Tuesday 23 January 2018

'It's an awful f***ing drug, being part of something like this...'

LAST St Patrick's day might have marked the end of Oisin McConville the footballer. All-Ireland club medal number five had been secured and, as the only survivor of the first Cross' side to reach an All-Ireland final in 1997 (along with Paul Hearty), part of him felt the time was right to move on.

Outwardly he hinted at retirement, but inside he waited on the phone to ring.

Things with Armagh had ended on a bum note and that has yielded its own regrets.

Now, he faced another choice where he'd either hang up the boots and be content with a host of medals and records or go to the well again.

His lifelong friend and Cross' joint-manager Tony McEntee made the call. Joint managers 'Tony Mac' and Gareth O'Neill wanted him back and it was just the excuse he needed. When it came to it, he wasn't ready to walk away, not even close.

"I'll tell you the truth, the two boys said to me: 'You will come back', and that little bit of encouragement meant something. If they had of just let me drift on, I would have maybe gone. But there was still that wee thing in me that I needed to get out there and try and f***ing be part of the thing again. It's an awful f***ing drug being part of something like this and the fear of missing out on something -- the fear of going into the changing room for the last time.

"You enjoy coming up to training and the craic with the boys and stuff. That'll probably be the biggest thing I'll miss, because other boys have said it before, you don't see much of each other any more. You do drift away and people move on.

"People have different paths in life and the time you play football with each other... basically you spend a lot of time with each other. You're away at weekends, you're living in each other's pockets. You're used to it, there's a wee comfort zone type of thing being with the same guys all of the time."

The faces in that dressing-room have changed. McConville tells the story of when he was running alongside defender Paul McKeown, who casually happened to mention that the first time Cross' won an All-Ireland, he went to the game on his father's shoulders. It knocked him for six.

McKeown is part of the furniture in the full-back line now and as the faces have changed, they have kept winning. A number of the 2002 All-Ireland Feile winning side are well-established.

That Feile title was won in typical Cross' fashion when they kicked a 'golden point' after extra-time couldn't separate them from Meath outfit Simonstown Gaels.

In Cross' they reckon this is the longest break they have had between an Ulster title and an All-Ireland semi-final and they made the decision to give the squad close to a month off. Some enjoyed Christmas at home, others like Jamie Clarke and Aaron Kernan travelled.


They resumed in January and effectively did their pre-season all over again. There were no sessions with renowned boxing coach Billy Walsh this time, only old fashioned dog work in mucky fields on cold mornings, with the ball only making an appearance in the last few weeks.

"It's extremely tough. The more football you play, the more you realise the only way of getting a bit of team spirit and morale going is to train your boll**ks off with each other."

Of course, success comes at a price -- monetary and otherwise. The club ran a press night, but quickly turned the hall around the same night for bingo as part of their fund-raising effort. The outgoings are constant, from the bus that runs the Belfast-based students down to training midweek, while there was no big team holiday for winning the 2011 All-Ireland. No one's complaining, it's just reality biting.

Armagh also suffer. They've made a promising start to the league, but are without up to half a dozen of their players, who, in some cases, will be parachuted back into the team in the run-up to the championship. Cross' success hasn't always been good news for the county and, McConville agrees, it has created a tension.

"There's a thing in this county that says: 'We can't have 10 Cross' boys in the Armagh panel,' but I think we need to start stripping it back. It should be that if you're good enough, you should be playing -- regardless of where you are from.

"Within the county there probably is a little consternation or conflict because players within Armagh are trying to hold down their place and they are asking: 'Is someone going to come in and take my place and is that just taken for granted?' My argument to all of that is, if you're playing well enough, you won't be dropped.

"That's something we need to latch on to. We need to get together more as a county. It's almost as if it's 'us against them,' which, personally, I don't see. Cross' can go well and Armagh can go well, because that's the way it was for years. Somewhere along the line that has broken down and I'd like to see it built back up

"Another point is that Armagh aren't going to win anything without the Cross' players and unless the other players are down there working hard, then the Cross' boys going back in is not going to help anything if it's not going in the right direction. The two should be helping each other, instead of there being a bit of friction or misunderstanding.

"Everyone just needs to be given a clean slate and move on."

Over the course of their remarkable story, Cross' have moved on.

McConville smiles at how their game has changed from the "overwhelming physicality" of their early success to the side that will play today.

"We are not successful at every level, despite what people think. We didn't win a game at U-16 last year and were beaten in the minor quarter-final.

"We won an U-14 championship, so it's a work in progress and it has to start at the bottom.

"Morale here wasn't great for a long time. Then we won a county title and we started working harder, I believe, than any club in the country.

"We have worked hard at underage level. We brought more players through -- at least four or five from minor level every year. If there is another club doing that then fair play to them and success is down the road for them. Is there another club in Armagh doing that? I don't know. (We might be choking the life out of other clubs), but I don't think that should be left at our door."

The fruits of that labour will be on show today. John McEntee and Francie Bellew were sprung from the bench last year to provide a steady hand, but they have moved on and the next generation has sole responsibility for the legacy now.

The signs have been good. They beat pedigree sides in St Gall's, Ballinderry and Burren in Ulster and the greatest thoroughbreds of them all -- Kerry, represented by Dr Crokes -- stand in the way now.

McConville is just an hour away from another All-Ireland final.

What he does then is anyone's guess, but that's a question for another day.

"My opinion on that is you go as hard as you can for as long as you can. When you decide to hang them up, you hang them up, and whatever you have done will look after itself.

"That is the way I feel about legacy

"We're back in an All-Ireland semi-final again. It's just great to still be about the place."

Irish Independent

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