T’was a balmy Saturday, November 19 in the dusty suburb of My Dinh, a few kilometres south-west of Hanoi, Vietnam. Teams had arrived in from Seoul, Gimhae and Shanghai the previous evening. Coaches and officials had met to catch up on old debates and sow the seeds of future memories. A plethora, some might say an excess, of emails were circulating between the various volunteers who had stepped forward to make this dream a reality. The first ball was thrown up at 9am and the Asian Youth Championships (AYC) were under way!
Teams were split into three age categories. The best represented was the youngest age group, the Under-12s. As well as the two regular Hanoi teams – Blue Dragon and SIS Gamuda – the tournament also saw the debut of the Vietnam Swans youth Gaelic football team. Joining these teams in the U12 competition were the four visiting teams: Korea International School, Seoul Gaels, Gimhae GFC and Shanghai GFC.
The Swans, Gimhae and Korea all had mixed teams, while overall there was an incredible mix of nationalities all taking part in a sport that was both new to them and new to the countries in which they reside. Amazingly, there were only two players with an Irish parent and no fully Irish children playing! Instead it was mainly Asians, with the speed and energy of the predominantly Vietnamese teams against the strength and determination of the Korean teams providing some particularly captivating encounters.
The Under-12 competition was a marathon of Gaelic Football for all involved and a wonderful opportunity for the young stars and heroes of the future to get some serious competitive experience by playing against a whole range of teams. Despite their youthful age, the players showed a discipline and courteousness both on and off the field that would have done any Irish mother proud and shamed many a senior player! Notwithstanding the fact that none of them were even half Irish!
From the first games – involving the four visiting teams as the local teams scrambled to get their players together, prepare the pitches and set up tents for spectators – through to the finals when SIS Gamuda proved the superiority they had displayed all day by beating a strong Seoul team after a close first half. SIS Gamuda won the Joe McDonagh trophy named for Galway legend Joe McDonagh who was a great supporter of Asian GAA.
In U12 Plate Final, Blue Dragon beat Shanghai and showed their ability to improve throughout the day, recovering from losing their first two games to finish with a flourish. Among the highlights of the day were the debuts of the Aussie Cygnets who took to the game like shrimp to a barbie under the direction of Head Coach, Grant Keys and his talented coaching panel.
At Under-15 level there were three teams competing for the right to call themselves champions of Asia. All three teams – Blue Dragon, SIS Gamuda and VAS Hanoi – are based in Vietnam and have been competing against each other for a few years now. Although the players had dreamed of playing against teams from other countries, unfortunately the likes of Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong had been unable to send teams, despite their generalised commitment to the idea of the competition.
As can be seen from the results in the results section below, VAS Hanoi, led by elite coaches, Jim Kiernan and Neil Hiney, were almost unplayable on the day. John Shoulders was a busy man all day taking care of both SIS Gamuda teams, and indeed some of the younger cohort made a strong showing even though playing against players three years older than them. The Blue Dragon team was not able to replicate the exploits of their club-mates but became more competitive throughout the day, poor finishing and a tendency to go for goals rather than points eventually denying them victory.
In a fitting finale to the U15 competition it was a straight shoot-out between the age group’s two big guns, VAS Hanoi and SIS Gamuda. Both teams and managers gave their all in a tight, technical, tactical battle. The free-flowing football of the earlier games was replaced with more astute point-taking, man-marking and pressure on kickers. VAS Hanoi were worthy winners and as the only team to have competed in every youth Gaelic football competition in Vietnam since the dawn of time it was a fitting reward for their players and erstwhile leaders. VAS Hanoi won the Joe Maleady trophy named for St Lomans’ coaching legend Joe Maleady who has helped out the Viet Celts Schools Gaelic Football Program over the years.
At Under-18 level it was to a straight shoot-out involving two teams with a solid rivalry in Vietnamese Gaelic football – Blue Dragon and Hanoi International School. Players who had stood toe-to-toe in a number of All-Vietnam Schools’ Cups were now ready to battle it out for the right to call themselves ‘Champions of Asia’.
Hanoi International School had put together a very formidable unit over the years under the watchful eyes of coaches Leo’ Wiley Fox’ Dyar and Mr Michael Clifford. One player for Blue Dragon missed the team bus but managed to take two buses across the city, ninety minutes of travelling, in order to make it to the game, such was his commitment to the team. This clash of the titans would be the day’s showpiece
And a titanic clash it certainly was. Both teams gave full commitment to their teams and the game. The speed at which the game was played was breath-taking, the two teams showing how they have mastered this new game over the years of playing it here in Hanoi, adapting skills from other sports. Passers-by stopped their motorbikes to watch and small children watched in awe as these lightning quick young men ran full tilt at each other, taking and giving thumping shoulders and triumphant high fives.
Along the side-lines stood a group of proud coaches, beaming smiles from ear-to-ear that it had all come together into such a great game. Blue Dragon took the gold-coloured medals but the whole day was a victory for the Viet Celts and Gaelic football in Vietnam, as well as the culmination of a long journey which started on a dusty Xuan La stadium back in May 2010 for the first All Vietnam Schools Cup and September 2008 for the start of the Viet Celts Schools Gaelic Football Program. Blue Dragon, VAS Hanoi and SIS Gamuda, champions of Asia!
Special mentions to the Irish Embassy, the Asian County Board, DFAT, the GAA, the Global Games Development Fund and O’Neills for their vital support of the Viet Celts Schools Gaelic Football Program. Thanks to the Irish Ambassador, Cáit Moran who presented the medals and trophies and to the AYC Organising Committee who put nine hard months of logistics into the event.
AYC Organising Committee
Le Ngoc Anh (Lana) , Thanh Nguyen, Jim Kiernan, David Cunningham, John Shoulders, Neil Hiney, Sean O’Connell, Rebecca O’Keefe, Ewan Anderson, Joe Trolan, Jonathan Cleary, Conor Melvin, John Hennigan, Adrian Donoghue.
Nearly all of these people double jobbed or triple jobbed as coaches and referees. Thanks also to Paddy A Quinn and Mark Horkan who made a big effort to get down and help out with the refereeing on the day and Eric’ Kerro’ Kerrison who did a fine job as Tournament MC. Behind the scenes on tournament day and before, Pham Lan, Brenda Meiklejohn, Jarrod Reames, Rowena Barnett and Rod Barnett lent a hand.
Massive respect to the players, coaches and mentors of Korea International School, Seoul Gaels, Gimhae GFC and Shanghai GFC who all made such a tremendous effort to get to Hanoi for the AYC. Congratulations to Gimhae who won the Ambassador’s Fair Play Award.
Below is the full list of scores for those readers with an interest in the minutiae! 30 games were played in total across the three competitions with 23 of those games coming in the U12 competition.
The Viet Celts
Some media links on the event and youth Gaelic Football in Vietnam
Journal.ie – Children in Vietnam are mad about GAA thanks to our inspiring expats
VN Express International – Hanoi disadvantaged kids dream big with Gaelic football
Hogan Stand – Inaugural Asian Youth Championships to take place next month
RTE Newsround – Interview with David Cunningham as part of report about President Michael D. Higgins’ visit to Vietnam in late 2016
Connaught Telegraph – Young GAA players shine in Hanoi
A message below from Asian County Board Treasurer, Jonathan Cleary who travelled from Malaysia with his son Callum for the AYC. Callum put in an excellent stint on the SIS Gamuda U15 team and Jonathan refereed a good number of the U12 games.
“Fantastic weekend at the inaugural GAA Asian Youth Championship in Hanoi. Many thanks to the Viet Celts for hosting a marvellous tournament. Enjoyed refereeing as I got a chance to see the all the action first hand. Over 150 participants in the U12, U15 and U18 competitions and by my reckoning not one of them born in Ireland”