Down's new breed tune in to unforgettable wavelength
Published 05/09/2010 | 05:00
A JULY evening in The Marshes back in the middle of the last decade, the Down footballers being put through their paces by Pete McGrath. The atmosphere is light and convivial.
You see Mickey Linden alighting from the dressing room, instantly corralled by a gaggle of schoolkids, Tommy McGivern -- the team's evergreen kitman -- throwing his head up and smiling. Tommy has seen it a thousand times.
Afterwards, we amble down to the Canal Court Hotel in the fading light of the evening. Dinner is taken in the dining room upstairs. McGrath sits at a large table which includes Linden and Ross Carr as well as several unfamiliar faces that may just have walked in off the street unannounced. McGrath doesn't react with the fury of a manager whose inner sanctum has been breached. It isn't the kind of ship he runs.
The memory is a reminder of how they were: open, engaging, confident. Such confidence. At that time, McGrath's great side was unquestionably past its peak, but still played with a swagger and self-belief that defined them as much as the cerebral brand of football they played. McGrath wasn't so much their boss as a friend and father-figure. He trusted them implicitly and that trust cut both ways.
If one figure could epitomise them, it was Linden. The deadly forward never said much, but there is a story told about a Down team talk in which the fierce elemental passions that drove him were given voice. They had been discussing the challenge posed by their opponents when Linden interrupted and told them not to worry about his corner. Whatever happened, he said, his man would not get the better of him. That Linden thought that way didn't surprise them. That he would openly express it shocked them.
They were easy to love. How they revered their great forebears of the 1960s who had put Down football on the map, scared the life out of Kerry and made Ulster football a force to be reckoned with again. When McGrath brought them through again in 1991, it didn't merely signal the re-emergence of Ulster football, it broke up the duopoly Cork and Meath had enjoyed for four years and marked a departure from the cynicism that had blighted several of those encounters.
For all their brilliance, it is their openness that lingers in the memory. You could break bread with Linden a few days before an Ulster final. Watch Greg McCartan practise frees in a field near his home in the week of a big game. Share Ross Carr's feelings on the eve of a championship encounter. Call Pete McGrath at any time of the day for a nugget of insight or analysis. These things weren't a burden for them, because they chose not to make them so.
All's changed utterly, of course, but viewing Down's progress this summer, it's tempting to think some of the old spirit still lives. It was Ross Carr who dug the foundation for the current side, James McCartan who built so steadfastly upon it. In Benny Coulter, they have a natural successor to Linden. Ambrose Rogers has the spirit and leadership skills of his father. Marty Clarke is a product of this age for sure: strong and mobile and athletic. But the self-belief is pure Down. Clarke didn't lick that off the road.
Catching the climax of last week's semi-final on a hilltop in the midlands, it was easy to feel a pang for the old days. In the bedlam that reigned, it was impossible to grasp what was actually taking place. Micheál ó Muircheartaigh
was in full flow. Bernard Flynn couldn't get a word in edgeways beside him. They seemed as confused as any of the 60,000 or so people in Croke Park.
The cloud of confusion had barely lifted by the time the sound came hurtling down the airwaves. Phtoom! Like the sound you imagine the clay makes when released from its holder or a bullet produces when it pierces water. Phtoom! Ball crashing off the underside of a crossbar. It was the sound of the life being strangled from Kildare. The sound of Down being liberated from the terror of an unimaginable prison.
It felt fitting that the moment was experienced through the medium of radio. In Radio Days, Woody Allen's tender hymn to the humble wireless, the narrator pauses at the start to ask forgiveness "if I tend to romanticise the past." We forgive because the memories are shared and we are instantly hooked on the lives and stories of the people he describes. So too with the Down of Linden, Carr and McGrath.
And maybe that's what felt bittersweet about their breathless triumph last Sunday. It wasn't just a reaffirmation of how great football can be but, strangely too, a reminder of a spirit that seems to have no place in the game anymore.