Monday 19 February 2018

Overcoming life's cruel breaks

Eamonn Sweeney

THE steadily rising popularity of the All-Ireland club championships has led to a concomitant rise in the cliches surrounding the competition. The most egregious of these is probably that ad with the irritating young fella who starts his spiel with, "be kith, be kin, belong," as though he was Slobodan Milosevic rallying the Serbian people to greater heights of national pride.

The unspoken assumption behind much of the coverage is that the only real club is based on a headland, up the side of a mountain or in the middle of a blanket bog. And the only real club player is someone whose ancestors played in the first ever match in the parish, a 1-1 to 0-0 victory for the home team back in 1889, and who lives in the next field to his parents (his brothers live in the next one to that.)

Advertising agency cliche notwithstanding, that's not really the whole story. St Gall's are city boys with a healthy sprinkling of outsiders mixed in, and even Portumna include Limerick and Tipperary county players in their team. But the club which most radically departs from the romantic mould is Salthill. And their outstanding centre-back Gordon Morley, more than anyone, represents the reality of an age where less and less people stay put in the same parish for the duration of their allotted four-score years.

A forgotten man in just over a year, his is one of those mysteriously still-born inter-county careers which puzzle the onlooker

"I was born in Ballaghadereen and spent the first year of my life there. Then Dad was transferred to Roscommon town for 18 months. We moved to Castlerea then and shortly after we arrived he was killed. My formative years were spent in Castlerea and in 1994 I went to college in Galway and moved there. At the moment I'm living in Dublin working with a fire safety consultancy, I've been here since April and before that I did a Masters in Jordanstown and did a year and a half working in Belfast."

Morley came into the Mayo team at left-corner-back in the 1999 championship, gave a man of the match performance in the provincial semi-final against Roscommon, but was precipitously and, (to my mind), unfairly subbed in the next two matches of that campaign.

One game in the 2000 championship later and his inter-county career was over. From a debutante who looked like he had several great years ahead to a forgotten man in just over a year, it is one of those mysteriously still-born inter-county careers which puzzle the onlooker. Morley himself looks back not in anger but with resignation.

"The Roscommon game was one of those days, everyone has one or two of them in their careers, when the ball hops the right way for you. In the All-Ireland semi-final I got the curly finger at half-time. I'd been put following Don Davis, he went out around midfield and won a fair share of ball but I was disappointed to be taken off. I was sacrificed because someone thought it would be a good idea to bring on a third midfielder, Pat Fallon, to mark him. But straight away in the second half Don Davis moved back into the full-forward line and we had to adjust again and bring another defender on. The next year we lost to Sligo in the first round and the next year I wasn't even on the panel."

The arrival of Mickey Moran as manager has seen players brought back into the Mayo set-up, but Morley is convinced he has no chance of making a return and is philosophical about that. He's 29 now and reckons football is a younger man's game and becoming more so with every year. Which isn't to say that he hasn't unfinished business from that 1999 semi.

"I never thought I'd get back into Croke Park as a player and there's a small bit of redemption I'll be looking for on Patrick's Day. I'm looking for it because I don't see myself getting back there again. It's a chance to bury a few personal ghosts, I would relish that. It would be very satisfying."

The funny thing is that on the day Morley was subbed against Cork, his fellow corner-back Aidan Higgins was getting the roasting of the decade from Philip Clifford but stayed on till near the bitter end. You can't help feeling that Salthill's number six deserves that redemption. You also wouldn't bet against him achieving it.

Because, while all the talk has been about Salthill's big-name forwards, Donnellan, Armstrong, Kerins and new sensation Séamie Crowe, it's their defence which has been winning the games. Morley and young Galway full-back Finian Hanley are the only two names which would have previously featured on the radar of most football fans but this back seven conceded 2-2 in the Galway county final and an average of six points a game in the Connacht Championship before holding out against a ferocious siege by a dominant Kilmacud Crokes in the All-Ireland semi-final. All the talk about St Gall's swarm defence obscures the fact that Salthill play it even tighter when the opposition has the ball.

No demarcation nut, Morley starts by giving the credit to the lads at the far end of the field. "It's been hammered into us that it's a 15-man defensive game when we don't have the ball. When Séamie Crowe and Seán Armstrong lose the ball they work extremely hard to stop the defenders coming out and that makes it easier for the lines further back the field. The two wing-forwards and the midfielders do trojan work too.

"The backs work together well as a unit, there's a good deal of honesty there. If one of us gets caught out there's always someone covering him. Finian has been a revelation at full-back, he's a fantastic footballer. Rory McTiernan in the corner has been fantastic and our two wing-backs, Brian Geraghty and Marty O'Connor, have been outstanding. They were lost to football for a few years, they concentrated on soccer from their teens to their mid-twenties and Brian played with Galway United. But they've come back in the last year and a half and for me Marty has been our player of the year."

'Even when we weren't doing well we were always up there as a good scalp to take'

What kind of club are we talking about here? Well, it's a club which doesn't lend itself to the folksy anecdote or the invocation of the rare ould times. There has only been a Salthill club for a few decades, largely because people have only started living in the area in numbers in that time.

The official title of the club is Salthill-Knocknacarra. It's not too long since Knocknacarra was only the name of some fields between Salthill and Barna. These days it's a new suburb, Galway's Lucan, its Bishopstown. A place where outsiders come to live. And when those outsiders decide they want to play for their new local club, that's when the caterwauling begins. Morley knows all about it.

"We've heard the labels, the League of Nations thing and people comparing us to Chelsea. We do have a couple of high profile players who came in, but Maurice Sheridan has been at the club since 2000 and his mother is from Salthill. Michael Donnellan might only have joined the club last year but he's been living in the area since 1997. I'm living here the past nine years.

"We wouldn't be the most popular club in Galway, we're aware of that. Even when we weren't doing well we were always up there as a good scalp to take. People in Galway used this league of nations as another stick to beat us with, but the majority of the guys are born and bred in Salthill. Anyway, the days of getting off work at five o'clock so you can go training are over. People are in high pressure jobs and they don't finish till seven or eight so there's a natural gravitation towards playing with the club where you're living.

"It's been thrown at us that guys who haven't been born and reared in a parish won't have the same drive and heart to win a ball as a guy who's been in a place since the day he was born. But most of our games this season have been extremely tight and if a team had no heart or sense of togetherness they wouldn't keep scraping through those tight games."

Then again, you'd expect Gordon Morley to have heart no matter who he was playing for. To Connacht football people, he'll always be the son of John Morley, one of the greatest centre-backs ever from the province. In an inter-county career spanning the years from 1961-1974 Morley pere played 112 league and championship games for Mayo and became a by-word for toughness, determination and the kind of spectacular high fielding rarely seen in the modern game.

On July 7, 1980, John Morley and his Garda colleague Henry Byrne were murdered by an armed gang engaged on what Toireasa Ferris and her gruesome cronies would no doubt describe as a fund-raising expedition. He left behind a widow Frances, a daughter Gillian and two sons Shane and Gordon. Gordon, the youngest, was four years old. He has memories of his father, he says, but they're sketchy ones because of his age at the time. Largely he knows his dad through the memories of other people.

"When you're down in Mayo, you meet people and hear what a giant of the game he was in their eyes. It's great and I'm very proud of what he achieved. When I was playing for Mayo, the comparisons would be made, was I as fast as him, as strong as him, could I jump as high as him, was I as good as him. It was a tiny bit unfair because I'll never get close to his achievements. But it spurred me on to try and follow in his footsteps."

The murders of the two guards sent a shock wave through the national psyche. John Morley was one of the most famous victims of the violence of the time and his death was like some West of Ireland equivalent of the Kennedy assassination. Most people remember where they were when they heard about it. But when the media circus was over, the Morleys, a mother and three children, were left to try and pick up the pieces. Gordon knows just what a good job his mother did.

"It was public property, but when all the hooh-hah has died down things get back to normal very quickly. Another news story happens two or three days later and people who are not emotionally involved, their focus turns away very quickly. When the dust settles, you're left with yourself. There were just the four of us and what had happened tightened the group, it has left us very very close. These days Shane and Gillian are both married and they have kids and the thing is that my nieces and nephews are nearly more excited about the final than I am. I have uncles and cousins coming to the final as well and my mother, so it's great for the whole family."

Though he might not fit into the cliched notion of a club final player, Gordon Morley is one hell of a fighter. The breaks haven't always gone his way in life or on the field but he's remarkably placid about that. He hasn't the commanding physical presence of his father at number six but he's overcome that by the intelligence and composure of his play. Overcoming is something he's had practice at. It could be his motto. I Will Overcome.

Friday is just one more hurdle.

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