Follow the hollers and shouts for long enough on a weekday afternoon in Front Square and you’ll find yourself squirreled away behind the Graduates Memorial Building staring at 10 students scrambling around a 40-metre by 20-metre pitch, chasing a weighted ball. It’s a lunchtime cult that has subsumed a certain sect of College society, to the point that the winter break becomes a transfer window and semesters become seasons.
It was for this reason that I committed myself to one more season of Trinity intramural five a-side football last year, but as I entered the winter of my career I decided I wanted to know why everyone else makes the commitment, and what drives the players to turn up to a netless tennis court once a week come rain, snow or the occasional shine, to play the beautiful game.
Personally, I was inducted into the cult as a fresh-faced, bushy-tailed second-year student under the assurance that it was the only way to scale the associated society’s power structure. That was enough for me and I duly packed my thermals and made my way out to an icy Botany Bay stadium at 9pm on a December night to make my debut for my team, the Globetrotters.
Right from the off I loved every moment of it. The floodlights pouring down on this makeshift five a-side pitch transported me to a childhood spent playing round after round of heads and volleys. Every window of Botany Bay became home to a potential spectator. The ball zipping from end to end sent me into a trance: it was love at first touch.
We were heavily beaten, but that was beside the point. There’s something magical about banging a football around a tennis court for an hour that sucked me and many others in. So I set out to investigate. What is it about Trinity’s five a-side cult that keeps throngs of students hooked?
I begin my investigation with my first – and perhaps Trinity’s only – five a-side manager, Aziz Kabadaya. Now part of the youth setup with Bohemians, Kabadaya prides himself on defensive stability, something he touches on early in our interview when I ask how much thought he’d give to each game. He laughs almost self-loathingly before striking his ever-patronising tone: “Well well, son, coming to the old boss for advice. Yeah, it got a bit out of hand by fourth-year.” Pausing a moment, he says: “I’d say by fourth year I was spending as much time thinking about five a-side tactics as I was about my five-credit modules.”
There’s something magical about banging a football around a tennis court for an hour that sucked me and many others in
Knowing Kabadaya as a man who was once banned from coaching at Leicester Celtic’s under-10 summer football leagues for playing five at the back and a lone striker in a seven a-side team, and grinding his way to the final through a string of three successive penalty shoot-outs, I realise he probably isn’t lying.
This sets the tone for our conversation, but also highlights the eclectic myriad of characters that you encounter across the sidelines of Botany Bay. I decide to dig deeper. We were both hooked straight away, but what is it that sucks so many in? He seems to have spent time thinking about this before, and he snaps back: “It’s all about winning. Everyone just wants to be a winner.” Thinking about it a bit more, he continues: “Everyone in Trinity is competitive. No-one’s prepared to say it, but we all want to be on top of the world, and once a week five a-side gives you an opportunity to feel like a winner. At the end of the day, everyone takes it more seriously than they let on.”
As we finish up our chat I push Kabadaya once more for his thoughts on the current standard of play in Botany Bay. He indulges himself with a sly chuckle: “The way I see it, it’s a bit like the Premier League, where there’s two leagues in the one. There’s the league for the winners – these are the ones who go out at the start of the league with the sole desire to win it – and then there’s a second league where it’s just a bunch of friends looking to kick a ball around for an hour.” Reading back through last season’s results, his hypothesis is given credence by the goal difference after five games played. The top side had a positive goal difference of 53 and the bottom side had a negative difference of 20.
One of the league’s current crop of galacticos is Jason Boateng, a regular for Dublin University Association Football Club
I put this to Peter Quigley, the captain of last season’s winning team the GOATs. While he doesn’t completely agree with Kabadaya’s hypothesis that some teams are only there for a kickaround, he concedes that “there were a few games where we were winning by a lot and then it kind of just turns into just a kickaround”. But these, he says, were in the minority. Instead, he believes that “everyone we played took it seriously”. He points to the fact that some games were coloured by animosity, though this generally dissipated soon after the final whistle.
As Quigley, a Trinity intramural veteran, looks into his final season, I ask him what drives him to keep pulling on his runners each week and lining out for his beloved GOATs. “I suppose I always loved playing football and you’re playing with your mates so it’s less serious than joining an actual team. But there’s still that competitive aspect”, he says. And of course, he concludes, only half-jokingly, that ultimately it comes down to “the prestige of being the champions of the Trinity intramural five a side league”. A prestige, he jokes, that he is considering placing on his CV.
In last year’s league, the top side had a positive goal difference of 53 and the bottom side had a negative difference of 20
Increasingly, the intramural five a-side league is attracting some of the College’s brightest footballing talents. One of the league’s current crop of galacticos is Jason Boateng, a regular for Dublin University Association Football Club (DUAFC). The question that bothers me is what draws Boateng, one of the finest footballers in the College, to Botany Bay tennis court three? His answer is simple: “Simply to play ball with your mates from College.” As he muses some more about the subject, Boateng says five a-side offers him a stage to “use a few skills” that he admits he “wouldn’t dare do playing fast-paced football in centre midfield”.
What strikes me, after chatting to these stalwarts of the five a-side league and trying to uncover the secret to the game’s ongoing success, is that there is no secret. The cult-like following that the league has gained can be explained by the answer that comes back at me more often than any other. Five a-side, everyone says, is so beautiful simply because it allows them to “play ball with mates”. And that’s something worth hollering and shouting about.