independent

Monday 21 April 2014

A feeling that lasts forever

1 County Finals

All over the land are men, women, entire communities even, who've measured out their lives in county finals. The year Speedy got man of the match, the year we were seven points down and Eugene got the two goals, the year Small Mick won it for us, the year Taylor nearly beat them on his own, the year we'd have won if John didn't go off injured, the year the ref rode us, the year we beat ourselves. There are matches and then there are county finals. Senior, intermediate or junior, win or lose, county finals stick with you for a long time. They can stick with you forever.

2 A year ago

Level with five minutes to go against UCC in the Cork senior football final, Castlehaven give away a penalty and lose by five points. And, afterwards, as everyone turns out in Union Hall village to welcome the team home without an ounce of rancour or recrimination, it strikes me that people who are able to lose like this deserve to win. Castlehaven. My local GAA team.

3 falling short

With two minutes to go in this year's final against Duhallow, Castlehaven are a man short and a point down. Damien Cahalane powers up the field and works an opening for Mark Collins. It is not a great opening, Mark is out on the left wing about 40 yards out, but he has landed a couple of tougher chances already. As the ball leaves his boot the Castlehaven people prepare to acclaim the equaliser but the shouts die in their throats as it becomes obvious that the shot is going to fall short. Incontrovertibly, undeniably, unfairly, heartbreakingly short. That might be that. Duhallow, who've been brilliant all day at keeping possession, will get the ball back and hold on to it and a disappointed cortege will stream mutely back to West Cork for a second year in a row.

4 paudie

The month after Castlehaven lose to UCC in the county final, Paudie Hurley's mother Elizabeth finally succumbs in her battle against cancer. A few months later, he collapses for no apparent reason and is rushed to hospital. There's a clot on your lung, they tell him, serious stuff. You'll need treatment, medication and you might as well jack in the football while that's going on. And that apparently is the end of a career which saw Paudie top-score for Cork teams which won Munster minor and under 21 football titles and the Castlehaven side which won the 2003 county title before he found a new vocation as a goalkeeper. Haven find a new 'keeper. Paudie has to watch from the sidelines.

5 mascot number three

In the picture of the 1994 county final-winning team there are three little mascots at the front. Everyone knows two of them, Mark Collins and Damien Cahalane, prodigies who've already made Cork senior debuts and will undoubtedly be major inter-county stars once they progress further into their 20s. Who's the third guy, people ask. Shane Nolan. Jim's son, he plays with Valley Rovers in Inishannon, where he lives. Last year, as Castlehaven are blazing a trail towards the senior county final, Shane is playing for Valley Rovers as they get pasted by Dohenys in the senior football championship relegation play-off. He wonders, if like Mark and Damien, he might be happier playing with his father's club.

6 the road back

Last year Castlehaven lit up the county with a series of sparkling attacking displays that had the purists purring. Then the wheels came off against UCC. This year they seem hampered by the memory of that match. Last year they won their first-round match 3-16 to 0-7, this year it's 0-12 to 0-9 followed by a nervous two-point victory in the second round. Then a tense draw and a single-point victory in the quarter-final. But they're getting back to the final, making it for the second year in a row for the first time in their history.

7 the sea

Every morning on the week of the game I am greeted by the sight of Castlehaven flags fluttering from the fishing boats in the harbour below the house. The sea is part of life here and sometimes part of death. The Union Hall community received a collective People of the Year award a couple of weeks back for their role in the search for five fishermen who drowned when their trawler sank as it returned to the village. At all hours the villagers were on the pier, giving food and drinks to the rescue service and comfort to the families of the lost. Bill Deasy receives the award on behalf of Union Hall. A couple of days before the county final, his wife Nora dies of cancer. She was once the treasurer of the Castlehaven club, its first ever female official. Football isn't a matter of life and death down here but it can help people to cope with both of them.

8 quixotic

Castlehaven's final opponents are Duhallow, a team representing the pick of the division's 18 junior and intermediate clubs, one of which, Kanturk, comes from a town with a population of 2,263. The parish of Castlehaven has a population of 1,200. There are two small villages and a lot of fields with houses dotted here and there. From this base the club sallies forth to take on huge city clubs, divisional teams, third-level sides packed with county players. Are they nuts? Actually, yes, but in a good way.

9 fear

Last year the faithful travelled with thoughts of how great it would be to see the team win. This year they think more of how terrible it would be to see them lose. The players worry about the effect a second loss in a row might have on the fans, the fans don't want to see the players endure another defeat. It's an unselfish anxiety founded on love.

10 the club player

A noble figure who makes up 98 per cent of the GAA's playing population. His schedule is disrupted, his wishes disregarded, his career regarded as inferior to the county player for whose good everything must be arranged. But the grassroots know the real worth of the club player. That's why someone like Liam Collins, with nigh on a decade and a half of flawless full-back play for the Haven behind him, generates such awe and affection locally. His brother Bernie, who played senior for Cork and Australian Rules football, gets married the day before the game. Liam is the best man, he goes to Killarney, discharges his duties, eats the meal and comes home. Most of the other Haven players, who soldiered for years with Bernie, who love the guy to be honest, don't even go to the wedding. Sacrifices? Not just a county thing.

11 the turning point

At half-time in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, it is 0-5 each. Thirteen minutes into the second half, it is 0-6 each. You couldn't get a cigarette paper between these teams. It's the kind of game where one moment of inspiration or one mistake might prove decisive. Duhallow's Pádraig O'Leary bursts onto a loose ball on the right wing and Castlehaven's wing-back Chris Hayes sticks out his leg and trips him. The instant expression of horror on Hayes' face shows he knows what's going to happen. On a yellow card already, he picks up a second. The jig seems to be up. Ashen faces are general underneath the blue and white flags.

12 the County players

You know who Aidan Walsh and Donncha O'Connor are. You know what they can do and they've been doing it all championship for Duhallow, Walsh ruling midfield and O'Connor picking off the points, eight in the semi-final. So you'd expect them to dominate a county final, not least against 14 men. But it's not happening. Every time O'Connor looks up, Damien Cahalane is beside him, policing him, hounding him, shepherding him. Duhallow get the ball to O'Connor at every opportunity but his young opponent won't give him an opening and he has to lay the ball off. So they're kind of stuck for someone to convert possession into scores. And instead of dominating, Walsh actually goes out of the game, worn down by Dermot Hurley, who like Liam Collins has played senior football in two different millennia. Hurley starts to rule midfield and suddenly the conclusion doesn't seem so foregone after all.

13 mac

Castlehaven is full of guys who played for Cork or made legendary names for themselves at club level. James McCarthy is not one of them. But when James McCarthy manages the team Castlehaven reach county finals. So people are beginning to wonder if this lad may one day be the manager of the county team, if he might be some kind of West Cork Mourinho, but without the boasting and bad manners. It is Mac who decided to put Damien Cahalane on Donncha O'Connor and Diarmuid Hurley on Aidan Walsh and who now decides it is a good idea to throw young Shane Nolan on coming into the final quarter.

14 pain

That final quarter is raw. Strategy has to a large extent gone out the window and the game has come down to a series of individual duels. And watching those duels, it occurs to you that this is almost the defining quality of Gaelic football. Sooner or later, you are going to have to go for a 50-50 ball in the knowledge that winning it will require you to ship some punishment. Maybe some heavy punishment. But the young men who play the game accept the terms. Perhaps because Gaelic football might be the perfect metaphor for Irish life. At some stage things are going to be tough and you're going to have to take some pain. But if you steel yourself, you can come through. You will have your day of glory if you stick at it. Our version of football is a hard game for people who know what it's like to have things hard. Castlehaven have now won four county titles, two by two points and two by one point. Fifty-fifties mean a hell of a lot when things are that tight. They make all the difference.

15 but . . .

Three minutes left. Seven points each. A ball down the right, Liam Collins does what he's done dozens of times before, dives past his man to make a brilliant interception. But the ball hops off one of his team-mates and back past him, leaving Liam stranded. Duhallow kick the point which puts them ahead.

16 falling short II.

Mascot Number three II

Mark Collins' shot is falling short. Incontrovertibly, undeniably, heartbreakingly, unfairly short. But Shane Nolan is running. He hasn't started a championship match since his move from Valley Rovers, he's hardly touched the ball since coming on as a sub, he is several inches smaller than Duhallow 'keeper Kevin Murphy. But Shane Nolan is running. And Shane Nolan is jumping. And he connects with the ball like an Olympic volleyballer executing a spike and the ball is in the net and Castlehaven are two points up with two minutes left.

17 paudie II

Paudie Hurley was an ex-footballer. And then he wasn't. Haven's new 'keeper got injured and they wondered if Paudie might come back and give it a shot. So that when, in the fourth minute of injury time, Duhallow contrive a brilliant move which puts Kealan Buckley through less than 15 yards out, it is Paudie Hurley who stands between Castlehaven and their most wrenching defeat ever. He gets down and makes the save. And when Seánie Cahalane lifts the cup he dedicates it to Paudie's mother Elizabeth. As Seánie says, Paudie has had a tough year. But these are tough people.

18 the kids

I'm heading across the pitch at the final whistle with one daughter on my back, one holding my hand and the other racing ahead wearing her club jersey and waving a flag. I've been here 14 years but Castlehaven will never really be my club. But it is my kids' club.

19 the players

The next day I watch the San Francisco Giants win the World Series and as the players jump for joy at Tiger Stadium. The resemblance between their joy and that of the Castlehaven lads at Páirc Uí Chaoimh is striking. One set of players are local lads who grew up together and play for the love of the parish, the other are millionaires from different states and countries. Yet what Roland Whelton has in common with Pablo Sandoval and Seán Dineen has in common with Gregor Blanco rather than the fan or journalist is that they know exactly what it feels like to win, to achieve the objective you set out at the start of a season, to leave it all on the pitch, whether rectangular or diamond-shaped. Later that night the guys who won in 1989, 1994 and 2003 watch them approvingly with the satisfied nod of men who have seen a legacy wisely invested, just as some day the class of 2012, a small bit heavier but not one whit less passionate, will watch their heirs. Because everyone knows Castlehaven will carry on like this forever.

20 celebrations

There is dancing in the rain at midnight, there are speeches on a platform with everyone getting too close to the mike so they sound like they're speaking in German, there is a picture on Twitter of players bringing the Andy Scannell Cup into the sea at Union Hall, there are grown men hugging and grown women crying and thoughts of those who can't be there and welcomes for those who've come back. And the next morning when the parish of Castlehaven wakes up, and a few hundred hangovers hum around a few hundred happy heads, everyone's first thought is, 'we're county champions'. Just as it was last Monday morning in Navan and Mullingar and Newmarket-on-Fergus and Dromcollogher. Hard to beat that feeling. But if you happen to be from Cratloe or Garrycastle, Newcastle West or Kilberry or any other club which came up one game short this year, remember it's a long road which has no turning. Sometimes it's only 12 months long.

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