But for the Grace of God
Today’s List is made up of sports events that I remember for a particular reason.
First up Gráinne McGoldrick being awarded a camogie All Star in November 2009. I had received the press release embargoed an hour before the glitzy do started, so I knew she had won it, on the fourth year of being nominated, without success. I had watched her disappointment year on year. To sit and watch someone who is so dedicated, who I think so much of, have her name called in that company was a truly magical moment. Since then she has shown her star quality in the way she trains, plays, and generally carries herself. I have learned a lot from her. Not often you can say that about your neice. Thanks G.
Tyrone won their first All Ireland in 2003. I watched the game from the Irish Independent Corporate Box in Croker (Thank you Carol McMenamin, and for the Planxty tickets). With about two minutes to go I knew Tyrone had it won and I admit I bawled my eyes out. 2005 and 2008 were possibly better craic. Although it’s hard to beat waking up on a sofa in the Burlington in one of the hotel’s own dressing gowns. . . Still those were special days, the return to Omagh, standing in the town. A different emotion from five years earlier.
In 2007 Eoghan Rua embarked on a marvellous adventure that took us from winning a first Derry Intermediate Championship in Celtic Park, to an Ulster Final replay under lights in Casement where we beat Ballymacnab. From there, onwards, via Breffni to Croke Park. I watched proud and gutted as could be as our lads fell, beaten but unbowed at the final hurdle. The real achievement has been what has happened since then – total respect to Sean McLaughlin, Sean McGoldrick – they’re not frightened of this world believe me!
In 1978 my father died, when I was ten years of age. I have a memory that summer of watching game after game in the Argentina World Cup. Mario Kempes, Ossie Ardiles, Willie Johnston, Archie Gemmill’s goal against Holland, Nelinho’s bender, Dutch long range shooting, Rensenbrink’s penalties. Ever since I have had a soft spot for Argentina. 1986 v England only confirmed it. I gave God a Hand for that.
Press ganged into hurling for Eoghan Rua. Some of the lads decided we would start a senior hurling team – we had little choice. We had a generation of hurlers coming through and no senior team. I was unfit, overweight and very apprehensive, hadn’t hurled in years. It was some craic though. Won nothing but it was great to be there in the early days when it started. Maith thú agus go raibh maith agaibh a Phádraig agus a Shéain!
In 1999 Man United beat Juventus to qualify for the first Champions League Final since 1968. My craic antenna went up when I saw Keane’s performance. I phoned my brother: ‘Any chance of getting a ticket for this match in Barcelona. . .’ He replied, ‘Aye there’s Stuart and a few boys going from Manchester’. Cue A helter skelter, chaotic, cerveza and cava soaked 18 hour expedition to the Nou Camp. We had it all: lunching on white wine, fried chilli peppers and deep fried whitebait, chorizo, omelette; bust travel companies; €300 match tickets; beer on the Ramblas; Big Tiff terrified all day we’d bought forgeries, ‘you’ll be alrite Pete’; gatecrashing the plane to get home. The best seats in the house in the Camp Nou (are there any bad ones) courtesy of the season ticket student touts at the airport; sitting head in hand at one – nil down, ninety minutes on the clock, starting to feel hungover and lighter, considerably lighter, in the wallet. . . But who put the ball in the German’s net? Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
In 2006 Sean McGoldrick asked me if I would coach our senior hurling team. I said yes, although I didn’t know if I was up to it. I roped in Tony ‘Two hands for hurling, one for w**king’ Butler. Boys we had some craic. Roll it on six months we had won the Derry junior Championship (the day Sean Leo hit 22 points) and the Derry Intermediate Hurling Championship – the first hurling silverware the club had ever won. Lost an Ulster League semi final too. My mother never told me we’d have days like that. ‘Everyone has their part to play, no matter how big or how small’ I told them, especially for Brendan McNicholl. Himself, Pádraig, Pat Cass, Sean Leo, Laggy, Bernie,McCarry, Mitch, Lynch, Baz, Ciaran, Holly, Ricky D and the rest: ‘There was a destiny that made us brothers and no-one went his way alone.’ Good times.
Watching my children playing football, hurling and camogie. Some days are better than others – a while back Sean let our Peter play in a hurling blitz even though he is still very young. Peter obliged, scoring two goals he still chats about. Cáit has developed a grá for the camogie I never thought she would. The first day, the first time Leo played in a blitz, dunno who was prouder, him in the maroon and green or me watching. Snippets that flash upon the inward eye – a wee hurling match last year against Dungiven sur when he got mad, either that or fold the deck, and hurled up a storm, him and Dara. The day he coolly fisted a point over the bar in an Under 10 football match when still only six. You can’t live your life through your children, but they make it all the more worthwhile. ‘Dad, did you see my pass today. . . it was just like the one Pelé gave Carlos Alberto. . .’ Different time, different country, different sport, but the dream is just the same.
I enjoy watching rugby, and I enjoy watching it even more on TV. I spent a goodly part of the nineties and 2000s cruising off to Murrayfield, Lansdowne Road and even Rome for the crocodile’s tail of craic that follows rugby internationals. A whistle stop tour of the Eternal City, the Colosseum, The forum and the Vatican before a liquid and pizza lunch. Dining on artichoke and cows brains, seemed a good idea at the time; the next night up-market at Baires Argentinian place on the Via Cavour. A fifty man stag in Edinburgh that ended up with one broken leg; countless exploits in Dublin with the ‘Shire rugby boys and the Aberdeen Uni girls coached and led astray by my brother John. Of all the games, I was there when England played in Croker. It had none of the mayhem of other days. I have seen the All Blacks, Springboks, all of them. But few things prepared for beating the English in Croker. It wasn’t even my own bitterness bank I emptied that day. The journey home with Richard Carey snr a thing of wonder. Did we make it home at all, or was it all a dream?
In 1998 Angela and I headed to Peru on our honeymoon. The trip of a lifetime we thought and it was better than that. We managed to fit in two football matches with the locals. The first on Isla Taquile at the altitude of a cool 3850 metres above sea level. Five minutes each way proclaimed Edwin the guide. ‘Bollix’, proclaimed the lads. Five minutes later and we were bollixed. It was as if someone had sucked out your lungs with a vacuum pump, turbo charged your heart and stood back laughing as you teetered on the precipice. Edwin skipped around like a baby Llama. . . roll on to the jungle. This time a match was arranged against the local camp workers and cooks etc. They were all smiles getting ready for the game. On closer inspection, I saw these lads were tying on boots that looked like they’d been hewn in the sixties from the arse of a scabby dinosaur. . . and they duly proceeded to kick the pure shite out of us. And being from Tyrone, I kicked them back. I dunno what’s worse. Altitude, humidity or your Peruvian jungle guide smiling as he boots you from one end of a clearing to the other.
In the summer of ’06 I offered to help coach our senior camogie team on and off as they were short a manager having won the Derry Intermediate Championship the previous year. That year Derry beat Tyrone in Omagh in the Ulster Championship and while nursing a pint of Guinness in the Top House, team captain Jane Carey sidled up to me. I was braced for the post football slaggin’ and wasn’t really in the mood. But no. Instead the question ‘Will you take us for the Championship Joe?’ I agreed. Fifth season on, still there, that has been one of the most life affirming answers I have ever given. Snippets flash again across the inward eye. 2006, the summer we couldn’t lose a championship game but we found it hard to win one too – three games to separate us from Banagher and two from Screen. We won nothing but gained respect and a certain attitude. Meeting Grace McMullan for the first time, I am privileged to consider her a close friend. She’s unlike any other. Losing to Loughgiel in Loughgiel in the Ulster Intermediate Final. One for the bitterness bank, I let her down. Winning our first ever Premier Division match against Castledawson. Unexpectedly beating Lavey in Lavey and then getting tanked in the Championship by the same team, classy outfit they were.
I rarely pray on the sideline, the work’s done by that stage. But one fine day I implored my da, and anyone else who would listen somewhere above, on his birthday, to give us just this one win. Éilis plundered a late goal to seal the Derry Premier League title. Duly obliged. It was two days after her 14th birthday and the others grabbed her and chair-lifted her off the pitch. May have only been the league but when you’re used feasting on crumbs, any small slice of success is a banquet and we can’t afford to be fussy.
The craic. . . Kilmacud Sevens, a January trip to Dubai, Aisling Carey and ‘We’re the Best Looking Team here’. The look of the Dubais at prayer at Nad Al-Sheba as she sailed past, all legs, curves and fiery hair. Good times as Méabh McGoo would say; Jane trampling on their Feds; Maeve D’s enthusiasm, Grace’s finishing, Gráinne in full flight, a thing of pure elegance, beauty and toughness. Kelly the refugee, fit like an iron fist in a velvet glove; Maria, Megan, Éilis, Rosanna and Clare T – the world at their feet. The others that were there for the long haul, commitment never a problem. Hannah, Sinead B, Mauz, Clare, Pamela, Amy, Adele and Niamh, T, Ciara. And not forgetting last, but not least, Méabh herself. Perhaps the soul of the team, if others are the heart, brains, muscle and sinew.
That timeless moment before the throw in, when we pause, together, the calm before the storm. Sé do bheatha, a Mhuire, atá lán de ghrásta. . . When I am old and grey and dozing by the fire, I would give all the days just so I can remember these days. . . replayed in glorious technicolour. To have one chance, maybe just one chance. . .
2010, if you do what you always do, you’ll get what you always get. A visit to see Tally. It was as if someone switched a light on. Short sharp training 30 second to two minute intervals. Asking people to do things they wouldn’t normally be asked to do. A potential banana skin against Castledawson; Bellaghy put to the sword. The County Final against Ballinderry. What a day. Grace’s mother has a heart attack during the game. Gráinne hits fifteen. Rosanna off the bench to pilfer two good goals. On into Ulster. Still the bell hadn’t told. The last two minutes against Clonduff when suddenly it dawned on me – we had won an Ulster Championship. For a second the emotion welled in chest and in my eyes. The relief. And the players. The players. Grace McMullan – what can you say. Gráinne said it at half-time as we got ready for the battle. Being on the Tightrope is Living. Everything else is waiting.
Postscript: Sunday 3 October 2010 our footballers beat Ballinderry to win the first ever senior football championship. I can see now there is a clear distinction between being a supporter and being involved. I tried dispassionate. It didn’t work. I tried objective. It didn’t work. Eventually when the final whistle went and I knew we’d won I skipped over the fence and away like blue fuck. Barry, Sean Leo, Ciaran, Holly, Leni, McGeough. Any of them would do. What a day. Tightrope walkers all.