Sunday 22 April 2018

Days that remind you where home is

A county championship enriches a club's people and brings them closer

Miltown celebrate winning the Clare championship
Miltown celebrate winning the Clare championship
Miltown’s captain Brian Curtin lifts the Jack Daly Cup after victory over Cooraclare in last Sunday’s county final

Dermot Crowe

In unseasonably fine weather St Joseph's, Miltown Malbay won the Clare senior football championship on Sunday last, reclaiming the Jack Daly Cup for the first time since Gerry Curtin, the current chairman, was captain in 1990. The years have swept by, people have grown old waiting and some have died, but a special group of players with the right chemistry has emerged to win the club's 13th championship, its third in my lifetime.

In recent days John Reidy, a long-time club officer whose father won four championships in the 1920s and '30s, recalled the breakthrough win of 1985, ending 26 years without a championship. He remembers people saying at the time how, surely to God, it couldn't be as long again to the next, but after winning in 1990 the same dark stretch almost revisited the club. This time it was 25 years, just one less.

Miltown has a proud football heritage and a name for producing good footballers. It was heartening to see those values preserved as they overcame Cooraclare by four points. Good, too, to see both clubs maintain their common tradition of playing the game free of cynicism and spite and always striving to attack. The game was a constant stream of movement and while not flawless, the teams adhered to the philosophy of open play that has been the hallmark of their clubs through the generations.

Winning a county championship will be experienced by clubs in every county around this time of year and all will have similar themes and benefits. Some people will go through life not seeing their club win once, others are spoilt by regular triumphs, but even in Crossmaglen, where they've won 19 of the last 20 Armagh championships, the repetitiveness doesn't seem to have devalued the experience. Each success still enriches its people, brings them closer together, reaffirms what makes them unique.

When Miltown won in 1985, and I was still too young to vote, the event had a sense of curiosity. I can remember the county final defeat by Kilrush 10 years earlier when our neighbour Johnny McMahon, one of the best players the club produced, was on the losing side. The team blew a spate of early chances and paid the price and while Johnny, like many others, felt that this was just the start, it was actually the finish. Kilrush Shamrocks went on to dominate, winning five in a row. The Shams have won more titles than any other club but their last was in 1987. How long more, they must wonder, do they have to wait?

Before Miltown re-emerged in '85 we'd been kept alive on stories of players from the past and their deeds and each retelling deepened the sense of duty and need to emulate them. My grandfather won three championships in the 1920s; conversations were often spooled from those days and games they played. A match against Cooraclare in 1925, the county semi-final, had a ridiculously low score and, as he would regularly recite, just "four fouls and three slings" - slings preceding the sideline kicks we know now. The match was played in Kilrush where he overheard three pig buyers from Kerry afterwards describe it as the best match they'd ever seen.

Old pictures of those early teams hung in the bars, and those of the later achievers who won titles in 1949, '53 and '59. The last of those, the club's 10th success, sat impatiently waiting for a successor. Few county championships, at any level, are easily won, as we all know, and while Miltown have a mainly young and developing team they will be in the firing line next year, with added expectation on their shoulders. Still, there is time to enjoy the peace a county win brings.

When the final whistle went on Sunday last, the feeling, personally, wasn't one of euphoria; maybe that has something to do with being away from home for a long number of years. But it also depends on where it intersects with your life's journey. In middle age, this one has a different meaning to those that went before when in the full bloom of youth.

Cooraclare put out the holders Cratloe and were the bookies' favourites but Miltown, having some tradition, will always feel they have a chance. Under Michael Neylon, a meticulous manager who toiled through those lost years as a player, they were sure to be well prepared. They had the football. After that it was down to breaks. They had some injuries, including Conor Cleary, an All-Ireland under 21 hurling medal winner with Clare last year, but seemed undeterred. Seanie Malone suffered a hand injury that ruled him out of the semi-final, but though a doubt he was outstanding in the final playing full-back, a converted forward with a natural playing instinct. When I was a child I remember his father, John 'JC' kicking a sweet point for Miltown and it having added value because we regularly visited his family home. Seanie didn't lick it off a stone.

Nor did Cormac Murray, just 17, who was sent on late in the final and won a penalty that allowed Miltown make the game safe. He is the fourth generation of Murray to win a senior championship with Miltown. Maybe in years to come we will see Cormac's son make it a fifth.

Many came home, of course, for this final - those who had to leave but never did in a way. And for a few days the town was a happy reunion of people for whom that claret and gold shirt will always warm the heart. The only comparable occasions would have been around Christmas when those we've lost to emigration returned. That was more pronounced in the 1980s than it is now. Or during the Willie Clancy music week, but that is a more cosmopolitan gathering. Football, like music which the town also holds dear, gives us communal expression and a rooted sense of place. In an ever more homogenised world this reinforces our own distinct identity. Deepening awareness of these eternal elements is what a county final can do. A game of ball.

In the long, fallow years since the 1990 win the team and all who cared looked to have lapsed into a scarcely recognisable emptiness of existence - never really threatening to do anything of much significance. Of course they talked and complained about it from time to time but everyone is dragged down and made feel remote by the disillusionment and fatalism that fills the void. And then, something happened, like the drinker who hits rock bottom, that made people realise that it was time to take a serious look in that mirror and sort things out.The club was relegated to intermediate for the first time in its history.

I can't say for sure how much that impacted but my suspicion is that in every Miltown heart there were the stirrings of revolution and outrage - we had let ourselves, and our tradition, down. Never before had this happened, as bad as we had been. When you know that this relegation occurred in 2012 you can appreciate how swiftly the emergency response began to see results. They came up at the first attempt, did respectably in senior last year, and won it last Sunday.

The 1990 team was presented to the crowd at half time. I think I realised it would be Miltown's day when Sean Cleary, a stylish midfielder absent as he is working in China, was represented by his mother Bridie. A formidable character, Bridie is popularly known as The Blonde and as she made her way carefully towards the podium, now 79 and no longer blonde, the cheers ringing in her ears, there was a feeling that some hidden cosmic force was with us. Her other son Peadar, a county medal winner in 1990 and '85, was a selector this year.

In The Blonde's bar that night, Joe Cullen, sang 'Lovely Old Miltown' and while he has sung this song numerous times this one was a special rendition at a special time. His eyes closed, his head weaving, he had the floor. Cullen was on the '85 team and crashed his car on the way down to Doonbeg for one of the matches. Arriving late and determined to play, he had to scale a high perimeter fence to get into the ground. Lovely Old Miltown is a song, inevitably, about emigration and the wistful desire for home. All those words rang true on Sunday night.

In his acceptance speech, captain Brian Curtin, apologised to the supporters for having been made wait so long. Listening to him, I think he really meant that, rather than offering a standard perfunctory line in a nod to the followers. He also had a greeting for Dot Marrinan, who won championships with Miltown in his time, and is now in a nursing home in Liscannor where he was listening in on radio. Dot was one of Miltown's great supporters and in 1985 his son John played in goal in the first round against Shannon Rangers. Sadly, he lost his life in a car accident that summer during the Willie Clancy Week. John has never been forgotten, county final or no county final.

A county win stokes memories of people dead and done. In the second half, with Miltown wavering, and Cooraclare level, they sent on Graham Kelly. There is no doubting Graham's ability, and he has played for the county many times, but there is a worry about his temperament. At times he can be exasperating and it would be a lie to say Miltown people did not fear some incident might follow. But Graham was impeccably behaved and a heroic addition; he seized the day. He delivered a performance in those last 15 minutes that stabilised the middle third and won back the initiative ahead of the final push for home.

In March Graham and his brother Gordon, who also played, lost their father Francie. They brought Jack Daly up to his grave in Ballard in the days that followed and it is a shame of course that Francie wasn't spared to see this day when his sons helped lead Miltown back out of the wilderness. I remember Francie in his younger days doing entertaining and energetic versions of 'Satisfaction' from the Rolling Stones in Wilson's bar. The satisfaction he would have got from Sunday last were he there hardly needs told.

On Monday night the Cooraclare players came to Miltown and the next night the Miltown players went down there, and they drank together in complete civility. This is a wonderful custom which observes a mutual respect and holds sportsmanship dear. Cooraclare are too good not to have their day before long, but they're hard won; they know that too.

It is Sunday night after Miltown have won the championship and one of those returned followers, Tom 'the cap' Lenihan, is in Martin Flynn's bar, being asked when he's returning home to London. "I'm due to fly back tomorrow," he says, "but I might wait till Tuesday." He might have said he was home already.

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