Friday 18 January 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Mullinalaghta miracle: The greatest club story ever told'

This is not just a win for Longford champions, this is for all of the country's forgotten places

Mullinalaghta substitutes and officials react at the final whistle after their stunning victory in the Leinster club SFC final against Kilmacud Crokes in O’Connor Park. Photo: Sportsfile
Mullinalaghta substitutes and officials react at the final whistle after their stunning victory in the Leinster club SFC final against Kilmacud Crokes in O’Connor Park. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

It's the greatest club story ever told. That the champions of Longford, population 40,810, could beat the champions of Dublin, population 1.35 million, is unlikely enough. But that these Longford champions would represent the smallest club in the GAA's second-smallest county brings the tale into the realm of fantasy. Or maybe even science fiction.

Mullinalaghta's urban hub consists of a church, two pubs and a community centre. There is no shop. The entire parish is three miles long and has 440 inhabitants.

A club from this 'half-parish' beating the epitome of a city super-club, one which breezed through Dublin and Leinster with an average winning margin of seven points, is the kind of scenario Hollywood might reject on plausibility grounds.

But it's really happened. The club championship has never witnessed a result like it.

All week Mullinalaghta were praised for their achievement in reaching this final. But deep down you feared for them.

Even when they got to half-time on level terms the prevailing emotion was, 'phew, at least they shouldn't get too big a beating now.'

The outsiders faced a strong wind in the second half against opposition who, after a rocky spell early in the second quarter, controlled possession expertly in the 10 minutes before the break.

You waited for Kilmacud to open up and move away. But Mullinalaghta, as they've done throughout their history, hung in there against the odds.

Still, when Pat Burke put Crokes three up with 10 minutes left there seemed an inevitability about the result.

Mullinalaghta kept hanging in there. And when, with five minutes left, David McGivney kicked a massive point to close the gap to two, an alternative ending suggested itself. They couldn't, could they?

The Longford men won a free around half-way. John Keegan quickly slipped it to James McGivney who played a pass to Jayson Matthews.

Matthews transferred the ball perfectly to David McGivney who hurtled down the middle like a man feeling the hand of destiny at his back.

McGivney found Aidan McElligott who was about to pull the trigger when Cian O'Sullivan committed a professional foul.

In the semi-final Crokes goalkeeper David Nestor saved a last-minute penalty from Portlaoise's Craig Rogers to win the game.

Another Rogers stepped up to take this kick. Wing-forward Gary, cool as a man kicking around on the beach, wrote his name into the history books by sending Nestor the wrong way.

In that glorious moment the little club's hard history was celebrated and redeemed.

Now the favourites buckled while the underdogs rampaged.

McElligott added another point and Mullinalaghta could have scored a couple more. It didn't matter. Mission impossible had been accomplished.

Disbelief reigned. "Oh my God, didn't they deliver," said winning manager Mickey Graham, wearing the merrily stunned expression of a Lotto winner.

"No-one ever dreamed that this day would come," said captain Shane Mulligan who seemed close to tears as he began his victory speech.

You didn't need to be from the half-parish to know how he felt.

This was 2018's quintessential GAA moment. Because it's not big Croke Park finals which make the Association unique.

Plenty of other sports have days like that. What seems exclusive to the GAA is the perpetual connection between top and bottom.

Players like Paul Mannion and Cian O'Sullivan who've performed in front of 80,000 spectators still have to prove themselves at club level against players who've never played in front of 8,000.

Mannion's duel with Patrick Fox epitomised this. When the Dublin superstar won the first couple of balls he seemed to have too much pace and class for the Mullinalaghta full-back. Yet that was it for Mannion.

Policing him diligently and honestly, sticking close and reading the game superbly, Fox blotted out his man and held him scoreless from play.

Clubs like Mullinalaghta illustrate why the GAA matters so much.

There are places where the club is important to the local community. But in the Mullinalaghtas of this world, the club is the community.

Without the club what identity would a place like Mullinalaghta have? Only the GAA can do this.

We woke up yesterday morning to headlines emphasising the ugly side of sport as the fans of a team based in a huge city, owned by an oligarch and staffed by millionaires dragged their club's name into the gutter.

Today's headlines should be about a little club from a little place who showed the beauty of sport, part of which is that it can neither be scripted nor preordained.

Miraculous

The miraculous is always possible.

This was a win not just for Mullinalaghta but for small clubs everywhere.

The triumph of such clubs is often just staying the course when they might long ago have opted for the comforts of amalgamation with some larger entity. Days like yesterday reward their courage.

It is also a victory for the country's forgotten places, where the broadband is slow, the post offices have been closed and the youngsters are leaving.

Were it not for the club, said star player James McGivney during the week, most of Mullinalaghta's team would have emigrated.

Instead they have travelled back from all over the country in pursuit of a dream. Corner-back Conan Brady has paid his way home from Leeds for eight years to be part of the quest.

People like this deserve everything. Mullinalaghta's underdog story is the one to beat them all. They've shown us no club is too small if its heart is big enough.

Irish Independent

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