Wednesday 13 December 2017

Sambo: You know you're alive, standing at the side of a pitch, pulling your hair out

Sambo: “If I was being honest, I didn’t ever think I would be back,” Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / Sportsfile
Sambo: “If I was being honest, I didn’t ever think I would be back,” Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / Sportsfile

Declan Bogue

The conversation is ambling along with Terence 'Sambo' McNaughton when the perfectly innocent question of how his wife Ursula feels about his third coming to the cause of the Antrim county hurling team.

"Jumping up and down with excitement!" he exclaims.

"What the **** do you think? That's the most stupid question you have ever asked me!" he roars with laughter.

He knows how it looks. Antrim hurling, the perennial basketcase. Bright dawns followed by calamitous falls. A club scene to rival anything in Ireland, but, barring McNaughton's own generation, never truly showing their talent on an All-Ireland stage.

"If I'd a pound for every man who told me I need my head looked at, I would be a rich man," he explains. "But there's a sense of loyalty, or I don't know what you call it.

"It's your own county, your own hurlers. It's your own and it's hard to walk away when it is your own."

As Bruce Springsteen sang, 'We Take Care of our Own.'

Sambo (right) could talk Springsteen all day. Blue collar concerns. Local themes just as important as the universal. No wonder he identifies with The Boss.

On the evenings when he is not tending to Antrim hurling matters, he takes himself off for a brisk walk along the beach along with Bo, his faithful German Shepherd.

He is kept company by Springsteen, his voice coming through the headphones reading the audiobook of his autobiography, 'Born to Run'.

The title alone could explain why after all these years, McNaughton still puts himself out like this, spending weekends such as these getting ready to face Kilkenny in the Walsh Cup.

"As I keep saying," he begins. "It beats EastEnders.

"At least you know you are alive when you are standing at the side of a pitch, pulling your hair out. Or in my case, pulling the ear off myself. You are not yet dead, are you?"

He's had spells in charge of his own club Ruairi Óg and was coaching the team that reached the All-Ireland final last year. The idea of getting back into county management never occurred to him until county chairman Collie Donnelly pleaded with him to take over after PJ O'Mullan's spell in charge came to a dramatic end after the National League, with the Christy Ring Cup to be played for. He did. Of course he did. And he came with his old team-mate and coaching partner Dominic 'Woody' McKinley.

After the controversial Christy Ring final loss and finishing the end with a routine Ulster final win over Armagh, he rolled a cigarette and promised reporters that was the end of him.

"If I was being honest, I didn't ever think I would be back," he explains now.

"But, in saying that, I am glad I am. I am enjoying it. I do believe we have to get our house in order and I do believe there are good vibes in Antrim at the minute between on the field and off the field among the administrators. I think there are people all trying to do the right thing.

"I suppose it is nice to be part of that and you feel obligated to be part of that, if that makes sense."

Back to Kilkenny. The first All-Ireland final he went to was 1978, Cork's win over the Cats. He rhymes the names off without prompting; Dick O'Hara, 'Chunky' O'Brien, 'Fan' Larkin.

And of course Brian Cody, who will be down the touchline from McNaughton in Abbotstown tomorrow.

"The last time we played Kilkenny in the Walsh Cup, Cody was there, we beat them the last time. It's not often you can say that!" he laughs, referring to the 2008 Walsh Cup final, when Antrim pulled off a shock by beating Kilkenny in Freshford.

As a player, Kilkenny was his yardstick. In the 1987 All-Ireland semi-final, two Harry Ryan goals pulled Kilkenny through a sticky encounter in Dundalk. For students of Antrim hurling, 1991 was the Liam MacCarthy that got away. Kilkenny won a semi-final by two points.

The 1989 final contained too many distractions for McNaughton. "In 1991 we were different animals. We were up for it."

When the Saffrons take the field against the Cats, McNaughton does so with another generation starting on the same path. It looks like his older son Shane's hurling career is over now after being accepted into the prestigious Stella Adler school of acting in New York.

But young Christy will be there, flying the hurling freak flag.

Asked about the changes in players since he was there before, McNaughton is emphatic: "A lot of them… In my generation, it was all we had. Hurling was everything to us whereas these boys are more educated and there are more opportunities for them to experience in life, for them to go out."

The management team has grown, past the three team-mates of 'Sambo', 'Woody' and 'Pappy' (Gary O'Kane) to include the studious Peden of the St John's club.

"Me and Woody kind of have been on the road for so long we maybe… It might sound corny but we know what each other is thinking too well, maybe," says McNaughton.

"They see different things. I slag Neal as being the educated one of the four, he is a schoolteacher and he has hair so he is kind of the outsider. All the rest of us are bald and stupid!"

But he's nobody's fool. He never was.

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