Saturday 24 August 2019

For many inter-county footballers, the 'Aussie Rules' series was their only chance of glory

Ireland and Australia players get involved in a dust-up in 1998 in yet another extremely physical encounter
Ireland and Australia players get involved in a dust-up in 1998 in yet another extremely physical encounter

Dermot Crowe

From Leitrim came Mickey Martin; from Clare, Noel Roche. Wicklow sent a hardy farmer named Pat O'Byrne. Longford volunteered Liam Tierney, while Carlow dispatched Tommy Dwyer, a red-haired giant with a tidy left foot. Westmeath had Michael Spike Fagan, who, like the others, might otherwise have passed through his football career largely unnoticed.

In the early years of international rules a rare spotlight was placed on players previously well hidden from view. The series still has that element of inclusivity, but the interest those players generated in the 1980s was far greater, when live television coverage was scant and the knock-out system in the Championship meant many fine footballers played one county game in their province each summer.

While there was much curiosity surrounding the visiting Australians when the first international series began in 1984, Irish followers were also keen to learn more about some of their own. Outside of the Railway Cup and fleeting Championship appearances, these players had little prospect of demonstrating what they could do to a wider audience. Many spent much of their inter-county lives in the lower reaches of the National League - maybe heard of, but rarely, if ever, seen.

Amid the early controversies which bedevilled the series, the rows and constant debates over the rules, this streak of novelty was genuinely worthwhile, and a strong selling point. Getting noticed in the first place was the challenge.

"We played Offaly in the Leinster Championship in 1984 (quarter-final) and took them to a replay in Croke Park; I had two very good games," recalls Liam Tierney, explaining how he may have come to the notice of the selectors. Tierney came on in the first Test in Cork in 1984, the second in Croke Park and started the third. On the strength of those appearances, he believes, he was named a replacement All Star and enjoyed a memorable trip to San Francisco.

Tommy Dwyer, from Tinryland, was chosen at full-forward in the first Test match, with Mikey Martin wing-forward and Noel Roche corner-back. Over the previous 10 years Offaly were the only county to win an All-Ireland senior football title outside of Kerry and Dublin. Connacht or Ulster hadn't won an All-Ireland since the 1960s. Having players from counties who were perennial no-hopers helped broaden the compromise game's appeal and earn it a more fervent and representative following.

"I played from 18 to 32 with Longford and never won anything," says Tierney. "We got a couple of bad beatings from Dublin in Mullingar in the '70s. The international rules gave players like us a chance to compete at that level, and I still meet guys who would have played in '84. You make great friends. If your car breaks down in any county in Ireland, you will always have somebody you can call."

By 1986, when the return series was being held in Australia, Westmeath hadn't won a Leinster Championship match in four years. Around Christmas, Spike Fagan set his sights on making the Irish trials and getting on the plane.

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"I said to myself, 'feck it, I will have a go at this, I will give it my best shot'. I think three of four were called from Westmeath for early trials."

Fagan trained with his club, Mullingar Shamrocks, the county and also the local rugby team to build up added fitness and strength. "Rugby stood to me," he says. "A Gaelic player getting some of those belts, he might be turning round and reacting, whereas it is part and parcel of rugby."

Having Kevin Heffernan as manager was an experience in itself. Shamrocks reached the county semi-finals in the middle of the Irish preparations and Fagan raised the possibility of missing Ireland training the day before. Heffernan told him that there was only one chance to go to Australia; the decision was his. As a compromise he skipped the early part of the session and played the training match but, in trying to compensate, he exhausted himself. "I ran the socks off myself, I fell asleep in the car home with Paddy Collins, I was that tired from running around."

He had a major scare when he cracked a bone in a finger in the county final, later being told it would take six weeks to heal - which was the time left to the opening Test match in Perth. On the next Ireland training night Heffernan noticed the plaster and called him over. Fagan said he'd be ok, but - uncertain - Heffernan grabbed the finger and started twisting it in different directions. "I didn't flinch, but if he had pressed down on the top I probably would have jumped out of my boots."

Fagan, who roomed with Joe McNally, had an exceptional tour and was man-of-the-match in the second Test as Ireland went on to win the series, after losing two years earlier. The first Test in '86 is remembered for its frequent rows. Heffernan instructed the players to support any colleague under attack; all players were to join in. He also remembers sitting at a bar with a few players having arrived in Australia on the first night, with a large pitcher on the counter, when Heffernan walked in.

"He said, 'did I come out here to have a drink with you or play football?' We were getting ready to go to bed when Mick Holden said, 'sit down there now and finish your beer - we'll go to bed afterwards.'"

The nearest Pat O'Byrne came to winning something of note with Wicklow was when they took Meath to a replay in 1991. He thinks he came to Heffernan's notice when playing for Kildare side Raheens in a Leinster club semi-final win over St Vincent's, before he returned to play in Wicklow. O'Byrne later played under Eugene McGee, and featured in all games in the '86, '87 and 1990 series, mostly at centre-back. He remembers the warm-up game before the first Test in Australia in 1986, winning the player-of-the-match award and a "big gold medallion". He felt he could handle this game.

"We lost the first game and I was sent off, the only time I was sent off, as there was a bit of a shemozzle. Someone broke my nose with an elbow. I was back for the next game. The games suited me, you had to be very mobile," he says. Derry's Brian Gilligan was usually positioned behind him. "Anything that passed me didn't pass him. If they were lucky enough to get by me, they didn't get by him."

In one of the series he ended up marking Jim Stynes. "I have his jersey here; I think it was the last one he wore. He was a tough man."

Noel Roche played in four series. Only 8,000 turned up at the first Test in Cork in heavy rain. "My memory of that is we got a hiding on the scoreboard and we got a right hiding on the field. I got fierce enjoyment out of playing and especially the opportunity to play with so many great players. I remember after Cork, in the small dressing-rooms, Liam Salmon (manager) coming in and he was hopping mad. He wasn't prepared to put another team on the field to be subjected to that kind of tackling. I think we helped in some small way to prove to people and to prove to footballers in those (weaker) counties that we could be as good, given the opportunity."

Getting to trials in Dublin meant Roche having to leave Kilkee at 6.0 in the morning and not getting back home until 10.0 at night. He missed the last Test in Perth in 1990 due to injury, but mostly the memories are positive and, given the chance, he'd happily do it all over again. They mixed with the Australians after the games. "The Australians are a very competitive nation. Second is no good to them. They just didn't like losing. They took losing very much to heart."

He was fortunate, unlike many from equally humble football origins, to eventually win a provincial championship in 1992. But for a long stretch, over that grim decade marked by high unemployment and large-scale emigration, the meetings with Australia gave him and others like him something to aspire to - light years beyond the muddy League matches of Division 3 and 4.

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