Tuesday 19 September 2017

Tommy Conlon: Even if there's no summit, there's glory in the climb

The Couch

Tommy Conlon

On Monday the Monaghan lads supped for hours in Ballybay, and supped merrily, as well they might.

A tour of the county was on the itinerary later that evening. It would be a long day's journey into night. But they had to start somewhere so it was a case of, today Ballybay, tonight Clones, Carrickmacross, Monaghan town and 'blayney itself. After that, they would have no worlds left to conquer.

For they had done the deed. They had crossed the Rubicon. They had completed the long quest, finished the great pilgrimage; at last they had climbed the drumlin.

In the wider horizons of world sport, an Ulster Gaelic football title is no mountain. But as Patrick Kavanagh said of those same drumlins, "They are my Alps and I have climbed the Matterhorn/With a sheaf of hay for three perishing calves". For Dick Clerkin and the other long-suffering penitents of that Monaghan dressing room, an Ulster title had become their Matterhorn.

Last Sunday the greatest bike men on earth were pouring into Paris, having literally climbed the Alps along the way. It's a far cry from there to the hill in Clones. But for the Monaghan players that afternoon their world was reduced to the pitch at the top of that hill. Nothing existed beyond it. The Tour de France might be a global spectacle but it didn't belong in their universe.

For as the bard and former goalkeeper also famously said: "I inclined to lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin,/Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind./He said: I made the Iliad of such a local row/Gods make their own importance".

Now admittedly, it must be getting tedious at this stage for Monaghan football people, hearing Kavanagh quoted back at them any time their team nudges its way into national prominence.

And the phrase "long-suffering" (see above) may also have become something of a wearisome cliché for their veteran footballers. It might have sounded a tad patronising, even though it was meant well.

Because GAA reporters will have seen enough ashen-faced players emerging from losing dressing rooms over the years to have some sense of the hurt involved. A harrowing defeat inflicts real emotional pain. It is not a trivial thing; it should not be taken for granted. It cuts deep and lasts long.

When Clerkin described last year's loss to Down, in the Ulster semi-final, as "the worst defeat of (my) career", he wasn't being self-indulgent. The black clouds were moving into his head, the sickness was beginning to curdle in the pit of his stomach. The more it means, the more it hurts.

The clock was ticking fast by then. This Ulster title arrived perilously late in the day for Monaghan's olden-golden generation. It was five minutes to midnight.

They are made men now. The record speaks, the record will stand: Ulster champs 2013.

The question has probably been asked of them a thousand times: does it make everything worthwhile? And naturally they will have said yes, it does. Course it does. But the question has a corollary, an unspoken implication that an entire sporting career hangs on one triumph.

But it doesn't, and it diminishes those sportsmen who never got to enjoy the shining moment. It devalues the body of work they have left behind them. Because their defeats and victories are in the record books too. They tell the story of people who tried and kept trying until they could do it no more. Lads who turned up, and who were brave enough to keep turning up no matter the cost, emotionally and otherwise. They made friendships and memories; they laughed and drank, fought and made up; and they have the stories to prove it.

When Cavan's stalwart midfielder Stephen King captained his county to an Ulster title in 1997, he'd left it even later than the Monaghan players. It was one minute to midnight in his case. The following February he retired at the age of 35. Cavan hadn't won Ulster in 28 years. He'd been on board for some 17 seasons himself.

King was asked the same question in an interview: did the victory make it all worthwhile? Well, he replied, it was all good anyway. He'd enjoyed every minute of it along the way.

In other words, a full life in sport shouldn't stand or fall on one trophy. If it does, it erases the lived experience: all those Tuesdays and Thursdays at training, all those games on Sundays, all those long car journeys, all those hopes and dreams; the best of times, the worst of times.

There's no denying that a major trophy brings with it a profound sense of fulfilment, especially when it arrives after a decade and more of hard knocks. And those who don't succeed are often tormented by regrets long after they've put away the boots for good. It's rough on them; the scars endure.

They are usually forgotten too. This Monaghan team will be remembered. But if they had lost last Sunday and picked up another lacerating scar instead, everyone else would have moved on without a thought.

But they would have been entitled to as much respect as they are getting now, and maybe even more, for investing so much of themselves for so long, and reaping so little. Happily for them, all those constant years finally yielded one day that was perfect, and is now permanent.

thecouch@independent.ie

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