Putting your life on line for The Club
Award-winning book opens door into the GAA's grassroots in a searingly honest way
PAIRC Ui Chaoimh, Sunday November 28, 2010 -- the Munster Club Hurling Championship final between De La Salle Waterford and Thurles Sarsfields.
Oh, the cold. Ouch. Safe in the stand and yet you find yourself wincing at the impact of hurley on the upper body of De La Salle's Kevin Moran.
He drops to his knees, clearly in pain, but is desperately trying to quell the shockwave of nerve endings screaming the message 'hurt, hurt' faster than the speed of light to his brain.
The whistle blows. It's a free and a booking for the Thurles opponent who was a tad careless with the caman. He protests his innocence, but the yellow card is waved in the air.
Meanwhile, Moran is climbing back to his feet and jogs back to his position.
Don't let them see how much it hurts. Stand tall, stand firm. Ready to go. Next move, next ball, next challenge.
This is not about you, the individual. This is about us, about what we are doing together, and it's all for the club, the parish. Our own.
Moran's attitude was mirrored by team-mates and Thurles opponents alike. Men came to put their bodies on the line and didn't shirk the challenge, particularly Sarsfields' Alan Kennedy.
Kennedy took a heavy knock and played on after treatment before having to leave the field. His reluctance to quit typified the pride and passion displayed by GAA players when they perform for their club.
On the day, the teams comprised a mix of quality.
Some of the players were, as in the case of De La Salle's John Mullane and Lar Corbett of Thurles, inter-county stars of the highest calibre. Others were young hopefuls. A few may get to wear the county jersey, most won't.
But whether they were 17 as in the case of De La Salle's Jake Dillon, or 31-year-old Bryan 'The Bull' Phelan, everyone was there to play a man's part for a cause greater than individual glory.
On the surface this is what happened. The two teams arrived at Pairc Ui Chaoimh to find the game was on, despite the snow and ice that had hit most of the rest of the country.
They did their warm-ups, then came back out and after the pre-match minute's silence for the late father of referee John Sexton and the National Anthem, they set to it with a gladiatorial ferocity.
By half-time the score was 0-7 to 0-2 in favour of De La Salle. Thurles rallied in the second half but the Waterford men tenaciously held on to win 0-9 to 0-8.
One blessed point -- if you were a De La Salle man. One lousy, stinking, miserable point -- if you hailed from Thurles.
Happiness and heartbreak, separated only by the width of an upright and the difference between the sliotar going over for a score or wide.
Cue the presentation, an impassioned speech by De La Salle's captain Ian Flynn and roars and shouts of joy from the small band of their supporters.
The Thurles players and mentors trooped off grim-faced, downcast, and sombre, disappointment etched onto their faces.
So much for the externals. What about the inside story of both teams?
What about the internal rows and conflicts, the goal-setting, the planning of the campaign, the key decisions made by mentors, the hacked-off players who felt they deserved their place ahead of fellas who got a jersey?
Were there early-morning training sessions, inspirational talks by outsiders, motivation ploys by management? Crisis talk-ins when performances weren't up to scratch?
Moments when a game turned in their favour just when all seemed lost? Guys questioning other guys in the dressing-room and wondering if they were up for the battle?
Well, we may not know directly about De La Salle and Thurles Sarsfields, but I'm sure there's not a club in the country that didn't experience those sort of issues in the last year.
What we do know is that all these elements, plus club politics, selection disagreements and drinking issues arose for St Joseph's Doora-Barefield during 2009.
How do we know? Because 'The Club -- Hunger Conflict and Heartbreak --an Extraordinary Year in the Life of a GAA Club' (Penguin Ireland,€16.99) written by goalkeeper and sports journalist Christy O'Connor, is a searingly honest book that opens the door into the GAA in a way that has not been done before.
O'Connor, a man whose blood throbs with passion for St Joseph's Doora-Barefield, bares his own heart and soul, and reveals the often painful and sometimes masochistic levels of commitment to the cause.
I mean, why would you do savage training sessions where three of you, exiles in Dublin, lard the life out of each other under street lights and accept it? For 'The Club', that's why.
Why would lads commute hundreds of miles on round trips to training, then arrive home in the early hours of the morning, and get only a few hours sleep before going to work?
They do it for 'The Club'.
In O'Connor's case, it was for St Joseph's Doora-Barefield, but the core elements apply in varying degrees to every club in the GAA.
Last year began with deep personal pain for the author and his wife Olivia when their baby Roisin died five minutes after being born on January 26.
The parents had been told that their baby would not survive outside the womb and sadly that proved to be the case. Unimaginable sorrow for Christy and Olivia.
A few days later came another huge loss when Ger Hoey, captain of the 1999 All-Ireland club hurling winning side, died at the age of 40 from a heart attack.
Ger was an immense figure for the club and will never be forgotten. The players wanted to win the 2009 championship to honour his memory, and did all they could to make it happen.
This was a club that went from being a junior outfit in the Eighties to intermediate and then senior, and which is still the only Munster outfit to have reached successive All-Ireland club finals, winning one and losing one.
Their level was underlined by the following passage in O'Connor's book:
"The Friday night before we won our first Munster Club title in 1998, Jamesie O'Connor, Seanie McMahon and Ollie Baker won All Stars. They had also managed the same feat in 1995.
"When Brian Lohan ran into Wexford and Rathnure's Rod Guiney a couple of weeks before the 1999 All-Ireland club final, Guiney asked Lohan for a synopsis on Doora-Barefield.
"Twelve very good hurlers," said Lohan.
"Where are the three weak links?' inquired Guiney. "Weak links?" responded Lohan. "The other three are All Stars."
By 2009 they were an ageing side, but ambitious and still hungry for achievement.
Goalie O'Connor had spent almost 20 years between the posts and knew that time was slipping by. His inside story of the campaign is a fascinating eye-opener.
Christy takes us into the dressing-room, onto the pitch, and gives his candid observations of how the inter-county season keeps club teams sidelined for the best part of the year.
In terms of commitment, he sums it up beautifully.
Christy was engaged to Olivia, but a club fixture put the relationship in jeopardy when he missed a wedding in Mayo because the Doora-Barefield minor team, of which he was coach, had to play a re-scheduled championship quarter-final.
"Something had to give. Jeez, we were playing Clarecastle!
"If you were to think about it for a second, how could you rationalise it? You risk your future with your loved one because of a match?
"A match you're not even playing? For a crowd of young lads, some of whom might not even bother to show up? You must be mad. But that's just the pull that the club has over you. It consumes you."