Sunday 26 February 2017

Eugene McGee: True games like Ballyboden-Portlaoise can save Gaelic football

Eugene McGee

Eugene McGee

Michael Darragh Macauley, Ballyboden St Enda’s, wins possession ahead of Brian Glynn, Portlaoise
Michael Darragh Macauley, Ballyboden St Enda’s, wins possession ahead of Brian Glynn, Portlaoise

There's life in the auld game yet. Yesterday in O'Connor Park in Tullamore, the best small stadium in the country, I was privileged to watch the best game of Gaelic football I saw all year.

It was not a game dominated by a host of star players, not refereed by one of the leading refs and not watched by a massive crowd. But what we did get was a thrilling contest between two intensely dedicated football club teams, Ballyboden St Enda's and Portlaoise, who epitomised the spirit of what a GAA club really is.

These two clubs are not the traditional rural club that we all rave about so much with a small population, one pub in the local village and half the teams made up of brothers and cousins.

No, these are urban teams with a different sense of identity that does not depend on ' the honour of the little village'. Rather they depend on the loyalty to their actual GAA club and into that the players and mentors put all their effort for the honour of their club jerseys.

The football played by both sides yesterday was so different from the orgy of rubbish we have had all year in inter-county football up and including the All-Ireland final. There were no packed defences here, no stringing together of 10 or 20 handpasses in a row, no sledging or pulling of opponents' hair or any of the other malpractices that pollute county football nowadays.

Whinging

Instead what we got was two groups of manly footballers, concentrating on playing football to the best of their ability, tackling properly without whinging to the referee, taking scores as often as they could and moving the ball from end to end in a positive manner that did not depend solely on handpassing. It was a wonderful sight and the near 4,000 attendance were fortunate to have witnessed it.

On the basis that the team with most scores deserves to win we can say that Ballyboden were worthy first-time Leinster champions but had it ended in a draw then nobody could have complained.

For large parts of the second half Portlaoise were the better team and in a 25-minute period they outscored their opponents by five points to one. But then mysteriously they stopped scoring for the final seven minutes, allowing Ballyboden to convert defeat into victory with two well-taken points from play.

There were not many 'big names' on either teams but the ones that were certainly paid their way, notably Michael Daragh Macauley, who grabbed a fortuitous goal on the stroke of half-time, and Conal Keaney, whose role as a clever distributor brought several scores to his colleagues. Cahir Healy and Bruno McCormack played similar roles for Portlaoise but really it was the workhorses rather than the big names that dominated this game and that is why the fans got such enjoyment.

Club championship games are unusual because unlike their own county competition where the clubs are very familiar with each other's play, when they come to provincial matches there is only so much they can learn in advance. Therefore, there is a greater onus on players to think on their feet and not be relying on managers as happens with county teams.

I was fascinated to observe how quickly so many players on each team did adapt to what was confronting them and Portlaoise in particular were very good at that. The big talking point of course was the 14-metre free just to the right of the goals that Paul Cahillane, one of the Portlaoise stars in the game, missed in the dying minute.

He was in a state of distress afterwards but he should not be. His team missed several other scoring chances in the final quarter, including a 45 by 'keeper Graham Brody and any of those would have saved his team too. In addition, Bruno McCormack beat Ballyboden 'keeper Paul Durcan all ends up in the 50th minute only for the ball to rebound off the upright and to safety.

Referee John Hickey from Carlow gave a masterclass in keeping the game flowing that added greatly to this glorious game despite difficult underfoot conditions.

DVD a fitting tribute to the great Heffo

I was sorry I had to miss the recent launch of a fascinating DVD lasting over 100 minutes that covered the life and times of Kevin Heffernan.

It reflects the GAA life of Heffo in a manner that did justice to his role with St Vincent's, Dublin and of course the GAA as a national sporting organisation. The production was compiled at the behest of the Vincent's club and will be a very suitable memento of the man.

Attaching the name of a club or a county to Kevin Heffernan is a bit of a misnomer in ways because his greatest contribution was above all to Dublin as a capital city by emerging from the shadows of the early 1970s to revolutionise how Gaelic football was regarded in the city.

Any self-respecting Dublin follower and anyone from the rest of the country who appreciates the revolution inspired by Heffernan should get their hands on 'Kevin Heffernan - Wrapped Up In Blue'.

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