Tuesday 20 February 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Niall McNamee's unrelenting loyalty to Offaly finally rewarded

‘If Niall McNamee ends his career without a Leinster title he will have the consolation of being regarded with huge affection in his native county’. Photo: Piaras O Midheach/Sportsfile
‘If Niall McNamee ends his career without a Leinster title he will have the consolation of being regarded with huge affection in his native county’. Photo: Piaras O Midheach/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

The football championship may have only just started but it's already given us one of the most heartwarming personal triumphs of the year. In fact, even when the season is over we probably won't have had many individual victories more richly deserved than the one which Offaly's defeat of Longford in Tullamore represented for Niall McNamee.

McNamee is still just 30 but he's in his 14th championship season. From season six to season 13 Offaly couldn't win a game in Leinster. Not a single one. In the eight years in question they only won four qualifiers, two of them against Waterford. Counties who once would have feared the Faithful - Wexford, Westmeath, Longford and Wicklow - took turns beating them, Down beat them by 18 points and Tyrone by 22. From 2011 to 2014 Offaly scored just one goal in the championship.

Yet through all this McNamee maintained his reputation as one of the finest forwards of his generation. For example, when two years ago Offaly suffered the low point of being beaten by Wicklow in the qualifiers, yet another Leinster team moving past them, the big man still landed 10 points, five of them from play. There were five from play in a qualifier win over Clare, four from play three years ago when Offaly ran Kildare close, a goal and four from play when Offaly shocked Monaghan in the qualifiers in 2011. On beaten teams where possession was scarce and opposition defences had earmarked him for special treatment, McNamee's scoring rate was remarkable.

It was one long gutsy uphill struggle against the odds and there can be little doubt that had McNamee been playing with Dublin, Kerry, Mayo or Donegal he'd now be one of the best known players in the country. Instead, with Offaly in serious decline, it's as if Mozart had been forced to write music for the melodeon.

The awful thing is that when Niall McNamee started out with Offaly he would never have expected his career to be like this. In his debut year of 2003, when he played minor, under 21 and senior for the county, Offaly drew with, before narrowly losing a replay to, a Laois team that went on to win the Leinster title. Three years later, they were in the Leinster final and gave Dublin plenty of it for long periods before losing by nine points. McNamee, 1-5 from play against Wexford in the Leinster semi and three from play off scraps against the Dubs, still just 20, was nominated for an All-Star that year. The world seemed to be his oyster.

Instead the Rhode player has suffered through probably the worst period in his county's football history. In 2012, frustrated by what he saw as an amateurish process in the selection of a new manager, he threatened to quit. But he didn't. Like the cat on the hot tin roof he's always stayed there.

This day last week McNamee, four more from play, starred as Offaly easily defeated Longford for their first win in the Leinster Championship since they beat Carlow in 2007. It mightn't seem much, winning one game in front of a crowd of just over 5,000, and by the time the dust settles in September few people outside the counties involved will remember this result. But it's big for Offaly and it's a small reward for a player who's always done the right thing.

Above all, he's done the right thing by sticking with his native county. I remember when, four years ago, McNamee voiced his frustration about the Offaly set-up chancing across an online discussion between some Kildare fans who wondered if Kieran McGeeney might be able to persuade the man to do a Seánie Johnston.

Judging by the reaction to the Johnston move, had McNamee jumped ship he'd have been praised by the type of pundits who are always in favour of whatever has just happened. There'd have been a lot of stuff about how in this day and age you couldn't blame a player for trying to achieve his full potential and maybe even a bit of praise for McNamee's 'bravery' in moving counties. Except of course it would have been a dagger in the hearts of Offaly football followers, a kind of horrible last straw after a decade of disaster. McNamee stayed where he was.

Who knows what if any approaches were made to him by any other counties? There were few more tempting targets. Offaly have been so adept at shooting themselves in the foot in recent times they had given him plenty of excuses to pick a fight and storm off Johnston-like in search of a handier number. So why didn't he?

The great French novelist Gustave Flaubert once said that the first question a bourgeois always asks someone is how much money they earn. The Sports Bourgeois approaches things from the same angle, the only question they think worth asking about a player is: How much did they win? From his point of view a player from an unsuccessful county is simply a loser who should have got out when he had the chance.

But that's not how it works, is it? Declan Browne didn't even win a Munster medal during his playing days but few would deny that his was a great career, greater than that of many players who won All-Irelands. And I don't think that Eamonn O'Hara sits at home now and thinks, 'I wish I'd joined Mayo,' though that powerful county was a just few miles away from his home parish.

To the outside eye the history of Sligo or Leitrim or Longford GAA may look like a prolonged and perverse exercise in misery and futility. But there is more than one kind of success. Just as the ordinary man and woman who has worked hard and made a decent living and been honest and kind and happy is not a failure because they did not become a millionaire or a celebrity, the player who gives it his best shot for the struggling county is not a loser because he never climbed the steps of the Hogan Stand in September.

Westmeath's win over Meath in last year's Leinster Championship was utterly tangential to the ultimate destination of honours yet it may well be that in 30 years it's talked about with more fondness than anyone will summon for the 2015 All-Ireland final.

Similarly, if Niall McNamee, like Dessie Barry of Longford, Kevin O'Brien of Wicklow or Mattie Forde of Wexford, ends his career without a Leinster title he will have the consolation of being regarded with huge affection and respect in his native county, more than he'd ever have received had he gone somewhere else. Things like that count for a lot in the long run.

While last Sunday's victory might not seem like a big deal anywhere else it must feel like the end of a nightmare for Offaly fans and perhaps a pointer towards better things in the future, whatever happens when they travel to meet Westmeath on June 12.

His county's recent obscurity means that Niall McNamee's scoring exploits are less well known to many people than the gambling addiction to which he courageously confessed a couple of years back. In being one of the first Irish sportsmen to talk about the way gambling had more or less ruined his life, McNamee gave hope to a lot of similarly affected young men. There are still too many people drinking when they shouldn't be drinking, gambling when they shouldn't be gambling, living the shadow life imposed by untreated depression. But every time someone speaks about these problems, and how they've overcome them, they strike another blow against the sense of shame that keeps those sufferers out there on their own.

Thinking of Niall McNamee in the past week I also thought of the first GAA star to make a public revelation of this sort. Back in 1975 Nicky Rackard came clean about the alcoholism which had blighted his life. He'd been sober five years thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous. The following year Rackard died of cancer. I remember reading a report on his funeral which mentioned a special group of mourners, those who'd been helped to overcome their own alcoholism by the great Wexford hurler.

So it's not just Offaly fans who'd have been delighted that Niall McNamee had a day in the sun last week. All over the country men who've drawn strength and hope from McNamee's experience would have rejoiced for him. He's on their team too.

This day last week an old saying rang true. In Tullamore what's seldom was wonderful.

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