Tuesday 11 December 2018

'Yeah, lost it totally, lost it. And what made it worse, the guys from the Kildare radio station were right beside us'

Carlow football is in a stronger place thanks to the realisation that they had to help themselves

Getting behind the Carlow flag (l to r) are Keith Gavin, Mark Carpenter, Brendan Hayden and John Brophy. Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Getting behind the Carlow flag (l to r) are Keith Gavin, Mark Carpenter, Brendan Hayden and John Brophy. Photo: Dylan Vaughan

Dermot Crowe

You may have heard it by now, the caper and carry-on in the local radio commentary box near the end of Carlow's first championship win over Kildare in 65 years.

The riotous scenes when, in injury time, Conor Lawlor broke through and scored the goal that absolutely confirmed it would be his county's day. Before Lawlor's goal Carlow's lead stood at four points but no lead is dependable in the dark terrified imagination of a county ritually accustomed to losing. Carlow had a strong sense of entitlement when it came to fearing the worst.

No milestone victory is complete without the local radio fellas going berserk and parking all pretence of impartiality from their vantage point in the stand. In Tullamore a fortnight ago it was KCLR's Brendan Hennessy, the match commentator from Graiguecullen, on the border of Laois and Carlow, and his analyst, Willie Quinlan, a former éire Óg and Carlow footballer and a good one too.

As Hennessy spotted Lawlor coming through unhindered, goalkeeper to beat, he sensed the moment was upon them. Lawlor buried the chance and Hennessy hailed the score in a feverish torrent of words, reaching that point where you might be capable of anything. And it was at this point that his assistant Quinlan was overcome.

'YEEESSSSSSSSSSS!'

'YEEESSSSSSSSSSS!'

'YEEESSSSSSSSSSS!'

The former player stopped being an analyst and - to borrow from Steven Poacher - transitioned into a fan. He let it all out verbally, emotionally, abandoning all convention. And on the third 'Yes!' he declared appreciatively: 'WHAT A GOAL!'

Quinlan reckons he has been working as a match analyst for local radio for around 15 years - since not long after he stopped playing county football in 2002. He has been everywhere with Carlow in that time, and before then as a player. Well, all the places Carlow usually went to: Ruislip, Miltown Malbay, Carrick-on-Shannon, Portlaoise, Dungarvan. He has never been seized by joy like he was in Tullamore two weeks ago.

"At half-time I was thinking Carlow have a great chance," says Quinlan, "but I could not say it because you were playing a Division 1 team and they might have the fitness. But when they got that last goal the emotion came out, and we let a few screams out of us; it is Carlow radio."

You lost it? "Yeah, lost it totally, lost it. And what made it worse, the guys from the Kildare radio station were right beside us and I know them as well. I'd say they were not too happy, 'my God, what is he like?', but it was a long time since we beat Kildare."

Of that there is no doubt - 1953. Today is only their second Leinster semi-final appearance since winning their only provincial title in 1944. He was in the commentary box when Brendan Murphy hit the winner after a dramatic comeback to beat Louth in the quarter-final in 2011, but the last quarter-final win before that was in 1958. And this is different to 2011. Seven years ago there wasn't the same sense of anticipation. It nearly crept up on them. Kildare's defeat was a surprise but Carlow had been developing a line of form that made it plausible.

"When you come home you'd be buzzing; you'd have to go for a walk or something, you definitely wouldn't sleep," says Quinlan of the evening they defeated Kildare. "I used to do a lot of running and damaged a knee last year, so I do a lot on the bike. I headed out for a spin on the bike. To calm down and cool down. Brendan (Hennessy) himself . . . he went for a walk. He would be buzzing as well after it and then the phone never stopped ringing and tweets are coming in. The Facebook is going mad."

It made him think of when he was a boy following Carlow and later when he played, the time they won the All-Ireland B in 1994 and two years later, winning two matches in Leinster and heading to Croke Park to play Meath for a quarter-final and getting stuffed. He knew it was over after 20 minutes and if there was a way out without anybody noticing he would have taken it.

"When we were going to Tullamore, well nobody was giving us a chance and I said, 'well, yeah, I think we have a really good chance' when lads were asking us, and they were thinking, 'is this fella for real?' We walked out that day looking like Cheshire cats, the smiles on our faces, and I would say we are smiling still."

In his day they had good footballers, and there were a dozen from his own club, that won five Leinster titles in seven seasons, on the county team that landed the All-Ireland B title 24 years ago. But they couldn't keep a group intact for very long. Some believed, some didn't. "I played for 13/14 years with the county and I suppose the team organisation wasn't there," says Quinlan. "I don't think we had as many lads that believed that actually they could beat the likes of Kildare and Louth, those teams. The one thing that Turlough (O'Brien) and the boys have brought is a sense of belief in the system and the way they are playing. They believe they can win any game, which is a huge factor."

They went into games thinking they could win, even when Meath or Dublin faced them. Stay in the match, win a few breaks, anything might happen. But reality usually slapped them in the face. Against Meath in '96 (a team that would later win the All-Ireland) he remembers just wanting to "bury your head and get off the field as quickly as you can. I hated losing and in that match we were embarrassed and Meath could have got six goals that day; they were fisting them over the bar when they could have got goals. Another match in Cork, I think we might have scored one point from a free, that was it."

In 2014 Carlow took a severe beating from Meath in the championship, conceding seven goals, and earlier in the year their under 21s were whipped by Dublin, losing by 31 points. The county chairman at the time, Michael Meaney, warned of the stark possibility that Carlow might have to take the Kilkenny lead, and withdraw their team from competition.

That autumn he helped to organise a forum where around 150 people turned up to offer suggestions on what needed to be done. "That number in itself was a great start," says Meaney, "it showed people were interested." Out of this emerged a small document with a set of goals. "I suppose the big thing that came out of it was we wanted to appoint an internal manager," says Meaney. "That was a big thing because the so-called weaker counties always believed you had to go outside and bring in a high-profile name."

They approached Turlough O'Brien, who took the job, replacing Anthony Rainbow. When the full-time secretary Tommy O'Neill died, the board took a decision to appoint native Ronan Dempsey as their full-time operations manager, looking after all the coaching staff as well as management of the board. He reverts to a voluntary county secretary and has had a major influence on improving structures. Sean Campion is now county chairman, while Meaney remains involved as juvenile chairman.

"I think we realised after that Meath game and the 21s getting a drubbing from Dublin that there was no one else going to look after Carlow, only Carlow," says Meaney. He will be 59 next month. He has followed Carlow for half a century and never felt the hope he has now. "The one thing about sport, win or lose you get up and dust yourself off and go again. If it was any other way you would have given up years ago."

In the days of the Celtic Tiger Carlow had a supporters' club which nearly went into extinction before being revived in recent years. Its secretary is Keith Gavin. Gavin is from a few miles outside Carlow town. "My club connection would be with the Blues, O'Hanrahan's. I played underage. Then I moved to Dublin for about 15 years - college, work - then I moved back in 2000. Now I live out in Palatine. So it is a kind of dual allegiance. I still have a soft spot for the Blues. But I will be honest, my passion was always Carlow. I started watching Carlow in 1978 in their first championship game against Dublin here in Dr Cullen Park. The old Dr Cullen Park. It was jam-packed. They beat us like 6-15 to 2-9, something like that. So I have been following them for 40 years."

How do you endure? "It's your county," he says. "I just have a passion for it, I love Carlow. Look there has been a lot of bad times, a lot of lows. There's been a few highs. Like we had in the mid-80s the great under 21 team beaten in Newbridge by Dublin, that we should have won. We had a great minor team in 2007, got to a Leinster final. And the under 21s in 2009, same group of players, and a lot of them are still involved with the senior team at the moment. We had the odd championship win. We beat Louth. We beat Longford. Wicklow. Games like that. In '96 we had a great run. There was a round-robin. We went into the quarter-final against Meath with great hopes but we got hammered."

The chairman of the supporters club, John Brophy, a successful retailer, knew Gavin through business. He moved to Carlow from Dún Laoghaire and was prevailed upon to get involved as a backer. He set down roots and has only recently completed five years as chairman of éire Óg. "We have naturalised him," jokes Gavin.

Brophy remembers Gavin asking if the shopping centre would become part of Club Carlow. "I remember thinking why would I do that?" he says. "And at that stage I hadn't got involved in the GAA in the county at all. It was only after that. I have been heavily involved. I am on the county board now. As a coaching officer. So it really got into my blood. And I relate completely to all the excitement. I know it's a terrible thing to say but I don't have the same passion for Dublin GAA. Because it's never as inclusive as it is in a small county. You know, I know every steward. And it's a cliché but these are the lifeblood of the GAA."

The supporters' club went to see how Roscommon did it, listened to what they could tell them. Now they have a chance to capitalise on the team's current run of success. At least 10,000 Carlow followers are expected in Croke Park today to see them try to defeat Laois and reach the final. Everything has changed. Flags are out. Jerseys are being worn with pride. People outside the county are stopping them and wanting to ask them about the football team.

"There was no real pride in going in to play for Carlow," says Gavin. "Why would they? They would only be hammered. And I have never seen in another county where a player would be jeered playing for his county. Now that's changed, thank God. Turlough, in fairness, really turned it around and got everybody in. Years ago you would be saying 'oh, if such and such was playing'; you can't say that now."

Carlow made sporadic attempts to improve their management of county teams in the past. But it was never concerted enough. In 2007 a really good minor team, containing some of today's senior players, reached a Leinster final. As part of their preparation they would go to Monaghan and Tyrone by bus to play matches during the winter in the Ulster league.

All agree that while O'Brien's Carlow factor was critical in getting through to players, the arrival of Steven Poacher from Down has brought a different dimension to their play.

"I travelled with the team to London this year," says Brophy. "And you could see why the players buy into Poacher. And you have a very diverse group of players. I was there at the dinner before the London match. Early in the league, first or second game. I am 60 now and I am an old cynic, I must admit, and I get more cynical as I grow older, but I was listening to this fella from County Down talking to the Carlow players about how important what they were going to do tomorrow was for themselves, the county, and it wasn't quite lump in the throat but it was amazing the way he was getting them to listen to him. All walks of life: sheep farmers, students. And they were hanging on his every word. And it's not that he is a great orator; you could just sense that the work he had done with them, they were buying into it."

Gavin isn't going to get ahead of himself. He knows Laois have beaten them twice this year in the league, and are well capable of beating them again. But there is a difference this time. "I genuinely think we can win it. See, that's the difference. I genuinely think we can win it. Before I would have hoped we'd win."

At 82, Brendan Hayden is in robust health and also looking forward to seeing Carlow in Croke Park today. He was an eight-year-old boy when taken to Athy on the handlebars of his father's bike when Carlow won the Leinster title in 1944. He played when they reached the semi-final in 1958. He played for Tinryland, and three of his sons later played on éire Óg and Carlow teams. In their most recent championship win over Laois, 30 years ago, his son Joe scored the winning goal.

"Carlow have the best supporters in Ireland if they had a team to follow," he says. "We had two teams to follow. éire Óg, the great éire Óg team, and then the Blues (O'Hanrahan's), that went to an All-Ireland semi-final."

He played 17 Leinster Championships with Carlow and finished in '71.

He is recounting these days in Carpenter's pub in the county's main town, which is a popular haunt for the Carlow players and followers. Its owner, Mark Carpenter, was one of Carlow's leading forwards through the last decade. "It has not been an overnight success," he notes. "The first thing they did right was put a Carlow man in charge. Turlough was there for the long haul and then he brought in Poacher and he improved it more."

In his day the managers kept changing, and the panels. "I remember coming back from Australia one year. I arrived home on the Saturday night. Had a pint here in the pub before I went to bed. And I said I'd travel up with them to Meath to play this league game at the time. I got up there (departure point) and there were 14 lads on the bus and they said go down and get your gear. I was jet-lagged. I went up to Meath, ran out and who was I marking only Trevor Giles, who got man of the match. And that's the standard that Carlow football was at. And now you go through it and there's 32 fellas training. That turnover is gone and those outside the 26 are hoping to be on the 26 next year."

Hayden says it is the first time they are going to Croke Park with a 50-50 chance "and maybe a bit better. Like the day they played them (Laois) in the league final they fell flat and I'd say it was stage-fright more than anything. One of the best players on the team, one of the best now, Paul Broderick, he didn't play at all that day. He missed the oul frees and that. And I spoke to him about it a while back, he is my club man, he couldn't understand himself what happened. But then he came out against Kildare and he was brilliant."

Carpenter says he doesn't feel envious. "Ah no, you might be a bit worried something would happen in the first few years but not now. If Carlow win this match it is very possible they may win their first All Star. These guys have a chance to leave their mark and a legacy. If they can win on Sunday it will be talked about for years."

Willie Quinlan's grandfather, John, or 'Pim' as he was known, played in goal in the 1944 Leinster final. He played for O'Hanrahan's but Willie ended up with éire Óg because the Blues didn't have a strong underage set-up at the time. He was in Belfast when they won promotion this year, and if he is to pick a time that he thought this was different it would have been the qualifier against Monaghan last year. "We played Dublin earlier in the championship and you heard people say Dublin had another two or three gears in them but Monaghan really struggled to break us down."

He sees an abundance of colour, and people wearing the jersey on the street you wouldn't have expected to before. "People would wear their jumper over it, to hide it," he says of the past. There were only fleeting moments like this when he was a young follower. The time in the 1980s when they ran Dublin close in the under 21s. Nothing came from it. Lar Molloy, Willie Doyle and Kevin Madden, three of their best, went to the US. Now all has changed and they don't expect it to go back to the way it was. If he lost it the last day it is easy see why.

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