves down.

“We didn’t train for eight months to fucking go out and be a shambles. We’re going to definitely try and put our best foot forward. We’d rather go down fighting than anything else. It’s about tempering and doing as best we can. 

“What an achievement it would be to beat the Dublin champions in the Dublin centre of excellence. Just the opportunity to really put European GAA on the map.” 

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