Monday 29 May 2017

Waiting for their moment

St Brigid's place in the All-Ireland club final is the product of decades of hard graft, writes Dermot Crowe

For a good few years the best that could be said, or volunteered, about St Brigid's concerned the club's infrastructure. "People always said that we had fantastic facilities," says Basil Mannion, who played through thick and thin, "and then there would be a pause." The silence spoke volumes for their failure to make a similar stamp on the field.

Basil entered as a sturdy minor -- "I was put in corner-forward, the usual story" -- on a team that enjoyed little exposure. The giant shadow of neighbours Clann na nGael darkened every corner of their parish. He can recall Clann stuffing them in Kiltoom in the region of "8-26 to 1-2" give or take a few goals -- that was in the senior championship. But there was an indemnity clause to fall back on when you faced the genius of Clann in those days: "They had a fantastic team," Basil explains in mitigation. "I remember the headline 'Lambs to the Slaughter' in the Roscommon Herald. I will never forget it."

A few years later, in 1994, Basil scored two late points against Kilbride to help a struggling St Brigid's avoid relegation to intermediate. From there their fortunes began to head slowly north. Seán Kilbride took them on and there was improvement across the board. In a league match they drew with Clann and grew a few inches. "I remember," states Basil to emphasise the significance, "Seán bought us a round in the clubhouse bar afterwards."

Basil is 35 now and had his last match in the Connacht club final in 2005. He hung around for a few league games after that but there was such a tidal wave of talented youths emerging that he didn't deem it sensible or decent to loiter. He dropped down to the junior team, won a championship and last year they reached the intermediate final. Of course he has some needling regrets. But he belongs to this journey as legitimately as any of those fortunate enough to don their club's green and red shirts in Croke Park on Thursday.

A big parish already, shifting demographics were kind to St Brigid's in the last decade and a half. Many people moved to live there who were working in Athlone and started families. They spotted the integrationist value of the local GAA club and now their children account for more than half the team that will line out against Crossmaglen. But before all that there were famines to end. John O'Mahony took over and led them to a first senior title in 28 years in 1997. They overcame reigning champions Clann in the final. After that anything was possible.

They have since won eight under-21 titles in succession, a record that speaks for itself, and three county senior titles on the run before a two-year hiatus and then this latest resurrection. They face into an All-Ireland club final for the first time, an historic leap made possible by the spectacular slaying one of the competition's masters, Nemo Rangers. Next up is another old hand, Crossmaglen, who defeated them in their failed attempt to reach the St Patrick's Day pinnacle four years ago.

So all this is, to young and old, a road untravelled, the brilliant wonder of a new experience. In the clubhouse a week from the match, RTE radio is broadcasting live, watched by buoyant locals all cresting the same wave. All, naturally, are loath to predict anything other than a famous win on what they intend renaming St Brigid's Day. The crowd whoops at the faintest boast, all gently straining on the same leash holding them until the release date, when they head with thumping hearts to Croke Park.

It was their rival Clann na nGael's extraordinary penance to lose five All-Ireland club finals, including four in a row. They defeated the

best club teams over the six years they won Connacht titles without interruption, but never managed to win two big games in the final stretch and had to watch their players retire without the reward of the All-Ireland medal they worked so hard to obtain.

In one of the common ironies of sporting life, their rivals and neighbours are now on the brink of achieving it at the first attempt. But they feel they have the good wishes of Clann and all Roscommon football people. Last year the county played some of the best football of the summer in winning a Connacht title. A St Brigid's win on Thursday will be seen as added affirmation of the county's resurgence.

Frankie Dolan and John Tiernan are the only survivors of the team that won in 1997, with Karol Mannion arriving soon after, better times but not without some hardship. Mannion lost county finals in 2000, '02 and '03 before he tasted success. "I remember after the third one people saying there is a hex on us, we are handing out county titles, because every time we got to a county final we played poorly," he says. "Like, we were favourites in each final but we eventually addressed that."

Castlerea defeated them in the first round of the 2010 Roscommon championship, a poor start for a new management team headed by local Noel O'Brien, but they recovered and have been unbeaten since. The three-in-a-row of 2005-'07 was followed by successive county quarter-final defeats in '08 and '09. "The more we play, the better we get," says Karol Mannion, scorer of an astonishing match-winning goal in the 2006 Connacht final. "I suppose we are probably more vulnerable early on in the championship."

In 2009, they had Eoin O'Donnellan, the former Salthill-Knocknacarra manager, in charge but they were beaten by St Aidan's, depleted by injuries and suspensions. So recapturing Roscommon was paramount. Any embellishments would have to be considered only after that was achieved.

If they beat Crossmaglen, Mannion will be happy for the management team which had to take some flak after losing the opening round to Castlerea. He'll also be pleased for Frankie Dolan. "There were times when he was on the road and he was unbelievable and then there were times when he was getting an awful lot of abuse as well. And there are lads who played with Brigid's, who were on the panel, Tom óg O'Brien was captain in '97, they showed us how to play football. They moulded us into footballers."

Jimmy Mannion, who along with his brother Gerry played for Roscommon and St Brigid's, says he will "die happy" if they become All-Ireland champions. One of the driving forces in fundraising in the 1980s that helped build the clubhouse, he is now vice-chairman and enjoying the current prosperity. He's asked if he is surprised.

"I'm happy and a bit surprised. I didn't think we could have come as far as we have come, to win three county titles in a row, or win a Connacht championship, because it was so hard over the years. We had a long barren spell after '69 when I won a senior championship at the age of 17; we were often badly beaten until we won the championship again after 28 years in 1997. You think, we lost three county finals in a row, we were beaten in '79, lost in '82, '83 and '84. In '79 by Clann na nGael, in '82 and '84 by Clann as well."

He has seen the club flourish. "The thing that makes me really proud is we have a home of our own. I wouldn't like to be fund raising now. I am extremely proud of all the contributions of people over the years.

"What's our loyalty? It is our love of the game. It's about the community working together. It's the kind of people you turn out -- they become good citizens, they represent their parish and their country well, that's what clubs are doing. The GAA hasn't been appreciated by governments over the years. It's just a brilliant organisation."

But he admits that "there is no substitute" for playing. "I mean, winning a Connacht championship in Castlebar against all the odds in '72, it would be hard beat that." Asked how he expects to feel when the day arrives, he goes: "I will be very, very proud. I will be thinking of people who have gone to their eternal reward and this is for them. If we win, which I hope we do, I will be thinking of them first and foremost."

Danny Murray came to play for ten years for the club up to 1996, the year before they won the senior championship, having been originally with St Faithleach's. He was Roscommon captain in 1980 and knows about going home to lifelong regrets.

"Like a fish coming on the line, it's there, you have to take the chance. I remember coming out with, the Lord have mercy on him, Dermot Earley, and Pat Lindsay, coming out of the Hyde after the All-Ireland (in 1980) and I said look we'll be back next year and I really thought we'd be back next year. But Roscommon didn't win Connacht for nine years. So when the opportunity comes you take it."

Shane Curran has been with the club for a dozen years and his kids are already happily immersed. "I think to be honest about it (Kilmacud) Crokes will be kicking themselves, and we are probably happier to be playing Cross than Kilmacud.

"But I think Joe Kernan said somewhere they (Cross) were like Barcelona, nearly as good as you can get at club level. They have some very good players, no question about that, but we have some very good players and I think Roscommon and some smaller counties don't talk their players up enough, they don't give them enough confidence."

Yesterday the St Brigid's players were due in Croke Park to get a feel for the new stage. Meanwhile, the people of the parishes of Kiltoom and Cam in south Roscommon are waiting for their day, one they can consider themselves deeply privileged to be here to see.

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