Monday 23 October 2017

Marie Crowe: Rockie Army march on with an angel in their ranks

Shared emotions are at the heart of a proud club like Austin Stacks, writes Marie Crowe

'Their supporters are akin to English soccer fans. They are loud, they are passionate'
'Their supporters are akin to English soccer fans. They are loud, they are passionate'
Marie Crowe

Marie Crowe

Just a few months ago I stood in the hallway of Cork University Hospital waiting to say goodbye to a precious angel, Siun Long. She was born to Darragh and Niamh too soon and left just five weeks after arriving.

Her grandfather Dinny Long - the legendary Cork and Austin Stacks footballer - came out from the room where she lay and embraced those waiting to pay their respects. The tears that streamed from his eyes emphasised the grief that was etched on his face, the type that stays with you every day that you live.

There was nothing that could be said to bring that special little girl back to her loving family but in that moment there was a need for small talk, for distraction. And as we fumbled for words and grappled for common ground, we found what we needed in football. In the Kerry county final between Austin Stacks of Tralee and Mid Kerry which was only days away. It helped dry the tears.

Siun's dad Darragh Long plays for Stacks. Like his father, he is entrenched in the club and a key member of the current squad who face Slaughtneil in today's All-Ireland club championship semi-final.

Stacks drew with Mid Kerry in the county final that followed Siun's death but won the replay. Darragh kicked the last point on that day. As the ball sailed over the bar he pointed to the sky, a gesture that was poignant, beautiful and heartbreaking. A banner dedicated to his 'Little Rockie Angel' hung pitchside. For those not connected with the club, it was an insignificant celebration but the raising of his hand resonated with the Stacks fans. The crowd swelled, they too were grieving with Darragh.

Therein lies the beauty of the club, the shared emotions and the sense of belonging it can provide when life is challenging.

I've had my two feet on the Austin Stacks bandwagon and what a colourful ride it's been. Their supporters are akin to English soccer fans. They are loud, they are passionate and they chant and march. Through Tralee, Killarney, Cork city wherever the road from the Rock leads, the black and amber brigade will follow. On a couple of occasions I've donned the jersey and marched with my two little boys alongside the Stacks die-hards. I'm not a local but I wasn't alone. They welcome all who join them, no questions asked.

On one occasion I stood next to Peter Quillinan, a former Stacks player who left Tralee 13 years ago to work in Chicago. Quillinan travelled home for the first county final last October and has flown home for every game since. That's four trips from America in four months just to see his club play. This morning, when he lands in Dublin airport, no doubt dressed in his Stacks jersey, he will make it five from five.

This latest stop for the Stacks is Portlaoise. The last time they reached this stage of the club championship was in 1977, Portlaoise provided the opposition but the Stacks marched on to Croke Park. The itinerary for the game has been planned with military precision. The buses have long since been booked, the start place and time for the parade have been arranged and the songs are written and ready to be sung.

It's always more special when you know those players you are shouting at and willing to win. Why they are called Gutsy, Bow and Star. For Stacks, having Kieran Donaghy in their side adds to their story. 'Star' is one of the most charismatic characters in Gaelic football.

Watching him float around the edge of the square, feeling the anticipation as the crowd wait for a moment of magic is worth the entrance fee alone. He's a rare breed of footballer whose presence can be captivating especially when he's doing it for his club.

These games are played in more intimate venues, in front of smaller crowds and even when Star is not dominating the game he is still a dominating figure.

Austin Stacks are a town team; getting to their pitch requires driving through a housing estate. Being from Sixmilebridge, I found my first visit there fascinating. Most GAA grounds in my county are surrounded by green fields. Stacks have a busy bar that opens all year round catering for the local residents and club members. On the walls are pictures of the famous team which won the All-Ireland club title in 1977.

It featured Kerry superstars like Mikey Sheehy, Ger Power and John O'Keeffe as well as Cork's All-Star midfielder Dinny Long. The team was steeped in talent. Famous ladies players like Marina Barry and Del Whyte take their rightful place too.

The men who play today are the next generation of Stacks players, sons and nephews of those who have travelled the road to Croke Park before them. In decades to come people will reminisce about the team of 2015 and look back at their pictures on the walls of the club house.

They will remember Siun Long too because she is part of the Stacks story. Her banner will always fly with the Rockie Army.

Marie Crowe is a sports reporter with UTV Ireland

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