Monday 20 November 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Heroes of the county have their day in irreplaceable club finals

Chris O’Donovan, right, of Carbery Rangers celebrates with team-mate Paul Shanahan after they tasted victory in the county final at last. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Chris O’Donovan, right, of Carbery Rangers celebrates with team-mate Paul Shanahan after they tasted victory in the county final at last. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

It might not be the most high-tech sporting video of the year, but there probably won't be a more exciting one. The footage shows the final two minutes of last Sunday's Laois county senior football final. Stradbally, who are huge outsiders, are trailing Portlaoise, who are going for 10-in-a-row, deep into injury-time when they get the ball well inside their own half.

Most of the spectators are probably surprised the game has been this close. Portlaoise have won the previous nine finals by an average of eight points. They have been narrowly beaten in three of the last four Leinster finals, twice by teams who went on to comfortably win the All-Ireland. Stradbally, on the other hand, haven't been in a county final since 2007, when they were stuffed by Portlaoise.

Yet here they are, a team from a town of 1,500 people hanging on the coat-tails of one from a town of 20,000 - and now they are about to score the undisputed goal of the year, a Gaelic football equivalent of Gareth Edwards' thrilling try for the Barbarians against the All Blacks in 1973.

Stradbally's fans are probably thinking about how agonising it has been to come so close against the favourites when their team win the ball well inside their own half. One desperate, diving hand pass later and the wheels of history start turning.

There are 10 passes in the move that follows, there are also moments when Stradbally players have to shrug off challenges, when they appear to have gone down a dead end, when a 50-50 ball is barely won. For its entire duration, the move teeters on the brink of interception.

Even watching it now as a neutral you get butterflies for the Stradbally players. The suspense in O'Moore Park must have been worse than the moment in 'Silence of the Lambs' when the serial killer is creeping up behind Jodie Foster in the dark.

But here comes Gary Comerford sprinting in from the right and delivering the first foot pass of the movement to Jody Dillon, Stradbally's captain. Dillon is 20 yards out, he leans back slightly and then with an odd, almost casual, flick of the leg sticks the ball into the top corner of the net. Whereupon you can hear a Stradbally supporter scream, and I apologise if I haven't spelt this correctly: "Yeahaaoowyeahaooowyesyesyes, it's over, blow it up." Twenty seconds later it is, and the ref does.

Yeahaaoowyeahaooowyesyesyes.

You're not going to get any better description of how it felt to be a Stradbally fan in that moment. Or of how it feels when your team wins a county final. There might be some variations according to county but the cry of 'yeahaaoowyeahaooowyesyesyes' has been ringing throughout the land in the month of October.

I've emitted something similar myself in the past. Most of us have. There are few pleasures to match it. Meg Ryan has nothing on the exultant GAA fan.

I don't think anything quite matches watching your club win a county final. The experience is much more intense than watching your county win an All-Ireland. Or so I believe. The smaller number of people involved makes everything more concentrated somehow. Most of us belong or identify with a parish in a much more profound way than we do with a county, and in many of those parishes nothing stands for the community in the same way that the GAA club does.

The smart alec who likes to say to the fan, 'what do you mean we won - were you playing?', is never wider of the mark than on county final day. Because a county final victory feels, in a way that no other win does, like a personal victory for the followers of the club involved. Everyone has a share in it. The players know this. It's one of the things that drives them on.

I met a Castlehaven supporter during the week who said to me: "Wouldn't it kill you not to be going up for the county final this year?" I knew exactly how she felt. We've been luckier than most with county finals, four to go to in the last six years, two won, two lost, but the lack of one still seemed to leave a gap in the year.

There's the day itself, spotting the flags and banners as you leave the parish, marvelling at the effort some people have put in, noting which neighbouring clubs have stuck up a sign declaring their solidarity, the perpetual torment of finding parking, the walk to the ground, falling in step with other members of the faithful and then, as the National Anthem plays, that stark realisation that, after all the build-up, here you are - and in roughly 80 minutes, barring a replays, all will be revealed.

A realisation which is half wonderful and half terrifying because, if there's nothing like winning a county final, there's nothing which cuts quite so deep as losing one.

In the absence of Castlehaven, the West Cork flag was carried by Carbery Rangers, whose victory this day last week was a special one, because it was their first ever, making them just the sixth Cork senior club to make the breakthrough in the last 60 years.

When I first moved to West Cork almost 20 years ago I rented a house from a man who had played with Carbery Rangers, as did his sons, and was still involved with the club.

Out of manners I got hold of a club history and found out, with a certain amount of sadness, that Rangers had found honours hard to come by. A junior team who had won a few divisional titles and never a county one, they were overshadowed by neighbours who had won All-Ireland, Munster and Cork crowns.

Then they started to rise. In 2003 there was a first county junior title, and in 2005 an intermediate triumph which brought the holy grail of senior football. A decade of hard graft lay ahead as painstakingly, bit by bit, they adjusted to the new grade and got better. A first ever county semi-final in 2011 brought a chastening hammering by Castlehaven, who repeated the dose the following year. But Rangers hung in there and reached a first ever county final two years ago. Victory over Ballincollig seemed to be within their grasp at one stage but the game slipped agonisingly away from them. Last year they lost a county semi-final to Nemo Rangers by a point, having started playing far too late and looking the best team in the county when they did start.

I detail their progress because Carbery Rangers looked like they might be that archetypal GAA phenomenon, the team who let their chance pass by, AKA 'one of the best teams never to win a county final'.

Their decade on the verge shows how hard-won county titles can be. But they dug deep once more this year and last Sunday had three points to spare over Ballincollig. There is a fine photo of Sunday night's celebrations featuring men carrying burning sods of turf through Rosscarbery, the home town of the Rangers.

It neatly captures the kind of primeval passions stirred up when you've been striving for well over 100 years and suddenly find yourself on top.

They'd have had the same feelings of exultation mixed with a kind of disbelief in Maghery, the little Armagh village whose football side won a first ever Armagh senior crown last Sunday against St Patricks of Cullyhanna, themselves in search of a first title.

Similarly in Mullinalaghta, another small country club, who won their first Longford senior football crown since 1950 by beating Abbeylara last Sunday.

When I worked in Longford 20-odd years ago, the height of Mullinalaghta's ambitions was a junior title - which they couldn't win. They're another team to prove that, whatever about county level, the sky really is the limit at club level, where disparities in population and resources are regularly set at nought by determination, intelligence and hard work.

This week the young heroes of Rosscarbery and Stradbally and Maghery and Mullinalaghta will feel that they'll never grow old.

But they will, and some afternoon 50 years from now they'll be walking away from a county final when a parent tugs them by the sleeve and points them out to his kids.

"Do you see this man?" they'll say. "He was on the 2016 team."

The kids will look at the old guy as if he was some mythical hero suddenly materialising in the real world and, in that moment, he'll remember the sound he heard when the final whistle blew all those Octobers ago.

Yeahaaoowyeahaooowyesyesyes.

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