Steven Gerrard and Robbie Keane took a back seat, as the Houston Gaels played Gaelic Football after a LA Galaxy match last Saturday.
Last Saturday night, Irish eyes around America were focused on LA Galaxy’s trip to Houston Dynamo. Steven Gerrard’s second game in the MLS garnered great attention, while promise of a Robbie Keane cartwheel kept all in high spirits. Galaxy eventually fell to a 3-0 loss in the intense 100 degree heat. But at full-time in the soccer, the crowds stuck around for another football which is foreign to the locals.
Houston Gaels GAA club played a Gaelic Football match in the 22,000 seater BBVA Compass Stadium, with over 1,000 spectators staying to watch this novel phenomenon.
Playing two twenty minute halves, over 40 men and women participated in a highly competitive game which included a significant contingent from fellow Texas clubs, the Austin Celtic Cowboys and Fionn MacCumhaill’s Dallas, who travelled 170 and 240 miles respectively. This is typical of the distances Texas clubs travel to play against each other in the annual Texas Championship.
Philly Larkin, Chairman of the Houston Gaels, spoke to Pundit Arena of the club’s pride of being able to develop a strong relationship with the MLS team.
“This is our second year playing Gaelic Football at the home of the Houston Dynamo and we hope to grow its success year on year. Our key goal is to promote the sport to the local population and attract more American-born players, male and female. The only way this club can be successful, in the long-term, is to have a strong base of American-born players. We’re not your typical landing point for the Irish coming to America so we need strong local engagement and that’s exactly what this type of showcase provides”.
The use of the stadium was obtained with the help of Sean Foster, who works with the Houston Dynamo. For a high profile game where there was no problem selling tickets for the MLS franchise, this was a major coup.
It was the second year the event was run, as the Gaels played a thirty minute game after the Dynamo’s clash with DC United in 2014. With the use of the big screen at the ground, the atmosphere was electric, and it was an invaluable marketing opportunity for the club.
The Houston Gaels were set up in October 2011 by Johnny Ziomek, Mike Murphy, and Phillip Larkin, the latter two being Irish-born. Naturally, it took time to take off, with 10 members initially. Four years later, the club now boasts over 100 members, with new players joining constantly.
Navy and white jerseys manufactured by O’Neills are a tidy and slick design, with a front and side sponsor from Kentz, an Irish engineering company partly based in Texas. The jerseys were so popular that they are the seventh top selling North American shirts on the O’Neill’s website.
Funding is naturally a hurdle for the club, but due to the generosity of some local pubs, as well as shirt sales, the club is going from strength to strength.
Larkin described the club as having a “healthy mix” of Irish and Americans, stressing the importance of home-grown players, and this is very much the mission statement of the club. At present, around 65% of players are Irish, but the American contingent are the numbers who are growing. With some Scottish, English, and Canadians, there is a blend of backgrounds across the three teams.
At present, the club are working on establishing the ladies’ team, with 15-20 on board at present, who compete in the co-ed pub leagues. 2016 is the target to have the side up and running.
Another area where the club is venturing into is the small ball. There is a core group of players who come from hurling backgrounds, and as the club continues to grow, this is likely to develop. The Houston Gaels are sending six players to the National Championships in Chicago with the Texas hurling team, showing the appetite for the clash of the ash in the city.
Plans for an underage section are also in place, but difficulties with legal technicalities of underage sports in the USA are proving tricky at present. Larkin hopes that the children of current players can take up the sport, and in the not so distant future, the club may have its own fields, as opposed to the public multi-purpose fields they currently use.
Recruitment is booming for the Gaels, who are benefiting from soccer and rugby players looking for new challenges. With the dawn of GAA GO, interest is peaked as the All-Ireland series are accessible, despite the time difference. It is a new challenge for Americans, but one which Larkin feels that they are relishing.
Focus remains fully on growing the club further, and the now-annual prospect of a high-profile MLS game as a curtain-raiser for a Gaelic Football match is unique, and something that is likely to grow ten-fold into the future.
Fair play to the lads for spreading the gospel, and best of luck in the future. Houston Gaels Abú!
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Brian Barry, Pundit Arena.