Joe Brolly: New York classic illustrates need to give sides like these a competition they can truly compete in
The big man smiling in on the right is Seamus McDonagh. It is half-time in extra time of the epic championship game last Sunday in Gaelic Park between Leitrim and New York. New York are two points up and Seamus is grinning with delight because his godson Dalton McDonagh, a born and bred New Yorker, is playing at corner-forward for the American challengers.
I went over and shook hands with him and we chatted for a good while. Five minutes later, he approached me in the stand. "Jesus Joe, I didn't realise it was you. When we were chatting earlier I thought you were a guy who owed me money. I was wondering why you were being so friendly."
I was sitting with Mike Carty from Leitrim, who has lived in New York for 50 years. When Seamus saw Mike, he smiled with delight, hugged his old friend and threw a playful punch at him.
Seamus, who was reared in Meath, once fought the fearsome Evander Holyfield for the heavyweight championship. The fight took place in 1990 in Atlantic City and it was a wild brawl. Somehow, it lasted four rounds, as the two men whaled away at each other in what could have been a scene from Rocky. "These guys are going to eat leather for what is sure to be a short fight," said the ringside commentator halfway through round one.
The end came in the fourth as they stood in close and threw another barrage of heavy punches at each other. As the crowd went into hysterics, sadly, it was Seamus (himself a blistering puncher with a record of 14 knockouts in his 23 fights) who got nailed. As the Irishman went sailing through the ropes, the commentator said: "It was short, but it was glorious. McDonagh sure has a lotta heart."
Seamus smiles a lot these days, in that sheepish, innocent way of many former fighters. He told me he had flown in that morning for the game. "I wouldn't miss it for anything Joe." These days, Seamus lives and works in San Francisco. Joe Frazier, one of the greatest ever heavyweight champions, died in penury, sleeping on a camp bed in his dilapidated gym in Philadelphia, cooking on a Primus stove.
Frazier once said: "I got my brain shook, my money took, and my name in the undertaker's book." When I mentioned this to Mike, he said: "I knew Frazier well. He used to come into my bar (Rosie O'Grady's in Times Square) and sing a few songs. I'd put up his drinks and his food. A lovely man."
The capacity of Gaelic Park is 5,000. There were at least 6,000 people at the game, from every corner of America. Mike estimated there were around 2,000 Leitrim folk who had travelled out, which is 10 per cent of the county's population. Or as Leitrim's assistant manager John O'Mahony said to me after the game: "A population of 20,000 during the week and 25,000 at the weekends."
It was the first time I had been to one of these games and I was blown away. It was an unforgettable celebration, an expression of who we are. I met a Leitrim man who had flown in from Chicago with his two huge sons, both born in the US, both wearing Leitrim jerseys, talking about the players knowledgeably in broad American accents. There were born and bred New York kids everywhere in the ground, wearing their club colours, many of them carrying hurls. There was a tremendous buzz a full two hours before throw-in, as Irish people from all over the world met and embraced.
The game itself was a cliffhanger. Jamie Clarke was named at number 11, but when he strolled in to the square before throw-in, in the casual manner of George Best in his prime, a fearful hush spread over the Leitrim faithful. Their fears were justified. By the tenth minute it was 1-4 to 0-1 and Jamie was looking like Lionel Messi playing against a pub team. The Leitrim people were shocked. O'Mahony looked bewildered.
A Cavan woman behind me had greeted me by saying: "Joe Brolly, you look far better in the flesh than on TV. You don't look healthy on the box." "Maybe it's the make-up?" I said. "Tell them to put more on, so." The woman never stopped talking. She tapped me on the shoulder every minute or so, like the bishop with Father Jack when they were consecrating the Holy Stone of Clonrichert. After the early New York blitz, she tapped me and said: "In fairness, Leitrim looked a lot better in the warm-up."
This was true. Leitrim's drills were a thing of beauty, particularly their kick-passing practice which was a work of art. However, they did not translate this into the match.
Clarke's brilliance frightened them into their shell. Several years ago, after I had watched a training session at Crossmaglen, I went over to chat to him as he stayed on to kick about. As he rained balls over the bar from all angles, he said: "Joe, I'm going to be the first Gaelic footballer in history to score an overhead kick in a championship game." Last Sunday, you could have believed it.
Leitrim recovered as the half wore on and by half-time were right back in it. At full-time they were level and everyone was exhausted, on and off the pitch. The New York lads went at it like dogs in extra time. They won every 50-50 ball, and with just a few minutes remaining they were two up. For those final few minutes, the crowd was on its feet, screaming. My heart was thumping.
Somehow, Leitrim kicked three points, including a classic at the death to win it. At the final whistle, their players jumped and ran into each other's arms, punching the air in ecstasy. The New Yorkers slumped to the ground. The crowd gave a standing ovation. Seamus McDonagh came over and hugged us both again.
Who says a lower tier championship wouldn't work? The reason this was such a brilliant contest was because both teams were playing at their level. A level they can enjoy hugely. A level they can compete at with honour. A level they should be competing at every year with teams in their pool. This is why it was such a great occasion and a great game. Afterwards, I got the obligatory 'What do you think of that Joe Brolly?' pic from the Leitrim squad, celebrating as though they were All-Ireland champions.
I capped a perfect day by eating pizza in Broadway Joe's in the Bronx. The last time I had pizza there I was seven years old. My Great Uncle Pat, who had emigrated from Dungiven when he was a teenager and became a prolific bare-knuckle fighter in the Bronx, was an old man by then. But his fire was undiminished. He would sit on a chair on the sidewalk in Riverdale in his string vest, shouting abuse at anyone who wasn't Irish.
Some years later, he had a stroke that deprived him of his speech, which came as a relief to his family, and to the non-Irish residents of Riverdale.
The GAA community needs to get real quickly. Leitrim lost 15 players from their panel between last year and this. It is the same story in most of the smaller counties. We need a proper tiered championship where each tier is shown the same respect, gets the same privileges and has the opportunity to win their championship on All-Ireland finals day in Croke Park in front of the people of their county. Instead of Leitrim's year peaking in Gaelic Park, it should be just the beginning.
Sunday Indo Sport