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Friday 19 October 2018

Cooney finds people power beats the whistle blowers

VINCENT HOGAN

INSIDE a kitchen drawer, the letters are pressed in tight, uneven bundles. He finds himself drawn to them as if to candles in a church. Every signature has a face, every word a friend's caress. Maybe 200 separate missives. Jimmy Cooney says people have been good.He sits in the front room of his bungalow three miles north of Kilreekil. Thin, grey veils of rain come sweeping in from the queasy Atlantic, pattering their arrival on the window pane.

It is a month to the day since Croke Park. His wife Kay sits across from Jimmy, pulling on a cigarette.

The room is an altar to good times. A forest of trophies clutters the wooden acreage of the cabinet-top and smiling faces spring from framed momentoes on every wall. The smallest frame pens in an image of Jimmy wearing the black uniform of referee.

A month ago, it was in danger of being binned.

On the evening of August 9, he called a halt to the All-Ireland hurling semi-final replay between Offaly and Clare five minutes sooner than he should have. Five minutes, not two. Jimmy thought he had allowed three minutes of injury-time.

He recalls it thus: ``Michael Bodkin, the nearest linesman to me at the time, came walking in, shaking his head. Then Aodhan Mac Suibhne and one of my umpires arrived. All three of them were shaking their heads.

``I took a second look at the watch and I knew exactly what was after happening me. I had played a 30 minute half, instead of 35.

``At that stage, I wished to God the whole world could open up and take me away altogether.''

The fall-out is well documented. Outraged Offaly supporters (their team trailed by three points) occupied the pitch, forcing the postponement of an U-21 'B' Championship game between Kerry and Kildare. While Clare moved their focus to September, Offaly moved theirs to the committee room.

Within hours, it became clear there would have to be another replay. Clare bit their lips and accepted the decision manfully. Seven days later, Offaly squeezed home by three points. Crazy game.

The referees' room fills his head now.

For two hours he sat on the floor. Didn't realise it until they told him. Just picked a corner and sat down on the cold concrete.

SURROUNDED by umpires and linesmen, but enduring the starkest solitude. People came in to talk but Jimmy's mind was melting.

``What could anyone say at that stage?`` he wonders now. ``We were all in bits over it. I didn't realise I was sitting on the floor. T'was only when the lads told me. I suppose I didn't know what I was doing.

``I must have been hours sitting there, just brooding over what had happened. The possible consequences were starting to sink in.

``We were getting reports of people sitting on the pitch. Then we heard some people were trying to dig it up. All kinds of things were going through my head. Would the Galway-Derry football match be affected now? Would there be a replay?

``Was the whole Championship going to be held up over my mistake on time?''

Up in the Hogan Stand, Kay's apprehension began to harden. She had been sitting beside Phelim Murphy. As incensed Offaly fans came spilling down from the upper deck, Phelim's face drew him to the epicentre of their rage. Jimmy Cooney was a Galway man. Phelim came from Galway. Guilt by association.

Kay remembers ``It was a bit traumatic. At first, I wasn't really aware of what happened. I had arrangements made to meet someone underneath the Hogan Stand straight after the game.

``Jimmy was supposed to stay over for the football but I was flying out to Lourdes at six the following morning as a helper with the Clonfert Diocese Group.

``But as I headed down, I realised what was happening. They (Offaly supporters) were very very mad now. I was almost afraid to move. So I just stood my ground. They were coming from all angles. They wouldn't have known me, but I wasn't going to get in the way anyway.

``To get out, I would have been walking against them. I was a bit upset at that stage because I knew a big mistake had been made.''

KAY will forever be grateful to the female staff of Croke Park for their decency. She was directed to an office where cups of tea were poured.

It was about quarter to seven that evening when she eventually got across to see her husband in the referee's room.

Kindness held on both sides of the pitch.

There was one big, sour-spirited official who blared to Jimmy that he was ``f.....g short'' as the chaos descended. The same man advised Jimmy to ``run'' at his bleakest moment.

But his was a lone voice. To this day, Jimmy shakes his head at the wonder of peoples' warmth.

He reflects ``Initially, I thought I'd get an horrendous reaction. You see the stage was so big. Two teams that had sacrificed everything. More than a million people watching it. And here you are after destroying everything by making a mistake on time.

``Straight away, you just think that everybody is going to be down on you. Both counties, their supporters. You'd be expecting the GAA to have a right go. At that stage, you wouldn't know who your friends are.

``But people couldn't have been nicer. A few members of the GAC came over to the room and showed their support. Joe McDonagh was fantastic. He rang me the following morning and talked about the week he had just spent in Omagh.

``Told me if I had seen the people he'd seen, a hurling game would seem a pretty small thing.''

Having filed his report, Jimmy and Kay were brought to the Ashling Hotel where they dined with officials before leaving for home close to midnight. Little was said on the two and a half hour drive west. ``A lonesome journey,'' as Jimmy puts it.

Kay had little interest in Lourdes now, but Jimmy insisted that she travel. One of his brothers, Michael, had taken the children from the house for fear of abusive phone-calls.

``You'd be wondering about the next day, the next week,'' Jimmy says. ``Would the family at home be alright. You'd be hoping they wouldn't get too much flak over it. Your kids as well.

``One nasty person can come on the phone and say something wrong and kids will stay listening. They won't have the sense to leave down the phone.''

It was with a heavy heart that Kay flew out from Knock the following morning. ``I couldn't think of anything else,'' she says now. ``But Jimmy insisted that I go. So I just got up, had a cup of tea and out the door ... ''

As Jimmy Cooney braced himself for an onslaught, nothing could have prepared him for what followed.

He was engulfed in goodwill. The calls and letters were almost universally warm. Humanity reigned. Sure, he got a few poison messages from people without the courage to sign their names. But they went ``into the fire fairly quickly.''

BY Wednesday, Kay encouraged by the word of pilgrims who were ringing home picked up the phone herself. Jimmy told her ``I can't get over what's happening.''

He elaborates ``I expected to be absolutely cut to pieces. But I wasn't. It wasn't coming from any quarter. Letters, phone-calls, media. There was nothing but good. I couldn't get over that. I couldn't.''

The greatest relief of all both reflect came with McDonagh's announcement that the game would be replayed with both counties agreeable. It was proposed that Jimmy would again be the referee but he would not hear of it.

``After it happened, I could never see myself getting back with the whistle.'' he says.

``Ever. For a week, for a fortnight, I couldn't see it. Just a case of `That's it. That's it.' I said I'd never ever again catch a whistle after the experience that I had.

``But time is a great healer. The goodwill has helped enormously.''

He sits now, picking his way through the letters. Most are from strangers, addressed simply to ``Jimmy Cooney, Referee All-Ireland semi-final, Galway.'' Families offering their homes to Jmmy and Kay should they want to ``get away.'' Two nuns in Clare, offering their prayers.

Then a few names he can put faces on. Former Tipp hurler, Conor O'Donovan. Jimmy never met him but has been deeply touched that such a man would take the trouble to write. Messages too from Tipp ref, Johnny McDonnell.

From Dickie Murphy, Pat Horan, Ger Harrington and Mick Curley. RTE commentator, Ger Canning. From Phelim Murphy.

A phone-call from Clare selector, Tony Considine. One too from Offaly secretary, Tony Murphy. The sight of big Paudge Mulhare standing at the door, having driven out of his way to arrive in Kilreekil.

There has been humour too. Micheal O'Muircheartaigh's appraisal that it would be ``all forgotten about in a hundred years!'' The new definition of GMT ``Galway Mean Time.''

The joke about Jimmy having three hands on his watch ``a big hand, a small hand and a back hand.''

Cooney is not yet free of the horror felt in Croke Park. But he's getting there.

Last weekend, reluctantly, he decided to honour an obligation made many months ago to officiate at the Munster U-15 Championship tournament in Cork. He's glad he did now.

Over the two days, he talked things through with hurling men like Joe McGrath, Seanie O'Leary, Pat Fleury, Terence Murray and Ger Harrington. All were emphatic that Jimmy should not abandon the whistle.

TONY CONSIDINE had a son playing wing-back for Clare in Sunday's final against Cork. Considine made a point of visiting the referee's room beforehand to reassure him that genuine Clare folk held no animosity towards Jimmy. The gesture meant a great deal.

Cooney reflects ``I found it really difficult going down there. The first game especially. Facing out onto the field. I found it fierce difficult. You'd be conscious of people maybe nudging one another and saying `That's the fella now.'

``You'd be conscious maybe that the players might want to take advantage. So I found it tough to start back. I wasn't that happy going out there. But, once the game started, I got into the flow of it and settled reasonably well.

``And I felt good when it was over.''

For the first week, his 13-year-old son Fiachra made a point of opening the morning post for fear there might be something to upset his father.

That fear has lifted now. The future holds no certainties but at least the past is not freighted with eternal horror now.

Jimmy says he will give the refereeing ``another shot'' and take what comes his way.

``I'm just thankful that people accepted what happened for what it was,'' he says. ``A genuine mistake. We weren't trying to do anybody.

``I think people appreciated that I held my hand up straight away. If I hadn't, we'd have been thrown to the wolves. Honestly, we would. Jesus am I glad now that I did.''

Human spirit has triumphed over human frailty.

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