Saturday 21 September 2019

Joe Brolly: 'My choice for moment of the year is personal. Very personal - our day finally came last Sunday'

Feast of St Brigid's

Monaghan are off to a winning start (stock picture)
Monaghan are off to a winning start (stock picture)
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

In the painter Bobby Ballagh's excellent autobiography, A Reluctant Memoir, he reveals his parents' Olympian pedigree.

His mother played hockey for Ireland. One of the photos in the book is of her lined up with the Irish team beside the Germans before a match in Cologne in 1936. As Deutschland über alles is belted out, the Germans are giving the Nazi salute, with the Irish girls looking sheepishly on.

Ballagh's father, meanwhile, played cricket and tennis for Ireland, and rugby for Leinster. Once, he was drawn against the Japanese number one and team captain in the Davis Cup. To the surprise of the tennis world, Ballagh senior won. On the Japanese team's voyage home, unable to cope with the shame, their captain threw himself overboard - a warning against the dangers of taking sport too seriously.

This year has been another magical mystery tour of club football. Set against the dull drudgery of the ridiculously lop-sided senior inter-county championship, the club game continues to delight and inspire us.

In third place, I go for the Mayo minor semi-final between Parke and Knockmore, a superb, muscular contest which Knockmore won in extra-time. In second, the Armagh county final between Crossmaglen and Ballymacnab. In the first half of that riveting battle, Ballymacnab full-forward Jack Grugan scored 1-4 from six touches, a haul that included the undisputed goal of the season at any level. He took a high ball 30 yards out, turning in the air as he caught it, and as he landed, drove a perfect shot to the corner of the net. They were three up with ten minutes to go, but lost by six, Cross kicking nine consecutive points in one of the most blistering spells of football ever seen.

Cross do not lose games. It is up to the opposition to beat them. To do that, you must drive a stake into their heart. Ballymacnab didn't. But in the Ulster semi-final, Gaoth Dobhair did precisely that, with a ruthless hat-trick of goals from Daire Ó Baoill in the space of eight first-half minutes.

Nearly any of those Ulster club games could have been the moment of the year, but my choice is personal. Very personal. Last Sunday, my adopted club St Brigid's, founded just over 20 years ago, won the Antrim under 21 championship for the first time. I played for the team that won the first intermediate championship, but that was a hotchpotch of very old and very young. Before that game, blue and yellow flags had appeared all over the Malone Road, the poshest road in Belfast, once the preserve of wealthy unionists.

Our day finally came last Sunday, over a decade later. This was the first group that had been nurtured since 8-10 years of age. Brigid's have won three of the last four under 16 championships and are competing strongly at every level. A strong sense of community has been established in a part of the city that never saw a size 5 until 20 years ago. Now, everyone knows each other. We have coached and cajoled the lads. Watched them growing up, drank pints with the parents after big games and sold tickets and went on cycles and all the rest of it.

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Last Sunday was showtime, and what an epic game. With ten minutes to go and Brigid's two points down, the floodlights failed. After a ten-minute delay, the lights came on again and battle resumed. One point down. Level. One point up. Then, the killer goal from James Smyth, a kid I have watched and done some one-to-one coaching with, and who discovered last weekend that he is a leader of men.

We invaded the pitch, hearts pumping. Afterwards, we all stood there in the freezing cold for ages, shaking hands, embracing, no one wanting to go home. When the lads eventually emerged from the changing room with their coaches Greg Finnegan and Lorcan McGarvey, we cheered them to their cars. That night, the whole club seemed to gather in the Botanic Inn, and the walls shook.

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