Saturday 25 May 2019

Colm O'Rourke: 'Documentary gets to heart of the matter for old rivals'

‘Mickey Linden is still playing and I saw a clip of him kicking a great point in a club game last year. The enduring quality of sheer class’. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
‘Mickey Linden is still playing and I saw a clip of him kicking a great point in a club game last year. The enduring quality of sheer class’. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

Most people have never heard of CCS - Coronary Calcium Scoring. Maybe everyone should familiarise themselves with it, as it is a test that could save lives in middle-aged men and women. That is the passionate view of David Bobbett, a very successful businessman from Meath who founded Irish Heart Disease Awareness, a charity which is trying to make people aware of a test which could save lives.

The feeling is that this test will show up problems which other tests may miss and is therefore crucial to keeping heart trouble at bay or maybe even better, making people aware that they are getting close to a big bang and giving them time to do something about it.

What has this to do with football you might ask? Well, it is in the dim and distant past for many. Donal O'Neill, son of Kevin and nephew of Seán, of Down aristocracy, has made a documentary on two teams from the old days and looks at their health in the present. He chose the Down and Meath teams who contested the 1991 All-Ireland final and David Bobbett kindly sponsored the whole thing. The documentary, Extra Time, will be released shortly.

I was a bit sceptical when Donal O'Neill contacted me about this documentary initially. Who wants to relive big games they have lost? Whenever there is a function with players from All-Ireland finals, the losers are like extras in a film. They are just padding out the numbers as they watch through gritted teeth. I was not interested in another show like this.

Anyway, having discussed it with our own doctor, Gerry McEntee, who had a great game at midfield in that final, we decided that if it helped to save one life or make someone aware they had a problem and needed help then it would all be worthwhile.

The initial idea was to have six or seven from each side to take part but Gerry thought the right thing to do would be to screen everyone. David Bobbett had no problem agreeing to the extra funding.

The two teams met in The Croke Park Hotel a few weeks ago, we were treated to a meal and overnight accommodation and we watched the documentary. Even though we knew our own individual scores, the impact of the overall tallies was quite dramatic. The lower the score the better. Meath had eight players with zero and I was very glad to be one of those. The overall score was Meath 16 while Down had 264 and a few of their players had worryingly high marks.

Some of these have already been referred for further assessment. On average, Down had a younger team so the results were a little surprising. There is a severe knock to any man's confidence if they get news like this when they think they are still in the full of their health, but it is better to get it before it is too late.

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At the time, and on many occasions since, the Meath team of that era were accused of being heartless bastards. It appears from the tests that such an accusation was close to the truth.

Ambrose Rogers tragically died of a heart attack in 1999. He was only 39. One wonders if this test could have saved him. Rogers came on in that final when Down were under pressure. He was some sub to throw into the heat of battle. We knew him well, or at least Mick Lyons did. I can recall clearly one league match in the old Marshes in Newry when they belted each other around the place for the whole game.

Neither spoke during the game or ever complained about the other when it was over. There was a type of warrior code between them. If it was now their roles would be referred to the United Nations and a Commissioner would be appointed. I much preferred that honesty in football back then.

Another of that Down team, Gary Mason, survived a heart attack in 2010 so this test was taken very seriously by all involved. Nobody wanted bad news but at least it was better to know early and get a chance to fix things before it was too late.

A few others from Down will be looking at further medical care and some changes to diet and lifestyle which all impact on heart disease, while for some it is just in the genes.

I did not enjoy the documentary as there was far too much footage of the game itself. A chip on the shoulder should last at least 50 years. It is not a match that many of us from Meath look back on with any fondness. That was the year of the four games with Dublin in the first round of the Leinster championship which captured the attention of the GAA public when things were at a pretty low ebb.

Crowds were small then and football needed a boost. We all became the actors in this great play which finished on a Saturday. Records were broken and the championship, for us, became a roller coaster ride before we pitched up in Croke Park in September.

Unfortunately, along the way we had a few casualties of war. Bob O'Malley broke his leg and he was the best corner-back of that time. In the week before the final, I got pneumonia and only played the last 20 minutes. Mick Lyons got injured and had to go off. Excuses, excuses, excuses.

All the big games we lost in that era still grate with me, the wins seem to have been largely forgotten. I don't think that is much different to most players. Perhaps we need some type of counselling which everybody seems to get now. A chance to park these events. Not possible.

I was at a funeral recently and I really enjoyed two old-timers talking about a championship final from the 1950s, the mistakes different players made in the match and how it cost them the game. They are my type of men.

Down in the early '90s were a bloody good team and had a particularly dangerous forward line; the names still linger - Mason, Carr, Blayney, Linden, Withnell, McCartan. Mickey Linden is still playing and I saw a clip of him kicking a great point in a club game last year. The enduring quality of sheer class.

They were great men by any standards and if football has moved on there are few teams now with that quality. Paddy O'Rourke was captain of Down that day and of course they went on to win in '94 too.

I asked Paddy after the screening if he would prefer to have lost the All-Ireland and his team to have better scores in the test. I knew the answer. An emphatic 'No'. I could not have put it better myself.

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