Not many held out hope for Aaron McNaughton reaching the status of international sports star. Least of all himself.
Raised just north of the border, where rugged South Armagh gives way to the fairer and flatter landscape of County Monaghan, like many other kids the length and breadth of this island, he devoted most of the free time he had to his local GAA club – the small, but proud, St. Mochua’s, Derrynoose. A dual club, more renowned locally for their craft with a sliotar rather than a size five, it was with ash in hand that Aaron first tasted sporting success.
“I played both Gaelic Football and Hurling for the club. I managed to make the Armagh Minor Hurling panel and that’s as good as it got for me,” explained the financial fraud expert, who now lives and works in Belfast. He was quick to elude to the fact he wasn’t blessed with the same prowess as his younger brother Colin, a former Armagh Minor Hurler of the Year. The club still awaits the return of the two lads to the blue jersey.
Oblivious at the time, it was a chance meeting in the Ulster University halls of residence at Jordanstown, just north of Belfast, that served as the catalyst for a major shift in direction.
Here, Aaron would run into Brian, an exchange student from the University of Vermont.
“Brian was an American guy over in Belfast for a year as part of his Conflict studies, and when we would come home after nights out, on went the T.V. and there’d be an NFL or a basketball game to watch,” recalls Aaron.
Those hazy nocturnal screenings, alongside a healthy rivalry that developed playing the PlayStation game Madden NFL saw the undergrad become increasingly enamoured with the sport.
“I enjoyed the scheming nature of it. How defensively a team would have to come up with plays to take down an offence, and how an offence would have to think outside the box to overcome a defence. I suppose it was the problem solving that appealed to me.”
All very impressive considering he was a half-cut nineteen year old learning the game from inside a poky, dorm cubicle.
There was no doubt about it, however. He’d been bitten.
“The following year, when I moved back into the city, I knew I had to find a team for myself.”
Chuckling, he adds, “I’m showing my age a bit here, but it was Bebo that was able to tell me that a team held practice on the green beside Queen’s PE Centre, which I happened to live just around the corner from. One evening, I walked over, hung about the perimeter while practice was going on, and eventually a coach came over to me and asked me was I interested in getting involved. And that was it. I was in.”
That team was, the soon-to-be defunct, Belfast Bulls.
“I guess it was just part and parcel of the way things were back then. Cash was tight, numbers were limited and at the end of my first season we ended up folding. I definitely wanted to continue playing, and a few of us on the team would have drank with a few of the Knights guys – and for better or worse, I’m still drinking with them today,” he smirks from behind his water bottle.
The emergence of McNaughton as a leading light on the American Football scene in Ireland over the past ten years, parallels quite satisfyingly with the best times the IAFL has known.
Now boasting twenty teams across two divisions, each split into northern and southern conferences, American Football can be enjoyed deep in the southeast with the Wexford Eagles or as far as the Donegal Derry Vipers in the northwest.
“The sport has come a long way in what’s relatively a short space of time,” Aaron remarks. “Naturally, Sky Sports has helped that, with football being shown primetime on Sunday nights throughout the winter. But it would be remiss of any of us involved not to recognise the role that guys on the ground have played – a lot who laced up through those wilderness years.”
He’s not kidding. Take yourself of a Sunday to any of the venues hosting an IAFL match-up and you’ll see what he means. Sidelines littered with protective gear and tackle bags, professional emergency medical personnel on standby as decreed by the league, five neutral volunteers officiating at each game – Christ, the guardians of the game now issue fines for uniform infractions. All this, and available to the public free of charge.
“Sponsorship and goodwill have a lot to do with it,” admits Aaron, “and the league has no doubt benefitted greatly from benefactors over the last few seasons. But it still takes the clubs themselves to buy in, to prove they are financially viable for a season, to send their refs 50 or 60 miles away to officiate a game between two sides, to decide amongst themselves that, yes, we want to be competitive here. The whole thing has been pretty much like a fraternity.”
The question of competitiveness is still one that has truly yet to be answered by all it would seem. Since McNaughton’s own Knights last won the Shamrock Bowl in 2002, only three other sides have managed to have their name engraved on to the most coveted trophy in Irish American Football. It’s something that doesn’t cause the Armagh man too many sleepless nights.
“The quality of competition is definitely improving year on year. I think a few teams raised the bar and said, look, we don’t want to mess around with this anymore, namely the Dublin Rebels and our own rivals here in Belfast, the Trojans. Slowly but surely other teams up and down the country are catching up, making the changes that will bring them to the next level, ourselves included. It’s been real organic in its nature”
Although, he believes that an accelerant has been added to the fire of late.
“Recently, there has been a big drive to put in place a national side that can go and compete at European level. Club football is such a great outlet for many guys who pick it up because a lot are coming from a background where they haven’t had the skills or physique to excel in the traditional sports played at schools or in parishes. It’s great that they can have an opportunity to perform in front of friends and family, but pulling on that green jersey is something that I suppose everyone in this country dreams can happen one day – and that dream is certainly attainable with American Football.”
And, indeed, he is one of few men that can speak from experience – albeit things didn’t go quite the way he would have expected back in August 2016, when the inaugural outing for an Irish national side was cut short by an electrical storm in Waalwijk, Netherlands, at half-time.
A decade on from joining what was then the Carrickfergus Knights, Aaron was a major supporter of the sides decision to move back to Belfast – a process that has been helped in no small part by Cooke RFC and the use of their Shawsbridge Sports Complex in the affluent south of the city.
“The support of Cooke and Instonians has been invaluable. They’ve made us feel welcome from day one, and their facilities are great. We aren’t getting changed or running plays on a muddy council field anymore, and we have somewhere for our supporters to have a drink or take a walk around during a game,” he coos with visible pride.
After all he’s achieved in the game, at 31, McNaughton has begun to begrudgingly accept the veteran tag. Having taken on a defensive co-ordinator role with the Knights, is it a case of him preparing to hang up the cleats in the near future?
“I suppose it’s like any sport, younger guys come in and you quickly realise that they do things faster, stronger, better than you can. Most of the plays I’m coming up with now, I’m near forced to come up with them without myself in mind.”
The physical demands are one thing – but time too has become an issue. After marrying long term partner Lorraine in 2016, the couple are expecting their first child this September, something which holds a position of prominence in Aaron’s mind.
“I’ve broken bones, had dislocations and concussions. We have two practices a week with a game most Sundays – other evenings I’m in the gym after work, it’s not something that can go on forever,” he explains, a hint of pain in his voice.
That being said, and no different to any other sportsman approaching the end of his playing days, he’s keeping an open mind as far as when that day will be.
“Last year, Dublin Rebels pipped us in the Shamrock Bowl. I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but the runner-up medal went into my bag and I genuinely haven’t seen it since. Winning a Shamrock Bowl would be the icing of the cake, and who knows? Maybe that would be a good time to walk away – whilst I still can! But for now, I still feel good and I’m still enjoying it.”
And why not? There is no doubt about it – Aaron McNaughton’s American Football journey has taken him a long way from that poky cubicle in Jordanstown.
Evidently, he has more miles to travel.
*Catch Aaron and his teammates this coming Saturday, as they make the short trip to Deramore Park, to take on the Trojans in the Battle of Belfast. Tailgate party begins at 1pm, featuring drinks promotions, free wings and pizza courtesy of Nando’s and Pizza Co respectively, as well as the hosts lighting up their own BBQ.
With thanks to Ian Humes Photography and Belfast Knights for images used