Tuesday 20 February 2018

Journey into the unknown

The Leinster final is still on Brian White's mind as he prepares to leave for Australia, writes Dermot Crowe

Dermot Crowe

ON January 10 next, two Louth footballers will board a plane to Sydney, to join the All Star nominated John O'Brien, who departed a few weeks ago. O'Brien recently completed his apprenticeship as a plumber, but work prospects aren't as promising as when he started it. Brian White shared the same plumbing course as O'Brien and is following him to Australia. Louth centre-back Mick Fanning, a physiotherapist, is travelling with White.

The news could have been worse. Shane Lennon, one of the county's best forwards, was set to join them until a job in GAA coaching materialised. The three players leaving are in their mid-20s and were brought into the county senior team in 2006, while Eamonn McEneaney was in charge. The best efforts of the current Louth manager, Peter Fitzpatrick, to have them change their minds were in vain and it is a devastating blow to the county's prospects of winning a Leinster championship next summer.

White is going only partly out of necessity; he has a longing to travel and has had his heart set on Australia since he spent three months there after leaving school in 2004. He knows some cannot understand why he would turn his back on Louth at a time when their hopes of winning something have escalated. But it's in him. He wants to go and feels he has to or he may regret it.

He had his doubts like the others. A favourable Leinster championship draw had all three of them wondering if they were doing the right thing. But now there is no prevarication. "It's something I always wanted to do, and it has now come at the right time. I am just out of my apprenticeship, waiting on results, so hopefully I'll get my papers for plumbing. I have no ties really at home. Work is not 100 per cent guaranteed."

Some players have been telling them that they will be back for the summer. White can't rule it out categorically, but he doesn't think so. "I think if I go over and settle down, get work and get involved with a football team, there is a good chance I can stay for the year. A lot of people say you should stay for the football but it's probably 50-50; there are those saying it is something they never got the chance to do, and I'm dead right doing it."

He has heard criticisms of their decision. "I know people have said we are afraid to progress as a team and I am as a player, which is not fair at all. It's very unfair that they should say something like that because we do love playing for Louth. And hopefully when I come back I will be able to play again. It's really sad people would say that but you have people like that everywhere."

* * * * *

NOT a day passes without the Meath game flitting through his mind. White is a warm personality, mild-mannered, but time hasn't healed the scars left by the Leinster final defeat and the extraordinary circumstances that saw them miss out on a first title in 53 years. As for positives from the year, there were plenty. The win over Kildare was one and his own leading part in it, which earned him man-of-the-match recognition. The way the team played that day. They were without fear and when this was pointed out in an interview afterwards, White asked what was the point when they used to lose while being afraid anyway.

Playing in a Leinster final and how it gelled a county -- all that was new and refreshing. "I will never forget the feeling of walking around Croke Park in the parade and the amount of red and white. Ask any of the players -- they just never felt anything like it. But it's kind of hard to know what is going to happen next year. Maybe after what happened, if we got a bad start to the league, confidence might fall again. Hopefully the boys can get a good start in the league and fire on from there."

But the loss of the Leinster final is not easily deleted from the mind. "I think about it every single day, there is not a day goes past I don't think of it. But it's everything, not just Joe Sheridan diving over the line with the ball, it's what I did in the game, what I could have done to change things. Even my last free-kick, if I had scored that we could have been talking about winning the Delaney Cup and wee things like that. And I know all the players are like that, we did have meetings about it. We decided: forget about that (the Sheridan goal); what could we have done (differently)? We showed naivety in the last five or 10 minutes, it was criminal looking back on it now."

He recalls the free-kick in the last 10 minutes which would have put more daylight between the teams. He missed it. "I know when I'd see my free-kick I nearly have to close my eyes, nearly cringe, because I know I can score them all the time. I can remember what I was thinking. I was thinking this is 45 yards out, I think we were a point up at that stage, I said if I score this we are going to win a Leinster championship, which was totally wrong. I shouldn't have been thinking of that. I should have been just going through my normal routine. Even earlier on in the game, I missed an easier free, one I never ever miss and I'd been thinking again, stuff running through my head. I should score this, when you should just totally focus."

He is asked if that means he bottled it. "It's very hard to admit to it but it probably is. And it's not even the pressure from maybe the 50,000 people looking on, it's the pressure I am putting on myself. I don't mind hitting free-kicks in front of thousands of people, just from myself I would be saying 'I should score this and if I score this the team will win this'. I remember saying to a few of the boys, we used to do free-kick practice before training and I'd feel more pressure with Eamonn McEneaney looking at me taking a free-kick than with 50,000 people looking at me. He'd be just there staring and I'd think, 'Oh God I have to score this'."

Doesn't time heal the pain? "I hadn't thought of it today and I was listening to the news and I heard Martin Sludden is refereeing a Dr McKenna Cup game in January and so I hadn't thought of it until then. So that's when it came into my head. There is always something each day that will remind you of it. Maybe at work and you are doing something it will creep into your head. I could have changed that and we could be Leinster champions. Even at home lying in bed and that, it's just very hard to take."

And he smiles. "Maybe we need help or something."

* * * * *

HE doesn't carry any great animus towards Meath. "In fairness, a lot of the Meath players would be alright. I know you are not going to like every player, but I think walking down the tunnel Seamus Kenny said to me, 'Look, we know it is unfair what is after happening but what can you do about it?' And he's right like. Thierry Henry was not going to turn around and say, 'Look, I handled that there'."

Less patience is afforded to the referee. "I'd probably feel a lot more angry towards him. I can still see the umpires not touching a flag; he should have thought something was wrong and gone in and told the umpire not to put up his flag -- it still makes me angry. And when I heard he was being appointed for inter-county games, it made me angry while I was driving the car. To think that he is going to be refereeing again."

You feel he shouldn't be? "I think he should serve some sort of punishment or a ban; that mistake is colossal, like." Is there no consolation in him later admitting the error? "Not really. I think he said he was even going to give a penalty if he didn't give the goal. I can never forgive him for what happened; it is really hard to take."

* * * * *

WHEN he leaves Ireland he will leave behind his parents in the home he shares with them in Cooley. "My mother is delighted to see I am going and that I will be happy but afraid I might stay longer than a year." Neither of them are GAA people and their son played soccer, his first love, until Gaelic football took more of a grip on him from the age of 16. When Pete McGrath took over Cooley Kickhams he brought White on to the senior team and schooled him and had a lasting influence, filling him with confidence. "I didn't even want to play for Louth, I had no interest really in Gaelic, as such; I wouldn't be looking out for results."

His father has started going to Louth matches in the last couple of years, but his interest is in vintage cars and tractors. He has a small collection. "He wouldn't really know too much about football and he doesn't pretend to know anything about football. He doesn't come home and ask me why I did this or why I didn't do that, which is great; it's a good way to come home and relax. And even if he does try to start saying something I will say, 'Look Daddy, stop saying something you heard in the crowd'. So it's great to be able to go home and shut off from the whole thing.

"Being at home and spoiled rotten I don't really have to do anything, I don't have to wash clothes, I don't have to cook, so I am looking forward to all that as well. I need to go out and live in the real world."

He is their only living child. In January 2000, his sister Caroline, then 18, was killed as a result of a hit-and-run incident outside a nightclub near Dundalk. A few years later he lost a close friend in a car accident. "Being 14 (when his sister died) it made it a wee bit easier. I was a bit younger. Like I knew what was happening, but at a wake when you are 14 you nearly think it's great having loads of people to talk to. I know it's been 10 years; it's just flew. When one of my best friends died in a car crash a few years after that, I was able to deal with that a lot better, I was able to talk to my friends, see how they were feeling. At school they were telling people to talk about it. I felt more able to deal with the situation."

This year he was part of the Cooley Kickhams team beaten in the county final by Mattock Rangers, his fourth county final defeat. "It was the closest of the four, we probably deserved to win, or should have won. But even after the game, the feeling is hard to describe, it's not like when you lose your first final. That was my fifth (losing) final altogether and it was (a case of) here we go again. I am getting too used to it. I know what happens surrounding a loss so I was ready for it. If I ever do win, I don't know what I am going to do."

If Louth do well while he is away he is not sure how he will react. But watching them win a championship match in a bar in Sydney he can't expect to be easy. Yet his gut is telling him he must go in spite of all he leaves behind in football and family terms.

It is done now, the thinking and deliberating. Three of the best of Louth's footballers will not be available when the search for a Leinster title stretches to 54 years. White has sold his car and been saving since February. Now he's simply waiting for the time. "No I am pretty happy. I have no doubts at all. There is nothing in the back of my head saying stay. I am totally hellbent on going now; I just want to go through with it."

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