IN the Ulster championship win over Antrim, Tommy Freeman did little to dispel the notion that he remains indispensable to Monaghan. With his team three points adrift and their football anything but Champagne, he was sent on, having failed to start the match due to a hamstring injury.
Hammers and fast forwards are unhappy bedfellows but Freeman's first intervention calmed mounting Farney anxiety. He snapped up a ball and in a split-second sent it sailing between the posts.
From there a pedestrian Monaghan found new life and kicked on to reach the Ulster semi-finals and a match with Down. They were well beaten by Tyrone in their last final appearance, in 2010, and Freeman hasn't started an Ulster championship match for his county since. A job offer took him to the US last summer for three months. Neither party was happy with the arrangement. Monaghan without Freeman never clicked; on June 25 they went out in the first round of the qualifiers by eight points to Offaly. Freeman without Monaghan found the huge void he expected.
It hasn't been a smooth return. Freeman never had an injury worth talking about until his current hamstring which has forced him to sit out the start of today's match in the Athletic Grounds. But he'll be ready if needed and most likely there will come a time when the call arises. After that, with a suspect hammer, it's in the lap of the gods. Having missed last year's championship, while playing for the Leitrim club in New York, he suffered a tear on his return in the National League game against Louth, his first full match back.
He had been playing well, enjoying himself, when he went to cradle a ball in the last five minutes, reaching out and feeling "a wee nip". He tried to kick the ball and knew something wasn't right, so he offloaded to Paul Finlay who took the score. A hamstring he knows is usually six weeks. He came on against Tyrone in the last round of the league four weeks later and felt loose and sprightly. Then he tweaked it again in a challenge three weeks before the Antrim game. "I was absolutely flying," he says, "then I went to chase a fella on a sprint and I felt it again."
After Antrim he played two club games in 48 hours and came through, feeling no relapse. Then it went again, in training almost three weeks ago. "It feels grand at the minute, don't think it is as bad as the last time but you never know. I would be hoping to play some part."
At least he is there. Last year he didn't even get to see Monaghan's championship matches on television as there were no live transmissions in the US. He was kept briefed but that only deepened the sense of displacement and longing for home.
Leaving was a wrench and he didn't want to do it but he had no choice. Work had dried up. He was recently married, built a new home and the offer to earn money in New York and play football with the Leitrim club was too appealing to ignore. He had an approach. If there had been work at home, he'd have stayed without a moment's hesitation. "I was a carpenter and it kind of went belly-up, construction collapsed. Of course I had been playing football since I was fit to walk nearly. And I played county football and absolutely loved it but it came to a point where I was looking for work. The last thing I wanted to do was go abroad but nothing was coming up for me. I got an opportunity for three months, to play a bit of football as well, I couldn't turn it down."
By then his appetite for football may have started to wane a bit. The previous year he had lost a county final in a replay, missing a penalty at the end to win it. And Monaghan got whacked by Tyrone in the Ulster final. His brother Damian had retired from county. The picture was becoming less appealing. He worked on his father's farm just not to crack up from being idle. If he felt let down that he couldn't find more work given his profile in Monaghan, that was never allowed to compromise his dignity.
He played for the Leitrim club, lived in the Bronx near McLean Avenue and was surrounded by Irish people, even meeting some from his home parish of Magheracloone. The foreman picked him up at the door for work each day. His wife enjoyed the experience, and it was beneficial financially, but it seemed a shame to be placed in that position. He had turned 30. There could not be too many Monaghan games left.
He has a steady supply of work now, but for a good few months after coming home last year there wasn't any upsurge in offers coming his way. His own club team, Magheracloone, have lost several players to emigration since they contested the county final in 2010 including two talented midfielders. Magheracloone is a peaceful rural parish straddling the Cavan border with an abundance of small green hills. It is easy to see why it would be hard to leave it and, equally, why you might have to. "I know some of the boys that left, they didn't want to go," says Freeman. "They were big football men too. But there was no work and when there's no work, there's no money."
The 2010 county final defeat to Clontibret hit Freeman hard. He was man of the match in the drawn game and outstanding again in the replay as Magheracloone launched a comeback from five points down when they looked finished. Ever since winning a first county title in 2004, they've been trying to rescale those heights and this was their third county final to lose. At the end, Freeman had a penalty to win the match, two points down, but with virtually the last kick his shot was saved. In 2007, when Kerry edged an All-Ireland quarter-final meeting with Monaghan by a point Freeman put a similar penalty past Diarmuid Murphy with impressive calm.
This penalty miss still rankles. "I was told he had been studying my penalties; he picked the right spot. I was happy the way I hit it, low, in the corner. I took it very bad. Winning a second senior championship for my club would have been a big deal for the whole parish."
Those moments of class must sustain him but in a team sport individual accolades can only take you so far. He thinks of the two Ulster finals Monaghan have lost and knows most of his career has been one of ultimate disappointments, goals not reached. "I've had me fair share of it so I have. So I should be used to it. But you can get fed up. When we won our first club championship, it was fantastic, you couldn't beat the feeling. The Ulster final (in 2007), beaten by a very good strong Tyrone team, it was difficult to take."
The 2007 provincial final appearance was the county's first since 1988, the year of their last Ulster title. A new generation of footballers has almost come and gone since with little success. He has a Division 2 league medal and an All Star from 2007 when he was second top scorer behind James Masters in the championship. There have been Ireland appearances, tours, and the respect of his peers. There have been some great battles with the game's best defenders -- Marc ó Sé, Conor Gormley, Karl Lacey -- that showed how highly opponents rated the threat those quick feet posed.
And it's as if the break from inter-county football gave him two things: a realisation of what it all meant to him and an appreciation of how quickly the time has passed. "We had a strong team under Seamus (McEnaney) and some of those have gone: Damien (his brother), John Paul Mone, Dermot McArdle, Gary McQuaid, that's a lot off one team. But every man comes to an end. My career is going to come to an end sometime too. We have a very young squad at the minute . . . it's funny because I was the youngest for many years and now I am oldest in the side."
He shares the same birthday as Eoin Lennon and other players like Paul Finlay, Dick Clerkin and Vinnie Corey are all hovering around the 30 mark. This could be their best chance of playing in another Ulster final and maybe winning one. Down stand in their way. Next spring the counties will be separated by two league divisions but Freeman isn't convinced by its relevance for today. In 2007, they last met Down in championship and won in Newry in the Ulster quarter-finals.
He went to the second round league match against Kildare this year, before his return, with his brother Damien, both watching from the stands. The team put on a big performance but there wasn't enough of that verve in the league and they went down at the end to Division 3, a year after demotion from Division 1.
He has seen his brother drift into retirement without the reward of an Ulster medal like so many other Monaghan footballers. Their last game together was the fourth-round qualifier against Kildare in 2010 in Croke Park. "I was 18 when taken into the senior panel and of course Damien was there, he made you feel comfortable. Having one of your own there was great. We played a lot of county football and all the club football together. Four boys in our house altogether and we all played football. When he left, definitely I missed him; I was so used to him. When I'd walk in he'd be there."
In 2010, he says Monaghan never turned up in the Ulster final and in Croke Park Kildare steamrolled them. His career has encountered repeated disruption in recent years: injury, emigration, the loss of key finals and, in 2009, suspension. After a heated match with Derry, Freeman picked up a two-month suspension for attempting to head-butt an opponent, a charge which he still strenuously denies The case went to the DRA but the suspension was served. He missed the Armagh game that followed and a rematch with Derry in the qualifiers.
"I felt hard done by, I definitely did. TV footage would show you that. I think the opponent I was involved with would have said that too, it was handbags, nothing, they said I headbutted him; I didn't -- we just put our foreheads together. I missed two championship games, that was a tough one to swallow."
Even though the injury is frustrating, he seems a great deal happier now. The appetite he showed against Antrim was that of a 19-year-old, not a 31-year-old who has been through the mill like he has. His wife is expecting their first child shortly; life will begin to ask more back as time moves on.
But at this moment football is consuming him again. You may see him before the day is out. Because today is the kind of day he was born for.
Sunday Indo Sport