Saturday 20 January 2018

Friends and rivals join together in final act of sorrow

Tragedy has dominated the build-up to today's Mayo county football final, says Dermot Crowe

T WO weeks ago, Castlebar Mitchels were in full training mode when a couple of club officials arrived with news of the tragedy in Inishbofin.

One of the players present, the vice-captain Richie Feeney, learned of the death of his father, Ger, who drowned some hours earlier along with his close friend Donal McEllin. Another son, Alan Feeney, Castlebar captain in today's county final, was in New York at the time with Mayo for the FBD final, as was the deceased's brother, Sean, the county secretary. McEllin's nephew, the Mayo footballer Tom Cunniffe, was also training in McHale Park when word arrived.

Castlebar selector Tommy O'Malley, who played with Ger Feeney in the Mayo colours up to the early 1980s, recalls the group being rooted to the spot in shock. They didn't resume training again until the following Friday night and by then both men had been laid to rest. Feeney's funeral was on Wednesday, an event marked by a guard of honour from Castlebar Mitchels and the club they face in today's final, Ballintubber. That was Ger Feeney's home place, where he learned his football and proved sufficiently good at it to warrant a long career with Mayo.

His heyday coincided with one of Mayo's valley periods -- they failed to win a Connacht title throughout the 1970s -- but he finally had some reward in 1981 with a Connacht medal. Feeney is remembered as a fine player, a dashing wing-back, good enough to earn two All Star replacement selections. His close friend O'Malley expects that today's match, which is being televised by TG4, is likely to be drenched in emotion. "I know his lifelong ambition was to see the two lads play together for Mayo and they are not far off it at the moment," O'Malley says.

While Feeney's sons are playing today, both in the full-back line, his Ballintubber roots are evidenced by the presence of his nephew John as the opposing captain. Those overlapping ties prompted Feeney to inform O'Malley recently that it was a match in which he could not lose. His natural leaning would have been towards his adopted club, with two sons involved, but Ballintubber, appearing in a first ever county final, still tugged at the heartstrings. Feeney's funeral was followed a day later by that of his friend, McEllin, a popular local businessman. The Castlebar club marked the occasion with another guard of honour in recognition of his contributions in various voluntary capacities. The unglamorous but vital tasks of carrying gear, water, cutting grass were his, or he made them his, and the exploits of his nephew, Cunniffe, were a source of deep pride.

Ballintubber, though new to this stage, have a growing underage reputation, having won two of the last three under 21 titles. This year they were defeated by Castlebar in the under 21 final, having beaten the same club in the previous year's decider. Today's final would have attracted considerable public interest even in the absence of the recent tragedy given its novelty value and the closeness of the two clubs. They are only six miles apart and many of the Ballintubber players attended secondary schools in Castlebar, leaving both sets of players on familiar terms. They are even known to socialise in the same bar, Ray's, a watering hole once run by the former Ballintubber footballer Ray Prendergast.

Castlebar's last final appearance was in 1994 and they haven't won a senior championship in 17 years, back when Tommy O'Malley was manager and his selectors included Ger Feeney. They went on to add the Connacht title and reached the All-Ireland final, losing to Nemo Rangers. In that respect it is a title Castlebar dearly want to win. They are managed by Peter Ford, who will be pitting his wits against the new Mayo manager James Horan. But the tragedy at Inishbofin has placed it in a different dimension.

On the Friday night after the funerals, the Castlebar players returned to training and the night after that, just over a week ago, they played Garrymore in a league match which they won well. All three players directly affected were present and played a role. The next morning they held a special Mass in memory of the two deceased attended by the players and officials of Castlebar, who weren't that surprised when some of the players from Ballintubber turned up to pay their respects.

Tommy O'Malley, already greatly saddened by the loss of his close friend, was further bereaved last weekend when his twin brother, Gerry, died. The O'Malleys hail from Ballinrobe but Tommy has been in Castlebar for a good few years now. The Castlebar players were present at the O'Malley funeral too. O'Malley, a few days after burying his brother, struggles to find a fitting tribute to the players.

"The way they responded to the trauma of the whole week showed that they are brilliant lads. They showed massive maturity. The two men who died were larger-than-life characters and great friends. Ger would have been a staunch Ballintubber player in his day and took great pride in that club, that was his parish. But after he came to Castlebar he became involved with underage teams and he was with me in 1993 with the seniors.

"Gerry and Donal lived for football. They would talk football morning, noon and night. Myself and Ger played for Mayo at the same time and I think we hit it off from the start. We travelled together, we roomed together, we were great buddies. I always enjoyed playing with him; he was wing-back and I was wing-forward. He was always finding the man; he wouldn't be kicking the ball without direction. He was a very skilful player and had great pace and very strong, even though he was light."

For the occasion, today's county final, Ger Feeney had commissioned a jersey divided evenly in the colours of the two clubs he had allegiance to. A picture of the shirt appeared in the Mayo News during the week, hanging from a dressing-room hook at McHale Park, one side bearing the red and white of Ballintubber, the other shaded in the red and yellow of Castlebar Mitchels. It's a perfect and poignant memento for the day.

When the news arrived two weeks ago, O'Malley turned to Pat Kelly and said it must have reminded him of the time his father died a day before he was due to play the All-Ireland club final for St Vincent's. Kelly is the Castlebar centre-back and would have known what the Feeneys were going through.

"I never saw a lead-up to a county final in my life like this," says O'Malley. "I hope the game is a celebration of Ger Feeney and Donal McEllin, their lives and the way they did things. I think it's going to be a very emotional day."

Castlebar Mitchels v Ballintubber

TG4 3.30

Sunday Independent

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